modern or Modern (thoughts on a problematic word)…

Modern is an extremely complicated word, so complicated it may be best considered as two words: small-m modern and big-M Modern. They share a common heritage, yet when used interchangeably they lead to endless confusion. I think much of the difficulty in talking about the Modern Quilts movement stems from this ambiguity, from the overlap of both big-M Modern quilts and a small-m modern quilts.

Personally I think this overlap is a fantastic thing; it is contributing significantly to a quilting renaissance, a flourishing of the community and the industry. Like most sewists, I am happy to see anything that expands the vocabulary of what we do, that encourages excitement, that fuels creativity. At the same time I keep seeing, hearing, reading, and sensing a lot of confusion and uncertainty surrounding Modern and modern quilts, which inevitably feeds into the seeming (though false) dichotomy between modern and traditional quilts.

So, modern or Modern?

Please don’t take this question as an insistence that quilters define themselves as one or another. This inquiry is not about quilters and their craft; it is about the usage of the word. Hopefully a bit of disambiguation will actually be useful, helpful in talking about what we do and love.

Small-m modern is simply a temporal adjective; it is now. Actually it is every now. Small-m modern is the present and recent past as opposed to the more distant past. Depending on the now under consideration, being modern can last an extremely long time, or can be rather short-lived. At the moment it feels a little difficult to consider my childhood part of the current modern; the rate of change has been astronomical as of late. The same could perhaps be said of the period around World War I or World War II. The thing about small-m modern is that it depends a lot on a society’s or individual’s lens: through one lens, my childhood feels enormously remote; through another, 1912 and 2012 are not so far apart.

Small-m modern is always relative. It is defined in relation to what came before. It also runs the risk of being divisive. To be modern tends to exclude what isn’t modern, but in the case of modern quilting I don’t think this is generally the intention.

I believe that when small-m modern is used in the quilting world, it points toward the ready adoption of technology, both in terms of making quilts and how we communicate about them. It also refers to a general sense of keeping up with current trends in the design world at large. Finally it seems to refer to an increased interest in the role of the handmade in response to “modern life.”

I think all of these are valid and meaningful concerns. As I’ve said, I’m all for anything that brings more people to sewing and quilting, actually making in general. I am the last person on the planet to try to disqualify anyone’s reason for making. If for no other reason, I’m happy to see things made because that is one less mass-produced piece of crap getting bought. We all make for our own reasons.

At the same time I do have some concerns about the usage of small-m modern, as do a lot of quilters it seems. Isn’t every quilt made right now by definition a modern quilt? Even a reproduction quilt is fundamentally modern; it includes a self-conscious decision to look backward to a previous era, to incorporate it. Historical recreation is not a return to the pre-modern; it is a re-examination of it. Furthermore, hasn’t quilting and fabric always responded to its time, to its now? A response to poverty in the Depression Era is no less a response to its time than a response to cell phones is now.

Small-m modern seems to depend on the premise of a differentiation from “traditional” quilts. Much of this distinction appears to rely on stylistic distinctions, ones based on generalities: large pieces v. small pieces, bright colors v. muted tones, solids v. texturals, balance v. symmetry. This becomes a bit contentious because all of the small-m modern characteristics can be found in “traditional” quilts. The set of intentions is likely different than the reasoning behind the “traditional” quilts that may have similar stylistic attributes, and I am always dubious of the “it’s been done before” line of discussion. Nonetheless, styles are almost always cyclical; one moment’s modern is another’s traditional is the inspiration for another modern.

It seems to me that small-m modern is a convenient term to denote a stylistic difference. The important thing to remember with small-m modern is that it always depends on the lens that is being used. Small-m modern should never be dogmatic; it is by definition always subject to evolution. That doesn’t mean that some quilts are not more small-m modern than others; they are. Small-m modern is just best regarded as a continuum rather than a divide.

Now big-M Modern is a whole other thing. Big-M Modern stems from Modernism. While this is a far-reaching term with different ramifications in different fields, it most commonly refers to the broad art and design movement of the late-19th century and the 20th century. (For philosophy Modernism could be said to extend back to Descartes in the mid-17th century, sociologically to the late 18th century and the rise of industrialization.)

