value the brain & cut the priviledge
Danielle Carla Hogan, Ph.D
(The following is the first chapter of my dissertation)
In this interdisciplinary study, I use Kimberlé Crenshaw’s intersectional feminist research approach and a bricolage methodology to integrate written research on fiber and craft with visual art research and production. The inquiry presented investigates the relationship between fiber, femininity, and the devaluation of fiber-based works of women artists, Black, Indigenous, and women of colour (WOC), racialized peoples, and LGBTQ2+ practitioners. Drawing on a long career of studio work in visual arts, as well as study, teaching and practice-informed research, I incorporate my own experiential knowledge on my subject throughout this dissertation (written and practice-informed components).
This dissertation situates the historical feminization of craft within the more refined phenomenon of what I call “femaffect.” I define femaffect as specific negatively feminized impressions or feelings that have become “stuck” (Ahmed, 2010) to certain artworks, particularly to fiber mediums and gendered creative processes associated with softness. Using practice-informed research that centres precisely on these mediums and creative processes, as well as a written dissertation that theorizes and historicizes femaffect from an intersectional feminist perspective and using a bricolage methodology, I show why femaffect is triggering negative effects in viewers. My research shows that negativity, which is stuck to femaffect, results in damaging outcomes for artists and can provoke undesirable consequences from those who collect and critique art, as well as those who work in galleries, libraries, archives and museums (GLAMS).
Keywords: Femaffect, fiber, textiles, craft, gender, social change, intersectional feminism, praxis, practice-informed research, hermeneutic phenomenology, bricolage.
A Certain ‘Je Ne Sais Quoi’…
Art is the most human of things. Based in the genetic, in the creative intelligence and the nimble body, art is a potential in every individual. Nurtured in social experience, taught, learned, and bent against circumstance, art is a reality in every culture. Always unifying what analysis divides, art is personal and collective, intellectual and sensual, inventive and conventional, material and spiritual, useful and beautiful, a compromise between will and conditions. Art is, given the storms and pains and limited resources, the best that can be done.
Henry Glassie (1997) The Art and Life in Bangladesh.
The voice of this cloth is so strong I wanted you to have a piece of it. Amelia [the maker] was incarcerated in the Detroit House of Correction for killing her abusive husband….
Vintage Linen Contributor (2017) Meissner’s Inheritance Project.
Literally translated, the French expression of contemplation ‘je ne says quoi’ means ‘I do not know what’. In English, effectively it means “a certain something that I just cannot seem to put my finger on”. At the outset of this study I could not put my finger on where the stain that effects textiles was coming from. What was clear to me all along, were the predominantly negative effects evoked by women of colour, Black artists, Indigenous artist, artists who identify as women or gender-fluid and non-binary, and/or members of the LGBTQ2+ communities when they use textiles in their work.
I now know however, where that stain is coming from. The certain “je ne says quoi” are, in fact, negative Femaffects; they, their influences, as well as the precarious assumptions that sustain them, are the subject this dissertation.
Femininity may currently be defined in a Euro North American context as possessions having qualities or appearances traditionally associated with women – especially softness, frills, delicacy, excess and prettiness – such as in the case of a feminine frilled dress. But a quick spin though global fashion will reveal that the qualities of softness (frills, delicacy) and excess appear in fashion trends and in choices of fabric by all genders dependent on era, culture and social status.
So, to break down as precisely as possible what makes up a Femaffect. Scholar and feminist Killjoy (2010) Sara Ahmed defines the term affect as a feeling that ‘sticks’ (2010). Now, felt together the idea of ‘stickiness’ with current (slippery) notions of femininity, i.e. qualities of softness, delicacy, frivolity, consumption, heteronormative desire and submissiveness. Do this, and you will have spun a complex thread, which I call a femaffect.
The most influential elements of ‘femininity’ from each society, era, and socio-economic class (ultimately determined by popular culture) determine what are their femaffects. To Euro North Americans in 2017, many of these decisive aspects of ‘femininity’ are vividly illuminated by United States of America artist Will Cotton in his series Candy Land (2013) featuring the actress Elle Fanning (see fig. #2). Otherwise stated, femaffects are the feelings that stick to us regarding vogue impressions of femininity. Of course, femininity cannot be ascertained by pointing to any one conclusive set of traits; yet, ‘femininity’ is fundamentally at the center of all perceptions of femaffect therefor, it is endlessly captivating. But, Euro North American culture is sexist and it is patriarchal, a reprehensible status that it shares with many other societies around the globe. So – accordingly – a femaffect is also currently a negative affect.
Figure 2. Untitled (Candy Land), 2013, painting by Will Cotton.
In this dissertation, which looks at fiber in art, I distinguish a feminized affect – a femaffect – as being a combination of these two conditions; 1) a peculiar feeling that sticks 2) qualities pertaining to femininity, which for a least middle and upper-class Euro North American culture in this era, include softness, delicacy, frills, excess and often submissiveness.
It is critical to state that this not the case for fiber across all cultures. Rather as I have pointed out, this is the case today in patriarchal, colonial Euro North American pop-culture. To illustrate my point, consider the contrast between Will Cotton’s image from 2013 (fig. 2) and that of the iconic 1980’s singer Grace Jones (see fig. 3). On the cover of her 1981 album Nightclubbing Jones was showing off a then popular look for women: big shoulder pads, bold colours, and short, sharp haircuts. A stunning look, which could otherwise be described as evoking stereotypically ‘male’ qualities of vigor, strength, muscularity, ruggedness, and machismo, and/or of affecting ‘masculinity’ from popular Euro North American 1980s culture.
Figure 3. Grace Jones (1981), by Jean-Paul Goude, album cover Nightclubbing.
Figure 4. King Louis XVI of France (1779), painting by Antoine-François Callet.
Femaffects are qualities, which contemporary Euro-American culture seems to attribute only to women when in fact, they have to do rather with perpetually shifting notions of femininity. The irreducible concept of Woman and that of a femaffect are altogether different, and, directly relating the two are akin to conflating a person’s sex with their gender.
Sadly, the slightest whiff a femaffect seems to intrinsically devalue the person or thing to which the affect is attributed. And yet as I have already shown, associations between frills, softness, and excess should not be bound so exclusively to public impressions of femininity. To simple examples that productively illustrate this point are; 16th century France where softness, delicacy and frilly clothes were signs of elevated social status for men (see fig. 4), and in today’s uber-fashionable Bollywood attire from India (see fig. 5).
Figure 5. Bollywood actor Abhishek Bachchan (left), and other male members of the Bachchan family (2017).
This dissertation makes visible the feminized gendering of fiber-based creative art practices and negative repercussions such affects have on artists on a Euro North American context. Throughout this study, I reflect on the roll that affect plays in devaluing the work of many textile artists in the eyes and the minds of critics, collectors, theorists, historians, as well as galleries, libraries, archives and museums (GLAMS) in the Euro-North American context. To accomplish this, I have undertaken a project that broadly spans the fields of visual art, women and gender studies, critical theory, and social justice.
