After spending the week at Quilt Market it seemed to me that there was palpably less buzz about the whole modern thing. I’m not saying the modern community wasn’t enormously present, but it felt very different than just a year ago, and this isn’t a bad thing at all. In many ways I feel like modern is at a crossroads.
I think the modern quilting movement has reached its third stage: the first was emergence and the second was acceptance. These are both exciting periods, times of growth, ideas, and idealism. Stage three, in my view, is a much more dangerous stage: commodification. I don’t use this word here in a negative way; it is simply a reality. More an more companies are looking to partner with the modern quilting universe and make money with it; some do this in very open and genuine ways, others may be more mercenary. Regardless, modern is going mainstream, which is great, but that transition comes with perils.
Let’s take a moment to look back at the history of Modernism as an example. Up through the end of World War II modern art was a revolutionary movement, at times political, at others aesthetic, but always a movement searching to expand the perception of art and design. By the fifties much of the world was looking for renewal and a break from the old order that lead to two world wars. Jackson Pollock graced the pages of LIFE magazine, modern design began to fill middle-class living rooms, Dali became commonplace as Freudian analysis emerged as de rigueur.
By the sixties modern art was in revolution against itself as Pop Art turned commodity against itself in a critique of the very idea of modern art’s acceptability. Modern art stood on a precipice, much as I believe modern quilting does now. In the seventies, Modern underwent a radical split: in popular culture it lead to modern kitsch, shag rugs and lava lamps, sleek molded plastic chairs upholstered in daisy-print naugahyde. The art world, on the other hand, saw the advent of Postmodernism, the rejection of the object itself, eschewing commodification so radically that a whole new generation of artists stopped making anything at all. Postmodernism (a term that can only be seen as signifying an incredibly loose web of ideas) rejected what modern had become, a unifying vision that offered the promise of truths, certainty, and a future. In many ways Postmodernism had a lot in common with the early days of Modernism, a time in which anything was possible, though rarely probable, when optimism and despair mingled without the necessity of incongruity. While Modernism grew more entrenched and certain, Postmodernism readily accepted what it didn’t know, but in doing so became increasingly opaque and inaccessible. Meanwhile Modernism continued on to the eighties and the emergence of shiny lights, cheap knock-offs, and the cusp of Ikea.
I genuinely believe that modern quilting confronting this dilemma right now, a false dichotomy of two paths, but to avoid that fate there needs to be frank, open, and meaningful discussion. I think a lot of people have found themselves drawn to modern quilting, but then shy away after being asked to explain it and finding out just how hard a task that is. During the rapid expansion of modern quilting myriad ideas have been thrown together forming an umbrella term for all the things people want modern to mean, and this is where words start to really matter.
It seems to me that the word modern emerged in response to another word: traditional. As a community we seem to take the word traditional at face value, as a given, and then try to make sense of modern in response to it, but that seems an endlessly problematic route. Partially because I think dichotomies are almost always false, but also because it seems that traditional itself is a term that emerged in response to another: art quilts.
About forty years ago as art quilting was making its waves in the quilting community there needed to be categories that recognized these two divergent streams in the quilt world. Traditional made sense for the practical quilting world and quilts that stuck with the, well, traditional techniques and materials. Art quilting was everything else. They were rough categories, but they did the job. Unfortunately, over time the term traditional came to be associated with historicist quilts, the revival of older traditions. While that makes a certain sense it represented a significant narrowing of the term traditional.
So, as modern quilting emerged it started to be understood in relation to traditional quilts (meaning historicist quilts) even as they were more broadly speaking traditional quilts for the most part. And then “modern traditional” came to signify reinterpretations of narrowly defined traditional quilts and blocks using more modern styles. So you have a term that narrowly defined is accurate, though when broadly defined is redundant, and the confusion only multiplies as the conversation continues. Hence modern stands on a similar precipice to the one art encountered in the early 1970s.
Before I wrap this up I want to make sure something is abundantly clear: I do not believe that the popularization of modern is equivalent to the rise of kitsch modernism in the 70s, nor to I believe the emergence of Postmodernism in fine art is the answer to everything, or even a good thing. I believe these are the historical routes that Modernism took, and are enticing traps that are far too easy to fall into without realizing it. What I am suggesting is that this third stage of modern quilting (assuming I am even vaguely correct in calling it that, which is far from a certainty) will require conscious and self-conscious reflection and discussing; it will require some degree of stewardship, though not one from an oligarchic leadership. It will require willing to learn, grow, and at times accept that not all things are equal. I believe in the modern quilting movement as an essential conversation in the growth, expansion, and in some ways preservation of the quilting tradition. I am optimistic about the future even as I harbor sincere trepidation.
All of this is precisely why I am so excited about QuiltCon. I am excited and honored to be a part of it, but far more than that I am profoundly hopeful that it will provide and extraordinary opportunity to lay the groundwork for a future of modern quilting, whatever that may be and mean. For my two cents I am truly excited about the entire slate of lectures; it may be the academic in my, but that is where I think the real action will be. I do not mean to speak ill of the classes in any way, but I plan to hit every single lecture and immerse myself as deeply as possible in the dialogue that may well go a long way toward affecting the next decade of modern quilting and the quilting world as a whole.
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