Modernism in art may be traced back to the middle of the 19th century with the rise of popular photography, which began to free painting from the bonds of representation. Advances in science and technology helped to propel the issues that Modern Art tackled: World Wars, economic turmoil, transformations in gender roles, protest movements, all fueled changes in the Western art world. In the century between 1870 and 1970 the nature of art probably changed more than in the previous millennium. The art world saw a shift from historical landscape painting to the complete disappearance of the art object itself.

(Someday I’ll drop 20,000 words on the topic of Modernism and quilting.)

Big-M Modern stems from this movement, and it seems to me that big-M Modern quilts originate in a conscious dialogue with Modernism. Big-M Modern is about more than stylistic borrowing; it participates in the conceptual, social, cultural, and historical concerns of Modernism. Big-M Modern quilts are about more than the appearance of Modernism; they partake of the aesthetic philosophies that stem from Modernism.

The thing about Modernism is that there is no single aesthetic philosophy; it has given rise to countless movements, responses to divergent social, political, cultural, economic, spiritual, and aesthetic stimuli. Modernism is far from univocal, which makes using big-M Modern as a stylistic indicator difficult. While I can likely guess some attributes of what may be considered a small-m modern quilt, I would be reluctant to hazard a guess about a big-M Modern quilt.

The whole “traditional” or “modern” dichotomy is irrelevant in the case of big-M Modern. There is no reason there cannot be a “traditional” big-M Modern quilt; in fact it seems to me there are a lot of amazing quilters out there who might be best classified as such, if classification were needed. Big-M Modern evokes a framework (or set of frameworks) for thought; the resultant aesthetic activity comes from that framework. Every era has a small-m modern look; big-M Modern largely defies narrow aesthetic definition.

This is not to say that there are not certain aesthetic concerns that are common to Modernist movements. Much of the history of Modernism was fuelled by the drive toward a pure abstraction, though this took many directions. Barnett Neumann and Jackson Pollock were in many ways sharing the same concerns at the same time, though what they made is radically different. That said, a big-M Modern quilt with concerns about sublimity will likely reference the aesthetics of the Suprematists or Minimalists; one concerned with social issues might look to the Dadaists or 1970s Feminist art.

This use of big-M Modern seems significantly different than they way small-m modern is commonly used; they do indeed seem like different words. They evoke different considerations, different mindsets, and different reasons for making. I think better understanding the ways in which we all use these terms (if we do) will make the discussion we have all the more interesting and increasingly beneficial. More important, I think that in clarifying the way we use the words modern and Modern we move beyond some of the seeming divisiveness about “modern” and “traditional” quilts and better see how it is that all of our activities fit within the rich heritage of the quilting tradition. Certainly we don’t want any of these terms to tread too close to the dogmatic, but confusion is no more desirable.

Of course what matters most of all here is making quilts. Fundamentally it doesn’t matter whether you think of your quilts as big-M Modern, small-m modern, traditional, or otherwise. Quilts are amazing things; they give warmth and share love. In the end every quilter makes his or her own quilt. The distinctions we make and the words we use may just be words, but words do matter. They help us understand each other, allow us to learn from each other, and enable us to grow. Words help us make sense of what we do, and more importantly permit us to elucidate our aspirations.

Yay quilts!


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15 Responses to modern or Modern (thoughts on a problematic word)…

  1. 1
    Melissa says:

    I still haven’t figured out where my quilting style fits in, but I do enjoy the discussion. I really appreciate reading your take on the big M and little m.

  2. 2
    Sheila says:

    Wonderful précis of the discussion, Thomas. I just finished reading the post Allison (Cluck Cluck Sew) wrote, and was thinking about this whole “m” v. “M” thing. Perhaps because I studied Art History, I have always been much more comfortable with the word “contemporary,” since it removes the ambiguity. Certainly that would be how I define most of my making, although I do periodically stray into the Modern. I look forward to your 20,000 words. 😉

  3. 3
    Casey says:

    I wonder if and how you see intentionality coming into things? Is a quilt Modern and its creator a Modern quilter if they believe they are contributing to a Modern movement?