As a visual artist and visual arts instructor, I have considerable professional and life experience informing this dissertation. I am a maker and also identify as a wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, ally, and educator. I am a creative practitioner with over two decades experience working in the visual arts. I have exhibited my art in artist-run centers, educational institutions, and commercial art galleries; I have participated in artists’ residencies including, at The Banff Centre for the Arts in Banff, Alberta, and the Jiwar International Residence for Artists and Researchers in Urban Creativity in Barcelona, Spain. I served for two years on the board of directors at Open Space Artist Run Center in Victoria BC. My artwork is part of many Canadian and international collections, and in 2004 the National Art Bank of Canada purchased my work. My training and experience as a practice-informed researcher informs the ways in which I tackle my research in this dissertation.
Central to the academic relevance of this long-term practice-informed research is the acknowledgement that craft has been at the forefront of curatorial and practitioner debates in the dominant Euro-North American art world for decades despite craft’s historically uneasy positioning in mainstream museums and galleries. Pioneering contemporary craft theorist Glenn Adamson suggests, in his introduction to The Craft Reader, that craft may be defined “in a simple but open-ended manner [..] as the application of skill and materials-based knowledge to relatively small-scale production” (2010, p.2). Many artists who use craft techniques, but particularly fiber-based textiles, in their making practices suffer the consequence of heteropatriarchal, sexist and homophobic evaluations the result of negative feminized affects. I have named these feminized affects ‘femaffects’. While, as Rosaline Krauss says (blowing up cultural pop-fiction regarding the ‘creative male genius’) in The Originality of the Avant-Guard and Other Modernist Myths (1986) “the word original come from the root ‘origin’ and what people don’t understand is that original ideas have their origins in other ideas”, my development of this term does represent a breakthrough. ‘Femaffect’ is an important theoretical contribution to both the fields of feminist studies and affect theory. In this dissertation, I contend that a negative femaffect is stuck, staining the fiber of textiles in art. In addition to the explicitly unjust nature of this gendered and heteropatriarchal bias, it is critical to also note the adverse economic and academic repercussions that such false impressions create for many artists.
In discussing the femaffect of fiber-based craft art, it is also crucial to attend to further intersectional biases that emerge in relation to gendered and heteropatriarchal prejudices. I am here ideologically referencing the groundbreaking work of lawyer, academic, and Black rights activist Kimberlé Crenshaw, whose research on intersectionality has been described as “the most important theoretical contribution that women’s studies, in conjunction with related fields, has made so far” (McCall, 2005). I will, throughout this dissertation, refer to her writings in the fields of intersectional theory and critical race theory, for Crenshaw’s theories allow me to deepen my analysis of the femaffect of craft. I argue that the feminization of textiles in art and education is not a single issue, but rather an interweaving of intersectional biases that are experienced to varying degrees, and differently, by artists of colour, Black artists, Indigenous artist, artists who identify as women or gender-fluid and non-binary, and/or as members of the LGBTQ2+ communities.
Crenshaw illuminates this point further, as she writes:
I have stated earlier that the failure to embrace the complexities of compoundedness is not simply a matter of political will, but is also due to the influence of a way of thinking about discrimination which structures politics so that struggles are categorized as singular issues. Moreover, this structure imports a descriptive and normative view of society that reinforces that status quo (1998, p. 334).
Crenshaw’s foundational writing helps me to attend to the complexities of the femaffect of craft across various intersections of gendered, heteropatriarchal, racialized, and sexualized discrimination within the art world and in academia more broadly.
In his essay ‘Autonomy of Affect’, social theorist and philosopher Brian Massumi outlines both “the primacy of the affective in image reception” (1995, p.84), and a definition of affect as a feeling, which is “mark[ed] by a gap between content and effect” (p.84). Sara Ahmed — queer feminist theorist and innovator of the highly influential notion the “feminist killjoy” — aptly defines the term affect at those feelings that “stick” (2010), and in her writings, she builds on earlier explorations of affect theory as they pertain to sexism and homophobia. As a result of my research, I call on theorists of craft and intersectional feminism to take a leading role in chipping-away at negativity feminized affects, those that stick uniquely to dominant understandings of craft, fiber and/or other textile materials in particular, within academic and artwork (GLAM) settings.
My aim for this research is to increase public and academic awareness regarding the negative affects of textile materials in these receptive contexts for visual art. To address these wide and varied audiences, my dissertation takes the form of this written component, public installations and presentations of my practice-informed visual arts research, and in exhibitions and events that I have curated online and at various public spaces pertaining to my curatorial project, the Gynocratic Art Gallery. It is my intention moving forward that this dissertation extends both concrete support and theoretical examples to back up the negative experiences that disproportionately restrain the success of women, non-binary and gender-fluid people, racialized practitioners, and/or other makers from the LGBTQ2+ communities using textile materials in their practices.
Finally, in this segment I examine theoretical and conceptual problems effecting craft in order to set up the current state of femaffect as I see it. Here in “Je ne Sais Quoi?”, I situate myself within the theoretical boundaries outlined in this section with anecdotes from my personal experience. I also describe the problem presented by my dissertation and articulate my research question. Just Making It probes the historical material and literary frameworks that have made important positive and negative contributions in my dissertation area. In “A Bricoleuse”, I describe the methodology and techniques of bricolage adopted for this study. “‘Soft’ Targets”, a written analysis of my research-creation as data, has three sections: (1) ‘The GAG: Those Who Simply Will Not Keep Quiet,” which documents my creation of the Gynocratic Art Gallery; (2) ‘Crafting: A Practice of Communitas (Barcelona),’ which describes my experiences as part of a communal artists’ residency focused on craft; and (3) ‘Generation: A Blanket Praxis,’ which outlines the plan for my dissertation gallery. I either participated in, or created each of these works as a means of investigating my research question. Finally, “Not Asking for It” is a discussion of recorded developments, in addition to recommendations for further studies.
The Problem of Craft
While it may be impossible to pinpoint one single occurrence that led me to consider fiber-based craft as a focus for this dissertation, there was a particular event that needled away at me in 2012. That year, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) held a show of contemporary Canadian art called Oh, Canada. U.S. American Denise Markonish was a young, up-and-coming curator and, she was responsible for choosing the artists who would be featured in this exhibition. For months, the show was seemingly the only topic of conversation, and debate, amongst Canadian artists from coast to coast to coast.
In her catalogue essay, Markonish pronounced that “[Canada Council for the Arts] funding allows artists to spend more time in the studio, which is perhaps why so many artists in Oh, Canada signal a return to craft and making.” (2012. p. 34). My immediate reaction was to have my own experiences as a craft maker confirmed. The pronouncement of “a return to craft and making” was in part, an idea that I had been centering for two years already in my art college teaching. I had written curriculum, and was teaching a course called “Art and the Language of Craft” that involved alternating hands-on studio classes and lectures featuring craft skills in contemporary works of art and design. It was a popular course, and it attracted only women (as far as I could gauge how the participating students identified).
Markonish’s essay further referenced a curatorial statement from a much smaller Canadian show entitled Reskilling, a 2009 exhibition hosted by the gallery Western Front in Vancouver. That show was guest curated by artist Luanne Martineau and curator Shannon Stratton, who is now Chief Curator at New York City’s Museum of Arts and Design. The curators stated that by the end of the twentieth century, a certain “deskilling” of studio practice existed that was prevalent in the visual arts, which came with “a degradation of work, a suspicion of craft and a premium on time” (Western Front, online, May 23, 2017). Had certain conditions been different, Denise Markonish could have just as easily hypothesized in her essay that sustained Canada Council funding would allow Canadian artists to create large-scale installation works, or bigger budget art films, because her argument did not in fact hinge on craft as a material; rather, it hinged on time and the time needed to attend to making.
