Wise spiders and text/textiles: is craft a radical medium?

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[Image: A ‘Jean Dubuffet Workshop’ was among the exhibits presented in the Step Up Showcase held recently at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester. Taking inspiration from the Dubuffet works on display in Pallant House Gallery, this interactive piece, which is based on a Step Up workshop developed by artist Lynne Firmager, invites visitors to explore Dubuffet’s use of mark making within a limited palette.]

I’m fascinated by the methods by which Outsider Art presents its challenge to the established art world.

As an avid knitter, cross-stitcher, and crocheter, the intersection between traditional craft techniques and this established creative environment has become a kind of Charybdis to me –  undefinable, consuming and unanswerable.

‘Crafts’, as opposed to the Academy-defined, occasionally elitist notion of ‘fine art’, has historically been positioned as ‘outside’, or ‘other’.

This positioning of craft as that-which-is-other can be rooted in its associations with the feminine, and with an excluded socio-economic margin.

‘Craft’ is often defined by the materiality of the objects – knitting, pottery, weaving, embroidery – forms typically accessible even to those who cannot afford canvas, stretchers, or oils.

Often associated with practicality and purpose, crafts is traditionally seen as a far cry from ‘real’ art, such as Reynoldian academic painting.

Importantly, as well, work produced in many of these mediums is presented as antithesis to male-dominated art circles. Textiles-based crafts in particular are associated with a domesticised form of femininity.

Within a binary in which ‘fine art’ is masculine, academic, influential and abstract, ‘craft’ becomes feminised, domestic, practical, unthinking. As fine art is deemed financially respectable, craft becomes the poor man’s route to creative expression.

It could be argued that craft shares many elements of this peripheralised role with Outsider Art.

Outsider Art, which describes art created outside the boundaries of official culture, is produced by artists who face challenges entering the traditional art world.

In this mode, the artist may struggle to achieve recognition or even access to the art world due to race, class, disability, gender identity, sex, or disability. Outsider Art therefore presents a powerful challenge to the normative conventions of the art world, and prioritises those creators who have been peripheralised by this occasionally elitist environment.

Outsider Art has often historically been delineated as ‘craft’, and vice versa. The two artistic modes have been separated from the art world for similar reasons, and therefore present a similar challenge to the conventions of the art world with its potential re-entry.

Using craft, therefore, as a mode of production of fine art, becomes a radicalised act which acknowledges the demographic imbalance of the art world.

It is useful, as well, to not only think about the contemporary role that craft plays within renewing and challenging the art world – it is also important to reclaim the history of the medium, and reinscribe the practise of the craft with its powerful history.

Crafts, and textiles in particular, have a historical, literary and linguistic importance as objects which both create and communicate knowledge.

That’s not to say that we don’t comprehend the semantic importance of textiles in communicating information today – consider the symbolism of religious vestments, the political power demonstrated by the clothing of judges, policemen and magistrates, the cultural implications of, say, the armbands of the Red Cross, and the uniforms of the SS guards. Our prison jumpsuits, our school blazers. Textiles still transmit huge amounts of information – they symbolise our hierarchies of power, attach us as individuals to certain ideologies, and demonstrate the professions we belong to. All this information is transmitted by the textiles that we live in.

However, it can be argued that we have such comparatively little emotional relationship with the fabrics and textiles in our lives, that the cultural connection our ancestors made between text and textiles perhaps don’t have the same immediate resonance with us today.

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[Image: Text and Textiles mood board.]

You’ve probably heard of the Greek myth of Ariadne, who rescued Theseus from the labyrinth of the Minotaur by presenting him with a golden ball of thread which which to track his escape. Using an innocuous piece of yarn, Ariadne’s quick-thinking resourcefulness rescued the hero of the story.

Textiles is also imbued with a significance both within literature and as the communicator of the literary – in British and European culture throughout the Shetlands, Fair Isle, Yorkshire Dales, Aran Islands and the Channel Islands, legends and stories are literally incorporated into the fabric being created. Myths and fairy tales are weaved into the patterns in clothes and blankets.

The creation of fabric is innately connected with ideas of storytelling and oration. In addition to the story of Ariadne, there’s the Greek myth of Arachne, a master weaver who claimed to be more talented than Athena, the Goddess of Weaving herself. Understandably hacked off at this suggestion, Athena challenged Arachne to what is best described as a weave-off, wherein both parties tried to intimidate and undermine each other. Athena weaved pictures of the God’s wrath, of floods and hurricanes and natural disasters, whereas Arachne weaved pictures of  the scandalous things the gods got up to – affairs, transgressions and all. Athena eventually turned Arachne into a spider out of frustration, which is why, we’re told, spiders can weave webs. This is similar to the trickster and storyteller Anansi, the spider from West African and Caribbean folklore. If you’re interested in an example of how powerful the relationship between the ability to create language and the ability to weave was considered, have a look at the myths surrounding the Morai or the Fates. These Greek creatures controlled the metaphorical thread of life of every mortal from birth to death.

