The final question in this research point is whether I think that textiles has been accepted as a medium by the fine art establishment, or if it is predominantly viewed as a craft discipline. Personally, I think that when confronted with a piece of textile art, I view it in the same way that I would view other media. The main question is really concerned with definitions, and whether craft and art are defined disciplines with little overlap.
My personal view is that there is a traditional snobbery towards craft as opposed to art as historically fine art was commisioned by the wealthy. The rich and able could portray their version of the truth, whether it be about personal attributes, family values or political motivations to the masses. Crafts had their origins in the community and could be used as communication from ordinary people to each other or the wider world. Some examples of this use of craft as communication are discussed in ‘Textiles: The Whole Story’ by Beverly Gordon (Thames and Hudson, 2011). I was particularly inspired by the story of ‘apilleras’, political pictorial embroideries produced by women in Chile depicting horrors under Pinochet’s rule. These embroideries were smuggled out of the country for exhibition in the rest of the world, highlighting their plight and providing an income for their families. If the purpose of art is to be thought provoking, challenging and pushing a medium, then apilleras would fall well within that definition.
Textiles is still in it’s infancy as an artform. Beverly Gordon goes on to describe the rise of textile art in the 1970’s, fuelled by increasing world travel and experiencing traditional textile techniques first hand, and second wave feminism with a renewed interest in traditionally feminine work. New terms were coined for work produced such as ‘soft sculpture’ and ‘wearable art’ and materials used have become more novel and techniques pushed into the realms of freeform. The message can be portrayed in the materials used, or the use of traditional techniques and materials can be used to create a tension with disturbing content. There is a feminist argument to be had that soft forms and textiles are viewed to have a lesser value compared to more traditional fine artforms exactly because of their association with women’s work and decoration.
The question of when a craft becomes an art was discussed on the Tate blog here. Prompted by The Power of Making Exhibition at the V&A, Grayson Perry’s ‘Tomb of an Unknown Craftman’ at the British Museum and Ai Weiwei’s exploration of traditional craft techniques, the comments on the blog seemed broadly to be asking ‘Do we need to make a distinction?’. Grayson Perry is an interesting case in point as he is accepted as an artist by the fine art establishment, championed by Saatchi and winner of the Turner Prize, but as the title of his recent exhibition states his concerns are well within the craft umbrella working with ceramics and textiles. Other high profile artists such as Tracey Emin are starting incorporating textiles into their work (see my blogpost on West Dean Tapestry Studios), but it would still be a rarity to see a show dedicated to textile art in a national fine art gallery, let alone a single textile artist.