Elissa Auther is founder of Feminism & Co.: Art, Sex, Politics, a program that explores feminist social, political, and artistic issues through creative forms of pedagogy. She is associate professor of contemporary art at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, and has written about, among other topics, modernist art criticism, the hierarchy of art and craft, installation art, and feminist activist art. Her new book, String, Felt, Thread: The Hierarchy of Art and Craft in American Art, studies the advance of thread, rope, string, felt, and fabric from the "low" world of craft to the "high" world of art in the 1960s-70s.
Q. What are three things that everyone should know about your book?
String, Felt, Thread examines the use of fiber in art across the larger art world in the 1960s and 1970s, an approach that illuminates intersections between artistic spheres of practice—from craft, to post-minimalism, to the feminist art movement—normally addressed in isolation from each other.
While the book addresses the elevation of a single medium—fiber—it also examines how aesthetic hierarchies and boundaries, specifically their creation, maintenance, and dissolution over time, has shaped the art world and our experience as artists, viewers, critics, collectors, or art historians.
The conclusion to the book investigates the open embrace of fiber and its associated techniques by contemporary artists, many of whom embrace craft in ways that would have been career-jeopardizing in the 1960s and 1970s.
Q. Where does your interest in art history and feminism begin?
As an undergraduate living in San Francisco in the late 1980s, I encountered a number of public works of art made of fiber. A piece that really intrigued me was Barbara Shawcroft's gargantuan abstract fiber sculpture for the Embarcadero BART/MUNI underground station, "Legs" (at left; image courtesy of Flickr). The piece consists of multiple hanging elements in heavy gauge rope, some hand-knotted and plaited, others left unmanipulated. In a course taught by Judith Bettelheim at San Francisco State University, I encountered Shawcroft's work again alongside the fiber sculpture of Sheila Hicks and Claire Zeisler, artists who were new to me at the time. What was brilliant about the course was that fiber-based work by artists with backgrounds in weaving was presented in the context of post-minimalist sculpture rather than "craft." Many years later as a graduate student looking for a dissertation topic, I returned to this work and the conventional categorization of fiber sculpture as "craft" and post-minimalist sculpture utilizing felt, yarn, and rope as "fine art." I also revisited feminist work in fiber—a subject that interested me for its politicization of craft. I realized I was attracted to all of this work for its complicated relationship to aesthetic hierarchies, and I elected to write on the various challenges that were mounted to the boundary separating art from craft in the 1960s and 1970s. Conveniently, the topic brought together my interests in a wide range of work made of fiber as well as the feminist critique of the art/craft divide.
Q. Was there a specific turning point in history, an event or individual, that marked a change in the way the art world characterized fiber art (from "craft" to fine art)?
Not really, although I would argue that the feminist art movement of the 1970s had an immense impact on the way fiber is used in art today. Feminist artists involved in the critique of the hierarchy of art and craft helped to legitimize the personal as an appropriate subject for art, resulting in an unprecedented expansion of artistic form and practice. Although they did not render the hierarchy of art and craft defunct, the women’s art movement was ultimately more successful in expanding the category of art to include fiber because its agenda, not to mention its audience, far exceeded the provincial borders of the art world in the 1970s.
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