Conflict textiles: arts or crafts or something else? (2)

This week, we continue our discussion of whether Conflict Textiles are arts, crafts or something else, and take a specific look at the reluctance of people inhabiting the “arts world” to take them seriously. Why so? And does it matter?

Christine: Another angle on the question of whether textiles are art or “merely” crafts is suggested by the reluctance of different audiences and specifically art critics to accept textiles, often made by women and in a domestic context, as art.

Berit: Indeed. This is encapsulated, for example, in a blog post about Stitched Voices by Rachel Rea, an arts student at Aberystwyth University and a gallery invigilator at Aberystwyth Arts Centre:

“The latest exhibition to open here is entitled Stitched Voices and is one that I admit has surprised me. In the changeover week, where the gallery is closed while the new exhibition goes up, I had a quick look at some pictures of the pieces that would be displayed. Ashamedly I immediately wrote of these arts-and-crafts-like textiles in bold, garish colours as being uninteresting and unrelated to myself and my own abstract painting work. However my snobbery and ignorance is a perfect example of why this exhibition is so important.”

02 photo by Martin Melaugh
Arts or crafts or something else? “Queremos Democracia | We want democracy”, Anonymous, Chile, 1988. Conflict Textiles collection. Provenance Sean Carroll, USA. Photo: Martin Melaugh

In a similar vain, Michael Tomlinson, who blogs about art for the New Welsh Review, wrote about Stitched Voices:

“There is a long tradition of protest and human struggle being expressed by means of textile hangings and banners, however I am uncomfortable with the idea that there may necessarily be an artistic dimension to works of this nature. I have this same feeling about war art, so I approached this exhibition with some misgivings.”

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Not arts because it witnesses an act of violence? “Sala de torturas | Torture  Chamber” by Violeta Morales, Chile, 1996.Conflict Textiles collection. Photo: Colin Peck

These sceptical views on textiles as a form of art seem to be more pronounced, the more prestigious the art event is. In a review of the 2017 biennale in Venice, Cristina Ruiz comes to a clear and condemning judgment:

“Having plodded through Macel’s [the curator] Biennale exhibition twice, I have many questions. Why is there so much sewing? I get it: domestic work, womens’ work, is important and undervalued. But is it in itself art? No, it is not. There is a beautiful installation by the Taiwanese-born artist Lee Mingwei called the Mending Project in which the artist or a performer mends garments provided by the public and then connects each item of clothing to the wall behind with a thread thereby creating a rainbow of coloured strings. About the other sewing projects, the less said the better.”

Lydia: Tomlinson‘s piece is interesting in that it seems to come from a place of prejudice – noting the “childlike” “simplicity and naivety” expressed through the Peace Ribbon – to coming to acknowledge the “voices that give a more sophisticated shape to the works” (Tomlinson 2017). Though the narrative is one of coming to appreciate the Stitched Voices, also reflected in Rea’s blog post, there is still an extent to which people seemed to need to be convinced of these voices as art. This judgement about the value of textiles as art was reiterated to us by a number of those who became involved with the exhibition.

Berit: There is another manifestation of prejudice surrounding textiles and their makers. Makers are often faced with the idea that, for something to be art, its creator should not work at home, but have “a studio elsewhere”. There is also a notion that a collection of art should not be at somebody’s home (e.g., like Roberta’s collection of arpilleras). Roberta told us that this was a perennial request to the makers of textiles who contribute to Conflict Textiles, and to her as curator.

492_Disappeared-IMAC.jpg
Not art because it was made at home? “Disappeared” by Irene MacWilliam, Northern Ireland, 2013.

Christine: This resistance against considering textiles as art is a reaction that several of the makers whose pieces were shown in our exhibition also know from personal experience. Both Eileen Harrisson and Thalia Campbell have mentioned that they encountered this early on in their careers, from their teachers and from galleries, from art critics and the general public. This resistance by members of “the art world” as well as by others is an interesting point to think about. Christine Sylvester[1] (pp. 8ff.) suggests that today, anything can be art. But if this is so, then why are textiles seemingly the exception to this rule? Sylvester (p. 13) also notes that the distinction between art and craft only emerged in the 18th century and is thus historical. Yet so is every other rule about what makes something “art”. If it is the case that all the other historically evolved rules have broken down, then why do arpilleras, banners and handkerchiefs still provoke such counter-reactions?