What has more accurately signaled a “return to craft” at this time, I argue, is a fresh and emerging undercurrent of critical and intersectional feminism, which has been building not only in Canadian art, but art and politics transnationally. And (this is a throwback reminder from high school physics) when it comes to returning to craft work, makers in Canada and attendant North American and European art world contexts are living Isaac Newton’s third Law of Motion, that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In the years since the 2012 Oh, Canada exhibition, the world has experienced a surge in feminist politics transnationally, which have attempted to diametrically oppose nearly everything happening in recent iterations of U.S. Republican politics, Putin’s Russia, and regarding migration, detention, and deportation across various borders, to name only a few contexts.
Trans-inclusive and anti-racist intersectional feminists have worked over the past few years to expand societies’ understandings of freedom, responsibility, and privilege globally, often paying particular attention to a person’s rights to make autonomous decisions concerning their body, their consent to pregnancy, and their gender identifications. Some of this work corresponded with liberal-conservative moments of feminist debate during this time, which include but are not limited to: First Lady Michelle Obama’s 2016 The United State of Women Summit; Hillary Clinton’s winning the U.S. popular vote in her 2016 bid for the White House; the Women’s March on Washington, which quickly became a global event; Theresa May becoming prime minister in the UK in 2016; former United Nations Executive Director of Women Michelle Bachelet becoming the head of state in Chile in 2014; the Pakistani activist for female education Malala Yousafzai as the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Prize in 2014; and the disputably global, and arguably “white” and biologically essentialist craftivist “Pussy Hats” phenomenon in 2017. This list is admittedly inadequate in its attempt to relay mainstream political actions that incorporated degrees of feminist debate, yet I list them here to point to the extent to which dominant and primarily white liberal-conservative feminism occupies contemporary political discussions.
This recent historical and political context also corresponds to the temporal process of making and writing this dissertation. Just Making It weaves relevant fibers from intersectional feminism evidenced in literature, hermeneutic phenomenology, maker praxis methodology, practice-informed research creation, exhibition, and presentation, which together investigate craft as critical research and, affords my dissertation its greatest strength. Hermeneutic phenomenology is named after the Greek God Hermes. Among other things, Hermes is known as the keeper of boundaries and paradoxically, the transgressor of those same boundaries. I can sink comfortably into this incongruity; as a woman who has come somewhat later in life to ‘academic’ researcher, I yearn to be broadly liked and accepted as a ‘good’. Conversely, as an artist and as a woman I feel responsible to challenge and disrupt many of the established, patriarchal norms of that system – behavior typically recognized as rebellious and problematic. Jennifer Pazienza affectively describes the practice of hermeneutic phenomenology as follows;
Reconstructing or mapping physical artistic processes and psychological experiences—slivers of insight, fragments of living an examined life—can coalesce in myriad ways. For me it is a matter of submitting myself again and again to the intrigue of a kind of hermeneutic hall of mirrors where ideas bounce off brush strokes and swirls of reading paint text. There, divine light illuminates memory and faith stares down doubt (2016, p.4).
I apply the overarching methodology of a ‘bricoleuse’ (bricoleur) (Kincheloe, 2001; Lincoln and Denzin, 2000; Levi-Strauss, 1966) as an adaption of education pedagogy, to my joint-methods approach to research. The result is this interdisciplinary dissertation that celebrates and seeks to champion ‘craft’ as visual art through research creation within academic discourse.
What my research demonstrates is that craft materials and skills have often operated in commercial isolation from, or in tension with, materials and art forms typically defined as masculine, monolithic, modernist, and innovative. Take for example, the following aggrandizing headlines pertaining to the work of just two male U.S. artists: ‘Jeff Koons: Master Innovator Turning Money into Art’ (Felix Salmon, The Guardian, July 3, 2014,); ‘Jeff Koons is Back! Has Jeff Koons, taboo-busting rebel, become a pillar of the art establishment?’ (Vanity Fair.com, July 2014); and “Richard Serra’s magnificent East-West/West-East sculpture installation has now been unveiled. We say ‘eerie’ in the Kubrick sense, monoliths left to wonder in a desert landscape, four steel plates that stand 49 feet tall that are set to be permanent fixtures in the reserve for the foreseeable future” (Juxtapoz.com, April 11th, 2014).
By contrast, craft skill—and more pointedly, textiles—become what Kathleen Stewart calls an “ordinary affect”, which specifically perpetuates the empathic register of softness on the body, in addition to one of weakness (Stewart, 2007, pp 1; Bennett, 2010). In their introduction to Women Artists and the Decorative Arts I880-1935: The Gender of Ornament, Janice Helland and Bridget Elliott also describe such an affect, but without naming it;
The gendered conflation of textiles – particularly embroidery – with the feminine suggest that somewhere within the softness of fabric and the intricacy of stitching lies an inherent relationship that cannot be signified or secured.[..] elusive [it] defies categorization and thus, according to psychoanalytic theorists like Luce Irigaray or Julia Kristeva, occupies the margins, but, particularly following Kristeva, it is precisely in the marginal space that disruption ferments, always ready to dislodge the symbolic order and its dominant discourses. (2002, p.5)
In summary, fiber – central to most textile-based craft skills though not all – represents an ephemeral and sticky concern for intersectional theorists and feminist academics dedicated to challenging instances of sexist and heteropatriarchal bias in art. For women, non-binary, and gender fluid people, BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Colour), and other members of the LGBTQ2+ communities, a studio practice exclusively featuring textile material presents real challenges to that artist’s ability to “just make it” in today’s art world economy.
Once more, a femaffect is a feminine affect or feeling that latches-on to people, and in spite of current sexist and heteronormative views that suggest the opposite, femaffect is not an intrinsically negative affect. Affects are however, notoriously slippery therefor proof remains extremely difficult, to nearly impossible, in instances of unfair bias.
No simple knot to untie, facing craft’s problems are multi-layered narratives that are lock stitched together. In this dissertation, I explore how many artists “just make it” creatively, within the folds of cultural theory, gender studies, studio practice and visual arts pedagogies—as they employ problematized materials and skills in their studio practices.
Research question. My research question is: How can conceptions of craft be reimagined to overturn the negative effects that current feminized affects – which, as you will see, I have named Femaffects – have, on social and cultural understandings regarding textiles in a Euro-North American context?
Thinking expansively, feminist art is art which prioritizes the needs of those who face oppression not only due to their gender, but also due to their race, gender identification, sexual orientation, dis/ability, or socio-political situation. As such, art made by feminist artists with either textiles and/or other craft skills suffer the devaluing effects of lower appraisals than work by white heterosexual cis-men. I argue that this is directly connected to the femaffect that textiles have on gallerists, collectors, critics, museum directors, and educators.
