Posted by Sophia Gates on 02-09-2002 11:06 PM:

Western History, Eastern Art

OK. I want to address the subject of proof, since a "stimulating discussion" is apparently not enough for y'all. Sad, because I'm learning a lot and I'd like to think you are too

Absent good records and the availability of unlimited time to dig through piles of stuff in Turkey and the Caucasus, which I'd love to do someday BUT - I am going to attempt to demonstrate my position by using art which is well documented: that of painting. And, I am still working on another post on the subject of dualism, which is such an important part both of Eastern thinking and of Eastern art.

I have been working on this for some time and of course it has been my plan all along to introduce these themes, however I had wanted to cover other things first and also have been capitivated by the threads we already have going. So if you'll bear with me, I'll get these up ASAP, probably by Monday.

And of course I realize we aren't dealing with EXACTLY THE SAME STUFF but I believe you will be able able to see something of the process which I attempting to define.

At this point I'd like to interject a little humor into the situation, on the subject of proof: remember when they used to try witches? Throw you into the river; if you floated, you were a witch & they'd burn you; if you WEREN'T a witch, you'd sink and you'd drown. BUT - you'd get a Good Christian Burial.

Yo. I know how the witches felt

So I'll just have to show you, in pictures and in words, what I can PROVE.

Damn, I hate that word. And it's not because I'm a lazy consultant from off the street - just that the universe as I perceive it is so huge, complicated, ambiguous and mysterious that it is hubris even to think about "PROVING" things, beyond the simplest, most easily calibrated facts. Which, I might add, better research is constantly DISPROVING. As the King of Siam said, what I "know", isn't always 'SO'.

Having said that, I'LL TRY.

Now. Another note, oh great art history buffs: I have a degree, with honors and special honors, in art history. WHY do you think I am so skeptical, especially on the subject of Western art historians writing about NonWestern art? Because I am all too well acquainted with the phenomenon known as Proving The Truth We Want To Be True. Otherwise known as Having A Thought We Really Dig, then working to stick the big toe into the shoe until it fits, looks good and can be published, regardless of whether, in the fundamental sense of the word, it is TRUE, or not. You have PROVEN YOUR THESIS. You have PUBLISHED A BOOK, therefore what you say MUST BE CORRECT. Isn't that what Gantzhorn is doing, much to the general hoots of the rugpeople? Yet I think he has one of the better, more interesting - and yes, THOUGHT-PROVOKING cases I've seen.

But it is very much a case of a Western mind, trained to think in a Western mode, trying to discover The Truth about an Eastern art. And as I shall attempt to "prove", Eastern art by its nature embodies the very concept of duality, of ambiguity. And it certainly has a long history of abstraction, and using abstract symbols to convey meaning - just look at Chinese calligraphy! A very different way of thinking - and yet, here we are, trying to pin it down and "prove" things to our Western way of thinking.

I am not so ancient that my university days were back in the Dark Ages. And yet, my professors, who were learned people of British extraction, frankly referred to all persons of non-white European extraction as WOGS. WOGS were not considered to be Quite Our Sort, don't you know. And it wasn't such a long time before THAT, that a certain European community darn near exterminated my people. Also known as WOGS in certain parts, only much more dangerous ones. I know, I know, we are not to mention Unpleasant Subjects. So I'll move forward.

HISTORY and CIVILIZATION were understood to be WESTERN CIVILIZATION and EUROPEAN HISTORY. ART HISTORY of course meant, THAT WHICH BEGAN WITH THE GREEKS AND ENDED WITH - well, the jury's still out on that one. I believe De Kooning is the cutoff point for many although SOME will allow that Warhol MIGHT have had a thing or two to say. We had but very small collections of Japanese, Chinese, and Indian Art - strange, considering the extent to which Western art has been influenced by Eastern; ditto Persian, and of course a few African. No rugs. A good Egyptian collection though. Early "American" - yes - WHITE EUROPEAN AMERICAN.

And don't get me started on women's art. There wasn't any - the few exceptions are so glaring they can be counted on the fingers: Georgia O'Keefe, Mary Cassatt - such a tragic few. My more recent book has a few more. But much of women's work, embroidery, pottery, rugmaking - has been (is) too often delegated to "craft projects".

