My interest in women's needlework, and especially quilts, began with a course I team-taught several years ago on women's art and literature. Because those of us teaching the course were concerned to break down class and race barriers, and distinctions between "high" and "low" art, or crafts, as well as distinctions between art and work, we were especially interested in women's needlework, as a form of activity that is universal--not confined to any one class or race--and that has combined the practical with the esthetic or artistic. It has always been necessary for women to sew, and, wherever and whenever extra time and energy have allowed, sewing has become "esthetic," in the sense of giving expression to an artistic impulse, providing its practitioners with an outlet for their creativity. Often this has been a creativity which, as Alice Walker has eloquently discussed in her article, "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens," (1) a patriarchal society has officially stifled: for instance, by denying literacy to slaves and to many women. It is a creativity which might then erupt in the making of gardens, or blues songs, or quilts, such as the one she describes hanging in the Smithsonian Museum, made one hundred years ago by an anonymous black woman in Alabama: "an artist who left her mark in the only materials she could afford, and in the only medium her position in society allowed her to use."
Many quilts today do hang in museums, and not just in historical museums such as the Smithsonian, but in art museums--the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Chicago Art Institute, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. And quilts are being avidly collected by many individuals. Quilts, as well as other forms of needlework, have achieved a status of some respectability in the art world. There was a major quilt exhibit at the Whitney in 1971, which travelled to the Louvre the following year, and other museums throughout the country have also mounted exhibits.
Such interest and exposure have led to some rethinking of what is, and what should be, contained within the official definition or canon of fine art; more specifically, of what is, or what should be, the relation of what we commonly call "high" art to what have been regarded as minor forms of visual expression. The dividing line between creating with paints on canvas and creating with fibers has to some extent broken down in the twentieth century, ever since early-century collage began to incorporate bits of paper and cloth into the painted surface. In more recent decades weaving, knotting and crocheting have been used to create art works, such as wall hangings, fabric collages, soft sculptures, and the "art fabric"--a piece of fabric created with the sole intention of being a work of art.
Insofar as these new developments have made the definition of serious visual art more all-encompassing, we have a more hospitable context for the quilt, and possibly for some other working-class art products as well. But in practice such receptivity can also result in distortion, if the effort is merely to accommodate the newly-defined art product, such as the quilt, to preexisting or currently prevailing standards of high art: to judge the style known as the "stuffed quilt," with its highly textured surface, for example, merely in terms of the subtle play of light and shadow or in terms of three dimensional form; or to judge an Amish (Pennsylvania Dutch) quilt, with its broad, bold, horizontal and vertical blocks and bands of simplified, solid color, in terms of a modern abstract painting.
Since pure geometric forms, abstract designs, contrasts of light and shadow, line rhythms, and both startling and harmonious combinations of color do have appeal, do give sheer visual pleasure, and can be evaluated by certain esthetic criteria, quilts most certainly qualify as art and can and should be appreciated and enjoyed as art. In many cases they represent an extraordinarily sophisticated art, of an intricacy, complexity and subtlety that bear comparison with much "high art" painting. Some quilts have rightly been called "quilt paintings." (2)
However, to think of them only or primarily as, or in relation to, paintings, is to run the risk of eventually seeing...