I contend that both the femaffects of craft, and the affects of textiles more generally, suffer from a type of gender essentialism: they are perceived as “soft targets” of creative and artistic expression. My research asserts that when used by non-cis gendered white men, the feminization of textile materials and craft skills emit an affect of softness. Since softness typically connotes weakness in hetero-patriarchal societies, craft materials therefor assume a subordinate status in the art world. In this dissertation I problematize, re-imagine, and reframe such feminized affects—those of femininity and softness—because the resulting effects are a direct devaluation of many people’s incomes, careers, and artistic legacies.
Grounding my work in intersectional feminist praxis, I investigate the delegitimizing effects of femaffects on materials and methods of craft. To do so, I use craft in both research-creation and my critical theory practices within the broader contexts of Euro-North American art world economies and pedagogies. I make visible the ways in which social and cultural understandings of craft can be reimagined to repair negative effects of feminized affects to reshape the very category of craft itself.
Just Making It: Preexisting Patterns
Granted that disorder spoils pattern, it also provides the material of pattern. Order implies restriction; from all possible material, a limited selection has been made and from all possible relations a limited set has been used. So, disorder by implication is unlimited, no pattern has been realized in it, but its potential for patterns is indefinite. This is why, though we seek to create order, we do not simply condemn disorder. We recognize that it is destructive to existing pattern; also, that it has potentiality. It symbolizes both danger and power.
Mary Douglas (2003). Purity and danger: An analysis of concept of pollution and taboo.
The word textile comes from the Latin word texere. The word itself means to weave, to braid, or to construct. This research looks at fiber; many things have fiber. We know our truths with every fiber of our beings; fibers make up the materials from which textiles are constructed. Thread, yarn, and rope are made: they connect us, cover us, and save us. Spun like a narrative, fibers may be knotted, looped, braided and woven. There are many means of altering (our) fiber, including: printing (upon our memories, and our skins), embroidery (elaborating on reality), knitting, quilting (together our communities), sewing (up our flesh), and dyeing (death).
In her compelling book, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (2003), Eve Sedgewick considers the word “texture.” She is not referring to texture in an art-world or academic context singularly, nor is she referring to the affect of textiles, particularly:
If texture and affect, touching and feeling seem to belong together, then, it is not because they share a particular delicacy of scale, such as we would necessarily call for “close reading” or “thick description”. What they have in common is that at whatever scale they are attended to, both are irreducible phenomenologically. (Sedgwick, 2003. P. 21)
Phenomenology is about self-awareness—our human consciousness. Each year more and more exhibitions and academic research surfaces centralizing textiles as the material of choice for self-reflection and expression. An international list of such artists would be far too long. A few prominent artists currently known for their textile related works include: Sonya Clarke, Allyson Mitchell, Yinka Shonibare, El Anatsui, Sheila Hicks, and Nick Cave. I cite many excellent texts in this dissertation, and here just a small selection of recent group exhibitions featuring textiles: Radical Lace & Subversive Knitting (2007) at the Museum of Arts & Design, NY; Men’s Work (2011) at Florida’s Queer Cultural Center; Labour & Wait (2013) at Santa Barbara Museum of Art; Textile – Fabric As Material And Concept In Modern Art From Klimt To The Present (2013-2014) at The Wolfsburg Museum, German; Thread Lines (2014) at The Drawing Center in NY; Women’s Work: Masculinity and Gender in Contemporary Fiber Art (2015) at The San Diego Art Institute; Alien She (2014-2016) five American stops; Just like a Wo/Man (2013 – 2015) with stops in Slovenia, London & New York; Queer Threads: Crafting Identity and Community (2015) with stops including The Maryland Institute College of Art; Sew What? (2016) at the Children’s Museum of the Arts NYC; and Interwoven Globe (2013) & The Secret Life of Textiles: Plant Fibers (2016), two recent shows from The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
I selected Just Making It as the title for this dissertation for its dubiousness – intonation alone takes if from an affirmation of pride, to a knife’s edge of failure. It effectively connotes the negative ramifications of the use of fiber as a material in art, for people who enter into this material and use it to oppose heteropatriarchy. Alternatively, “just making it” echoes the spirit of DIY and feminist punk cultures – tackling life’s needs and wants head on – which is something I celebrate throughout this research.
With this research, I expand Euro-North American experience and understandings regarding the power and potential of critical, creative research within the academy. Additionally, I reshape currently negative femaffects that women of colour (WOC), Black and Indigenous peoples, non-binary, gender fluid, LGBTQ2+ people and white women wear as a result of their choice to use textiles in their practices. I pick-apart the affects of femininity that are exceedingly elicited by fiber material. The effects of these negative affects permeate every fiber of this review section. By the time I get to “‘Soft’ Targets” however, I show how such femaffects can be rewoven, and even reshaped. In other words, I intensify the pressure on negative affects by “GAGging” them; shrinking the current negativity that surrounds fiber, to a more positive and effective size. And that is what has gone into Just Making It: The Stain of Femaffect on Fiber in Art.
Feminism + Visual Art and The Language of Craft
Crafting a language. From the onset of the Feminist Art Movement in the 1960s, American theorist Lucy Lippard has expressed a ‘feminist eye’ (Davies, 1982) in her writing. Since the introduction of soft sculpture, she has brazenly remarked on the frequency with which it evokes the flaccid penis (1971); Glenn Adamson later followed Lippard’s lead in his essay ‘Soft Power’ (2014); Rozika Parker explained what goes into The Subversive Stitch (1984), and Ellen Dissanayake explained the ethnological beginnings of art by spelling out the collective need to “make special” (1995); New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art presented the rich textures of our Interwoven Globe (2013); and in 2015 Anne Wilson gifted her students and academics alike with the contemporary term ‘sloppy craft’. Right-way round or inside-out, what these examples all have in common are that their subjects steeped in art, gender, textiles and, a dedication to the development of a critical assessment regarding the negative affects of craft.
American political scientist Joseph Nye first developed the concept of a “soft” power to describe a person or group’s ability to achieve their goals by attracting or luring their mark, rather than coercing, or employing another “hard” approach as an assertion of power (Melissen, 2005). Interestingly, there exists also ‘sticky power’, a form of power that derives from allure. Sticky power causes a person or group to feel ‘stuck’ due to their own attraction/reliance on the source (Melissen, 2005). Power is a fact of life; the way in which power is exerted, is our collective responsibility.
Fiber art is a term used to describe a particular branch of soft sculpture; it may also simply be referred to as “textiles.” A subsection of sculpture, it connotes the use of fiber based materials, generally including wool, cotton, synthetics, thread, yarn, ribbon, lace, cloth, rope, and any related hand skills. Fiber arts in Euro North American have been traditionally associated with ‘women’s work’.
As I continue, I will demonstrate how the patriarchal and sexist nature of popular culture has rendered soft sculpture, a ‘soft target’ – to recall, a term derived from military culture connoting a person(s), place or thing, which is relatively unprotected or vulnerable. And later, in the section ‘Feminized Affects in Visual Art’, I will pick back up on the nature of “stickiness”.
