Examining the use of Domestic Crafts as Fine Art
1, 409 words
FND Art & Design
This text is concerned with examining the role of traditional craft skills within a concept driven fine art context. It intends to explore the ways in which female practitioners have deliberately employed media with pre-existing connotations and associations with feminine domestic roles to communicate political and personal concepts.
In John Berger’s 1972 documentary, Ways of Seeing, he discusses the concept of image as communication. He explains that a viewer’s interpretation of an image is reliant upon their pre-existing “knowledge, experiences and beliefs.”(Berger, 1972) It can be argued that most artists deliberately manipulate the viewers’ interpretation by taking advantage of this aspect of observation, in order to convey their message.
The work of the artists mentioned in this text often relies upon the viewer already understanding the historical associations of crafts such as embroidery, quilting, tapestry or pottery. Only when this knowledge is held is the intended irony and contrast from the appropriation effectively conveyed.
By presenting the following critical examples this text intends to analyse the effectiveness of the reclamation of what may be described as ‘domestic’ or ‘feminine’ crafts.
A name that appears again and again, both in relation to feminist art and the decorative and craft movement, is Judy Chicago. Her momentous installation The Dinner Party (1974-9) is now a permanent work at The Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation for Feminist Art, which opened in 2007. The Dinner Party consists of a large triangular dinner table, laid with tablecloths and ornately embroidered runners, set with 39 individually sculpted and painted porcelain dishes. The names of another 999 women are inscribed in gold on the white tile floor below, itself titled The Heritage Floor.
Chicago’s aim was to rectify the omissions of these women and their achievements from previously male-oriented records of history. Created in the 1970’s, at a time when women’s liberation was gaining wider support, The Dinner Party sought to educate and inspire by creating a momentous record of important women, of all cultures, throughout history. A dinner party is an occasion usually held to honour or celebrate its guests and it would appear that the purpose of this one was to mark the important contributions to society made by these 1,038 women. There is a certain sense of irony in The Dinner Party, in that cooking and serving food had long been regarded as the role of a woman, yet in this instance they are the honoured guests. Even the metaphorical ‘servants’ to the success of these women are acknowledged, their names laid in gold in the floor, itself a symbol of support as the tables stand upon it. Viewers could compare this table and that depicted in Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper; Chicago herself described her piece as “a reinterpretation of The Last Supper from point of view of those who’ve done the cooking throughout history.” (Chicago, 2014)
The media used were chosen to act as strong aspect of its message. Firstly they are essential components of any dinner party. But more profoundly relating to the fact that they are crafts traditionally produced by women. This appropriation does not appear to be a subversion, rather a celebration. The use of ceramics and embroidery, crafts traditionally associated with women, act as a dedication to their combined history and the artist’s effort to show them the appreciation she felt they had long deserved. The viewer may also consider it a nod to the tradition of these skills being passed on from mothers to daughters. Ironically Chicago had to outsource much of the ceramic and textile work as she had avoided these practices during her own arts education “because the technique[s were] viewed as craft in the painting and sculpture departments.” (Chicago, 2014).
By choosing to use these methods within her work Chicago was both subverting and celebrating her identity as a female artist. Her use of ceramic and textile arts could have confined her work to be defined, in a derogatory sense, as ‘women’s art’ yet the concept was concerned with correcting the under-representation of the essential roles of women through history and to argue the case for gender equality.
Twenty years later, the now infamous Tracey Emin began to receive attention for her auto-biographical work. Much of this work used textile techniques such as applique, quilting and embroidery. An early example, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With (1963-93), consisted of a tent appliqued with the names of every person the artist had ever shared a bed with. White Cube Gallery, her representatives at the time, states: “To view the work, the audience had to crawl inside, becoming voyeur and confidante at the same time.” A later example of textile work is the tapestry
I Do Not Expect… (2002), which states: “I do not expect to be a mother but I do expect to die alone”. This refers to her status as a single, middle-aged woman and could be perceived as a statement of regret when considered alongside earlier works dealing with the artist’s unplanned pregnancies and resulting abortions.
