Art Quilts

Art Quilts

Or: If you call a donkey a horse, will it start to whinny?

For some time, I have followed, with growing interest, the discussions in magazines, internet forums and quilt group meetings about art quilts, quilt art and textile art . And with growing frustration with quilters and the quilting industry alike who worry the term “art quilt“ as if it were the very last bone on the market stall.

Take the quilting industry. Open almost any quilting magazine today, especially one with the word ”Art“ in its title, and look at the articles and the advertisements. You will find quilts named “Art Quilt“ or”„No Title“ with a description telling you that the “artist“ just wanted to try out as many “modern“ techniques as possible. As you leaf through, you might come across an advertisement persuading you to buy yet another set of fusibles, some photo transfer medium or the latest in fluorescent fabric ink „for your art quilt“.

The quilting industry‘s motivation for promoting the art quilt and all its indispensible accessories is  understandable. In view of the competition from the knitting guerrilla one might be tempted to wonder whether the bone we alluded to in the opening paragraph could possibly be an only too apt symbol for a shrinking quilting market.

Does purchasing the latest fads, multi-coloured fibres or fancy specialty threads make an artist out of everybody who is willing to hand over the appropriate amount of cash? Seriously? Have you ever heard of someone putting a new set of fancy stamps into Michelangelo‘s hands and sending him off into the closest chapel to create “great art“?

But let‘s be fair - Michelangelo probably didn‘t even consider himself an artist. Apparently, El Greco, the Greek painter who became famous during Spain‘s Golden Age in the 17th century, was one of the first painters who actively pursued recognition as an artist. Not because he considered his former status as demeaning, but for the pure and disinterested purpose of saving taxes. However, neither Michelangelo nor El Greco was in need of anything more than paints and brushes to be recognized today as artists. They are also dead, but that‘s another story.

But why is the craving for making art quilts instead of, well, quilts, so rife among quilters? Because it sounds better? Or because the image of textile handicrafts is so poor that one couldn‘t possibly admit publicly to such an uncool passion?  Perhaps making art is a better justification for all the resources used up in a quilt. After all, I don’t think an artist would  ever be asked why she produces yet another painting although she already has stacks and stacks of them stashed away in her workroom.

Or do quilters wish to be recognized as artists because they suspect that they will somehow be granted admittance to the financially more rewarding contemporary art market which would definitely  pay them more for their quilts than the soft furnishing market so spoilt by imports from Asian sweat shops?

For now, however, let‘s just assume that it is indeed worthwhile being an artist and to be seen as one - as someone who creates art. Which leads us to the next dilemma.

The question of how “art” should be defined and distinguished from lowlier disciplines, has kept philosophers and art historians awake for centuries, even millennia. And the point of view professed and accepted over the years has shifted dramatically.

Today, people in the know will tell you that, in order to be considered art, an innovative idea or concept as intellectual groundwork would be considered extremely helpful as well as the declared intention of the maker to create art. The maker actually knowing her or his way around the chosen techniques and materials seems to be less significant if not even a hindrance to a successful career as artist.

A usefulness beyond  shocking viewers out of their middle-class equanimity would also be counterproductive to being accepted into the higher echelons of fine art. Apparently, the ultimate stamp of approval is applied to a piece when shown in a museum. But beware! It must be the right kind of museum! A mere museum of design or applied art will most certainly NOT do.
So, what does this tell us? I think it is high time to join forces, ladies, don the flying colours and show them who wears the pants:

If it is only art when it conveys a message, let‘s find something to tell!

If it is only art when it is displayed in a museum, let‘s build a museum!

If it is art if it has a concept, then let‘s write a manifest!


Isn‘t the battle for recognition lost before we even pick up bow and arrow if we use the term “art quilt“? Have you ever heard people talk about an ”art painting?


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Author: 
Jutta Hufnagel