Over time, negative affects have come to negatively stain our narratives regarding textiles. However, I will show that both Indigo and sweat, stain cotton. To illustrate what I mean, I begin first with a positive narrative: the story of the Three Fates from Greco-Roman mythology. This yarn offered early society a powerful analogy for Life, and suggests that society once held making it in high esteem. Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos are the three sisters of Fate. For thousands of years these women exemplified ultimate power to Greco-Roman society both individually, and collectively. Together, the women symbolized life’s fortunes, and its destiny, in addition to mirroring society’s respect for fiber. Individually the women were: Clotho, fiber-spinner and creator of life; Lachesis, the measurer and judge of life’s length; and Atropos, the Fate in charge of the scissors and snipper of life’s cord. This myth binds together the notions of creativity, will and power, with those archetypal women and textiles.
From the Iliad, Greco-Romans were offered the astute character of Penelope who was a skilled weaver. Accounts are that she waited endlessly for her husband Odysseus to return home alive from the war, when by all accounts he was believed to be dead. Penelope held off new suitors, who were anxiously lying in wait, by weaving her widow’s mourning shroud during the day and then, night after night, cleverly picking apart the day’s work so as to never complete this task, which was understood to be necessary.
Yet, textiles do not hold the same reverence today as they once did and have indeed become a nearly disposable consumer item in wealthier global North societies. Most people purchase their bedding and clothes from nearby stores, and few people born after, say, 1960 in Euro-North American societies could likely explain how fiber is spun into thread. Facts are that the majority of textiles are now made in the global South and imported here in their final form.
There are many social, political, and art historical narratives that proclaim the existence of negative affects stuck to the Euro-North American public’s experience of textiles in art today. Take for example, Judy Chicago’s provocative feminist work The Dinner Party (1974–79), which remained notoriously uncollected by a major museum until the Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation purchased and donated it (in 2002) to the Brooklyn Museum where it went on permanent display in 2007. Facts such as this girdle the public’s interpretation of artworks, in addition to the talented artists who create them. The unfavorable and discriminatory effects of such negative impressions have a very long reach extending through public consciousness and into GLAMS, auction houses, and private collections.
As I have outline from the beginning of this dissertation, when practitioners who remain marginalized by the heteropatriarchal art world use textiles or related skills in their art practice, an adverse affect creeps – seeps even – into many people’s impressions of that work. Textiles – soft sculptures – have steadily over time, become negatively “feminized” (Serano, 2007, p. 41 – 45); systematically undermined for its perception of being indicative of that which is feminine. Clearly, ‘soft art’ is not inherently feminine, anyone who has seen a Claes Oldenburg sculpture knows that. And yet as a medium, its dominant affect remains feminized. Ramifications of such feminizing may best be described as feelings that emit trivializing impressions, which undermine the artworks in question in addition to demeaning the authority of artists themselves.
In this section, I summarize key theories, explaining how such feminized and “frivolous” (Serano, 2007) affects adversely impact dominant public misperceptions of art made from textiles. I focus on a selection of artworks, which demonstrate to the reader instances where misogynistic and heteronormative attitudes towards the physicality of each artist’s material is subtly—and even overtly—reinforced. I strip down the affected artworks to make visible the system of intersecting oppressions that allow such biases to continue. I do this in a variety of ways: by outlining supporting works from a number of noted, and current feminist and queer theorists; through critical aesthetic comparisons of affected works by established artists; and through the presentation and discussion of my own art practice – predominantly in the section titled ‘Soft’ Targets: My Feminist Soft Spot. I have also sprinkled artworks throughout my articulation of ‘Bricoleuse’ methodology for clarification purposes. By the time this dissertation winds to a close, I will have made lucid how the negative femaffects of textiles are currently restraining their acceptance and development in the Euro North America, and that they have never, asked for it.
Intersectional Feminism, Queer Theory and The Language of Craft. In recent decades, there have been some substantial scholarly contributions to the field of intersectional feminism and queer theory. I want to start this section by briefly introducing professor J. Halberstam’s “low theory” of failure. In this research, I spend a lot of time considering what it means to feel and/or be ‘disadvantaged’, in addition to the multiple ways that impression/state can obscure both privilege and/or opportunity. Failure theory helps me to think through, over, around and beyond many of the problems I encounter in this research. Importantly, Halberstam’s very introduction to The Queer Art of Failure ‘Low Theory’ addresses negative affects; failure theory does this by reimagining how failure might not only offer a sort of ‘release’ from the pressures of current society, but also provide positive opportunities. Note that when Halberstam talks about “toxic positivity” it is in reference what I would otherwise describe as dominant society’s toxic certitude, as in the case of positivist research. Which is, exactly what I seek to do by disrupting the negativity of femaffect in this study.
Failure preserves some of the wondrous anarchy of childhood and disturbs the supposedly clean boundaries between adults and children, winners and losers. And while failure certainly comes accompanied by a host of negative affects, such as disappointment, disillusionment, and despair, it also provides the opportunity to use these negative affects to poke holes in the toxic positivity of contemporary life. (Halberstam, 2011, p. 3)
With a re/imagining of failures and opportunities fresh in our mind, I want to turn now to the work of American author and transgender advocate Dr. Julia Serano. Serano writes about society’s predilection towards generally feminizing women, an idea that directly relates to my point about the feminization of textiles’ affects. Serano notes that it is the media that has principally established such essentialist views of women,
[..] by playing to the audience’s subconscious belief that femininity is artificial. After all, while most people assume that women are naturally feminine, they also (rather hypocritically) require them to spend an hour or two each day putting on their faces and getting all dressed up in order to meet societal standards for femininity. [..] In fact, it’s the assumption that femininity is inherently “contrived”, “frivolous” and “manipulative” that allows masculinity to always come off as “natural”, “practical” and “sincere” by comparison (2007, p.43).
What it means to be a gender is an important, contested, and frequently misunderstood subject (Butler, 1990; Durbin, & Walby 2017). This is broadly due to people’s lack of knowledge, or wariness to accept, that there exists a distinction —and often a significant difference— between a person’s gender identity, and their sex. It is additionally problematic that gender is conceptually presumed to be binary, male or female —an either-or matter— rather than a series of mutable characteristics (Butler, 1990). As such, a person’s gender is currently misunderstood to be the first thing known about them at birth (Congratulations, it’s a…!).
Many people are becoming moderately better informed about the differences between sex and gender. This is due largely to an increase in coverage of the subject by some news organizations, for example: Steinmetz, K., May 29, 2014, ‘The Transgender Tipping Point’, Time Magazine; Rogan, M. September 12, 2016, ‘Growing up Trans’, Walrus Magazine; ‘Gender Revolution’ – special issue, January 2017, National Geographic. In addition, trans characters are being written for TV as well as film, and transgender advocates such as Janet Mock, Laverne Cox and Jazz Jenning have made public much of their personal lives in efforts to shift negative narratives.
Today, the subject of gender is being further taken up in the work of feminist linguists (Cameron, 1998). Such academic and political interest is particularly strong in countries where the dominant language(s) are grammatically gendered such as in France or Spain (Boroditsky, 2009; Prewitt-Freilino, Caswell, & Laakso 2012). To further interpret this point, in the French language the term la couverture (the blanket) is feminine grammatically speaking, and le marteau (a hammer) is masculine in the same sense. Comparatively, the English language is conventionally thought of as gender-neutral–a blanket, the hammer. However, what most people fail to notice is how often words are affectively gendered in English. Even though English is grammatically gender-neutral, it is not affectively devoid of gender. For example, women wear their hair in a bun, but men wearing their hair in a similar fashion are typically granted a grammatical qualifier; that gender-neutral word bun becomes man-bun. The same goes for other words such as purse, skirt (kilt), crafter, nurse and prostitute (who should in fact be referred to as sex workers), to name a few examples. Common justification for this is, that the gender qualification is simply intended to denote “the male version of a prototypically female item” (Cameron, May 25th, 2016). However, we then need to ask what is the purpose, effectively speaking, of such qualification if not to discriminate against that object in the feminized instance?
