Dumbing Down in a Crowded Field?

I make very non traditional quilted textile art works, commonly called ‘art quilts’ , although as I and others have said before, there really isn’t a totally satisfactory term to cover these endeavours.
Recently a publisher announced plans for a new periodical for ‘art quilters’ to consist of one part information including how-to articles and advertising, and the other part focusing on individual artists and their works. It sounds to me like a cross between a catalogue and a magazine, with the inevitable ads. This kind of venture has been tried before. Ten years or more back, there was one with huge amounts of lovely pics and original writing including interesting reviews , but it folded after a couple of years’ struggle with production difficulties -the supporting advertising revenue didn’t seem to be there. Another more recent publication has become a series of mass-appeal project pieces with advertising – very, very technique- and how-to oriented, and really short on the art side of it all. Safe and mainstream.

As one friend privately commented last week, among aspiring art quilters there is so much emphasis on technique and very little attention paid to learning more about art, the general perception being that for those wearying of making traditional quilts there is the art quilt field to just blithely transition into. There are heaps of classes covering how to manage the mandatory dyes and paints, printing manipulating digital images, and all the while designing intuitively … ‘intuitive’ is a buzz word in the art quilt field.

And not only that, but there are associations, organisations one can join to learn all about promoting and marketing your art in a series of professional development programs, ranging from mentoring phone hookups to on-line encyclopaedic treatises on everything the aspiring art quilter could possibly need to know, from what size a mailable quilted postcard should be, to whether quilted art should be framed, mounted or hung, with or without glass, and so on. You can even pay someone to help you design your studio; and no one calls their work area a ‘sewing room’ or ‘work room’ nowadays, it seems.

The main point is usually missed totally: that in truly original work there are no rules.

‘Art quilters’ will flock in droves for subscription copies of this new publication, and will seize the opportunity to be featured artists by submitting images; but I predict none of it will result in wider appreciation of the genre, nor will it result in more high quality writing , or thoughtful reviews of quilted textile art. Michael James ruffled feathers and caused frenetic controversy a couple of years back by suggesting that quilters as a group are woefully ignorant of the wide world of contemporary art and design, mostly happily reproducing what they are taught by workshop teachers who present predominantly technique based classes. Among the many contemporary quiltmakers I personally know there are relatively few original designers demonstrating mastery of design and colour, who choose to use sublimely appropriate techniques (high or low tech) who really think about the content of their designs, and whose work can be identified as being of note within the contemporary art scene in their region in which they operate.

18 Responses to “Dumbing Down in a Crowded Field?”

  1. magsramsay says:

    You’ve expressed so well what has been bothering me for a while, particularly the emphasis of technique over design and intent. People often seem disappointed with their results from workshops as they haven’t realised this. As I’ve developed more recent work painting with acrylics on textiles,I’ve been increasing my skills through art classes rather than textile ones and subscribing to art journals.
    A recent ‘proper’ painting course with very mixed ability from beginner to professional was a real eye-opener. The professional artists produced a huge quantity of work in a week, not all of it successful but developing and refining ideas all the time( only 1/2 day had been spent on techniques) Their efforts encouraged the rest of us to up our game – I reckoned I was only middling with a lot of room for improvement.The key was not being satisfied with ‘good-enough’, perhaps easier to apply to a painting on paper that has taken a day rather than a textile piece that has taken months.

  2. Olga says:

    I agree with you. I think that it is really down to the art quilt category being ill defined and too wide. There should be a clear difference between art quilts (quilts which are not traditional*) and quilt art (art in quilt form).

    * The trouble is that art quilts are now a tradition of their own!

  3. K says:

    You’ve presented a very thoughtful and honest opinion.
    I totally agree with you.

  4. The Idaho Beauty says:

    I’ve always gagged on that line, “design, use color, etc., intuitively.” I’ve always translated it to mean, I have no training, I have no clue, I don’t know what the heck I’m doing and hope it turns out ok.

    Kind of like when traditional quilters make a mess of their points, seam intersections, applique and (often jokingly) refer to the finished product as “folk art.”

  5. Alison Schwabe says:

    Great analogy !

  6. Tanya Brown says:

    I just stumbled across your blog via the QuiltArt list.

    Great post! It really speaks to one of my concerns, which is people confusing technique (fabric folding, embroidery, whatever) with content and art. Technique, IMHO, is simply the means by which one expresses a particular message or idea. Quilting may or may not be the best means of expressing a message, despite our fondness for it.

    IMHO, “art quilting” has become a faddish industry which thrives on churn. There has to be a continuous influx of new techniques which can be turned into books, classes, products and other things which can be sold. One week it’s watercolor quilting, the next it’s paper pieced naked cowboys. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, and no doubt many will find joy and perhaps find the courage to experiment by using these techniques. Perhaps they’ll find their own voices.

    However, trying on different techniques is no substitute for a grounding in the basics of art, design and art history.

  7. Bernardine Hine says:

    Well done, you have eloquently expressed what needed to be said publicly.

  8. margaret says:

    Today’s Robert Genn Newsletter addresses the same topic – “Back to Basics”. He says – “The widespread distaste for going back to basics has always been of interest to me. It seems that many young artists have a fear of producing something too standard or ordinary. … It may be that some are intrinsically lazy or just buying the promise of automatic inspiration that’s so common nowadays. They may also be suffering some form of poisonous pedagogy or the presumed expectations of the avant garde.”

  9. Alison Schwabe says:

    What a wonderful turn of phrase from Tanya “… a faddish industry which thrives on churn… ” a girl after my own heart, or should I say, tongue.

  10. Valeri says:

    I so agree with all you’ve written. In any sphere one needs to know the basics before attempting to fly!

  11. Karen says:

    Very well stated!

  12. Delta says:

    You said it so well, there’s really nothing to add but my agreement with the sentiment.

  13. Debra says:

    Wonderful post. And I love Tanya’s truth about a faddish industry thriving on churn.

    Most of the 80s and 90s, traditional quilting was dominated by this churn. When the ideas ran out for traditional quilting, suddenly “art quilting” became all the rage.. and the churn continued.

  14. Terry says:

    Yes, I find it rather discouraging–all this emphasis on technique and gotta have every paint, dye, sparkly thing made in order to make art quilts. Honestly, most of them are awful.

  15. Alison Schwabe says:

    So, Debra, do you care make a couple of predictions – what is to be the next fad? and when will the faddists move, lemming-like, in that direction leaving a less but crowded but overall higher calibre field? As Terry says, and I often think as I follow website and blog links, most are awful, there is nothing more to say. And yet I do follow the links becuse just every now and then there is something exciting being done by someone I hadn’t come across before. Think hoe the jurorsof major exhibitions must feel….

  16. sandra wyman says:

    This really needed saying, and how well you’ve said it. It crystallises something I’ve been mulling over for some time having got impatient with myself over my previous tendency to want to have a go at every new technique, material, whatever came on the market: I convinced myself I was building up a vocabulary I could use in my art and I suppose in some ways I might have been if I’d thought first to learn the basics of the language, the grammar to slot everything into. Have recently started an art course aimed at beginners/returners serious about learning and wish I’d done it years ago – things are linking up and making sense now in ways that are invaluable – not just technique but how to see, how to think, how to shape ideas. I only wish I’d done this years ago.


    In essence, as ever, it’s what you say not the way you say it!

  18. Interesting this is worth checking out. This is a insightfull posting.

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