Friday, December 9, 2011

Textiles, Art and Culture: A Personal Reflection

I have resolved to start taking pictures regularly and blogging them. But right now is finals week so I just thought I'd copy/paste a paper I wrote for one of my classes that I want some of my friends to read.

When I attended the reception for the recent exhibit of Ghanaian textiles and art at the Common Wealth Gallery, I was struck by the beauty of the cloth, prints and paintings on display. The primarily geographical curatorial sensibility brought to this exhibit was unusual, as this is a more common approach with older art rather than artists that are working today. Juxtaposing these very different works from the same culture, produced in different contexts and different mediums, along with the work of Pamela Clarkson, who has adopted the Ghanaian culture rather than grown up in it, gave a sense of context to this art that I found incredibly valuable to my own aesthetics and ideas about what art is.

I don’t like to define art; in fact, I have a lot of problems with dictionary definitions for the vast majority of words in common usage. In How the Mind Works, evolutionary psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker describes what he calls a “fuzzy category”: “whenever one tries to program a set of criteria to capture the members of a category, the category disintegrates.” Fuzzy categories are ultimately bound up with the human cognitive faculty we refer to as “common sense.” Ever since I read How the Mind Works, around my freshman year of high school, I became a lot less interested in the question, “What is art?” I simply say that some things are definitely art (Van Gogh paintings); some things are sort of art (runway fashion looks); and some things are definitely not art (my beat-up water bottle).

Mary Hark’s choice to exhibit paintings and textiles in the same space not only underlined the influence of textiles on African art but also showed us the African respect for the textiles of everyday life. A fundamental tenet of my aesthetic sense is that things are for using, which puts me in direct opposition to the Western art world’s insistence that art is separate from everyday life. As a result of this odd dichotomy, so-called “real art” gets more respect than the artful things of daily life, even from fiber artists. Fiber Revolution, a group of artists who work in the medium of quilts, ask to be respected despite the fact that their work has its origins in a practical art, rather than because of it, saying on their website, “Although the art is constructed from fabric, it is not meant to lie at the foot of the bed, but rather to hang on the wall like an oil or watercolor painting.” Although they are trying to “educate the public about fiber art as an exciting art form,” they have not themselves moved past the assumption that a painting is “real art” and a quilt on a bed is not, a barrier that stands in the way of even so-called “art quilts” to be taken seriously.

I was raised in an environment (the near west side of Madison) that placed a very high value on intellectual pursuits, and a low value on material ones. As a person who likes to think and got good grades, I was considered not only “smart enough” to be a lawyer or an engineer but occasionally “too smart” for even the liberal arts. In order to get onto the life path I’m currently on, one which I do believe is the correct one for my life, I had to overcome my own ingrained snobbery. As a kid, I took a few weaving classes, and I actually bought a drop spindle when I was in middle school, but I didn’t have any examples of how to integrate textile making into my life so I gave up asking my parents for a rigid heddle loom and took up a lot of my time with ballet classes. (I still have some of the wool roving that came with the spindle in my craft supply stash.)

Obviously, I have spent years thinking through some of these questions. stepping outside our own culture even a little shows us just how weird the snobbery that has infused Western aesthetics over the past few hundred years really is. In acknowledging the ways that textiles are alive and important in African culture, we see the ways in which they are dead and disregarded in our own. To me, this is in some ways a call to action. Seeing art, craft and design as opposing rather than overlapping pursuits does ourselves a disservice as we fail to integrate our lives. This exhibition, where batik yardage was displayed as art, does not work within this disjointed Western paradigm to “elevate” cloth to the level of painting and printmaking; instead it celebrates cloth for what it is: material. Rather than continuing as precious pieces to hang on the wall, this cloth will be sold as yardage; I’m thinking about buying a few yards to make into curtains, or for some other sewing project.

I keep coming back to Pamela Clarkson’s artist statement: “Moving from one country to another is like passing from one age to another: one’s own and that of the host country.” Her work, with its very personal sensibility and diverse inspiration, is inspiring. And the conflation of traveling through space with traveling through time illuminates the way that our notions of modernity can never be disentangled from their cultural context. It took a long time for me to figure out why these words really stuck with me, but now I realize: it’s because I want to run away so I can look back and see what insularities are inherent in my current perspective.

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