Female-focused versions of such gender identifications do exist in English grammar. Yet, the intended effects remain the same; they undermine and devalue work done by women. Cases of such sexist identification are: “a female surgeon,” from a recent cover of the New Yorker magazine article on health care (Mouly & Bormes. 2017); “female architect” as noted in obituaries about the famous Iraqi-born British architect Dame Zaha Hadid (Miranda, 2016); and “boss lady” from the BBC story ‘Hidden Sexism in the Work Place’ (Peters, 2017). And so, it seems that many gender classifications do in fact exist grammatically-speaking, in the supposedly “gender-neutral” language of English. Affective feminizations in English, such as those I have listed, will continue to abound until such time that dominant culture wakes up to the under-current state of misogynistic hegemony and begins to effect positive change. I used to think that the problem of textiles in art had solely to do with sexism. Now, however, after considerable research, I have come to see that the problem is in fact something much more complicated and nuanced than I had initially believed.
Prejudices overlap; this is another way of introducing the concept of intersectionality, which is crucial to understanding the negative affects identified by my research. In outlining the foundational principals of intersectionality, we need to consider the approach from the fields of sociology and critical race studies. As feminist sociologist Patricia Hill Collins argues in her ‘Intersection’ theory:
We cannot separate the effects of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and other attributes. When we examine race and how it can bring us both advantages and disadvantages, it is important to acknowledge the way we experience race is shaped, for example, by our gender and class. Multiple layers of disadvantage intersect to create the way we experience race (Little, 2013).
From a dominant, white Euro-colonialist culture that prizes brevity, it is perhaps difficult for many to accept that what intersectional theory does fundamentally is resist the pressure to simplify issues along binary or categorical lines. In fact, the theory asserts society’s obligation to do precisely the opposite. What intersectional theory does is to underscore our collective responsibility to acknowledge the phenomena of overlapping oppressions, which confront certain members of communities in more violent ways than others. Intersection theory needs to be more widely understood and, consistently practiced within society in order to better address many overarching patterns of discrimination. Bound to that theory is a second ideology, which is also prominently highlighted by Kimberlé Crenshaw’s influential writings. Crenshaw is a Black civil rights advocate, lawyer, and professor of critical race theory at Columbia and UCLA, who in 1989 first outlined the now commonplace term called “intersectional feminism.” It is intersectional feminist theory that best identifies the overlapping systems of oppression effecting the affect of textiles in the art that I study. In Crenshaw’s words from her original paper:
In order to include Black women, both movements [Black activist and feminists] must distance themselves from earlier approaches in which experiences are relevant only when they are related to certain clearly identifiable causes (for example, the oppression of Blacks is significant when based on race, or women when based on gender). The praxis of both should be centered on the life chances and life situations of people who should be cared about without regard to the source of their difficulties. [..] the failure to embrace the complexities of compoundedness is not simply a matter of political will, but is also due to the influence of a way of thinking about discrimination which structures politics so that struggles are categorized as singular issues. Moreover, this structure imports a descriptive and normative view of society that reinforces the status quo (1998, p. 166-167).
Despite (maybe even because of) intersectional feminism’s status as a theory that is still, at times, framed as “jargon” (Vick. 2017), it is critical to understand its ideology in order to grasp the powerful and driving-force that it symbolizes for feminist advocates today. Feminists —women, those who are gender non-conforming, and enlightened men— together seek increased human rights protection for all people, yet particularly for those from the even greater marginalized and resistant communities of women of colour, Indigenous women, Black women, and members of the LGBTQ2+ communities. Many proponents of this ideology have personally experienced overlapping inequalities, and value intersectional feminism as a positive and productive platform for increased social justice.
It would be difficult to understate Canadian Allyson Mitchell’s contribution to queer feminist theory, art and, personally, my own creative practice. Mitchell, and her work, are uniquely positioned within the fields of art and feminist academia for to the way in which she deftly straddles these roles with equal success. Within the field of visual art, Mitchell is well known for pieces such as The Fluff Stands Alone (2003), Ladies Sasquatch (2006-2010), Hungry Purse (2004 – ongoing). She and her partner, filmmaker Deirdre Logue, were invited to the Tate Modern in 2012 to speak during the conference Civil Partnerships? Queer and feminist curating. There they also facilitated an ‘Axe Grinding’, a brilliant workshop they conceived of as part of their Feminist Art Gallery (FAG). FAG (queer reference intended) is a gallery which they created together, and continue to operate in Toronto. Mitchell’s artwork has been investigated by a variety of scholars and curators. Some such texts include; Allyson Mitchell: Ladies Sasquatch (2009), Depression: A Public Feeling (Cvetkovich, 2012), Radical Decadence: Excess in Contemporary Feminist Textiles and Craft (Skelly, 2017), Queer Threads: Crafting Identity and Community (Chaich, J., Oldham, T, 2017). She is also recognized within academia for her own writing, having published on the topic of young women and feminism (Karaian, L., Rundle, L. B., & Mitchell, A., 2001), fat activism, and craft (Kijima, A., Kidall, S. et al., 2008), in addition to being a celebrated queer theorist for coining the term Deep Lez. As a philosopher, Mitchell offers a form of map, or pattern, with Deep Lez. A pattern with the opportunity to empower society, to suture wounds, Deep Lez suggests the creation of an altogether different and open pattern of behavior. Therefore, I am quoting her at length;
Deep Lez is meant to be a macramed conceptual tangle for people to work though how they integrate art into their politics and how they live their lives and continue to get fired up about ideas. Deep Lez can offer alternative ways of imagining the world and who we are. It is meant to be passed hand-to-hand from crafter to filmmaker to academic to students to teachers to leaders and back again. My wish is that it permeates and also loosens things up.’
Deep Lez is the volunteer, the workshop coordinator, the curator, the consumer, the first initiated and the instigator – anyone who gets intrigued by this bell-bottomed fat-assed catch all: whether they are dykes or not, they are still Deep Lez.
Signed in solidarity for new kind of sisterhood that isn’t based on gender and privilege and a new kind of brotherhood that isn’t based on rape and pillage.
What I think I appreciate most about Allyson Mitchell’s work is that it is inclusive, caring and funny – a trinity of adjectives not regularly found (yet much needed) within academia.
Now, a final critically important point in this pattern of negative affect that I am plotting is the word ‘femme.’ The term initially came to prominence in the queer community at the beginning of the twentieth century. The term femme is typically knotted to a second term, ‘butch’. Together these terms can be understood “as a set of sexual and emotional identities among lesbians. To give a general but oversimplified idea of what butch-femme entails, one might say that butches exhibit traditionally ‘masculine’ traits, while femmes embody ‘feminine’ ones” (Theophano, 2004).
