A Different Canvas: Series Prologue
By LIZ HAGER
This is the first in a number of inter-related posts, in which Venetian Red explores aspects of artist-designed textiles. For all posts in the series, click here.
May Morris, The Orchard, 1896, embroidered wall hanging, silk thread on silk ground.
Generally, Western society places greater value on the fine arts—i.e. paintings, sculptures—than on the decorative (or applied) arts—i.e. furniture, ceramics, books, textiles. The Giotto painting below is magnificent. The singleton Morris hanging above is equally evocative and finely worked. One imagines each required a similar level of skill and number of people hours to complete.
Giotto, Preaching to the Birds, 1295-1300
Fresco. St. Francis, Upper Church, Assisi, Italy.
If art is the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions, then the world might agree that the Giotto and Morris pieces are both fundamentally works of art. How then did Western cultures come to assign greater value to a painting than a textile?
In this particular case, one might observe that greater value has accrued to Giotto paintings because they were produced by a man. One cannot discount the fact that many of the textile arts started out as, and remained for a long time, women’s work. Still, gender can’t be the entire explanation for classification of “high” versus “low” art, otherwise all work by female artists, regardless of form, would be valued similiarly.
The elevation of the fine art form can be traced to the Renaissance, when the hand of man replaced the hand of God in the creation of art, thus begetting the concept of individual and assignable “genius.” The distinction was bolstered in the 18th century by Immanuel Kant, who philosophically subordinated the “mechanical” (applied) to the “aesthetic” (fine) arts.
Raoul Dufy, block printed fabric for Paul Poiret, 1911.
A simple economic view of the disparity might suggest that fine art has historically had higher utility (i.e. the relative satisfaction from, or desirability of, consumption of a good or service), because a privileged class has consistently desired these scarce goods (artists turn out a limited supply of unique works) and has been willing to pay highly for them. Simply put, paintings are like diamonds, scarce and in high demand.
It may be enough to say that fine art has been scarce historically and therefore in demand. But that doesn’t get to the more interest question of why.
John Berger provocatively suggests in his Ways of Seeing that creating a highly-valued fine art form was in the best interests of ruling classes. He observes that oil painting as a technique (mixing pigments with binders) has been around since ancient times. It wasn’t until the Renaissance that “oil painting” as a distinguishable art form, which could be purchased, emerged.
Sonia Delauney, Textile design, 1928.
Reflect on pretty much any painting from the Renaissance on and you’ll realize that it celebrates someone’s possessions: family, animals, fine clothes, household objects, food, land. Among other purposes, possessions (and beliefs, also depicted in fine art) serve to set one people apart from another. Considered in this light, the whole of painting from 1500 to the present amounts to a visual record of the acquiring classes, a glorification of their lifestyle.
Thus, Berger conjectures that the exaltation of certain art forms (possessions in their own right that celebrated the possessing of things) was a clever way for a ruling minority to justify their their role in society. The rest attached themselves to this history and general agreement was reached about the high value of works of fine art.
(Photographic reproduction techniques have allowed the masses a peek into the fine art tent. Through reproductions and museums—temples to the lives of the privileged Berger might say—the masses reap a reward of fine art, although it is altogether different from the utility experienced by the class that can afford to purchase the works.)
Henry Moore, Barbed Wire (serigraphy on rayon), 1946
In the meantime, over the centuries the applied arts have maintained their utilitarian and predominantly anonymous nature. Society still assigns lower status to utilitarian pieces (terming them “craft” or at best “decorative”), although they appear no less thoughtfully made or aesthetically pleasing. (Stand in front of a Gee’s Bend quilt and see how it compares to a Hans Hoffman or Sean Scully painting.) Nevertheless, even the most luxurious silk or finely-wrought lace could never have quite the immediate power as a painting to tell the story of the ruling classes.
(“Diamonds” exist in the textile world: antique Persian rugs sell for upwards of $10,000; $450/sq. foot fabrics are not within the reach of the masses. And, in their own form of mechanical reproduction, many textile producers and fashion designers have made a business out of reinterpreting high-end designs for the mass-market, which engenders some interesting thought on the utility of “knock-offs.”)
Lucienne Day, Day, Provencal tea towel, 1950s.
In this series we explore what transpires when the fine and the decorative arts gently collide, when the world of assignable genius meets the world of anonymity, when “high” artists stroll in the land of low culture. Not all artists consider the two art forms as separate and unequal. Specifically we’ll examine the output and motivations of many fine artists for whom textiles were simply a different canvas.
Walter Benjamin—see “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in Essays and Reflections