By Keith Miller and Tara Burk
We experience Adrienne Rich's "Dream of a Common Language" every time we speak. We articulate in various ways as an expression of desire; our desire is for those who stand with us, those who came before us, and those who follow to receive and absorb our meaning. Each generation works within temporal boundaries, their language determined by historical, social/economic and political placement. To strive for a universal means of communication, one that will outlast the specificity of time and place, is a motivation that has worked to validate and affirm cultural and artistic productions over generations. It is, perhaps paradoxically, through specificity of meaning that generations might speak to each other, across periods, across ideologies and across stable and fixed meanings
Within the pejoratively labeled field of "women's work," (needlepoint, quilting, embroidery, weaving, etc.) some artists of the Women's Art Movement found a way to collapse the barriers between generations, through the use of media that has historically been used for communicative means (18 and 19 century American slave quilts) and has served as a vehicle for the creation of women-only spaces (quilting parties of the late 19cent.). Working with these media, "first wave" American and English feminists were able to articulate abolitionist and suffragist agendas, as well as articulate narratives in a medium that allowed them great artistic freedom.
The Women's Art Movement of the 1970's is included in the Second Wave of feminism. The use of textiles by these artists challenged fundamental assumptions of art historical discourse (as to what constitutes "high art") and paved the way for an explosive increase in media, which led to the subsequent acceptance of such media (performance art, body art, video and electronic media) within art discourse. It is interesting that a call to the past helped to ensure a visual future less constricted by static categories of "high" and "low" art.
Contemporary artists working with textiles and thread extend this historic tradition of political and cultural subversion as well as the articulation of personal narratives. The multiplicity of voices and narratives, the endless possibilities of application of these media, and the dynamic nature of artistic production itself negate the possibility of collapsing all women working within these media to a single voice. They are working with a medium centuries old, part of a historical tradition that constantly shifts to accommodate new applications (the aestheticization of quilts in the late 20 century). Their unity is in material, not ideology.