Let’s picture a friend who can knit. That friend knits for you, as a Christmas present, a three-dimensional “Doctor Who”-themed tree ornament. Is that art, or is it a craft?
That’s one of the questions explored in the exhibit “ ‘Workt by Hand’: Hidden Labor and Historical Quilts,” now at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Much more than “Hey, look at these awesome blankets,” the show examines the role of women’s artistic self-expression in a medium that is primarily functional. Also, there are 35 awesome blankets.
“A quilt is something to keep you warm while you were sleeping,” says associate curator Virginia Treanor. “Whereas art — and I really don’t know if I agree with this 100 percent — is something really just there for its aesthetic value.”
That said, the quilts on display make that line between function and form very blurry.
“A lot of them exist today because they were prized possessions,” Treanor says. “If they had been used they would not be around.”
One example of a quilt made for art’s sake is “Crazy Quilt,” dating from around 1880. “Clearly it was expensive, because it’s made of silk. It was not used — because it was made of silk. But whoever made it probably took a lot of pride in it,” Treanor says.
But, as they say, is it art?
“I don’t know if the women thought [of the quilts] as Art with a capital A,” Treanor says. “But the investment of time and energy was akin to an artist thinking about placing form and color on a canvas. I think the approach was kind of the same, but if they thought of themselves as artists? I can’t answer that.”
National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW; through April 27, $8-$10; 202-783-5000. (Metro Center)