Berit: One reason why people invested in “the art world”, as Sarah Thornton[2] calls it, and who see themselves as gatekeepers of this field, feel so threatened by domestic crafts and rush to denigrate textiles shown in an art context (whether the biennale or a small art gallery in rural Wales) is, I think, that textiles have a tendency to democratise art. If textile crafts were accepted as art, then this would threaten the still predominantly male elite of the field and the distinctiveness of the field based on specific types of cultural, educational and above all symbolic capital. Taste, as Pierre Bourdieu has shown, is a technique of distinction of dominant classes, and the art world is where this shows clearly: it is the art-educated upper and upper-middle classes who tell us what art is (and what it is not). Recognition by others, the source of symbolic capital, is central to these processes, which explains why critics play such an important role in the arts world. In order to uphold the distinction, those invested in the power field that is “art” have an interest in keeping the rules of the game unchanged, and they do so by judging taste: what is (fine, high, good, valuable) art and what is not. Textiles made by women in domestic contexts do not fit these criteria of taste and therefore have to be kept out of this field in order not to undermine privilege or (economic) gains.

Lydia: It is also important to consider gender here. There is a clear spatial division of labour – the idea that art needs to be distinct from domestic work. Art needs to be professionalised, displayed, valued, stored, becoming part of a historical archive. This leads us directly to the question of women’s and feminised labour. Stitch has never simply been confined to the home. It can be a space for women to talk about their lives, it can be underpaid and undervalued labour, it is often understood as necessary, functional or decorative, though much less often as political. It’s clear that there is an investment with keeping this form of labour outside of masculinised spaces, such as the art world.

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“Lifted” into the arts world? Conflict Textiles inArts Centre’s Gallery 1

Christine: More generally, it is interesting to reflect about how we, the organising team,  sometimes consciously and sometimes unwittingly “lifted” the Stitched Voices to claim the status of art for them. We exhibited them in a professional art venue, which is much more part of the art world than most of the other venues in which conflict textiles had previously been exhibited (like museums, libraries). And we hung them vertically, just like a painting would be hung, instead of displaying them horizontally, as a piece of craft to be worked on in a workshop.

Berit: For me, exhibiting the Stitched Voices textiles in an art gallery, thus treating them as art, had one great advantage: it confronted those who would otherwise not come across conflict textiles with the struggles of others and make those global middle-classes who are unwittingly complicit in the inequalities of globalization witnesses of suffering in other parts of the world. And I think that we have succeeded in this respect. Rachel Rea, for instance, who was initially so reluctant to acknowledge textiles as art, later came to conclude:

“The use of textiles is so moving because it is such a personal medium; textiles appear homely because they are used to adorn the home and would traditionally be made by families for the family, perhaps as a joint effort or as a way to teach skills to younger generations. However these textiles demonstrate how these families and communities have been torn apart by violence and many of them mourn the loss of those who have disappeared or been killed. […]

It is the courageousness of the women’s responses and protests to their situations that are most striking throughout this exhibition. The textiles are not twee decorations for a home but efforts to stitch back together homes and communities that have been ripped apart. Through needle and stitch, these women have fought, grieved and articulated their stories to a public who needed to hear.”

To conclude our discussion about art and craft… how do we, the members of the exhibition team, feel about giving either or both labels to the textiles we exhibited?

Christine: I do not feel strongly in favour or opposed, in principle, to thinking of the textiles as “art” or as “craft.” But I appreciate that calling the textiles “art” can be a strategy to open up avenues of conversation that are otherwise foreclosed: between the Stitched Voices and other forms of art – whether this status is self-professed or externally ascribed – such as fine art and street art, but also music, literature, and poetry. I am thinking here of the interaction between the textiles and Damian Gorman’s poem, and of the Chilean live music played at the opening event which connected directly with the arpilleraLa Cueca Sola.

Lydia: In some ways their display in Aberystwyth Arts Centre made the textiles “art”. I think their display in the main gallery also helped us in terms of recognition of the work that went into the exhibition within our own Department. The placement of the pieces within the gallery also served to disrupt this space – it looked and felt very different to other exhibitions that had been there before. We managed to create a space to make, create, and reflect, which I think was important.

Dani: I don’t feel a need to label the textiles “art” so that they become legitimised in certain worlds and frames. And somehow the label “art” intends to attribute aesthetic value to the pieces, to say “look, they are artistic”, when to me the aesthetics are not the most important thing about them. What also matters to me in these textiles is who made the pieces, how, and the stories they tell. Maybe the claim can be made that the mainstream of contemporary art has been (or has been since the 1990s and is perhaps now changing) about not giving any explanation or guidance on interpretation to the viewer – you are free to read the art as you like. Whereas in these textiles the story of what conflict they are addressing, who made them, what journey and life the pieces have had, what danger people were in simply to make them, is just as important in understanding them. We have seen this in lots of the feedback from people who went on the guided tours, people telling us that learning the stories behind the pieces made them appreciate the exhibition in a very different way.


[1] Sylvester, Christine 2016: Art/Museums: International Relations where we least expect it. New York, NY: Routledge.

[2] Thornton, Sarah 2009: Seven Days in the Art World. London, UK: Granta.

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