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Posted by R. John Howe on December 31, 1998 at 17:19:31:


In this salon I have encouraged the exploration of “The Oops Thesis,” a position held by a number of experienced rug students. The core of this thesis is that quite often some of us point to irregularities in weaving that those who hold this thesis feel are crude, aesthetically unattractive or that are outright mistakes, and use these irregularities as positive indicators of such things as “tribal character,” as “woven for use,” of aesthetic attractiveness, of age, etc.

The character of the exploration I have encouraged was necessarily limited but intended to be very concrete, to focus on particular features and comparisons in the rugs presented. It was my intent to give participants a series of experiences applying The Oops Thesis concretely and then to solicit their descriptions of their experience in doing so and of what this suggested to them about two basic questions. What is the best statement of The Oops Thesis we would recommend amongst ourselves and how closely and consistently do we feel it can be applied with utility.

The two Turkoman ensis in PICS1 and 2 PIC1 were my instance of overall comparison. PIC2 is a very precisely drawn piece with nice complexity and a finished look. PIC1 was, I thought, one very likely to lead some of us to look at the drawing and to assess it favorably using words like “primitive,” “primal,” and “archaic.” I felt that some holders of The Oops Thesis would describe it as an instance of comprehensive bad weaving and would reject any notion that its primitive drawing is an indicator of age. And that is what happened.

Wendel Swan and Marla Mallett led those who condemned the drawing in this piece generally and scoffed at the notion that its drawing suggests anything about its age.
They were joined by Marvin Amstey, Steve Price and myself, although Steve said interestingly that he felt the rug in PIC1 is considerably older than that in PIC2.

Yon Bard called PIC1 “very charming” and said he’d pick a complete version of it over PIC2 because of PIC1’s “greater looseness and it rare, perhaps unique features.”
Jim Allen described the upper cross-panel in PIC1 as “archaic,” and seemed to indicate that it was likely a “real” ensis which were smaller and contained asymmetric elements placed in them for talismanic protection.
Steve attempted to systematize Jim’s argument as follows:
: 1. Ensis that are much larger than #1 are too big to have been used as doors of a yurt, and therefore, were presumably commercial products.
: 2. Ensis that are not highly irregular in design are commercial products; "real" ensis are irregular for reasons having to do with protection from the unknown.
Jim’s response moved off in a different direction.

Steve also suggested that the differences in the assessments of PIC1 and 2 were at least in part due to difference emphases in the perceptual styles of the observers. Some, he said, see details more readily, while others tend to take things in as wholes. I felt that it was a bit too convenient that this notion had been raised in two separate salons but always by folks confessing that they were of the gestalt persuasion. I said that I thought I detected a corollary that the tendency (ability) to see the “big picture” was also the preferred mode. Steve, disadvantaged by his role as the enforcer of civility in the salon, would not be drawn.

PIC3 and 4 were two Shahsavan bag faces providing a similar comparison but this time focused primarily on the borders and how these functioned in our assessments of these two pieces. This comparison was potentially complicated by the fact that PIC3 is apparently one of the few pile weavings attributable reliably to the Shahsavan, a fact that I had misplaced momentarily.

Wendel Swan, who owns the piece in PIC3, immediately indicated that he agreed that its borders are not well-drawn and that his positive overall assessment of this piece was in spite of it borders not because of them.

Marla Mallett was persuaded to join our discussion and suggested that we rotate PIC3 to examine in a position akin to that in which the weaver was looking at it when she wove. This being done, Marla suggested that the particularly awkward looking sides were in fact the border the weaver started with. She said that it appeared that this was a young weaver who wasn’t quite sure when she came to the corner of her initial border section, how to rotate the design. Marla felt that this rotation should not have presented this weaver any particular difficulty (especially since she was working in pile which permits very flexible digital drawing) and that the solution adopted by this weaver in shortening the bar and turning the end appendages to a “diamond” position suggested only a young girl’s carelessness, and that perhaps too much was being made of this crude drawing. Marla also suggested that there were irregularities visible in the drawing of the four corner devices in the very exquisitely drawn PIC4, that indicated to her that even this clearly very experienced weaver was not fully familiar with this aspect of her design. There was some protest about this latter point.

I indicated that that PIC3 and 4 functioned for me to map my own current personal development with regard to the claim advocates of The Oops Thesis are making, in the sense that while I can see that the drawing in PIC4, especially the attention to detail exhibited in the very precisely drawn two-color border, is superior to that of the border of PIC3, that faced with a choice I would choose PIC3. The problem, I admitted in this choice, is that I would currently choose PIC3 in part BECAUSE of it crude, gauche border, not in spite of it. This comparison was one that revealed to me an instance in which I am, I think, guilty of the sort error of which adherents of The Oops Thesis complain. I suggested that my future development in this arena could be marked by my learning to appreciate the admitted virtues of PIC4 at a level at which I would select it instead.

