“Maybe innovation is like pornography — you know it when you see it.” So says David Revere McFadden in a recent interview in American Craft magazine.
The interview follows a talk during which McFadden, the curator of the Museum of Arts and Design and a juror for ArtQuilt Elements at Pennsylvania’s Wayne Art Center, took art quilters to task for their lack of innovation. He spoke about “the value of aesthetic progress in craft mediums, the ‘provocative’ factor that makes work memorable, the need to move beyond tradition (perhaps while still reflecting it), and the challenge of technology for artists who aren’t altogether comfortable with it.” He also told exhibition attendees that he felt he was “in a time warp, looking at pieces that could have been made 30 years ago.”
Not surprisingly, the art quilting community took umbrage. Forums on the websites of the Studio Art Quilt Associates and the Surface Design Association came alive with comments like, “When does innovation become gimmick? Why push to use new materials if it doesn’t say anything?”
McFadden told American Craft, “While I have a limitless respect for all of the traditional craft techniques and deeply admire those who have honed their skills to an extraordinary degree, I am also interested in how new digital technologies, both in design and fabrication, are opening up new possibilities for creating work that has powerful visual appeal and intellectual content.”
There’s no doubt that innovation is a delight. Coming into contact with an innovative chair or clock or vase challenges our expectations, making users think twice before sitting down, telling the time, or plopping flowers into water. And it not only challenges, it captivates.
Today’s crafters embrace innovation in the creation of their products: they employ new tools and materials without thinking twice. Quilters use computerized sewing machines and woodworkers measure the moisture content of their wood with digital meters. Craftspeople of all persuasions use programs like Illustrator and Photoshop to design their products or create prototypes electronically, before diving in with needle and thread or hammers and saws. Though a craft form may be rooted in history, the means of creating it are often thoroughly 21st century.
The question remains: Should a craft provoke and demonstrate “aesthetic progress” — or is it enough to honor its past and work within its time-honored forms?