Adjectives (regarding taxonomy and quilts)…

I love adjectives; I use them as often as possible. Bee is quite the master of adjectives; she seems quite fascinated by the fact that two of the same noun can be so different and works very hard to find just the right adjectives to fit. Sometimes it seems that the adjectives are more important to her than the nouns, the things themselves.

She is a very clever girl; description matters.

Thanks to a comment on yesterday’s post on the words modern and Modern I was lead to a post from a couple of years ago on Rossiblog (the person who started up the Fresh Modern Quilts Flickr group). What I found most interesting in that post was this statement:

Taxonomy is the practice and science of classification. Can we start to pull out the strands of these modern quilts? Put them in groups, make names for those that are similar? And not just blocks, but the whole overall look? Can we make or find a vocabulary for this?

I don’t think we need an official taxonomist or rule book for this. Say where you got the idea for your color scheme. Say where you found the inspiration for your design. Explain whatever you can about your roots. In doing so, I think you’ll let others find their own. It couldn’t hurt, right?

Rossiblog 08 May 2010

Description isn’t about limits; it is about communication. It is about sharing ideas and allowing others to learn. One of the first things that struck me when I started quilting and talking with other quilters interested in “modern quilts” was that there wasn’t a lexicon for talking about what we do; hundreds if not thousands of quilters were using the same small vocabulary but to mean very different things. The word modern seemed to mean whatever people wanted it to mean, which is fine as far as self-identification goes, but it sure makes conversation a muddle.

Again, I do not care if you think of your quilts or yourself as modern; that is not the point here. This is not about setting up strict limits and/or excluding anyone from anything. In fact I think better communication would lead to welcoming more people, bringing more voices into the conversation.

Taxonomy and description are about learning. They allow us to better understand the world around us and to better describe what we see and what we are thinking about. Words are the essential tool for explaining why. That may be as simple as why someone likes something or as complex as why quantum mechanics makes for compelling inspiration for a quilt.

Furthermore, it is my experience that expanding the verbal vocabulary of a field leads to expanding its possibilities. That is why so much of art education centers on public critique. Few people really enjoy that process (full disclosure: I am one of the ones that loves it), but that forum for sharing ideas, reactions, criticism, and praise is invariably valuable for everyone involved. The acts of putting your own ideas into words, and getting glimpses into the thought process of others can only produce more ideas, more possibilities, and more creativity.

The thing about the critique process is that what is most essentially being learned is how to talk about art, to develop a meaningful vocabulary for ideas that may seem ephemeral and ineffable, to externalize the personal and make sense of inspiration. All of that relies on words; it stems from establishing a taxonomy, however provisional that system may be.

Right now we seem to have an incredibly small vocabulary for modern quilts, one that seems strangely similar to Justice Potter Stuart’s statements on pornography:

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it…

—Justice Potter Stewart, concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio 378 U.S. 184 (1964), regarding possible obscenity in The Lovers.

While that is fine at a certain level I feel like possibilities are being stifled in the vagaries, that conversations are not happening, that vast segments of the quilting population are being pushed away from the conversation due to the inadequacy of the terms we currently have.

One of the things I love the most about the quilting community is that it seems like everyone is looking to learn something more, not necessarily some wildly new thing, just more. We try things, we experiment, we stretch. Not just modern quilters, but all of us. That is one of the things that unify us. And that learning goes in every direction, from old to new and vice versa. Just about everybody can learn something from just about everybody else.

This community is one very large continuum of practitioners, but that doesn’t mean that subdivisions, neighborhoods if you will, within it aren’t valuable. To say you are a modern quilter doesn’t mean you aren’t part of the community of quilters. It is just an adjective, a useful tool for communicating more nuanced information. It isn’t about exclusion; it is about communication.

That said I do wish we had a better vocabulary, that we would as a community really attempt to taxonomize what we do. In no way do I believe that this would separate us; in truth I feel that this would help bring us all, quilters of every stripe, closer together, allow us to better share what we know, what we believe, and what we hope to do. It would allow us to better see the commonalities, and the subtle difference, to learn from those things and incorporate new ideas into our practices.

It seems to me that there is a rich history of taxonomy in the quilting tradition, but that seems somehow taboo when it comes to modern. Perhaps this is because the word itself suggests a division from the past, but as I have said before I do not believe this is the intent of the word. Alas it is a blunt adjective, which is why we need more.

Like Bee I far too often find myself frustrated by the inadequacy of the our current vocabulary. I want to know more about what the people I respect are doing; I want to better understand their rationale and inspiration. I want to learn. I want their adjectives…

Yay words!!!


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