L’art Pour l’art

Does anybody remember the Gas Station Cozy project which was first unveiled about seven months ago?

Earlier this year, a woman named Jennifer Marsh decided to cover an old, abandoned gas station with a cozy made up of squares of knitting, crochet, and other fiber arts, as well as recycled plastic. In doing so she managed to bring together a wide community of people eager to help . . . and also ignited a bit of controversy on at least one of the knitting forums I frequent.

(To be fair, the majority of posts I read have been supportive of both art projects referred to in this post.)

I was reminded of this art piece today when someone on Knitting Help shared a very different project, this one created by Extreme Knitter Rachel John back in 2006.

The video shows how, with the help of sponsors and assistants, she gathered together many different colored yarns, in both balls and cones, and pulled them all together until she had 1,000 strands −− and then she knit with this as a single strand on two very big pieces of wood for knitting needles!

I was impressed by the dedication, the patience, and the physical stamina it must have taken to see the 1,000 strand knitting project through to the end. If it had been me, I wouldn’t have gotten very far before getting discouraged and looking around for something a bit easier to tackle! My favorite part of the above video is where all the strands have been collected and are running up and over the upstairs railing — the sight of all those multi-colored strands reminded me of rays of sunlight streaming through a stained glass window. And since I tend to run into trouble any time I try to knit with even two strands held together, I can’t help wondering: how did she keep the whole thing from turning into a tangled mess?!

After I’d watched the video on You Tube, my eyes wandered down toward the comments, and I saw that one person had left this brief message: “I hope this went to good use after its usefulness as an art piece ran its course.

Sadly, I think this person was completely serious.

It was this comment that brought the gas station cozy back to my mind and the confusion I felt when I read posts by a few people (knitters, presumably) who opined that the project was very self-indulgent and foolish, that the people participating had “wasted” good yarn as well as their time and energy, all of which could have or should have gone to help needy people.

Now, I don’t want to be rude; I don’t want to insult or belittle anyone; I have no desire to start a fight, although I don’t mind intelligent debate. But since this is my blog, I just have to say . . . It’s ART, people! Art is its own end and its own reward! It’s there to make a statement, or to make you stop and think, or to make you smile, or something. It’s not a WASTE of time, materials, or energy. It’s not supposed to take the place of helping people less fortunate; it has nothing to do with that! I really wonder, do the people writing these comments honestly think that if yarn (and other materials) had not been used to make the gas station cover that same yarn would have instead been used to clothe homeless people or wrap orphans in blankets? Do they feel that Jennifer Marsh STOLE the yarn from charity knitters in order to toss it into the garbage and utterly waste it?

The term Art For Art’s Sake came to my mind, so I did a little bit of research. The Britannica Online Encyclopedia explains the phrase: “A slogan translated from the French l’art pour l’art, which was coined in the early 19th century by the French philosopher Victor Cousin. The phrase expresses the belief held by many writers and artists, especially those associated with Aestheticism, that art needs no justification, that it need serve no political, didactic, or other end” (The bold is my emphasis).

Dr. L. C. E. Witcombe, a professor at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, quotes Oscar Wilde’s 1891 essay ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism:

A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament. Its beauty comes from the fact that the author is what he is. It has nothing to do with the fact that other people want what they want. Indeed, the moment that an artist takes notice of what other people want, and tries to supply the demand, he ceases to be an artist, and becomes a dull or an amusing craftsman, an honest or dishonest tradesman. He has no further claim to be considered as an artist.”

For the record, Ms. Marsh actually DID have a purpose in mind — she wanted, in her words, “to bring attention to the world’s oil dependence.” And yet in creating her unique piece, she inadvertently did so much more than what she set out to do. It became a community project, bringing together people from various parts of the country, making them feel connected in a common goal of creating an art piece that has a deeper meaning. Her inspiration was not only environmental but also very personal as she explains that she grew up with a mother who created covers for everything “including the dog.”

On the Craft Stylish site (which I linked in the first sentence of this post) I read comments in response to Ms. Marsh’s project such as this:

What a waste of materials. With rising energy costs, seems to me a much better energy efficient use would be to make clothing for people who need them so they can stay warm. That, in itself, would save heating costs, as well as hopefully keep people from spending their limited income on warm clothes so they can buy their own food & stay off of welfare. Yes, it is all related. I hope in the future, “artists” will realize they can make a much stronger statement by DOING SOMETHING THAT ACTUALLY HELPS PEOPLE instead of feeding their own egos . . . If the gas station’s abandoned, then let someone put it to use that will give people jobs – not make a display out of it where no one gets any work or direct benefit at all.

All right, let’s insist that nothing that we do with our yarn be anything but practical and beneficent. No extra gauge swatches, no cute little toys knit just for fun, no decorative throws or wall hangings — all of those things are knit with yarn that could have gone to clothe a needy person.

And let’s look at the gas station cozy again. If the yarn used to knit the squares was recycled and consisted mainly of scraps, do these people have a genuine complaint?

How about if it was NOT recycled but was bought expressly for use in this art installation?

If someone bought yarn for the project, the money that paid for the yarn went to the people who own the store where the yarn was purchased. The people who work in the store get paid, as well as those who work in the factory that spins and dyes the yarn and ultimately the stockholders (if there are any). This also means that the store will buy more yarn to restock their shelves, sending more money to the yarn manufacturer. Therefore, the yarn manufacturer is selling more yarn and this is good for the economy. If the yarn is bought off the store shelves, the store will have to restock −− and they WILL RESTOCK. They’re not going to stop selling yarn! More yarn is being produced, not less! No one who wants to buy yarn is going to be turned away (“Sorry, there’s no more yarn; some crazy lady just bought everything we had in stock just to knit a gas station cozy. If you want to knit your sweater, maybe you can get her to give you some of hers.”)

Somehow I do not see how this makes us realize anything about our dependence on oil. If anything, this makes me mad as I see sooooooo many sweaters, blankets, scarves, mittens, etc. that could do good for someone that does not have. What were you thinking??!

Okay, let’s pretend that the gas station project did not exist −− how does the yarn that might have been used for the project get to these people that don’t have? Do you seriously believe that those people cannot be helped BECAUSE that project exists?

In fact, if you look at the project and you feel angry because there are cold, needy people, then guess what? You can do something about it −− you can start knitting sweaters, blankets, and mittens for those folks, or you can donate yarn to someone who will knit them, or you can donate money to help them. If you’re so angry, it seems like you’d better get busy. If you don’t, how is that the fault of the people who created the art piece?

Leave a Reply