Ranting and Rolling

I could be setting myself up for a lot of comments about how shallow my thinking is and how I completely misunderstand elementary philosophy, but here goes...

A comment from Drucilla Pettibone on my enthusiasm over Betsy Greer's ideas a few posts back really got me thinking. We had been talking about the "baggage" art carries and Drucilla wondered what sort of baggage might be laden upon the shoulders of craft. Of course, any creative endeavour has all kinds of historical, cultural, ideological and philosophical weight attached, so I set the back burner of my brain cooking on this topic and here is what I have arrived at.

Endless amounts of discussion have arisen during the last half century or more on the division between art and craft, with craft often being considered the poor cousin of art. Various theories have been offered as to why this might be, with gender politics being the leading culprit, at least when I was in art school back in the 80's. Rozsika Parker's The Subversive Stitch was our text. The general opinion seemed to be that as women were devalued, so was their creative work, which primarily fell into the region of craft. A significant artwork examining why craft was marginalized, along with the women who made craft, was Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party.

The Dinner Party happened to be in Toronto in 1980, at the same time I lived there, but I never went to see it, even though I had a friend who worked at the AGO and who could get me in for free. I was put off by the hoopla surrounding the installation, and the "artstar" behaviour that my friend said that Chicago had exhibited towards the gallery's staff. And I, being young and not well attuned to feminist thought, felt that the images I saw of the work, particularly the plates were a little, well, unsubtle. So I missed my chance.

But last year I picked up a copy of Embroidering our Heritage: The Dinner Party Needlework at the local Free Store. I figured I owed it to my own work to at least be familiar with such an iconic piece of art, which The Dinner Party has come to be. But I still didn't read it until just recently. I was amazed at the whole project and particularly impressed with the quality of the needlework (39 embroidered runners and three altar cloths) that were created by unpaid volunteers, often art students who were unskilled in embroidery to start with. (Much controversy was created by Chicago's supposed treatment of her workers, who were mainly uncredited. Perhaps this book is an attempt to correct that, but I still came away with the idea that Chicago had a pretty overwhelming ego. The workers are listed in a small chapter at the back.)

My point, which I do have somewhere, began to formulate after reading the part of the process where the workers, after spending hundreds of hours of volunteer time creating really magnificent embroidery, had to cut HOLES in the runners to accommodate the bolts that would securely attach the plates to the tables. (Theft and security issues take priority over the integrity of the object.) Apparently this was quite traumatizing to the workers, but Chicago says that "in typical Dinner Party fashion, everyone became involved to make the slits as attractive as possible, even though they knew that they'd never be seen."

What I see here is the subordination of craft to the greater glory of art. And hence the voluminous baggage. Chicago knew early enough on that the plates would need to be secured, and could have designed the runners so that the holes were included. The workers saw cutting into their embroidered cloth as a violation - and I see it not just as invalidating their time and skill and ruining the integrity of the cloth, but as fundamentally shifting the role of the cloth from a functional, stand-alone object to becoming a representation of itself to serve a larger purpose.

And here I defer to Philosophy 101, and Plato's Cave. Plato describes a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them, and begin to ascribe forms to these shadows. According to Socrates, the shadows are as close as the prisoners get to viewing reality. He then explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall are not constitutive of reality at all, as he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the mere shadows seen by the prisoners.

In the Dinner Party, I suggest that the embroidered runners held their true form until the moment a hole was cut in them, and they then became a representation, a shadow. Of course this is part of the baggage art has been struggling with since Plato's time, of how to be "real."

Craft, I believe, is inherently real. It is made with our hands, and has purpose in our lives, as of course does art. But craft begins and ends as itself, whereas art functions in a more ephemeral way. This is not to say that craft cannot transcend boundaries, because of course it can. But it doesn't have to.


  1. I think you make a lot of very interesting points in your post, not the least of which is the idea of the shift from true form to representation/shadow.

    In my own case, I think sometimes the shift happens in the exact opposite direction, from representation/shadow to true form. It happens this way: When I make something, particularly an embroidered something, it is only a representation/shadow until it is used. When it is used, it attains its true self. When I give an embroidered gift, I want to see it used, to fulfill its purpose. Nothing makes me sadder than to see my gift unused.

    To me, craft is not precious. (Neither is art, but that's another discussion!) That's what makes it so wonderfully satisfying: To see my embroidered works, my pots and such, put to use. Without their being used, they're only shadows of themselves.

    Wonderful posting! It gave me lots to think about!

