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Intellectual Snobbery

Now that my children are all grown up, I can do things that I could only dream about when they were younger. One of those things is a ‘series binge’. That is when you sit for an entire day (or even a weekend) watching every episode in a DVD box set. You make sure that you have every thread, bead and needle that you are going to need. You set it up around you, switch on the telly, start the series and then sit down. With your embroidery. There is no one to interrupt you because the children are no longer children, but adults off doing what young adults do. Pure heaven.

A few days ago, we watched a multi-episode documentary series on Russian art. I had been saving it up for a time when my husband would be available to watch it with me. Because we went to Russia and, as was to be expected, were blown away by the art that we saw everywhere. Sadly, this series had the wrong billing and I was bitterly disappointed. They should have called it Russian Painting and Politics.

The iconostasis dominates every cathedral or monastery that you visit in Russia. It is exquisitely and intricately carved, usually gilded and incorporates the icons, an integral part of the Russian orthodox religion. By far the most exquisite thing that you will see, in every Russian church, it merited only a passing mention.

The interior of the Church Of The Spilled Blood in St Petersburg is like nothing I have ever seen before. It was only when I was halfway around that it dawned on me that the murals are, in fact, mosaics. So superbly crafted, it is hard to tell the difference at first glance. Every available surface, even all the way up into the central dome, is decorated with these intricate works of art. On closer inspection, it is possible to see that each mosaic component is tiny, which is why the shading and colour is so masterful. Once again, mosaics received but a short mention in this series. Only to slot Kiev’s St Sophia’s cathedral into historical chronological order.

Even a visit to Arbat Street in Moscow is an art tour. When you look at what passes for a curio in our part of the world there is, quite simply, no comparison. Almost any souvenir that you may want to buy in the Arbat district is a work of art. Wooden Matryoshka dolls and papier-mache trinkets hand-painted by talented artists, with, seemingly, a single horsehair. Wrought or filligreed precious metal objects and treasures carved from all manner of semi-precious stones, so exquisitely crafted that you wonder at the affordable prices being asked.

From lamp posts to bridges, churches to shops, decoration is everywhere with gold onion domes peeping out of the cityscape, wherever you look. And this documentary saw fit to mention nothing of that. Because in the world of the intellectual snob, it is not art. In their minds, the only media that pass for art, are painting and sculpture with maybe a few additions like etchings, ink drawings, etc. It’s only fine art if it can be analysed to within an inch of its life and, preferably, found to have deep political meaning. Art for the sake of mere decoration, is not at all important.

I can paint and I can sculpt. I studied art and I had to do things like this. The fact that my pieces were good enough to pass the practical examinations surely proves that I am reasonably competent in those media. But, I do not enjoy them. I would rather embroider. Having done the other stuff, I can say with complete conviction that a piece of well-shaded long and short stitch is finer art (in both the physical and metaphorical sense) than oil painting, or watercolours. But it’s woman’s work so, like the Russian craftsman, my creations will never be fine art.

It doesn’t matter that the splendour of the iconostasis in any number of Russian cathedrals surpasses an abstract painting or something that is categorized as Modern Art. You can ignore the genius, the years of work, the forethought, the added inspiration for just a little extra of this or that to complete the object, to balance it and to take it into the realms of sheer wonder.

Universities and colleges the world over, are populated by people who would like to be able to write a novel, carve a piece of wood or paint a picture. They can’t do these things well enough to derive an income, so instead they teach them, analyse them and criticize them. The problem with the exquisite art in Russia and with your embroidery is that it is functional. It’s not supposed to mean anything, or say anything. It is made to decorate our environment, to enrich our lives and it has no hidden agenda.

I know it’s art and you know it’s art but it serves no purpose for the person who categorises it. The intellectual who has devoted his or her life to a nothing job. I don’t mind. They have to earn a living somehow. I’m afraid, though, that you cannot spend ten minutes of a documentary telling us about Kazimir Malevich’s ‘Black Cube’ and fail to mention the iconostasis in the Cathedral of Christ The Saviour in Moscow, even if you think you’re an expert. (Google those two, you’ll see what I’m talking about.) It means that you have inhabited your ivory tower for so long that you have lost your grip on reality, if indeed you ever had one.

What I do know is that before I again commit my limited time to a documentary series on any kind of art, I will find out more about it so that I am not similarly disappointed.

One thought on “Intellectual Snobbery

  1. I don't want to comment on whether Malevich's Black Cube is 'better' art than the iconostasis in the Moscow cathedral (much too difficult and too long and involved a subject for this space), but I do agree with your assessment of the current attitude to embroidery as being 'craft' rather than fine art. You know and I know that something that comes from one's own imagination and is executed in any medium is art. Once that becomes a kit of parts that anyone with a modicum of skill can finish, it becomes less than art (imho) although the original design will always remain art. There is an old saw that goes: those who can, do; those who can't, teach; and the rest criticise.

    The other thing you said is that embroidery is women's work and therefore not considered to be fine art (or something similar). I agree that it is a struggle getting people to think about textile art/embroidery as fine art but it wasn't always thus. Many generations back, men did the embroidery, were members of guilds and paid good money for their efforts. In parts of Asia still the men do the weaving. Wealthy women did embroidery (and other such things) as a pastime but it wasn't until the Industrial Revolution put men out of their jobs because machines could do the embroidery faster and more efficiently that embroidery lost its status and became simply something that women with time on their hands took up to occupy those hands.

    I apologise for the ramble/rave. This is, as you may have gathered, one of my pet peeves too. Or is that two pet peeves?

    BTW I love your books although I haven't yet attempted anything like as complex as your designs.

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