My eyes lit up awhile back when I saw an article written by Julia Halperin in The New York Times entitled, “Fiber Art Is Finally Being Taken Seriously.” As a fiber artist, I was thrilled the medium was getting recognition as art from a widely circulated and well reputed newspaper.
From the earliest recorded history of civilization, the use of natural fibers to create textiles for utilitarian purposes (e.g., clothing and bedding) has been fundamental to the human experience. Textiles as art came into prominence in the Middle Ages and Renaissance when fabrics took on a decorative, aesthetic purpose (i.e., weaving and tapestries).
Introduced into the vernacular around the time of World War II, the term fiber art is defined, according to Wikipedia, as fine art whose materials consist of plant, animal or synthetic fibers, and which prioritizes artistic expression and aesthetic value over utility. There is some dispute in the literature, though, about using “utility”, or the lack thereof, to separate art from craft. In her article, Halperin describes the early 20th century as a time when minimalist artists embraced commercial fabrication and mundane materials to challenge long-held assumptions about art objects. For example, the Bauhaus school, founded in Germany in 1919, made no special distinction between applied and fine arts, having as its core objective the unification of the arts through craft. The materials and the artist’s manual labor were part of the work’s significance. Alexandra Griffith Winton in her essay for The Met describes the Bauhaus curriculum as an effort to eliminate the divide between art and craft by combining the elements of both. Students enrolling at Bauhaus were required to take a preliminary course in the study of materials, color theory, and formal relationships between elements. The course was often taught by well recognized visual artists of the time, like Paul Klee, Vasily Kandinsky, and Josef Albers. From there, students continued their studies in specialized workshops (metalwork, furniture, cabinet making, weaving, pottery, typography, and painting) taught by accomplished artisans in each medium. Specialization was dependent on gender. Both Griffith Winton and Halperin point out that Anni Albers, later to become recognized as a prominent textile artist, recalled being less than thrilled to enroll in a weaving course at Bauhaus in 1923 as the classes in painting and stained glass were open only to men. As Halperin observes, “the [historical] hierarchy placing art above craft—and intuition above skill—is gendered and archaic.”
My excitement about Halperin’s article, in part, was born out of my curiosity with the ever-present debate on whether using fiber for creative expression is recognized as art or craft. As we know, there are defenders on both sides. Elissa Auther (“String, Felt, Thread”, 2009; see video here) traced the differentiation between art and craft back to the Renaissance when painting and sculpture became associated with liberal arts like music and poetry rather than with “mechanical” arts like weaving and blacksmithing. This distinction lingers today, with a few exceptions.
Fiber art experienced a heyday in the 1960s and 70s when artists, predominantly female, explored how the qualities of thread and fabric could create works of art that moved off the wall and into three-dimensional space. Historically, Halperin notes, this new era of the fiber art movement formed against the backdrop of the women’s liberation, civil rights, and antiwar movements. Fiber art materials became ubiquitous as the counterculture embraced DIY craft projects (e.g., macramé plant holders). The fiber arts movement of the 60s and 70s lost its energy, though. The medium was “too rooted in technique to be taken seriously as an ‘attitude’,” the curator Jenelle Porter writes in the catalog for the exhibition “Fiber: Sculpture 1960-Present,” which appeared at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston in 2014. (Check out videos about that exhibit here.) In 2024, even though more men and young people work with fiber, numerous stereotypes around fiber, gender, and art vs. craft remain (e.g., "knitting grandmothers").
The art world is currently seeing a resurgence of attention on fiber art, Halperin writes. “…In an age when we spend much of our time touching the flat surfaces of screens, this tactile art form feels newly seductive to makers and viewers alike as both a contrast with and a culmination of modern sensory experience.” This statement provides me encouragement, while, I admit, also a tinge of sadness about the state of our sensory relationships with electronics.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum is preparing to open “Subversive, Skilled, Sublime: Fiber Art by Women” in spring 2024. I can’t wait to go.
Written by Kendra Smith