The Field of Textiles and “Art”

leonardo da Vinci :The Vetruvian man, c.1490
leonardo da Vinci :The Vetruvian man, c.1490

Over the past five years textiles have increasingly featured in art exhibitions where curators and art scholars have described them from a rather one-dimensional perspective, regarding them as factors influencing the development of art, as fiberarts or textile art.
It is not surprising that the textile medium – its materials, the various manifestations of its techniques and its visual content – should be approached in artistic ways. However, this applies to all media that are subject to sensory perception, except that material aspects and their treatment are considered of secondary importance in ‘art’.
These days people rarely reflect on the origins of the concept of art, its multi-facetedness and indeterminism. During the course of history, ‘art’ came to substitute religion, acquiring an aura of the divine and attracting secular high priests who jealously guarded their prerogative of interpretation.
During the Renaissance – a period of profound spiritual crisis that followed the mediaeval certainty of God’s existence, and led to a return to schools of thought that prevailed in Greek and Roman antiquity – artists’ achievements were elevated from the sphere of the artes mechanicae to that of the artes liberales. One of the art ideologists of the time was Marsilio Ficino (1433 – 1499), an influential humanist, philosopher and later cleric. Ficino was convinced that the (artist’s) soul aspired to rise to the spiritual level and, ultimately, to become divine. When the reformers went on to credit humans with an independent free will, it caused the Inquisition to conceive the idea that the soul was above the physical nature of man, and thus needed saving from the sinner. This fatal duality of the body and soul corresponds to the separation of the image (message) from its medium (materials) seen in art, and it is still the way art scholars regard their subject: the materials and techniques are of secondary importance, what matters is the image!
During the course of art history in the modern age, references to the construction of images were severely neglected in favour of interpretations of content. Major components of their sensory substance were ignored, meaning that anyone approaching work from a multi-dimensional perspective has difficulty obtaining comprehensive information on any given piece: “It is a comparatively recent insight that a combination of art history, material history and materials science is vital for deriving an impression of a work of art sufficiently complete to consider it understood in its historic context.”*)
Visitors to art exhibitions with an interest in textile art will feel that the objects of their attention appear misplaced in today’s art temples, only half-understood in terms of presentation and inadequately described. The fashion of introducing textiles to art exhibitions seen in the past five years does not serve the cause of the textile arts; rather it misguides viewers into following a cult that does in fact run contrary to textile creations since these require a holistic interpretation.
*) Stefan Wülfert in 4. Riggisberger Berichte, 1996, article entitled ‘Materialbezogene Untersuchung an vier Tüchleinmalereien (Analysis of the materials employed in four cloth paintings)’, p. 159
TEXTILE FORUM magazine featured ‘textile art’ in several issues, including
TF 1/1990 ‘Textilkunst (Textile Art)’, themed issue
TF 3/1993 ‘Art and its Semantics’ by Jean Gimpel
TF 3/1996 ‘Textile Art Vandalism’, themed issue including cloth paintings
TF 3/2012 ‘Textile Art Prospects’, themed issue
TF 2/2013 ‘Jacquard “Tapestries”’, themed issue
The above issues are available for sale!