Granted it was a small school (exclusive!) and they were excellent at teaching what they did know, and AS ARTISTS were very much aware of Eastern and tribal art. BUT IT WASN'T TAUGHT as history - any more than Native American history was taught in my high school.

Fortunately yours truly had a large PRIVATE library

And yes I do believe in reading

AND: are you so positive that all the authors you cite are seeing with clear eyes? Or are they trained to believe in Classical Fine Art and believe, therefore, that Persian art represents a High Point whereas peasant art must naturally follow? Are you ABSOLUTELY POSITIVE that they aren't determined to find a model which will fit their preconceived ideas about how the creative process works? About how art is made? Are you absolutely SURE that they don't want to "discover" that complicated city art is better than that stuff the untrained women do in their spare time and therefore, trickled DOWN to them?

Working backwards, looking for the tracks of the bear, you can probably find - LOTS OF BEAR TRACKS. But - where is the bear? I am of course speaking metaphorically, in case you want me to PROVE THERE IS A BEAR. By Bear I mean, the thinking, feeling individuals who made the art. By attempting to track every last little mark back to its sources, aren't we forgetting that a PERSON, not a series of bear tracks, made the rugs? That's what I'm trying to say. And I'm trying to say, regardless of how many influences came into the region, from all four directions as Pat said, there is still a palpable Caucasian esthetic. And I believe it is, in its most evolved state, geometric. I do not believe that it started off at a high point in the 17th century and went downhill. I think it got better and better up until the brilliant idea the government had to try & pin it down - at which point, kerplunk, it started to die.

Now THIS - I can't prove. It is an OPINION. An ESTHETIC JUDGEMENT.

I will grant you, there has been an explosion in openness and the interchange of information regarding both the arts and other cultures, just in the past few years. But lest we forget, we're still getting upset over the idea of "POLITICAL CORRECTNESS" right here on this very board. And having a chuckle or two about the concept. Which as you've gathered, I don't find particularly funny

Therefore I submit to you, we aren't really all that enlightened. Yet. Although I do believe, as a group, we are all trying, and are all sincere in our love for rugs and are really doing our best.

But part of learning more is to try and accept that having one's assumptions prodded a bit CAN be valuable. John, I gather you're an educator. What do you want to learn? Tell me!

I'm trying to give you the benefit of a lifetime of work in the arts AND the history of the arts. Admittedly my qualifications are different from those of the historians you cite. Presumably, if you will just look at the pictures I've presented, really LOOK at them; listen to a little of what I'm trying to express, maybe you'll see what I'm trying to tell you.

Now, I have to go feed my dragons

Posted by Michael Wendorf on 02-10-2002 12:16 AM:

a pot or a kettle?

Dear Sophia:

You wrote: "Why do you think I am so skeptical, especially on the subject of Western art historians writing about non-Western art? Because I am all too well acquainted with the phenomenon known as Proving The Truth We Want To Be True. Otherwise known as Having a Thought We Really Dig, then working to stick the big toe into the shoe until it fits..."

My point exactly. And excuse me, but this sounds to me like the pot calling the kettle black.

Is that a "stew" you are cooking?

Regards, Michael

Posted by R. John Howe on 02-10-2002 07:08 AM:

Hi Sophia -

You must be doing something right here because I think we just passed the previous high number of posts in a salon and we still have most of a week to go. So you're clearly touching "nerves" here, although I think we are (perhaps unavoidably) often talking "past" one another.

Here I want in part to complain slightly of being misheard in my last post in another thread. I have not said that "thinking" is not useful or that "a good discussion" might not be one setting in which useful learning might occur. I am saying instead that neither of these activities seems to me to be usefully treated as endpoints. They may sometimes be "necessary" preconditions of learning but they are not for me nearly "sufficient." You seem content if you stir a little of what you call "thinking." I would argue that you are too easily satisfied on that ground and cannot in fact tell when you have been successful with that objective stated in those terms. We could very well be kidding ourselves that there is anything useful going on in these conversations if we don't adopt some means of gauging progress.

You also ask what is it that I would like to learn.

Well, I'd like to know how to distinguish some of the sub-groups within the Yomut, Ersari and the non-Turkmen Central Asian rubrics.

I'd like to have a drawing or photo of a Turkmen khalyk in use including, if possible, a demonstration of how the germech fits in as a litter decoration.

