When is Fiber Art "Art"?
What are the criteria for evaluating art? How does one tell good art from bad art? Contributing editor and art critic Janet Koplos shares her thoughts on the subject of art criticism.
Every article and review in this magazine was preceded by an initial judgment of whether the art work was "good," thereby influencing the writer's desire to write about it. But how was that judgment made? How do we decide whether a work of fiber is "good?"
These are very difficult questions, because usually the judgments are intuitive, made without deliberate steps of reasoning and, especially, without verbalizing. Let's try to put the process into words. The two underlying questions about any work are: What makes this unique? What gives this value?
Within the range of aesthetic creations falls everything in this world that isn't purely functional, as a machine. Aesthetic creations range from potholders and doilies to liturgical hangings to the abstract and sculptural art of contemporary fiber artists. How do we encompass such varied things? We don't. Instead, we narrow the field and don't include potholders or works that merely follow patterns without doing anything more. Such works may be "good" for their class, but we judge them not appropriate for serious consideration as art.
People have been arguing about what art is since the days of Classical Greece and no complete definition has ever been established. Among the factors that seem to define art today are: originality, an ability to communicate an idea or emotion or some sort of message, a transcendence of the literal, and a quality of mystery or multivalence. Art involves some personal expression by the maker, as well as expressive choices that are not simply arbitrary, but have some explainable meaning. Art is not just a concrete object; rather, it operates on a metaphoric level—the concrete object refers to other things, and the personal idea or image suggests a universal that can be shared. Art is never a simple or obvious statement; instead, there is always a depth to it that holds our interest and allows the art work to be reinterpreted over time.
Art is public expression and is subject to measurement by critical reviewing. Reviewers are simply seriously interested individuals with some talent for verbal expression, whose judgments provide starting points for further discussion and understanding. Reviewing presumes that the work has a purpose as "art"; it is not the same as writing about techniques, the artist's lifestyle, or the business of creating textiles. Those are interesting topics, but have nothing to do with art.
Reviewers appraise works according to physical factors such as form, relationship of surface to form, composition, style, materials, and techniques. But intangible factors, such as ideas or theories, originality, feelings, presence, transcendence, and impact, demand more reflection. Reviewers must judge subjectively, because all they can be sure of is their own reaction, but they are ethically required to have reasons for their judgments.
The foundation of any art work is knowledge of material and technique, and a wish to communicate something visually. Visual communication is common to every art form, but materials and techniques differ. When fiber work fails as art, the explanation is usually too much reliance on material or technique to carry the work, banal content or no content (decorativeness or formalism), or too personal a content. There is nothing inherently wrong with formalism or privateness—decorative works give visual pleasure and purely personal works can have psychological importance to the maker.
Good art, however, is broader. For the past 20[IWP style would be to spell out twenty] years or so, the whole of the crafts field has uniformly clamored to be considered as art. Too many people are asking for the rewards without the responsibilities; they want to be granted the status of artists without being subject to the demanding kind of thinking that is necessary for art, or to the challenging criticism that it always faces.
Art is an intellectual activity and the best work in fiber has thoughts or observations or emotions behind it. While there may not be any new ideas, there are as many ways of expressing an idea as there are individual human beings. What makes an art work new is the strength, assurance, and depth of the expression of the maker, who communicates to those of us who take the trouble to look carefully.
While art resultsfrom technique and materials, fiber is often sidetracked by these aspects of its craft history. Materials and technique are fit subject matter for art criticism only for identification or when they make a symbolic contribution to the work's meaning. "Exploring the nature of the material," which was a catch phrase for the 1960s and 1970s, can now be seen as an immature approach. A more profound approach would be, for example, to let the limitations of the material symbolize certain limitations in life. In other words, the nature of the material is used to express something beyond the nature of the material.
Technique, we must remember, is only a means to an end and while demonstrations of technical skill impress all of us, they measure craft. It is also important to remember that time and effort are not equivalent to artistic worth; they have to do with labor, not aesthetics.
It is a fact of life that art is presumed to be painting until proven otherwise and the question "Why use fiber?" is an inevitable challenge. Fiber artists must know where their works stand in relationship to the dominant art form, but should also remember that the dominant form is not necessarily right, and that copying is a dead end.
This categorizing is not meant to imply that art is the only worthwhile form of visual aesthetic activity. But all work in fiber is not art, and within art there is good work and poor work. Every artist who makes an object for public view must risk categorization and critical evaluation.
© 1986 Janet Koplos. Reprinted from Fiberarts, March/April 1986, with permission from the author.
Susan Brandeis offers suggestions on how to start and maintain a critique group.
Steve Aimone describes the artist contract he uses with workshop participants.
Helen Davis shares a handout of trigger words she uses for stimulating discussion in her critiques.
Tom Lundberg offers a suggested reading list related to evaluating art.
In our April/May 2005 issue, Colorado State University fibers professor Tom Lundberg included this article in his suggested reading list of resources he has found useful related to interpreting and critiquing art.