I’ve been embroidering some of Jenny Holzer’s “truisms” lately (not pictured: the future is stupid; anger or hatred can be a useful motivating force. still to come: murder has its sexual side; even your family can betray you [which IMO is closely related to this one here]; sloppy thinking gets worse over time; children are the most cruel of all) on this and other calico fabrics. I have some linen for when I start more ambitiously playing with color and texture, in the ones where there are more “key word” type key words.
I was thinking about the “artist’s statement,” just as a conceit. I’m not an artist. Does making these make me an artist? Doubt it. But if someone asked (no one asked! shut up!), I could say something about giving Holzer’s ‘truisms’ new light by reworking them in this medium where they previously appeared in very different media — neon lights, t-shirts, things like that. Holzer’s use of marquees and clothes and public benches speak to the way we communicate truisms, the way people say simple ‘common sense’ ‘obvious’ things, send messages about who we are, broadcast important information (‘OPEN’ ‘ATM’ ‘BEER’; for examples of t-shirts that are intended to broadcast something about the wearer just look at the Internet [threadless, tshirthell] or go to for example a state fair) about ourselves and what kind of person we want other people to think we are. The media Holzer chose capture the telling of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. The embroidery sampler is another way of telling those same stories: we tell ourselves who we are by decorating our houses with Home Sweet Home, Bless This House, the Serenity Prayer, birth dates, anniversaries. The thing about the embroidery sampler that’s different from the neon signs and t-shirts, though, is that embroidery is traditionally very domestic — you’re instructed to Kiss the Cook, who is in the kitchen, in her own house. Only invited guests are seeing these expressions, which is an important distinction: it’s intimate, and these truisms are essentially moral, so there could also be a comment there about keeping your opinions to yourself except in the safe space you build for yourself, inside your own home. So I could say I’m repurposing this very traditional, private medium to express new truisms, or new stories to tell ourselves, or something, and I could half believe it.
But only half. I’d be the other half full of shit, though, because that’s not what embroidery means now. Well, it’s still a way to tell ourselves stories about ourselves, but it’s not “traditional” anymore and it’s certainly not “Home Sweet Home” and it has been fully transformed with the help of the Internet and the rise of DIY culture generally into public, rather than private, expression. When you google cross stitch quotes (I was having trouble thinking of any beyond the serenity prayer) you come up with all kinds of ‘ironic’ or ‘subversive’ (seriously, “subversive stitching,” kill me) things. More people stitch rap lyrics than Bless This House, I’m pretty sure, and certainly more people who use the Internet (at least the way I use the Internet), more people who would be my audience if I really considered this project of mine “art” rather than “craft.” The people who would buy the kind of “reimagining the medium” business or even halfway begin to care about it already—and I’m not a mind reader so I say this based on the way these things are advertised on subversivecrossstitch, sublime stitching, and lots & lots of etsy shops as opposed to the private thoughts of thousands of people—feel like they are “reimagining the medium” to say swear words or cheeky things like “Bitch, please” in cursive. Full disclosure: I have a cross-stitched “bitch, please” upstairs and I got the pattern from “subversive cross stitch.” i have a fuckton of iron-ons I’ve never used (anyone want some? I will never ever use them) from sublime stitching, whose banner reads “This ain’t your grandma’s embroidery” and I would absolutely love a sampler with pretty birds and flowers that says “no teasing no whining.”
And maybe that’s another something that I could work into the hypothetical never-gonna-happen artist’s statement: I used a Helvetica stencil, and Helvetica is a font that is almost comically popular in a certain Internet subculture, which. Anyway, like I said: not “art” but “craft.” There’s absolutely no reimagining going on here; there’s absolutely nothing new about using embroidery to say things that aren’t “Bless This House.” There was a make-your-own cross-stitched iPhone cover floating around tumblr the other day! You know?
