Why quilts (a nascent manifesto)…

I love quilts. A few years ago I had no idea that I loved quilts, but now I do. I mean I always loved quilts in a basic way, in a-snuggle-under-them and like-to-look-at-them kind of way, but now I love-love quilts. I love what they represent, what they can mean, and meaning for me is what quilts are all about.

Of course I like beautiful quilts, who doesn’t? But I must admit I am always wary of aesthetics; I mistrust the very notion of the beautiful. History is littered with works that were once beautiful, but soon became grotesque. Today’s avant garde is tomorrow’s fad and the next day’s yard sale. I am no believer in the timeless.

Now, I am not opposed to beautiful quilts; I am just drawn to the Why? far more than the What? of quilts, though Why? may be far too vague a term. There are so many reasons why we make quilts: we enjoy the process, we think they are beautiful, we need them, etc… Perhaps the more accurate question for me is: What does a quilt mean?

While the meaning of a quilt can be enormously vague, I think it is a somewhat better question than Why. Meaning can seem simple: I am making a baby quilt for a newborn because I think handmade quilts matter, that the act of making this quilt resonates through the object. Meaning can be direct: quilts can tackle social, political, cultural, and historical issues in extraordinary ways. The thing about meaning is that it is there whether we intend it or not; our every choice imbues what we make with meaning.

I know that I am rather new to the quilting world, but it feels like there is something happening here, that a conversation is underway. The Modern Quilts movement has sparked a lot of conversations, and is bringing a new community to quilting that may not have come here otherwise (most likely including me). While I do think something unique is happening within the Modern Quilts movement, I do not see it as outside of the quilting tradition. I am actually dubious of the terms “modern” and “traditional”; they both seem like words that are far too prone to misunderstanding.

Personally I would ditch the term “traditional quilt” and replace it with the premise of the quilting tradition, which intentionally evokes a continuum of practice. Myriad styles inherently fit together in the quilting tradition, which invariably changes over time and depending on region. Everything then is in dialogue with everything else, which seems far more accurate than a “traditional” v. “modern” duality. It seems to me that at the inception of the Modern Quilts movement, the term Modern was in reference to capital-M Modernism as an art, cultural, and social premise, not small-m modern, referring generically to, well, now as opposed to the past.

But I digress (as usual). The Modern Quilts movement seems to have sparked a conversation about the place of quilts within our lives. This is not a new conversation, but it seems to be happening at a rather explicit level at the moment. Furthermore it has prompted an examination of a variety of “modern forms.” At some point nearly every “modern form” has been utilized by some group of quilters or another, but usually for different reasons than an expressed concern for a “modern aesthetic.”

For me aesthetics are a tool, not an endpoint. For example, “clean and simple” is not fundamentally modern; that visual vocabulary evolved in response to an enormous variety of cultural, historical, and aesthetic factors and in dialogue with wider practices. And that aesthetic is but one small component of the broader history of Modernism. Some day I would like to take an extended time to really look at that broader history through the lens of quilting, but this is not that time. What I do want to do here is ask a question: Why Modern?

There are a lot of potential answers to this question, and no one answer is fundamentally more valid than another, but I do believe that it is an important question to ask. In many ways I feel like the fate of the Modern Quilts movement rests in the balance (though I may be verging on the hyperbolic there). In no way am I saying that every single quilter must answer this question, or that it is even necessary to everyone. It is a systemic question, one for the community to discuss (if it so desires), not an imperative for every individual. Nor do I think it is a question with a single answer; I don’t actually think it would be desirable to have a solitary answer in this case. What I think matters is the question.

Why Modern? What is it that has drawn people to the notion of Modern Quilting? What does it represent? What is the meaning behind it, the overt and latent significances of the choices behind Modern in this context?

For me it is all about making meaningful quilts, quilts rich with symbolic significance in response to the world I live in. At times this may be subtle, and other times it will be more overt, more immediately about an issue. I am interested in the interaction of conceptual concerns with practical quilts, with bringing cultural critique to bed quilts (or baby quilts, or lap quilts, etc.). I am interested in how those issues play out in quilts that become part of our lives, in what it means to wrap ourselves in those concepts, in how those ideas change over time as our lives do, or as the quilt falls apart through a lifetime of use. (I see this as the difference between Modern Quilts and Art Quilting.) I am interested in quilts as a response to modernity and post-modernity, and as a means to talk about it. Most of all I am interested in why.

Perhaps Why? is not so vague a question after all, once it is wedded to the idea of meaning. Perhaps it is the essential question after all. Why is Modern Quilting more than just another fad? Is it? Should it be?

I think it is more, even if I don’t necessarily think it is all that new, but I don’t think new is really a relevant question. (This quest for the new is steeped in 20th century advertising, and has probably done more harm that good.) So many of the classic quilt patterns are fundamentally about meaning: Double Wedding Ring, harvest and basket blocks, heck, sampler quilts (and embroidery) are quintessential rites of passage. Quilts are rich in a heritage of meaning, and the potential of the Modern Quilts movement is that it offers another set of questions, new concerns, and renewed interest in making meaning.
I feel like Modern Quilting is at a bit of a crossroads: its presence has been announced, it has a platform; now what? Why Modern?

And then of course the next question: Where is it going?

-T

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