(Note #1: this post was written quite rapidly following a few emails and the like that I’ve received over the past 24 hours. The entire post was written in about 15 minutes without editing. I just need to put this out there.)
(Note #2: I actually think the categories of modern, traditional, and art each have value, but they need to be used in a careful and considered way, just like all words. Far too often they are thrown around thoughtlessly or asked to do more work than they are capable of doing. Sometimes one needs to use a lot of words and not just a simple label.)
QuiltCon was exciting. At times it was entirely wonderful, and at others it was wholly nerve-wracking. It gave me a big, wide view of the community in a lot of ways, which was truly remarkable, but as I flew home it all still felt kind of small. I still feel like this is all just stuck in the same impasse of the false dichotomy of modern versus traditional. Perhaps it is time to be truly blunt.
When modern quilters say they like bold colors and big shapes and clean lines the traditional quilters say something along the lines of “erm, we’ve been doing that for years.” The moderns define traditional largely as fussy and stuffy, which pisses the traditional quilters off because that just dismisses the actual history of quilting. Then the traditionals disparage the technique of the moderns because they don’t do “show quilt” quality work all of the time, which ignores the actual history of most of the quilts in the world, which are really poorly made according to current show quilt guidelines.
Then everybody talks past each other and digs into their aesthetic and technical characteristics and nobody actually talks about the quilts and what quilts mean. In the end everybody just wants to feel good about what they do and holds on to a set of ill-defined terms in order to forge a sense of belonging, or whatever.
To be blunt, as I think I stated in my lectures, I think that both words modern and traditional are being completely botched. I mean they are being used in ways that completely drain any potential meaning out of either word. I think they are largely misused and set up false dichotomies that do little more than fuel marketable subsets, which may be good for the sale of stuff, but doesn’t ever really talk about why we make quilts.
Modern is, and always has been, an idea. What was once modern is no longer modern; that’s just the nature of things. On the flip side, what is no modern will one day be traditional. Again, it’s the nature of the universe that these two things are true.
It ain’t rocket science. We are all making the same things, but are reasons vary, and those reasons matter. Quilts that reproduce the look of century old quilts really aren’t modern, not for aesthetic reasons, but because they are fundamentally backward looking. They are in no way bad; they just aren’t particularly modern. If you just like pretty stuff, well, that kind of misses the entire notion of modern-ness. Nothing wrong with pretty, but the very concept of modern—historically speaking—is entwined with the idea of getting beyond decoration to substance (hence the modern slogan “form follows function”).
But to me there is a question that most quilters are forgetting to ask themselves: why the fuck am I making this quilt? You see it is so much easier right now to just go buy a blanket from a chain store, and a hell of a lot cheaper. So why are you making that quilt? If the only reason is that you like pretty stuff I am pretty sure you are deluding yourself. There is a reason you do this, and that reason is the path that explains your relationship to quilting.
For most of us—definitely myself—there is a socio-political impulse behind it all. I want the things in my life to be resonant. I would prefer to not purchase branded objects made using exploitative labor practices that will fall apart quickly requiring an endless loop of consumption. I want my stuff to matter to me; I started sewing at all because I did not want to buy crappy clothing with cartoon logos on them, or even worse the “Future Mrs. Beiber” crap that was actually selling for toddlers at that time. Every quilt I make, before I even decide on an idea or a design, is already knee-deep in modern politics.
100 years ago most quilts were made out of necessity. After WWII there was a massive industrial complex that supplied the country with cheap products, handmade ceased to be a true necessity for large segments of the population; quilting became a hobbyist’s activity, and it remained as such until rather recently (at least for the most part). Lately a new impulse has arisen, the imperative to reclaim that vital relationship to the things that populate our lives. This impulse never died, it has always been a part of quilting, but the internet and the local & DIY movements have spurred an explicit re-examination of object-self relations. In my head this is the real center of the modern quilt movement, not the existence of the relationship, but the way it has become an express element of it. If the social, political, and economic implications of making quilts become part of the conversation then it is just a few steps to a truly deep understanding of why any particular quilter makes the quilts he or she makes, that the aesthetic choices are manifestations of something deeper, not just the patina of received aesthetic practice. Those choices become vital and living rather than redundancies.
To be blunt, I don’t think it matters what the hell a quilt looks like. I made both of these, and personally I think the quilt with the Jo Morton fabric is eight steps further into postmodern than the barcode.
But really, I don’t care if a quilt is modern or not. I just want to see smart stuff being made. The truest words I said at QuiltCon were these: “There is only one really bad question in all of this: Am I a modern quilter?” Never, ever put the cart before the horse. Figure out what you make and then go from there.
I do think words matter, and that they are useful in helping us converse and learn and think about what we do. But really, just go make shit. Don’t worry whether it is art or modern or traditional. Don’t worry whether it is any good. Make stuff. Do what you do. Find your own practice. Do not chase acceptance into some perceived clique, because I am willing to bet a crapload of money that the people you think are “in” or “cool” or whatever are struggling to figure out what they are doing. Do not project your insecurities or needs onto other people and their practice; figure your own shit out and if that ain’t working ask for help, but do it with openness and a willingness to hear things you don’t want to hear. Go big, think big; trust me, things work better that way. If you want to make art or modern or traditional or whatever do the work, the hard work, the years and years of work it takes to do whatever you want to do well. Do not just grab a label and claim it to be yours; shit ain’t easy. If you do that you are just going to end up insulting a lot of people and that isn’t going to get anybody anywhere.
So, go make shit. Stop stressing about fitting in. Trust me, nobody fits in and nobody ever feels like they do. At least I don’t. We all make stuff for different reasons; those reasons are ours. Those reasons can never be wrong. That said there are differences between modern and traditional, conservative and radical, unique and generic, and everything in between, just as orange is different than green. Not everything is modern. Not everything needs to be modern. And modern is not inherently better than anything else. It is all just stuff. To be honest I don’t really even care about the stuff itself that much; what matters to me is the conversations, the reasons why. It is in those that I learn something…