There’s a subculture I’m inextricably tied up in, and like anyone involved in any subculture, I’m conflicted about it because of the unavoidable tension between the desire to be exceptional and the desperate, gnawing need to fit in somewhere. Anyway, this particular subculture is full of people who love used bookstores and drink artisan coffee and read The Believer and give a lot of attention to fancy beers and whiskies and who do shit like ‘subversive’ fiber art. I should add here that all of those things except the coffee one apply to me, and I have no intention of stopping. I like all these things (especially fancy beer and whiskey! #pickaschtickandsticktoit). I know a lot of people on my dashboard and in my life (obviously) meet this description, so I want to reiterate: I enjoy going to my friends’ homes to do crafts and socialize, and I feel like I cannot emphasize enough that just because the meaning of needlecrafts has changed and it’s performative and maybe possibly a little-to-a-lot played out doesn’t mean it’s not fun and wonderful and a worthwhile way to spend time. And lots and lots of young women—and it’s mostly young women, which is a whole other challenge to the question of subversiveness—who fit this description and who embroider may not be riding a trendwave at all, they’ve been doing this their whole lives and this all erupted around them and that’s fine, I don’t know your life. Besides I am large, I contain multitudes, and everybody’s more than the sum of their cliches, and I above all don’t mean to be scornful here. I cannot emphasize that enough. I haven’t begun to emphasize it enough. Besides, “habitual contempt doesn’t reflect a finer sensibility.” But I will say that even for people who have been doing this their whole lives, because of the cultural shift, it means something different now and there’s no escape from that, but that’s probably obvious. I don’t bring this up to be judgmental, just to reflect on the way meanings shift In This Day And Age, and how quickly those meanings shift.
Anyway. If I said I was repurposing the medium in any meaningful way I’d be as full of shit as the sociologists whose books I’m reading right now who argue that their ideas are deeply Important Game-Changers but are total common sense, and incidentally, if you’ve ever missed a humanities or social science seminar, there you go I just gave you your notes (#thanks for everything, grad school). There’s got to be a word for the things that are super-trendy in this or any subculture but aren’t quite mainstream enough to be “mainstream.” What is that? Somebody who reads HRO please tell me thanks.
I like this piece, although my stitches could be more even and satin stitch is still hard. And I think real artists who aren’t 20somethings with bangs riding the trendwave of embroidering cuss words and Where the Wild Things Are quotes would probably have serious things to say about their art and would know enough about history to talk about it in a rlvnt way. Maybe this whole thing is totally out of place, because like I said probably too many times already, I feel like I’m doing crafts, not making art. And maybe someone would actually ask actual artists for an artist’s statement or want to know about the project, and maybe all this being played out is already obvious to everyone. Maybe it’s the reason no actual artists have done this, as far as I know. Maybe most people riding this particular trendwave are well aware that it’s nothing new, but it’s fun and it’s cheap and it’s something to do so they (we) do it anyway. Plenty of people doing needlecrafts and fiber arts are doing something deeper than just riding this trendwave, too, so just because I feel like I’m riding this trendwave doesn’t mean that everyone doing the same thing is doing the same Thing. Maybe it’s wrong for me to care about or comment on the capital letter issue at all. Maybe I’m being so cautious in writing this that it’s lost all the meaning the first draft had. Maybe the real thing of it is that the Internet moves so fast that everything is played out in approximately six seconds, maybe it’s that I’ve been doing this for two and a half years now and I’m coming down with more than a little fatigue.
The thrust of all this is that there’s no such thing as “subversive stitching” anymore because the old paradigm of “Bless This House,” you know, “your grandma’s embroidery” has been successfully and irreversibly subverted. Embroidery and other needlecrafts, like everything else in Our Modern Times, are super performative. Which isn’t to say that it wasn’t performative for “your grandma” to stitch “Home Sweet Home” and hang it up in the kitchen for people, because it was, just in a different way. It’s always been about fitting in, doing the “right” activities, having the “right” decor and clothing, but instead of being “good,” now the people doing this kind of thing are being “naughty” (yikes) with “mature embroidery” on etsy or the satin-stitched “fuck” that’s been floating around the embroidery tag for like ever. It’s meant to be cheeky (from the description of one ‘mature embroidery’ piece: This naughty embroidery pattern is perfect for bad-ass embroiderers, Hitachi enthusiasts, crafty Fet Life members, and anyone else who is uninspired by the puppies and ducklings and sun bonnet-ed children that inhabit most other embroidery patterns and would like to sample something a bit more tart than sweet.) but it just seems tired. Especially when these commodities are packaged as ‘feminism’ (hand to god, that’s in these descriptions. not even feminist—‘feminism’). Aside from the wildly problematic feminism = stuff issue (which is not limited to etsy!), this pursuit is still basically women’s work. The old paradigm, aside from the totally gendered aspect, isn’t there at all anymore. It’s all become so public and so commodified and marketed to women of a certain age, but that certain age isn’t 60 anymore, it’s 25. I guess my issue is that I’d prefer we all stop pretending.
TL;DR, I’m new to critical theory.
Anyway, what do I know, I obviously don’t have anything revolutionary to say, I’m a 20something with bangs and an impractical master’s doing “not my grandma’s” embroidery. With a fucking Helvetica stencil.