The problem with trying to write a blog post when getting kids and dogs ready for a drive to Sacramento, especially a blog post with content that means anything worth saying, is that, invariably, something gets left out. I realized yesterday, as I sat in traffic on I-80 (an hour and a half to get from Travis AFB to the outskirts of Vacaville; that's about 10 miles -- I did get a lot of knitting done, though, and reminded myself that the people in the accident up ahead were having a far worse day than I) that, as I am wont to do when I've been mulling over something for a while, I left out a contextualizing piece that fed into all of the thoughts I was having at the deYoung regarding beauty and craftsmanship. (Ask me how much trouble this caused when I was writing a dissertation.) Of course, there is also the inherent difficulty of discussing something like this in a forum as small as a blog; Fuzzarelly and Marianne both left beautiful addenda in the comments to the last post (you can go read them, I'll wait), and I hope that I'll hear from other folks, too. A topic like this deserves discussion and complication.
As I was walking through this textile exhibit, admiring the work hanging there (and wondering, as I do, how it got there), I kept thinking about a visit I made to Guatemala several years ago for a conference. I was lucky enough to go in company with a colleague of mine who works with a group of women in a remote Guatemalan village. These women survived the Violencia, many of them having lost children, husbands, parents, and they created a collective to make and sell weavings in order to buy land to create a farm so they could grow more food so they could sell that, so they could have a better standard of living for their children. Most of them have very little, in terms of that most Western of commodities, stuff. They don't have a lot of food or clothes, and houses are small and crowded; access to medicine is difficult at best, and people die of things that could be treated with relative ease in the States. (I'm simplifying a lot here.)
I met some of these women when they came to Antigua to go to the market and to see my colleague. They were dressed stunningly in traditional Mayan clothes, all handwoven and brightly colored. They had great fun wrapping a head wrap around my head to show me how it was done, and demonstrating how children could be carried on their backs, wrapped up in lengths of cloth. I'm sure they wondered at this strange American who didn't know these basic things, but their laughter was kind, and I can handle being laughed at.
When we got back, my colleague told me of another academic, who, hearing that she was helping the Grupo sell weavings in the States so they could raise money, insisted that these women could not possibly be poor or in need, because they could afford to dress so beautifully. Never mind that most of the women in the group have only one, or maybe two, of the gorgeous huipiles, or that each of those huipiles was painstakingly handwoven by the woman who wore it. Ownership of beauty, to him, meant that they must have money to spare; there was a hint of criticism in there, too: are these women wasting money on beautiful clothes when they could be buying food?
That was what kept going through my head at the museum exhibit: the notion that a life without stuff must be a life without beauty. Now, I know that there is a lot more to the man's statement than that. In fact, there is an entire interesting book in examining all of the cultural, social, religious, political, economic, etc. background that makes a statement like that possible to say, and comprehensible to an audience (the linguist in me always finds it interesting to figure out what it is that a sayer and and a hearer must know in order for communication to occur). But I was thinking as a craftswoman at the time, and what was going through my head was that this man clearly was divorced from craft, that he didn't have a deep, visceral understanding of the pride, and competition, and skill that go into making something. Nor did he the craftperson's understanding that she will be living with what she has made for a while, and would want it to be beautiful precisely because she only has one of it, and because it's not easily replaced or exchanged.
I know that there have always been groups here in the States who understand that sometimes beauty is found in a few beautifully made and useful things, rather than in lots of stuff (Shakers and the Arts and Crafts movement come immediately to mind; there are more). What was going through my head as I looked at the weavings on the walls was that, worldwide, there are probably more cultures who feel and live that way than those who don't, and that being a knitter makes me feel more connected to that way of viewing the world than I otherwise would.
Someone really should write a book about this; maybe someone already has and I don't know it? Maybe one of you already is? If so, I can't wait to read it.