Are textiles art or craft – what the critics say
Those of us who create tapestries in the widest sense of the term consider that we are making art. However we are often annoyed or even angered by the way our work is perceived, especially by those who should know better, the art critics. Here is a sample of what they have to say.
Tim Hilton, reviewing the exhibition Loose Threads at the Serpentine Gallery in the Times in 1998, says that the medium can’t work as art under any circumstances.
‘…thread is not a vital medium. You can’t do much with it. If you try to make sculpture, all your efforts will turn out something like a cushion. If you attempt an installation, it goes all wispy. And if you aim for two-dimensional art, the results, inevitably, will resemble painting. It is that thread cannot match the expressive potential of these other media.’ Exhibitions: As ye sew, ye can’t paint | The Independent
Another critic, Waldemar Januszczak, writing in the Sunday Times in 2017 about the exhibition Entangled thinks that the medium conjures domestic and amateur imagery, implying that it is not art. It actually suggests that his own imagination is limited and stuck in the past.
‘Textile art by women. If ever a territory had its work cut out setting the pulse racing, this is it. We live in a world where women are Nobel-winning scientists, engineers, prime ministers, jockeys, stand-up comedians, marines. Yet here is a show still enwalled by the memory of the little woman in the corner dutifully finishing her quilts and her embroidery.’ Art review: Knotty problem | Culture | The Sunday Times
Most recently, Susan Mansfield reviewed the Cordis Prize show at Inverleith House in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh, in the Scotsman newspaper this month. She seems to be against any innovation in tapestry or having ideas-based work. Should tapestry be free of ideas then?
‘Innovation within a traditional craft such as tapestry can be dangerous. One is reminded of the fate of the tapestry department at Edinburgh College of Art which innovated itself out of existence: shifting away from textiles to “the weaving of ideas,” it left weaving behind altogether and was renamed Intermedia.’ Art reviews: The Cordis Prize | Anne-Marie Copestake | Arpita Shah – The Scotsman
While other reviewers have found beauty and creativity in what we do, these outdated and frankly weird views are at least puzzling. How can we deal with people who have these types of prejudice?
However, some more scholarly writers such as Sarat Maharaj, writing in 1991, are more enlightened. He thinks of Arachne, the mythical woman who challenged the goddess Athena to a tapestry-weaving contest and won. (For her hubris, she was changed into a spider.) For him, Arachne challenges the male bastions of art history represented by Athena and her authority. He writes, ‘We may see Arachne’s space as a metaphor for avant-garde textiles practice – in which handed-down notions of art practice/genre/gender come to be cited and overturned, displaced and played out.’ So there is hope.