Art vs Craft: The Future of Textiles as Art
Just recently, The Boston Museum of Fine Arts held an exhibit titled, Fabric of a Nation: American Quilt Stories. The exhibition explored American history as told though the visual history that is quilting. In doing so, they steered away from the history of American quilt patterns or techniques as the focus but on the art as a representative for specific historic moments or events in time. They treated the quilts as both art and artifact- a debate which depicts how museums display art and represent their meaning in the surrounding context of the piece’s history and the surrounded objects throughout an exhibition. I first read this concept in a companion piece to Dr. Susan Vogel’s exhibit Art/Artifact, and was given an assignment in undergrad to go to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art and reflect on how each object was displayed. It’s difficult for me to go into a museum now and not look at art through this lens.
The debate on the display of items has grown and changed significantly in the last 30 years- especially when it comes to depicting items like the Bamana Chi wara- headresses worn in ceremonies rather than simply sculptural figures displayed purely for their aesthetic. The most important aspect in treating a textile or another object is giving context to them. Where they were made and why. Like chi waras, we can see quilts in their importance of items that go between both of these worlds. Narration lends power to a historic object, but it also gives it very different concept than perhaps a piece of abstract art on display at a gallery that simple lists the artist, title, medium, and size. Where does this leave us with textiles? Can we have them be both art and artifact? I think the answer is unequivocally yes.
You may be asking, what does art vs artifact have to do when looking at something as an art vs a craft? And how does this apply to textiles?
I remember going to the ‘Something Pertaining to God: The Patchwork Art of Rosie Lee Tompkins’ exhibition at the National Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. as a teenager that’s stuck with me nearly 15 years later. These quilts made by Rosie Lee Tompkins, or Effie Mae Howard- her real name, presented in a way where they were the border between art and a woman’s craft- made to be something to decorate your walls rather than to keep your feet warm in the winter.
There’s a traditional stigma against quilts as “true” art. Seen as woman’s work, or a craft, quilts have been shown as an artifact from a culture or a sentimental token of rural America such as ones made in Amish communities. It seems as if museums are finally focusing on them not just as a visual example for a region or point in time, but instead displaying them as they would a painting or sculpture, as art. After all, why not? We see the same phenomenon happen in cooking and baking and the gendering of jobs, tasks, and the creations that come from them.
So why is that quilts or textiles still aren’t considered under the pantheon of fine art? They are displayed both as contemporary art at museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art in New York City, and as part of the world of decorative arts at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Much of the textile creations that go on display globally are instead fashion related- showcasing specific designers or movements that impacted history. And while that’s a start, I still believe that fashion exhibits aren’t presented the same as a textile exhibit- even Avante Garde fashion, which is presented and created specifically as wearable art rather than necessarily as functional clothing.
We can see the crossovers between pivotal artists, fashion, and textiles as influential moments in art history, at museums and galleries worldwide. Salvador Dali created fashion lines with designer Elsa Schiaparelli in the 1930s. William Morris brought textile patterns into the Arts & Crafts style movement, now displayed as a decorative art. Andy Warhol gained his start illustrating fashion advertisements. El Anatsui, fueled by his fascination of the fluidity of textiles, takes metal and wood- traditional sculpting materials- and creates wall hangings that have the flowing effect of a textile drapery by “sewing” the materials together with wire. Christo and Jeanne-Claude have wrapped numerous world-famous landmarks in great swaths of fabric as Land Art. We see time and time again the intersection of textiles and art- both traditional and so very non-traditional.
The display and interpretation of textiles is so incredibly nuanced it’s difficult to touch on the scope of it in a blog post without excluding cultures, artists, and movements. Globally, in a museum vs gallery, as a historically or culturally significant object, all of these are important points to think about in the future of textiles as art.
So where do we go from here? What is textile art’s place in a strictly modern or contemporary art gallery?
Looking for insight on how museums, galleries, and private collectors display textiles? Keep an eye out for March’s blog post to see how you can display pieces in your own home! You can be notified by following us on social media or signing up for our mailing list! Keep an eye out on all of our channels as we get ready for the opening of our textile exhibit, Harmony, June 2022!
Do you have any favorite textiles or related art you’ve seen in museums or galleries?
Let us know in the comments!
Want to learn more about art versus craft throughout history? Check out this TEDTalk, I think it gives a fantastic (and fun) summary!
Interested in seeing a textile exhibit in or around Virginia? Check out these museums:
The Mclean Textile Gallery: https://www.mcleantextilegallery.org/
Virginia Quilts Museum: https://www.vaquiltmuseum.org/exhibits
Colonial Williamsburg: The Textile Arts of Britan, open through May 2022: https://www.colonialwilliamsburg.org/explore/art-museums/current-exhibitions/textile-arts-britain-commodity-colonies/
National Museum of Women in the Arts: https://nmwa.org/
George Washington Textile Museum: https://museum.gwu.edu/exhibitions
The Valentine: https://thevalentine.org/collections/costume-textiles/
Dumbarton Oaks: https://www.doaks.org/visit/museum/explore/textile
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts: http://www.vmfa.museum/
Maryland Center for History and Culture: https://www.mdhistory.org/collections/textiles/
About the Author
Jennifer Sweetapple is the gallery manager at the Alexandria Broadway Gallery location. She holds a Masters in Dress and Textile Histories from the University of Glasgow where she researched the evolution of movie costumes, and the rise of department stores and mail-order catalogs during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. When she’s not at the gallery, you can find her volunteering as a Social Media Assistant for the Association of Dress Historians.