My list is longer but I won't tax you with it.

I do not have many of the questions about design that fascinate so many of the folks in the rug world, since it seems pretty obvious to me that designs travel quite readily and at great distances.

I was once a fairly serious knotter in the world of macrame. I could literally make anything I could see. Most of my best pieces were versions of pieces I had seen that were knotted byan old retired merchant marine sailor in the Baltimore area who had one lung and one kidney but whose pieces were for me sheer poetry. So much for what someone in the future might call the "Columbia, MD tradition of macrame."

Marla Mallett has pointed out that what might seem to us to be a passing of a given design over an extended period of time might be a poor woman in Instanbul who got a glimpse of a Topkapi museum masterpiece and walked home and did her "village" version of it the next week.

Design development, distinctiveness and source questions do not interest me much because they seem hopelessly speculative. Yes it is, no it isn't exchanges do not attract me.

I am also not encouraged that you seem likely to take us in the direction of Easter philosophy and religion because I just barely escaped the Protestant fundamentalists with part of my mental faculties intact.


R. John Howe

Posted by Steve Price on 02-10-2002 08:36 AM:

Hi Sophia,

I'd like to restate a very important point about proof: It doesn't exist. Evidence does, and either supports or is inconsistent with various hypotheses (ideas, notions, fantasies, depending on how well-baked they are at the time). What we generally refer to as "proof" is repeated failure to disprove, using a number of independent methods. I do not recall seeing anyone call for proof during this Salon, since it is not a possible outcome of any investigation
even in principle. A number of people, including me, have asked for evidence that would bear on the likelihood of particular assertions (hypotheses, etc.) being correct. My position, in a nutshell, is that if there is no verifiable evidence available, the hypothesis is still just a notion, and if no verifiable evidence is possible even in principle, the hypothesis is a fantasy.

I recognize and accept that some things will remain unknowable and some actual truths will be missed when this set of rules is imposed.


Steve Price

Posted by Sophia Gates on 02-10-2002 12:53 PM:

A Stew?


I think my point is not so hard to prove: just look at the rugs! And see Pat Weiler's response in another thread. But bear with me, I'm doing some more work on this, and on design theory in general.

What was it that I'm trying to "prove", by the way - I'm getting confused here.

I think what I'm trying to say is that Caucasian rugs have an essential form. Their essential form, regardless of how may outside influences came in, is bold, geometric, totemic in nature. This is what I think of when I think of Caucasian rugs. I do not think they are "watered down" anything.

Now - I agree with you that they often absorbed many Persian MOTIFS. Motif and Design are not the same thing. Design incorporates many elements and decorative motifs, which when put together form PATTERNS, are elements of design. Truthfully, the Persian connection has been so well absorbed, to my mind, by the essential Caucasian "idea" that I didn't mention it in my initial thesis, which was - as I've also stated - a hole in my thinking. I did reference Persian TRIBAL design, which is a different thing.

So, when we see a geometricized Afshan motif, for example, in a Caucasian rug, we can say, yes indeedy - that motif was invented by Persians and wound up here. That is true! BUT - it no longer LOOKS like a Persian motif. It has been altered into something different, which makes a completely different statement.

And yes - I'm trying to make a STEW. I am trying to feed you some ideas about how design is created and how it works. How ideas are assimilated from other art, from the inner self, and from the observation of nature - and how all these put together make a STATEMENT. Art is trying to communicate. As you can see it is difficult. But you respond to it, yes? You feel it, you have it on your wall. Why?

Posted by Sophia Gates on 02-10-2002 01:07 PM:

Belief Systems

Dear John:

Oh dear. I can't help you with most of your wish list! And, I'm afraid I am going to introduce some Eastern philosophy. Belief systems are absolutely essential to how people perceive nature, their places in the world, and of course how they make or understand art.

So, be brave, it won't hurt a bit.

After all - doesn't it make the Christian paintings, such as that splendid Hans Memling I showed you, all the more interesting to know some of the iconography? Christian iconography is the whole basis for Gantzhorn's fascinating theory and it is one I have introduced into this discussion, via the Shirvan prayer rug and also via the Icon/Symbol thread, so I fear it must be dealt with.

A question: how can you collect Eastern art and not be interested in their religion(s)?

