Last week, the Washington Post featured an article about knitting. Although the article’s immediate motivation was a reflection on keeping oneself content and busy while staying inside waiting out Hurricane Sandy, the article ended up reflecting on when knitting is a creative act, and a work of art, and when it is not. In the end, the article argued that there are many artists who use yarn as their medium to create art, but there are thousands more, the vast majority of hobby-knitters, who are following patterns written by others in a way that is rote, not creative, even as they are creating a product: a hat, scarf or sweater.
I’m a knitter myself, so I was very excited to read this article. Any mainstream attention we knitters can get is generally a good thing, but still, I wondered about the article’s conclusions, and the strict hierarchy of inventor over follower.
As I was mulling over this article, I found an announcement in my email inbox from the National Museum of Women in the Arts about the new exhibit that just opened there about fiber arts (High Fiber -Women to Watch 2012). Although I have not yet had a chance to go, I am eager to see how their exhibit frames knitting. My guess is that the framing will reflect the thesis of the Washington Post article. I suspect they will show some beautiful knit pieces, but only pieces that focus on originality, only pieces that are one-of-a-kind. And maybe, this is as it should be.
Nonetheless, I think the hierarchy of inventor over follower, the insistence on a narrow definition of art that doesn’t include the creation of someone who “merely” followed the directions of a pattern, might just be too simple. I don’t think we should fear of diluting the definition of art by making it too broad. This fear stops us from celebrating more humble works of creation. Some things are zero-sum games, but art can be inclusive without loosing its power. No, I’m not saying art museums should start accessioning amateur knit baby hats, but that we recognize an alternative narrative of art and thus of society. This alternative narrative is one less focused on the individual genius, and more on the truth of group works, and team efforts. It is focused less on an isolated artist-creator, and more on people who make creating an embedded part of larger lives. It values the creations of women, of minorities, of amateurs. It values art and creation in the world all around us, and not just that which has made it into the museum institution. This alternative narrative does not have to replace our narrative of great original art created by individual geniuses, but can exist next to this traditional narrative, like two books on a shelf.
With that thought, I’ll leave you with some pictures of this alternative narrative in action: Yarnbombing. And I’ll get back to my own knitting.