Controversies in Quilt Art in The U.S.
In a field that straddles craft and art, the controversies can arise rather quickly. Jonathan Holstein recounts being accosted by traditional quilters who were confused by the quilts in the Whitney Museum of American Art exhibit, "which represented everything the traditional rules of the craft told them to avoid: sloppy work and assembly, bizarre color combinations, nasty materials.... Quilt makers had kept the craft alive and in a relatively pure state, the latter largely because no czars of culture had bothered to look closely at it....They made beautifully crafted quilts....The issue was hot for a long time, until enough exhibitions with orientations similar to the Whitney's had been seen across the country, and a constituency for new visual considerations in quilts had emerged." Holstein, p. 57.
Holstein was also criticized for divorcing the quilts from their historical context, for applying a traditional male-dominated sense of aesthetic value to a woman's art, for dismissing applique quilts as artistically inferior to pieced examples, and for his apparent lack of concern as a collector for the stories of the women who made the quilts, "thereby marginalizing the makers by denying them their personal identities." Shaw, p 54
Some of these controversies continue to the present day. Lorre M Weidlich, in the Spring 1996 (vol. 6, #9) Newsletter of the Studio Art Quilt Associates, uses Carol Gilligan's theory of the differences between male and female values to reject Michael James's call for stronger art in the quilt art world. She says that "the male, Jamesian model of 'quilt art' violates the very qualities that initially attracted women to quilting and reinforce their continuing pursuit of it. It feel, to a great many of them, alien. The imposition of a male model on a women's expressive form leaves in a position of discomfort the very people who are the life blood of the expressive form." Weidlich p 9. Weidlich argues that quilts emphasize relationship and connection, and that James would remove those association to conform to male standards of the artist as idiosyncratic and subversive.
Another controversy involves the work and people in the isolated Alabama hamlet of Gee's Bend. In the early 21st century, the Gee's Bend quilters, "discovered" by folk art collectors Bill and Matt Arnett, became celebrated as artists and toured the U.S. widely, carrying their "piece quilts" to innumerable communities where they gave talks about their lives and work. Coffee table books showed the work and lives of the Gee's Bend artists; items used domestically began to appear, bearing their designs. A lawsuit arose over whether the women's work was legally obtained and licensed by the Arnetts, who apparently sold the rights to the design for use in home dec designs. U.S. District Judge Callie Granade of Mobile dismissed the suits.
Most of these controversies have become muted as the fine arts have opened up to a vast variety of materials and methods. The materials and structures assembled by quilt artists have gone beyond or negated many of the older connotations of the quilt. Nevertheless many questions and concerns remain and are hotly debated.
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