Traditional quilts are judged on precise craftsmanship, pleasing design and color, and a neatly finished presentation. But how do you respond to a quilt that clearly is not concerned with matched corners or stitches per inch, that is not intended to be flat or pretty or follow any of the "rules"? Holding non-traditional quilts to standards to which their creators are not aspiring is unreasonable. To dismiss them as "not quilts" is irrational.
There are practical and theoretical differences between the traditionalists and those who push the boundaries with their quilt art. Exploration of a concept or idea is a distinctly different way of working from the traditional approach to the craft. But what the medium is used for is not the issue; the issue is how to speak about the work in a way that honors the creative efforts evident in the entire spectrum of quilt making. This can be done by using the language of aesthetics and criticism.
We can look at a quilt and decide whether we "like" it, but do we understand what we are reacting to and why? All of us have personal preferences, which are always valid and require no defense. But even if we do not "like" a quilt, its aesthetic qualities can be appreciated.
An aesthetic approach to viewing quilts is the result of education and experience. We must draw on a working knowledge of art, design, and craft as we look at a new work. As our art appreciation skills increase we will respond more deeply to all the quilts we see. As we develop a trained eye, we see in a new way.
Most of us are comfortable discussing quilts in terms of the techniques employed. Classes and books help us understand and use the language of design so we are better able to talk about the structure and interaction of the components of quilts. In addition we would like to talk about the meaning or intention of the work and the feeling or emotive power it elicits. It helps in understanding if we also know something about the maker’s work in terms of context, philosophy, style, and process. All this "talk about art" adds up to the critical process or criticism.
The critical process may be broken down into four basic steps:
Describe — Design elements include line, shape, color, texture, positive and negative space, dark and light. Use the language of design to describe these formal elements.
Analyze — Look at balance, proportion, rhythm, and emphasis. Focusing on design principles, analyze the composition. How is it put together? Define the kinds and qualities of the formal elements. In these first two categories try to get at what you see, not what you think.
Interpret — Consider meaning, purpose, intention, motivation, and context by looking beyond the visual. Why might these compositional elements have been chosen? What do you think the maker is trying to achieve? You might want to learn about or talk with the artist.
Respond — Tell what you see and feel. Use critical and design vocabulary to describe how you arrived at your response and defend your position. We must not shy away from critical evaluation. It is an integral part of the creative process. Making and viewing are only two of the ways to relate to the work. It is equally important to communicate with and about the piece.
Beginning attempts at critical dialog may be awkward, but with time and practice it becomes easier. As we become more sensitive to the nuances in the work several things begin to happen; we get a glimpse of how others see the world, we increase our knowledge of design and technique, we learn to pay attention to why as well as what is attracting us and how the connections are made.
Occasionally, in a group of peers or if we have been invited to the artist’s studio, we may be privileged to view "newborn" work. It is important to acknowledge the honor of viewing a work at this time when the maker may feel vulnerable. The process of deciphering personal iconography or unconscious, intuitive processes may not be complete. Until an artist has developed a personal and relational context, she may have difficulty discussing or even understanding her own work.
When we can dialog about the work in terms of what we see and what thoughts and feelings it elicits both the viewer and the maker may gain some measure of understanding about what is being communicated. And ultimately that is what all art is about -- communication and connection.
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