It’s not just present in storytelling – for a historical example, think about the ‘knitting women’ of the French Revolution, the Tricoteuse, who would sit calmly weaving during the executions at the Guillotene following the Women’s March on Versailles in 1789. There’s definitely a connection between the political or oratory power of these figures and their hand-craft skills. The character of Madame Defarge in Charles Dicken’s novel A Tale of Two Cities encrypts the names of those to be executed and other crucial information into her knitting by using a Morse-code type sequence of stitches.

This is reflected in language, which denotes textiles as a method of creating information, as well as commmunicating it – if you’re talking about ‘weaving’ something, you’re not just talking about making fabric or cloth. Textile references still permeate our language, even if the terminology might have less practical meaning to us – even today, we talk about keeping the audience on “tenterhooks” whilst the narrator ties up the “loose ends” of a story.

You can weave a story, or spin a yarn. This connection is so fundamental that it can be seen everywhere in the etymology of our language – the word ‘text’ comes from the Latin word ‘texere’, which means to ‘construct or to weave’. The Greek word ‘tekhne’ means arts or crafts. There’s even a similar word in Arabic – ‘tiraz’ – which is used to describe both weaving cloth and weaving poems.

Reinscribing craft, therefore, with this contextual signficance reinforces the medium with its intrinsic importance, and illustrates how the mode presents an ‘alternative voice’ to the conventions of the art world.

The art world is full of gender loaded terms such as ‘Old Master’ and ‘Masterpiece’. The contemporary interest in the practice and history of textiles is intrinsically linked to feminist theory, which relates into Post-Structuralist interpretations of the issues of gender and sexuality. Helene Cixous, a theorist from the French school of feminist thinking, approached feminism in her essay The Laugh of the Medusa with the concept of Écriture feminine – which denotes the concept of the existence of a specifically female, or feminine writing. Cixous says that all writing and philosophy is phallocentric – and if we are to except this, does this make textiles an alternate form of female language, or, as Anni Albers says, ‘The inarticulateness of the artistic person [by this she means vocalising through a visual rather than auditory means] is interpreted easily as a lack of intelligence while it is rather an intelligence expressing itself in other means than words’. Albers’ pieces of weaving, with titles like Haiku, Ancient Writing, and Code, clearly demonstrates, as Victoria Mitchell describes in Text, Textiles and Techne, the concept that ‘weaving, writing and drawing share a common denominator through the practise of graphein, the graphic.’

The use of craft, therefore, is a radical act, utilising a medium peripheralised through association with the feminine, the unacademic, the unprivileged, the socio-economic ‘lesser’ to produce a creative voice of resistance.

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[Image: Installation from the Graylingwell Heritage Project exhibition at The Otter Gallery, Chichester. This work combined both the artistic efforts of the creative team, who have been involved in Outsider Art projects at Chichester’s Pallant House Gallery, and the work of patients who lived at the Hospital during its centenary of being open.]

If you’re interested in the connection between ‘crafts’, feminism and the communication of knowledge, there’s a couple of other things to check out.

In 2008, Compton Verney in Warwickshire held an exhibition entitled The Fabric of Myth. Although you’ve obviously missed the window to catch the show itself, try and track down the exhibition catalogue. It features a series of fascinating essays on the relationship between textiles and storytelling, and how this traditionally feminised craft features in mythology, literature, language, creating and communicating knowledge. The author AS Byatt wrote an excellent review on The Fabric of Myth exhibition for The Guardian, which you can check out here: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/jun/21/saturdayreviewsfeatres.guardianreview9.

Another great text is The Subversive Stitch, by Rozsika Parker. Here, Parker explores the relationship between embroidery and the feminine, and how textiles can form a rebellious, empowering tool to those who have been subjugated, examining how the subversive stitch impacts within gender and socio-economic status.

Check out Parker’s other text, which she produced with Griselda Pollock – Old Mistresses: Women, Art, and Ideology –  to learn more about the gendered artistic sphere through history. You can also find out more by reading Linda Nochlin’s essay Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?, which can be found in the collection Women, Art, and Power, and Other Essays.

The notes from this symposium on Text and Textiles are also interesting – http://www.english.cam.ac.uk/cmt/?page_id=2630.

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