PICS5 and 6 are a bad photo and a direct scan, respectively of a not particularly unusual Yomud chuval of mine. PIC7 is a East Anatolian Kurdish rug that is Plate 169 in the new edition of “Oriental Carpets: A Complete Guide” this time authored by Murray Eiland, Jr. and his son, Murray Eiland, III.

My focus in PIC5 and 6 was on the minor ornament, which is composed by a series of somewhat irregular diagonals. Since the major ornaments in this piece are Memling guls composed exclusively of horizontal and vertical lines, and since these are drawn with crisp fluency, we might initially be justified saying that this weaver simply cannot draw diagonals well. Similarly, the three large diamond shaped medallions in PIC7 would seem to suggest that this weaver too had difficulty drawing diagonals.

Jim Allen raised the possibility that at least some of the irregularities visible in the piece in PIC5 and 6 are intentional since, for example, the variations in the size of the minor guls and in the placement of the center element within them vary systematically by horizontal row. It had also struck me that Yomud weavers seem in nearly all other chuval designs to draw quite a variety of minor ornaments none of which exhibit this sort of irregularity. John Davidson, provided a Turkotek link to another Yomud piece with this design and suggested that the less than perfect diagonals in the minor ornaments are not deliberate but merely express the range of acceptable variation that the weaver adopted.

I also wondered, when selecting this piece, and since the design in PIC5 and 6 is the most frequent one encountered in Yomud flatweave chuvals, whether the weaver was deliberately reproducing in pile, irregularities that tended to occur in flatweave renditions that might be woven in a slightly more restrictive technique.

Jim Allen’s observation and my own raised again (Steve Price had raised it initially in an instance cited below) the issue of intent. What irregularities might be those that a weaver adopted deliberately to achieve certain effects and which are those that are instances of bad drawing or weaving error. The minor guls piece in Plate 5 and 6 began to seem to me likely instances of weaver intent. With PIC 7, its harder to make this argument (although there is evidence in the border designs that suggest that at least over a shorter distance, this Kurdish weaver could draw a straighter diagonal that those presented in the field). I would like to believe, as I think Michael Wendorf also hoped about the rug in PIC7, that the weaver did put these irregular diagonals in deliberately.

Ken Thompson correctly reminded us that the fear of attracting misfortune as a result of producing a perfect piece of art was a powerful more in many countries and one not to be underestimated. I think that Ken is clearly right about the sociology he points to but I always wonder how much it in fact shaped the work of the artist. The underlying suggestion would seem to be that rendering of a perfect piece of art threatened frequently enough that specific provision had to be made by the artist to prevent its occurrence. Perhaps, but I can testify as a practitioner of an analogous craft that the ordinary course of production of a piece of art provides ample opportunity for error. Errors do not need to be provided for, they will, in fact, occur and usually too frequently for the artist’s taste. If the character of the mistake is important, then, some planning of it would be required but the thought that artists believed that artistic perfection would likely to be ubiquitous unless prevented and is therefore a source of constant artistic concern seems less plausible to me.

And that brings us to the related consideration, that of how the irregularities in these two pieces function in our assessment of the aesthetic quality of them. Specifically, would the drawing of the designs in these two weavings be aesthetically superior if these diagonals were straighter? This question was not, I think take up directly, so here is my own view. I find that the irregularities in the drawing of the diagonals in PIC5, 6 and 7 function for me in a positive way. I experience them as providing a pleasing counterpoint and complexity to the more regular features of the overall design of which they are a part. The movement along this diagonal (a point I will come back to) gives the overall design “life” that, I think, would be missing if these diagonals were drawn straighter. I think this claim is easier to make for the Kurdish rug than for the Yomud bag but it is true, for me, to a degree, for both of them.

What I conclude from all this is that the drawing in PIC5,6 and 7 may map for me an instance in which those who advocate The Oops Thesis could go too far. These admitted irregularities may in fact function to enhance the aesthetic qualities of these two pieces. These may be pieces about which it would be legitimate to say that we like them in part “because” of their faults. They may mark a level at which a mechanical adherence to The Oops Thesis may apply it too closely. The pleasing irregularities in drawing of the diagonals in these two weavings may function to raise the level of our aesthetic experience with them. John Hipps, I think, joined me by suggesting that we should not insist in precise perfection in weaving because some of these variations, even imperfections operate to "animate" the weaving, to make it come to life, to infuse it with emotion which is communicated to people who see it.”

PIC8 should not have been place next to PIC9, and I apologize again to Jim Allen for any guilt by association that might rub off on his eagle torba.

PIC 9, is as I said in the discussion, my example of unquestioned bad weaving. It seems to me unassailable that this weaver was doing the best that she could and that the bad effects visible are not what she wished. What she wanted to do was to produce something closer to some Yomud Turkoman designs she had seen but she could not. The only question for me is why Mr. Stanzer felt it was of sufficient interest to include on page 213 of his book “Kordi.”

