“Yes, but is it art?” is a question that tends to keep artists up at night. It implies a kind of judgment on works that depart from convention, that veer from the already-seen. Despite shifting definitions, most people tend to cling to some concept or other; theories of art become problems for artists because the intent of these theories is often to exclude. But the art world has always included non-traditional media that critics and viewers are unsure how to classify. Some seem more like fads—rubber stamp art, xerography and holography in the 1970s—or social practice—NFTs and images created through artificial intelligence today. What counts as art, and what doesn’t? Only time will tell.
Most non-traditional works that enter the mainstream art world do so either on the strength of a noted artist making it—for instance, Picasso and collage—or by a sizable number of established artists taking up the practice, as in the case of photography and graffiti. These last two only entered museum collections after they ceased to be viewed as mere technical proficiency or urban blight. The behavior of art collectors—many of whom are aware that the works they purchase may never receive recognition—also plays a role. Risk-taking is as much a part of buying art as making it. An artist’s say-so is no guarantee of value; collectors vote on what is art with their money.
Today, another medium is knocking at the door of acceptance: artists’ tapestries, that is, woven representations designed by artists and intended to be hung on walls, usually large ones. Artists whose works become tapestries—like Alan Magee, April Gornik, or Kiki Smith—don’t actually weave the pieces themselves. Instead, they rely on an automated version of a traditional jacquard loom. But this shouldn’t be disqualifying: many contemporary artists, especially sculptors, rely on “fabricators” to produce the works they design.
This summer saw the opening of three distinct exhibitions of artists’ tapestries. The first, at the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio, displays six tapestries originally designed in 1515-16 for the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel using “cartoons” by the Italian artist Raphael. The images, depicting events from the lives of St. Peter and St. Paul, were actually woven during the seventeenth century, then hung in a church in Dresden, Germany. The second exhibition features a series of six other large tapestries, entitled “The Vanity of Small Differences,” by the contemporary artist Grayson Perry (b. 1960). Installed at Salisbury Cathedral in Salisbury, England, the work tells an updated version of William Hogarth’s eighteenth-century series “The Rake’s Progress.” The third show, “Threading the Needle,” is on view at The Church, an arts center in Sag Harbor, Long Island. It consists of about fifty objects by different artists. Most are woven—from wool, wire, cotton, hemp, even Coke can tabs and human hair—into either three-dimensional objects or two-dimensional images. Some are abstract, others representational.