  2. one aspects of craft that makes it truly more REAL is that people encounter craft in their everyday lives, where as many many people have so many opinions, prejudices and the kike kind of baggage about "art" that they don't go to see it, or encounter it. I met a woman just now that said to me that she admires people who make and do things because they feed her culture that she can't make herself, because she felt that she wasn't "creative" herself. I pointed out that she had 6 kids. Yet another example of the awesome creative power of women that isn't honored for what it is! By the way: the word verification I have to type to post this comment is the phonetic Japanese word for "tasty"

  3. I always sensed a violent undertone or hostility to this well known exhibit and now hearing that about the rips and the bolts evokes a sense of hostility even more. Great post!

  4. Very, very interesting.
    I didn't know about the 'Dinner party', what an amazing production.
    And I love the analogy with Plato's cave and shadows, can you believe that I studied it a school but at the time I didn't understand the meaning?
    I have always been fascinated by the so-called minor arts which, in my opinion, in many instances have nothing of 'minor' and very much of 'art'.
    When craft is made with great skill and applied to an idea that can be new, innovative or that anyway can give a deep emotion, then craft, I think, becomes art. An example for me is the work of Barbara Setsu Picket: she is a velvet handweaver who transforms her inspiration in beautiful artpieces (you may remember that I posted about her on my blog, last August).
    A fine craftwoman, yes, but also an artist.

  5. Heather, a well said post. I never knew this about the holes and it uneasily makes me think of art raping craft (or vice versa depending on your viewpoint as to what this piece is, woman raping woman, demagogue violating community:to create something so intricate and detailed and then have to cut it to "accommodate" hard intrusions especially after the fact that Chicago knew this would have to be done reeks to me of ownership "you put your talent and sweat in, but i own it and can destory/alter/own as i please"

  6. Rosa, I like when you say that what you make doesn't seem real until it is used, especially when it is a gift. Could there be an aspect of usefulness or function in an object that is a kind of connecting energy between maker and recipient? Thanks for adding to this discussion in such a thoughtful and interesting way.
    K., I was also thinking about how art therapy is founded on the belief that making things is healing and life-affirming, which I'm assuming is something you are very familiar with. Can you imagine asking a client to cut holes in their work? Not that the embroiderers of the Dinner Party were doing it for therapy, but they were participating for personal reasons that held deep meaning and I'm sure identified with the work.

  7. And thank you too, Gretchen, Arachne and Arlee. This is a juicy topic and I really appreciate your insights.

    Although I can't say that I approve of her methods, there is no doubt that The Dinner Party is a significant work of art. Judy Chicago conceived and designed the exhibit, down to the last detail. That she didn't actually create it in physical reality doesn't matter from an art perspective. But I think I would have a whole lot more respect for her if she had made it as well.

  8. Anonymous6:43 AM

    Hello Heather,

    I read your post about The Dinner Party yesterday and have been mulling over it since. I don't know if I follow the use of Plato's parable about the cave and the ideal forms. I'm not very philosophical. The account of how Judy Chicago made her assistants cut slits in the embroidered runner and creating quite a bit of anxiety for them is a wonderful comment on gap between the attitudes of the Artist (note the capital A) and the craftsperson (Craftsperson?).

    Your post motivated me to look for a bit of information about Judy. I found her website and read her cv. Well, it is impressive. She looks like a genuine trailblazer, helping to set up one of the first feminist studies programs at UCLA . And The Dinner Party was significant. I remember how excited my female art profs were in the early 80's when they spoke about it.

    I think Judy Chicago did what many artistic trailblazers have done. Like Picasso, who co-opted African mask and sculpture forms to help create cubism, Judy Chicago co-opted existing artistic practices that had been previously relegated to second class status, or even worse, not even considered worthy of being called Art. The practices she co-opted were crafts generally associated with women, for example embroidery and china painting. By using these crafts in a monumental art piece she is showing that they too can make grand statements. However, this does not mean that judy Chicago is a craftsperson and maintains the attitudes of the craftsperson. I think she is still a very academic sort of Artist and as such, probably felt no pain in asking her assistants to destroy part of their hard craftwork by cutting slits into the embroidered runners. Just because she used craft, or to be precise, had others use craft, to make The Dinner party doesn't mean she is a craftsperson. She was thinking about breaking down barriers, not about respecting craftwork. Does that make sense?

    Thanks again for a good think. Jean-Pierre

  9. Thanks J.-P. for sharing your insight. It's no wonder there is such ongoing debate about art and craft. I wonder if in fact it's our language that is limited, or our desire to catagorize and label. In Japan, where there is such depth of culture, is there the same kind of debate. How are art and craft distinguished from each other? Is there a two tier hierarchy where one is valued more than others? Are women's skills less valued than men's?