My binding together of the terms femme and affect, creating the new term ‘femaffect’, is an original addition to existing theory within the fields of feminism and affect. By threading together, the prefix ‘fem’ —referring both to the word feminine, and to ‘butch/femme’ culture— to the word affect, I can more clearly suture together this form of cultural baggage, which is rooted in dominant heteropatriachal society and presents a very real problem to many creatives working with fiber in art. It is precisely the textile materials of craft that currently carry these negative affect. Fibers, like perfume, seemingly emit this affect. It is femaffect that triggers discriminatory effects.
Julia Serano’s writing allows me to further analyze the misguided rationales that lie behind such negative affects. A Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biophysics from Columbia University, Serano has authored a number of books on queer and trans identity (2007; 2011; 2013; 2016). Of particular interest to me in this research are her writings about effemimania, a term she first used in her book Whipping Girl. By joining the words effeminate and mania, Serano created effemimania to describe a particular form of misogyny. She describes the term as a word that denotes,
[…] societal obsession with critiquing and belittling feminine traits in males. […] Effemimania encourages those who are socialized male to mystify femininity and to dehumanize those who are considered feminine, and thus forms the foundation of virtually all male expressions of misogyny. Effemimania also ensures that any male’s manhood or masculinity can be brought into question at any moment for even the slightest perceived expression of, or association with, femininity (2007, p. 342).
Indeed, the notions of femaffect that I employ throughout this dissertation are very much guided by Serano’s effemimania.
Feminized Affects in Visual Art. I will now shift my focus from peer-reviewed papers and published interdisciplinary texts by influential thinkers, to the presented and reviewed visual art works by influential makers.
Ann Hamilton is a U.S. American artist best known for her textile-based installations and an excellent person to start with here. Her works are typically large in scale, and have been experienced by millions, in many of the world’s most prestigious art venues: New York’s Museum of Modern Art (1994); the Guggenheim Museum (2009); London’s Tate Gallery (1994) and contemporary art museums in France (Lyon, 1997) and Japan (Kumamoto, 2006) to name a few. Most recently, she created the show habitus, which ran at The Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia over the summer of 2016.
In a document accompanying her exhibition habitus, Hamilton writes compellingly of the distinction between simply typing text, and physically constructing it. Sampler sets are embroidered sections of broadcloth depicting the alphabet and numerals. Popular in Europe as early as the 1700s, sampler sets were considered a routine part of a woman’s training and preparation for household operation and maintenance, in addition to celebrating the caliber of that woman’s handwork skills. The affect of Hamilton’s decision to compare and contrast those things from our contemporary society which are “swift” (hasty) with those which are “material” (appreciable) is acute, and powerful—as though she could be comparing the head and the heart. She writes;
The time it takes to tap the keyboard to make an X on my screen is only a millisecond, the time to write less than a second, the time to stitch two or three times longer —not including the time to thread the needle and tie a knot. These marks are direct. Reading is swifter but less material (2016, pp. 4-5).
Text and textiles are alike; they are flexible, and possess equitable power and potential to communicate in a variety of manners. Among the ways in which Merriam-Webster online defines “text” is, “something (such as a story or movie) considered as an object to be examined, explicated, or deconstructed.” The second section of that entry expands on the term to say: “something likened to a text; the surfaces of daily life are texts to be explicated.” Hamilton in her work, invites viewers to see her text/ile installations for what they are: material texts. Her list of materials for the piece The Event of Thread includes “the Wade Thompson drill hall, 250’ x 150’ 11 steel trusses, 3,000,000 cubic feet of air, a white cloth, a field of swings bells and bellows, and a flock of pigeons”
Let us consider Indigo Blue, an installation of Ann Hamilton’s from Charleston, North Carolina that featured 14,000 thousand pounds of used, indigo-dyed (“blue collar”) work clothes (see fig. 6). Hamilton notes that we are rarely without the feel of cloth on our skin—that material is the “surface of daily life” (note her almost verbatim description of textiles, to that of the Merriam-Webster’s). Affectively, Hamilton employed text/iles to interpret the history of labour in South Carolina, which was America’s principal exporter of indigo to England ahead of the Civil War. She is charging her audience to read deeply—by connecting Indigo Blue to the history of slavery in the American South; and that history, to global trade more generally. Elena Phipps is an academic in the field of textiles and global culture. In her essay, “Global Colors: Dyes and the Dye Trade” (2013) from the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition Interwoven Globe, she writes that the growth of the indigo plant “was also intimately connected to the growth of slavery, which [..] supplied much of the labor force needed to grow the crop, especially in the Americas” (p. 128). Keenly aware of such unfavorable elements of Charleston’s history, Hamilton chose to deepen the narrative of Indigo Blue with an even more specific element. She installed it in an old garage, which was located on Pinckney Street. That street, in typical imperial fashion, was so named in recognition of Eliza Pinckney, the person responsible for bringing indigo to the city in 1744 while managing of her father’s plantation.
Figure 6. Installation of Indigo Blue (1991). Ann Hamilton.
It is particularly compelling with regards to this study that, as Hamilton’s work illustrates, narrative content can transfer seamlessly between textile and oral accounts, which precisely the intention regarding all of my practice-informed visual arts research works within this research. And though the goal today is for all artists to be free to choose fiber as an aesthetic in their art practice without works by women being singled out and feminize – effectively damaged – as a result of sexist impressions of women as subservient and lesser-then, precisely the femaffects, or “domesticated” and negative affects I seek to unravel. Heteropatriarchal thinking suggests that it remains women’s “nature” to undertake such labour, thus defining women’s historical ties to tedious industry labour since at least the time of Britain’s Industrial Revolution. However, prior to this period textile handwork was understood to be a highly skilled and prized trade. And though, as academics, we are left attempting to sort through the theoretically equivocal case of such narratives, it remains clear that the use of textiles as a material for art can be affectively powerful, particularly in the hands of gifted artists such Ann Hamilton.
Elaine Reichek is another a contemporary artist working in textiles and based in New York City. Particularly unique from Hamilton’s work is the requirement for her viewers to consider the textual elements in much of her needlework in tandem with their aesthetic qualities. A senior American artist, Reichek’s work has been effectively paralleled by theorists in such texts as The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine (Parker, 1984); by many younger artists, such as those featured in exhibitions such as Radical Lace and Subversive Knitting at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in 2007; and in the exhibition and accompanying catalogue for Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947-2016 at Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, Los Angeles, CA
A close read is required of Reichek’s outwardly traditional embroidered art piece, Sampler (The Ultimate) in order to properly recognize the subversive power of this work (see fig. 7). Reichek’s seemingly innocuous boarder, executed in a pseudo-common European-style aesthetic reads;
“The ultimate of Bauhaus ideals: The individual square. Talent is a square; genius is an absolute square”. Paul Westheim, critic, 1923; “Ornament is something that must be overcome”. Adolf Loos, architect 1898; “In the hands of the women weavers, my alphabet of forms for abstract paintings turned into fantasy[..] I promised myself that I would never [..] with my own hands weave a single thread.” Georg Muche, form master, Bauhaus weaving workshop; “The fundamental characteristic of female creativity is [..] ornamental liveliness.” Hans Hildebrandt, art historian, 1928. (Reichek, 1996)
Figure 7. Sampler (The Ultimate). (1996). Elaine Reichek. Hand embroidery on linen. 21.25 x 21.25 in. (54 x 54 cm).