    I guess what I’m getting at is, who decides, and on what level–thhe level of the individual creator/quilt, or on the level of the collective cultural movement? Because I agree that, stylistically, little separates some old quilts from the ones described as “Modern” on today’s blogs; but at the same time, I think there is something important to be gleaned from (small-m modern) quilters who pursue a “traditional” style (or do art quilting, or see themselves as participating in a different category) *identifying* as such, and I think it may point to a difference in outlook that is one of the very things that contributes to what Modern quilters consider Modern.

    I’m sorry for jumping in the comments so frequently–I find this question fascinating. I also think that the approach to the question of categorization differs according to perspective–whether one is deliberately trying to participate in a movement called “Modern” as opposed to trying to describe that movement from outside; this difference in perspective alone influences whether one sees the definition of “Modern” as lying within the intentions of the quilter or the broader influences of the culture and time period when they are working.

  4. 4
    thomas says:

    In this case I do think intentionality matters, at least with small-m modern. Because modern is inherently relative it has to be flexible and allow self-definition. On the other hand big-M Modern is less subject to that as it does have some discreet characteristics.

    In many ways I’m not sure if small-m has much real value outside of self-definition and intentionality.

  5. 5
    Laura says:

    Thanks for this post, I really enjoyed reading it. It has also made me wonder how mies van der rohe’s “form follows function” idea might be applied to quilting. I’m now looking at quilts entirely differently!

  6. 6
    thomas says:

    I was thinking a lot about that while writing this. In many ways I think “concept” is the fine art equivalent of “function” from designland. While I’ve never been a ven der rohe fan, especially after teaching occasionally in a building he designed, it is a principle I largely support.

    Of course function and/or concept have to be read broadly. After all, one of the functions of an object is to be aesthetically valuable, whatever that may mean…

    • 6.1
      Laura says:

      Yep, couldn’t agree more. That makes me wonder, at what point do the functional and aesthetic crossover? eg can the actual quilting (of the layers) be utilitarian without being beautiful and vice versa?
      Maybe William Morris’ quote about having “nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful” is more apt?

  7. 7
    Teresa L. Hoagland says:

    Oh dear. That’s clear as mud for me. It makes my brain hurt! I’m going back to piecing my quilt together and keeping my mouth shut.
    Happy quilting one and all. Teresa

  8. 8
    Kelly says:

    My mother (a current quilter given to a more traditional aesthetic) and I (a current quilter who dislikes labels) have discussed Modern. She asks “What is a Modern Quilt?” I am a member of a local chapter of the MQG, so she turns to me for the answer. “Is it simplicity of design?” Maybe. “Is it bright solid colors?” Could be. “Is it wonk?” Well that is okay too. But then we look back into the quilts in our region’s history, and being rural/agrarian, many the vintage (60+ yrs old) quilts around us would fit into these modern characteristics. Also, techniques come up in the discussion. I believe the Modern movement interests new quilters because of the perceived “ease” of certain patterns. But I have also found that once a quilter gets a few wonky quilts under their belt, they pursue learning the traditional technique (paper piecing, hand-quilting, etc). I believe, the deeper one gets in this beloved art and craft, the more respect one develops for the quilters that came before and generated such works without acrylic templates, laser printers, rotary cutters and computerized sewing machines.
    I enjoy a more unstructured approach to my quilts. I generally do not use patterns verbatim, often purchasing them as inspiration, and then constructing my take in my way. I like to mix batiks, hand dyes, prints and solids. Occasionally I may use reproduction 30’s and Civil War fabrics. But I see myself as a quilter, who can hand-piece and quilt, but prefers to use my machine! That leads me back to words from my mother. If the quilter that came before had had the tools we currently enjoy, they would have used them and made far more quilts! So, instead of calling myself a Modern/modern quilter, I am a quilter. In the current day and age.
    I love reading your thoughts on this!

  9. 9
    Mary says:

    A couple years ago I saw a great exhibit at the Guggenheim that really educated me on what Modern is, and what influences informed the European Modern movement. Given your remarks here, I think you could have curated it, Thomas!

  10. 10
    BB says:

    This is great! Even if it does remind me of my day job a little bit too much… (I’m a PhD candidate in history.)

    I’ve enjoyed poking around your blog and reading your “About Me” section. No offense to anyone, of course, but it is refreshing to read from a quilter who doesn’t fit the “suburban mom to three little ones” mold! Yay quilter diversity. 🙂

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