  10. Think of it this way. What if a really amazing basket weaver came along and cut up, well maybe not the Mona Lisa, but perhaps Andrew Wyeth's Christina, into strips and wove a beautiful basket from it? I think that would be a pretty cool concept, but to actually do it? Hmmmn.

  11. Heather, I once attended an art therapy workshop with an art therapist who works with criminals, many of whom had raped people. He would have the criminals work for about an hour on a piece of art, walking them through it step by step, with music. Then near the end he would ask them to close their eyes and go around the table and rip or deface their art. When the criminals opened their eyes many of them (the ones who had empathy in them) would get very upset. This feeling of violation, he told them, is only an inkling of how you violated another person. Wow. I should say that he was very very good at what he did and then they processed for another 45 minutes or so. I agree that violence and art seem counter-intuitive.

  12. Interesting that you bring up Japan and Japanese artists. There are very, very few women who are as respected as craftspersons (craftsmen?) as there are men. If you look at Japan's list of living national treasures, in pottery there are zero women. There are a few women in textiles, maybe 40%? One of nine in laquerware. None in metalwork, woodwork, papermaking. And on and on.

    Oddly, Yoko Ono did the equivalent of cutting up a a Wyeth painting to weave a basket a few years back, when she purchased and smashed a Ming Dynasty vase as an art performance.

    She's one of my heroes, by the way. The next time you're in Tokyo, you might check out the Lennon museum which features a lot of her art work. Some of it is very, very good.

  13. Anonymous3:41 AM

    Hi again Heather,

    you asked some questions about art and craft in Japan. Maybe the divisions are related to language.

    I have read that until the late Edo period, before Japan was opened up to the West around 1860, there were no words to distinguish arts we would call crafts (weaving, pottery, lacquer ware, paper making) and fine arts such as painting, sculpture and calligraphy. When Japan decided to re-invent itself by learning from the West they created new words to separate these artistic mediums. Fine art became bijitsu and more craft like activities became kogei. Later, Soetsu Yanagi (developer of the folk-craft movement in Japan around 1910) coined the word, mingei, for the the handmade objects that were parts of the daily life of people.

    So, several categories were created but from what I can see I'd have to say that any object created by hand in Japan is recognized as something to be valued. Weavers and potters can become Living National Treasures, the highest honour that the government can give an artist.

    Is there gender separation in the arts? Well, it seems like there is. Most of the potters I've met are men. I have met some women potters but I think the most famous ones are all men. Weaving and dyeing isn't exclusively a woman's territory but it is traditional for women to outnumber men there. Although, the most famous knitter in Japan is a man.

    To conclude, on the whole I would say that any artistic/creative activity in Japan, including those we call crafts in the West, demands a great deal of respect.

  14. Anonymous nowaks nähkästchen said...

    Thank you for your comment.

    How did you know that your blog made me think a lot over the last days? I did not dare to leave a comment because I have the feeling, that I do not have anything to add to the question what is art and what is craft.
    For myself I am sure that I am a crafter. Not an artist.

    (Though of course I sometimes see craft which I'd call art and even more often I see things labled as "art" which I spontaneously would lable as "craft". Because they lack the special something that goes beyond. But difficult to say, where the border is. I am not an artist, so luckily I don't have to know. ;) )

  15. This is a thought provoking post about a monumental and important piece of artwork.

    I heard Judy Chicago speak two years ago. I was impressed how her personal aim was to make it into the art history books - and with this piece, she did.

    Look at the classic art history texts and until very recently, Judy Chicago's dinner party was the only one that was made by a) a woman and b) with embroidery and cermaics.

    Things have changed a lot since and I expect that our daughters will have the ability to create ART with any media they choose, encluding those that are so domestic.

    As far as the holes in the embroidery, I did not know that before, and am offended. I have always been offended that Chicago was able to take so much credit for work that she did not actually DO, but that is something else, and is part of a bigger story. What about Andy Warhol and his factory?

    What makes me really upset re: embroidery not being honoured is how for decades women have poured their time and creativity into embroidered domestic textiles and then lain them on the table to be stained and ruined with wine and candle wax and no one thought anything about it. That makes me furious.

    Excellent post.

  16. Thanks so much Judy. It must have been quite an experience to hear Judy Chicago speak.
    And yes, domestic linens being ruined by wine spills and candle wax is infuriating, but it is also so sad to see beautiful linens that were never used, probably out of fear that they would be ruined. Some say that the value of the process of creating is worth more than the final product, maybe it is an individual experience.


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