Rozika Parker published her well-researched and incredibly influential feminist text, The Subversive Stitch, in 1984. In what is now a widely celebrated feminist text on the subject of art and making, Parker addresses women’s complex relationship with, and sexist education in, textiles. “the split between art and craft was reflected in the changes in art education from craft-based workshops to academies at precisely the same time – the eighteenth century – when an ideology of femininity as natural to women was evolving” (1984, p. 5). Parker dedicates an entire chapter to ‘the inculcation of femininity’ (p.82 – 109) meaning, importantly, the teaching of femininity through persistent instruction.
Let me stop here to reiterate a few points, (1) the history of femininity has been indoctrinated upon women and girls; (2) Raichel’s quotes in Sampler (The Ultimate) (See fig. 7), which reads “Ornament is something that must be overcome” and “The fundamental characteristic of female creativity is …ornamental liveliness,” and; (3) heteropatriarchal cultures of hypersexualization and body shaming. An acknowledgement of these three things alone should make clear the reasons why women continue to struggle in their attempts to break free from social convention—asserting their capacity for inventiveness and their fundamental human rights to just make it. To quote the newest feminist battle cry of 2017, as gifted by American senator Mitch McConnell: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”(Multiple craftivist examples in fig. 8.)
Figure 8. Screen capture of Google search “nevertheless she persisted + stitched”, conducted on May 31, 2017.
Many textile artists have undertaken similar social commentary in the North American and European contexts. British artist Cornelia Parker conceived of Magna Carta (Embroidered) in 2014 (fig. 9). It is a fascinating piece of socio-political contemporary art that exceeds thirteen meters (42.6 ft.) in length. It features a text-based embroidery design, equaled only in a North American context by Judy Chicago’s piece The Dinner Party (1979). Parker designed the piece to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Britain’s democratic charter of rights and freedoms, and created it with the help of over two hundred people in the year leading up to the octocentenary in 2015.
Visually potent and fraught with metaphor, the work is a hand-stitched copy—word for word, image for image—of the “magna carta” Wikipedia entry on June 15th, 2014, the 799th anniversary of the creation of the document in Britain (fig. 9). Parker asked prisoners, craftspeople, national public figures and celebrities to embroider a different section of text—certain pairings of which are particularly rich in symbolism. For example, many of the long-term prisoners who worked on the piece had never seen Wikipedia before. It was they who were invited to create the detailed body of the text, which describes the modern usages of that charter central to British democracy and liberty. Prisoners involved in this project are also credited by first name only, “Carl, Gary, Lee, Peter, Arun and more”. Parker’s having featured incarcerated males as embroiders, even if only by blunder, is meaningful and interesting.
Other details pertaining to affect and men’s involvement in this project require comment. Firstly, there was a certain prestige or gain, which was pre-factored into the embroiderers’ participation acceptance in this well-funded, high-profile project —something important that sets Parker’s project apart from most other embroidery projects. Specifically, the prisoners had the time, nothing to lose and everything to gain. Parker’s invitation to attempt some needlework in support of this project was likely a compelling prospect for the other male embroiderers for similar reasons (their access to “free time” notwithstanding). Included among them were: Clive Adrian Stafford Smith (a British civil rights attorney); Peter Gary Tatchell (a high-profile British human rights supporter); Christopher Le Brun (President of the Royal Academy of Arts); and Alan Charles Rusbridger (British journalist and former editor-in-chief of The Guardian newspaper.
It is reasonable to expect that, for many of the men from the latter group, it was their first stab at the technique of embroidery just as it was for the prisoners—one of whom reportedly noted “it was impossible to be angry when they were embroidering”. And yet, it is also safe to expect that any anxiety, which the men may have felt regarding public expectations for “quality” from their handiwork, was considerably lower than that of the women who participated. For, as common thinking suggests, all women know how to sew.
Figure 9. Magna Carta (An Embroidery), a 40 foot long embroidery of the Wikipedia article Magna Carta, conceived by Cornelia Parker, commissioned by the Ruskin School of Art, as exhibited at the British Library in connection with their Magna Carta exhibition, May to June 2015.
A large portion of the problem lies with popular media, which tends only to offer a single narrative – one that privileges the perspectives, likes, and imagery that is most pleasing to heterosexual cis gender white men. Most pop culture is rather devoid of representations of female autonomy. However, some artist such as the multi-national feminist performance band Chicks on Speed, and Canadian signer and performance artist Peaches (fig. 10. Portrait knit by artist Kate Just) are successfully challenging the singularity of these dominant narratives. Take for example the video that Peaches created along with actor Margaret Cho for her song ‘Dick in the Air’ (2006). In the video, the women dress up in pink and custard yellow, knit nude-male body suits, which they find discarded outside what appears to be a frat-house style residence. The two run around LA having ‘sword fights’ (see fig. 11), ‘flash’ an unsuspecting woman, pretending to urinate outside a club, and generally reimaging sexist and/or otherwise ‘macho’ scenes from many of the rock, rap, and RnB videos that the public regularly consumes.
Figure 10. Feminist Fan #41- The Teaches of Peaches (2017). Kate Just. Hand knitted wool and acrylic yarns, timber, canvas. 18 x 14 in.
Peaches’ work is pertinent to for a number of reasons relative to this research. First, that she generally disrupts and destabilizes the public’s preexisting stereotypes around gender, sexuality, and dis/ability by resisting notions of different body configurations as deviant – challenging essentialist, binary notions of gender and male/female bodies. Choosing to wear what appears to be ultra-soft, pastel coloured knit bodysuits for ‘Dick in the Air’ (see fig. 11). a & b) was likely not accidental and supports my assertion of the dominant and negative affect that remains ‘stuck’ to women in relations to both ‘softness’ and textiles. Secondly, it is important that Peaches is using creativity as a main weapon to disrupt – to literally reshape – such femaffects. This point is taken up by German based academic Miriam Strube as she writes;
[..] when trying to break away from oppressing stereotypes, including sexual stereotypes, it is not merely critical reflection but the imagination that is of the greatest importance. The imagination has the function of associating various images, both images coming from memory (that is individual and collective memory) and images of reality. But the imagination can go beyond these images in rearranging them in new ways, in creatively combining images from different areas. The imagination, therefore, has the potential of using past and present of hinting towards different, possibly less stereotyped and less oppressive future. To make it very clear: The imagination is a relational capacity, and artist [..] have used their imagination by taking up academic, political, and musical texts in order to create subversive images, performances and lyrics that go beyond the heterosexist and normative mainstream. (2004, p.2)
Figure 11. a & b. Still (screen shots) from the video ‘Dick in the Air’, (2016) Peaches [00:00:34] (top. a), [00:00:48] (bottom. b).
For sure men can, and should, categorically speaking, have available to them any and all textile materials that they desire in making art. I say this emphatically. Otherwise it would be meaningless to contend as I do, that fiber-art materials should be recognized as such, art materials, capable of grappling creatively – and economically speaking – with subjects equally, as paint, wood and metal do.
(Danielle Hogan, PhD, 2017)
*This dissertation will soon be published in full and available for purchase through book distributors.