PIC 8 is interesting to me as another example in which it seems likely that the weaver deliberately drew the minor gul at a different level of aesthetic quality that she did the major guls (which are themselves rather full of small detectable irregularities). Wendel Swan protested, when I said this in the discussion, that it is unlikely that weaver would say to herself “remember to be sloppy with the minor gul.” I agree but don’t think that is what happened here. My conjecture is that this weaver was experimenting, wanted to draw a “ghostly” minor gul, but that the stick-figure image that she produced is simply not successful. For me PIC8 contrasts with PIC5,6 and 7 as an instance in which irregularity is over the allowable line and that The Oops Thesis is rightly invoked in assessing it. Not nearly everyone agreed.

Sophia Gates explicitly cited the minor guls as part of what makes this piece aesthetically interesting and powerful for her. She felt that the drawing of the minor guls was both intentional and in her own experience successful. If this is a mistake, she said it is one of “genius.”

The two Ersari juvals in PIC10 and 11 are my closest comparison. I will not repeat here the detailed argument I made on the board, but in shorthand it is that I see PIC10 as the superior rendition of the ikat design in part BECAUSE of the pleasing irregularities that occur in the slight movement along the outside line of the gul. PIC11, a very imposing piece itself, is to me less well drawn precisely because the outside lines of its ikat guls more closely approach those drawn with a ruler.

Like my argument about PICS5,6 and 7 below but even more strongly, I want to suggest that PIC10 provides evidence that The Oops Thesis should not be applied too closely. More, I think it provides evidence of the possibility that there are instances in which the pre-occupations of The Oops Thesis can be positively wrong-headed and the source of aesthetic error.

During the board discussion and in side conversation, Yon Bard, who has an eye for systematic argument, has suggested that it might be possible to formulate this entire argument in terms that are susceptible to factual proof. In particular he feels that it might be best to first attempt to separate those instances in which variations are the result of weaver intent from those that are clearly mistakes. This might then permit more progress concerning, perhaps even resolution of, some of the debates entailed in The Oops Thesis. (Steve Price, had in an early post, drawn on Shiv Sikri’s “internal mirhab” study of Baluch weaving to suggest one specific test of weaver intentions. He proposed that we look for complete Balouch saddle bags that have the “internal mirhab” irregularity and then look to see if it occurs in the design of both halves. If they do then weaver intent is demonstrated.)

To this same end Yon offered the following taxonomy.

“I believe that apparent design irregularities arise from many causes, which can be roughly classified as follows:

1. Minor errors: relatively few inadvertently misplaced knots occur even in Ardebil-quality carpets, as someone has pointed out in this Salon.
2. Incompetence: The weaver intends to weave a certain design, but cannot bring it off. In this category we should include cases of poor planning (e.g., squashing a pattern because there is no room; see Steve Price's article in ORR) or change of mind.
3. Creativity: The weaver intentionally tampers with the design in an individual manner, to please herself for some reason or another.
4. Tradition: The weaver intentionally tampers with the design in specific ways dictated by tradition.”

I think this is a useful statement of logical possibilities but do not think that we can reduce the issues raised by The Oops Thesis to factual demonstration. This is not a debate only about the factual question of weaver mistakes versus deliberate variations for effect. This debate is also importantly defined in how an observer experiences (and is advised to experience) particular regularities and irregularities in drawing regardless of weaver intent. It is, therefore, I think, to an extent unavoidably one which resides in a quite different philosophic world, that of the optimum character and application of a socially defined rule. Facts can be employed at points but the perspective of the rule follower cannot I think be avoided. If you found you eye lids drooping a bit during the last sentence or two you may be experiencing what Yon did and what has resulted in my not being able to make this argument to him successfully to date.

So how do we end up? Well in some sense we don’t. We have merely used some examples to explore for each of us what the best statement of The Oops Thesis is and the related matters of how we closely and an consistently we would recommend that it be applied.

But I can suggest where it took me. I think the strength of The Oops Thesis is that while it licenses our liking a piece in spite of its faults, it rightfully suggests that we should be suspicious whenever we find that we are praising some aspect of a weaving because of its crudeness and faultiness. It also indicates soundly that we should probably give up any notion that crude drawing indicates the “archaic,” the “authentic,” and especially, the “older.”

On the other hand, I think that there are variations that are legitimately experienced as pleasing and that some variations do work the enhance a design’s aesthetic quality. This I think should function as a caution against always holding with the seeming insistence of The Oops Thesis that regularity is inherently aesthetically superior.

Steve tells me that there were perhaps 90 posts in this salon. Although this number would likely be less impressive when my own are subtracted, I would like to think that this means that you found our exploration of The Oops Thesis interesting and useful.

R. John Howe

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