ART + STORY
People are allowed to have preferences. I don't like Thomas Kinkade paintings or Daisy Kingdom dresses or "rustic" chairs with the bark still on the wood. I prefer e. e. cummings and Robert Frost to Wordsworth or Lord Byron. I like rock more than country, country more than jazz, and rap hardly at all. None of these preferences makes me feel apologetic. But then, these works of art are presented simply to the world, to be evaluated by whatever metric I please.
Gee's Bend quilts are presented to the world wrapped in a story, with an implicit metric for evaluation: judge them not as quilts but as quilts-handmade-by-African-American-women-who-descend-from-slaves-and-live-with-hardship-and-build-community-through-their-deep-soulful-craft. If you care about the story, you must praise the work.
TO DAMN WITH TANGENTIAL PRAISE
In contrast, if someone examined my quilts as art, they'd talk about the work, not about my income, color, or gender. I try to imagine being a Gee's Bend resident. Would I consider my poverty or color to be intrinsic to my identity and my work? Would I want such heavy focus on the things I can't change instead of the things I make? I wouldn't. Everything I want to say in my art, I say in my art.
Emphasizing the poverty/blackness/femaleness of the makers feels like the act of someone who's not sure the art can stand on its own. Such praise seeks to shield the work by casting any detractor as classist/racist/misogynist. The art world is obligated to care loudly, so as to prove how progressive they are. It's a tiresome gambit to elevate art above criticism by attaching it to a protected class like race or gender, and I don't think it ultimately helps the makers. Savvy people will say all the right words to avoid being called racist, but can the quilters of Gee's Bend eat or spend those words?
Or what if socially progressive praise is a subtle put-down? "Folk art", every snob knows, can be code for "though we are enlightened, we must include the primitives." Or maybe "it's too good to come from those people. They must not know what they've done."
Since the Gees Bend quilts so strongly resembled certain strains of 20th century painting; art critics and curators could accept them on the same walls. It also made them feel comfortably noble and sophisticated; to be able to recognize the fact that these humble objects could be interpreted as art works. There was a lot of discussion of the idea that these quilts were created out of necessity, out of whatever scraps were on hand, merely to keep people warm. While this was not true, it let people think that they could recognize the artistry of the quilts when the very makers could not. And the quilters of Gees Bend have promoted this idea themselves. But it devalues the makers of the quilts. They are the ones who decided which piece came next, how to cut it, how to sew it. They are the ones who started the quilts and who finished them. The art world likes the idea of the primitive quilt makers who somehow stumbled onto this artistic way of working. It does not recognize the fact that American women of the last two centuries developed these ways of working and that the Gees Bend quilts are part of that tradition, and that they knew exactly what they were doing.
Some people would hang a folk art quilt on their wall to prove how progressive they are, but wouldn't dream of putting a secondhand, homemade item on their bed! They buy their bedding new, of course, from a lifestyle brand.
Perhaps I am not being charitable in attribution of motives. Let me try anew: let's take a person who's educated in art, the kind of person who churns out ponderous sentences like "If value is ascribed to intuition in art spaces, which are so often elitist and intellectualizing spaces, maybe that intrinsically repositions power?" (this interview is a gold mine). Let's say this person looks at a Gee's Bend quilt and is moved by it, but can't find a label in all their education that explains what they feel. Maybe they fall back on calling it "folk art" and conflating "truth" and "honesty" in a befuddled, squishy sort of way, because they have found something to value yet lack the vocabulary for it. Maybe they are a true fan who happens to sound condescending because they inhabit a world too cynical for "I just like it."
Whatever way you look at it, the more tangents praise takes, the less sincere it feels.
Remember when you were a kid, and did something (put a picture in an art show, wrote a short story for a fiction contest, whatever), and your mom would have you sign your name and age? Maybe that was just me? In elementary school, I did that, but by high school I found it distasteful. What did it matter that I was "15 years old"? People don't have high expectations of children, so putting that information seemed like a plea for people to give me pity points, because I was young. It invited praise like "exceptional for her age" or "a credible effort from a young writer" or "shows potential". I was too proud to let my youth serve as either excuse or advancement for my work. If it was good, it was good, and it didn't matter how old I was. I feel the same about Gee's Bend quilters. The fact that their disadvantages are constantly paraded next to their work gives me a yucky feeling, because it seems like people must have low expectations of poor black women, and viewers are being prompted to make allowances, as for a child. Though I don't like their art very much, I do want them to be addressed as artists, not pandered to as children.
This confused mix of motives has economic effects. Fans of Gee's Bend quilts pay high prices to own them or see them in galleries, but often in ways that don't materially benefit the quilters. Meanwhile Gee's Bend "inspired" quilts and copycat works are produced and sold in ways that don't help the source community. (For instance, I cannot find any answer to the question "Did Gee's Bend postage stamps benefit the quilters?" I assume if they did, the Postal Service would brag about it, so they probably didn't.) The quilters, in response, are finding ways to sell and license their own works in the digital arena, to take control over their art and legacy. But the more digitally savvy they get, the less "authentic" they'll seem to people who bought into the story more than the art. Is it really a Gee's Bend quilt if it's made by a well-compensated woman with an internet connection?
There's also a muddying of definitions. Gees Bend Quilts are improvisational, which often means no pattern, larger elements and stitches, and uneven construction. But since, as Bill Volckening points out in his Wonkyworld blog, ". . . the improvisational style became strongly associated with African-American quiltmaking because of the success of Gee's Bend. The unfortunate, underlying suggestion was that sewing skill was somehow lacking in African-American quiltmaking heritage, which could not be further from the truth." If improv quilting is "black", then traditional quilts or highly technical quilts must be something else. "White," perhaps? Yet this is not true, as thousands of quilts through history attest. Volckening supports his point with 1) several examples of non-improv quilts by black makers and 2) the long history of improv quilting among quilters of various races and backgrounds. He concludes: "The style of the quilt is not what determines the ethnicity of the maker."
AM I ALLOWED TO NOT LIKE?
So there are the quilts, and they exist as objects of utility and art. And there's the discourse about the quilts, and that's more complicated; it casts shade on anyone who doesn't like them. And finally there's me, and my opinions.
I just don't like Gee's Bend quilts. Saying so, I surreptitiously check to see if anyone is about to jump up and call me racist or sexist for not supporting black women. Is it some unexamined prejudice against poverty or black Americans or Southerners? Am I bigoted and haven't realized it yet?
I try to look at the quilts merely as objects to be seen and used. In their design, they're very similar to a lot of abstract art... art made by white men like Edwin Forrest, Cy Twombly, and Jackson Pollock, which I also don't care for. They have great swathes of color layered in haphazard ways, unpleasing to my eye. There is a large scale and an inexactness to the lines and proportions. There are color combinations that make me think of bruises or stains. So if I don't like it when it's made by white men or black women, I think I can safely say it's the art I don't like, not some inner prejudice against men or women, white or black.
But don't tell the quilt police: they already have a warrant out on me for failure to keep my seam allowances to a scant quarter inch!
Quilting, dressmaking, and history plied with the needle...
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