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Tapestry’s position in the art world

Ever since painters and sculptors formed their own academies and split off from crafts guilds in the Renaissance, there has been a separation of art and craft, or as some say, between the worlds of thought and ideas and the world of labor and the hand.

In an essay by Arthur Danto “Reflections on Fabric and Meaning: The Tapestry and the Loincloth” from New Material as New Media, he quotes Jonathan Brown from Gottfried Semper’s1989 article “The Textile Art”:

Nowadays, no artistic medium is less appreciated than the tapestry, which seems to enjoy about the same esteem as second hand clothing. In the Renaissance and Baroque, however, tapestry was the art of kings, prized for its scale and intricate craftsmanship as well as its insulating properties. …(Today) tapestry as a form of expression has lost contact with the realities of lived life, and it has suffered aesthetically since the contexts in which it could have a use and meaning other than the reduced aesthetic it shares with paintings, have vanished from modern life. As matters stand, they are appreciated only as paintings in an alien medium…(84)

That Arthur Danto, a major and respected US philosopher and art critic, chose to include this quote in his 2002 essay in a major publication, is troubling because it perpetuates stereotypes about tapestry which do not reflect the current state of the field. Sadly, it is probably also a good indication of the extent of the misunderstanding of tapestry in the greater art world.

However, it is Danto’s distinction between art and craft which really cuts to the heart of why fibers (and all crafts media) continue to come up against a brick wall in their attempts to gain entry to the citadel of fine art:

…The presence of the hand is of diminishing significance in the visual arts today, as they become increasingly conceptual. I cannot see it disappearing from the concept of craft, however. Craftspersons have sometimes hoped to close the gap between craft and art by shunning the idea of functionality. But it is hard to see how they can repudiate the presence of the hand. Because of the hand, craft has often carried a political message in its implication of a form of life contrary to that implied by the flawless, uniform products of mechanical manufacture (85).

It is clear from Danto’s essay and a multitude of other sources, that modern tapestry is not currently accepted in the art world, though many contemporary art fabrics are right on the borderline between art and craft, and a few have gained quasi acceptance as art because of their highly conceptual nature and use of mixed materials. These artists have not necessarily given up using fiber, but they have found ways of addressing its material properties in a manner that is conceptually in tune with fine art practices, something that people working in tapestry have not been able to do.

The question we need to ask is “Does it matter?” What do we expect to achieve in conferred art status: exhibitions in fine art galleries, invitations to show in the Whitney Biennial in New York, reviews in Art in America, money, power? Perhaps it is simply the kind of universal acceptance which means that when you tell someone you are an artist they won’t say: “Oh, you’re a painter!” If these things are what you long for, the path is difficult and perhaps unattainable. I believe we should instead concentrate on our many strengths, and work on pushing innovation, concept development, a more critical eye about our own work, and a broadened exhibition format. We should stop worrying about whether or not tapestry is considered art. It might also help to remove the adjective from our professional title. To label ourselves in a way that compartmentalizes and separates us off from the greater world is a mistake, and does nothing to increase our visibility outside the world of tapestry. We are artists not fiber artists, tapestry artists, or fiberists.

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