Her work is unflinchingly honest, sharing uncensored records of her innermost thoughts and most traumatic experiences. The confessions are unsentimental despite their sensitive nature, demonstrating Emin’s willingness to experiment with the nature of self-portraiture and narrative. Recurring themes are love, desire, longing, depression, her relationship with her body, her promiscuity and experiences of abortion; then, later in life, her musings on childlessness and the dwindling of sexual connections. Many of these subjects could even now be argued as being shameful for women to acknowledge. Her choice of words is often blunt or crude, something viewers may also consider to be ‘un-ladylike’. Her choice of a medium long associated with “genteel Victorian women” could be interpreted as a tongue-in-cheek appropriation or an unapologetic statement of her femininity. Both the content and scruffy execution is uniquely individual and immediately recognisable as her own style. This is another contrast to the tradition of domestic crafts such as embroidery which generally had patterns and styles that women were expected to follow.
From investigating the work of artists such as Chicago and Emin and the ideas that have informed their work it could easily be concluded that the tension present between content and craft was a deliberate choice, intended to deliver the message that these women were not content with the restrictions of convention. “That’s why I use a lot of embroidery […] I take this craft but I don’t treat it like a craft, but like high art.” (Emin, 2010). While Chicago’s work was concerned with rectifying society’s under-appreciation of women’s achievements, Emin’s work takes a more personal perspective. In a seminal work on the subject of women and textiles in fine art, “The Subversive Stitch”, author Rozsika Parker observes: “Nineteen-seventies feminists eschewed celebrity and leadership in favour of collectivity, whereas Tracey Emin is undoubtedly a celebrity.” (Parker, 2010)
The Dinner Party broke the convention of male dominated history. Emin bucked expectations of demure ‘lady-like’ behaviour by presenting both artwork and a public persona that was “Glorious shamelessness [with her] taboo breaking.” (Parker, 2010)
Chicago transformed the viewpoint of domestic crafts from private to political activism. Emin stepped towards the universal.
Both artists appropriation of feminine crafts, long associated with humility, daintiness and silence, pushed the boundaries between private, personal and public.
The popularity of Emin’s work has certainly proven that expressing a woman’s viewpoint does not necessarily prevent success. This is progress compared to Chicago’s comment that early in her career she avoided even making it obvious that she was a woman: “[I had to make] efforts to excise any hint of gender from my art in order to be taken seriously as an artist.” (Chicago, 2014)  The work of Emin, Chicago and that of countless contemporary textile and fibre artists, should be regarded as essential progression and a relevant modernisation of an ancient craft.
In an article published on the website of Caitlin Moran, a well-known feminist journalist and author, a passionate craftswoman and blog writer Laura PJ sums up this progress:
“The perceived taint of these traditional domestic associations has yet to completely fade. The difference, however, is the all-important element of choice. On the whole, women no longer partake in these activities because they must, or even because it is expected of them. They do so because they choose to. Indeed, not only does such a choice no longer conform to societal expectations of women, rather it runs counter to them.” (PJ, 2012)
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Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party (1974-9). Ceramic, porcelain, textile, 576 x 576 in. (1463 x 1463 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of The Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation, 2002.10. Copyright Judy Chicago. Photo: Donald Woodman
Judy Chicago (American, b. 1939). The Dinner Party (Theodora place setting), 1974–79. Mixed media: ceramic, porcelain, textile. Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation, 2002.10. © Judy Chicago. Photograph by Jook Leung Photography
Tracey Emin: I do not expect, 2002, appliquéd blanket, 104 by 72 3/4 inches. All works this article © DACS, London/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Tracey Emin, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963 – 1995. (1995) Appliquéd tent, mattress and light 122 x 245 x 214 cm. Destroyed.