And - a note to Steve: belief systems can also CLOUD the vision. That's one reason people have to be educated to fully appreciate art: layers of belief stand between us and what other people are trying to say. And, our survival instincts - which as Pat rightly points out are the whole basis for our responses to certain art, or icons and colors and symbols in art - can be clouded by our "belief" that we are safe! A real problem for 21st century Americans, by the way - look what a shock we suffered when the Trade Center FELL DOWN. Whoa. But these rugs, our antique rugs and the reproductions we can buy, were designed by people who did not share most of our beliefs AND who did not feel particularly safe - especially the tribal people. So they're flashing their eye spots at you but you, being accustomed to buying chicken at the store rather than hunting for it, and being a 21st century American person and not a 19th century Asian person, can't readily see them, or don't know WHY you respond to them if you do.

Make sense?

Posted by Steve Price on 02-10-2002 02:29 PM:

Hi Sophia,

...people have to be educated to fully appreciate art. Let the congregation say, Amen. That's the near the center of the argument that art appreciation isn't instinctive or hardwired, it's learned. The position from which I have not wavered an inch. Do I take it that you now agree?

...belief systems can also CLOUD the vision. You go, Girl! That's exactly why it's so important to understand the belief system we are using. The European world lived in the dark ages for centuries, trapped by a particular belief system (the Scholastic tradition - if you want to know the truth, you find out what some respected authority thinks - he is right by definition). The Renaissance, stripped to its essentials, was the abandonment of that belief system and the adoption of one in which the individual was considered capable of evaluating evidence and arriving at the truth by doing so.

The part of the world that remains locked in some variant of the Scholastic tradition (I would stretch the usual definition to include appealing to wizards who go by assorted titles in various societies) believe that they can make it rain by dancing the right dance, and that if the dance fails it means that they have somehow displeased the Rain God, not that the dance is irrelevant to the weather.

Guys like me accept the fact that some cultural benefits are associated with superstitions, but believe that on balance we are better off for having abandoned the belief systems that make them a major force.


Steve Price

Posted by Sophia Gates on 02-10-2002 04:33 PM:

Not quite!

Dear Steve:

People need to be REeducated to remember essentials. This means, realizing we are animals and our brains are made in a certain way. In this sense too MUCH culture can be as enervating as too little. We are overwhelmed with messages from everywhere, telling us this, telling us that - yes, we need to educate ourselves to SLOW DOWN and just look at, feel, smell, taste, SENSE what's around us - THEN, we can start to look at art. I think rug collectors and other art collectors, music and film buffs, scholars - already are WAY ahead of the game. But even among this elite group, more sensitivity, more awareness, can't hurt.

And, in the case of Western culture, we are trained that we are God's children, NOT lowly animals; we are trained that Science is Important and Art is a Leisure Activity, if that - either way it isn't important; and IF we must look at art, a certain KIND of art is superior, i.e., REALISM. Impressionism has become acceptable too, although the first Impressionists were scorned by the critics.

Still, the fact that SOME art manages to get through all the layers of "civilization" means that it is still working on some level. It's probably most obvious and, for a few hours at least, most effective in film. Rugs, paintings, sculpture, have the advantage of being around all the time; they literally become part of our lives. Dance and music - so ephemeral too - but incredibly vital "in the moment" - and so important for everyone to DO - which we don't.

Another point: things, stylistically, tend to go in cycles. Sometimes they're recognized as important "in the moment"; sometimes not. The essential thing is, people are still trying to communicate and other people are still trying to listen to what they have to say. IN SPITE OF what we're told is or isn't good, is or isn't valuable or important; BUT it would be a lot EASIER if our particular culture had a higher regard for the arts in general.

TASTE in art is something that can be learned, refined, changed over the years. RECOGNITION OF WHAT IS ESSENTIAL in art is more a process of UNlearning than anything else - i.e., a deconstructive process, getting rid of the preconceptions and seeing the thing in its fur and bones.

Toward that end I've made you guys some little diagrams. I'm going to scan them in now and send them to Steve.

Finally a note on Belief Systems: Steve, it doesn't really matter whether we think our system is superior or not. When looking at other people's art we should be able to have an understanding, an empathy with, THEIR belief systems. This does help make the experience more fulfilling. And - it also doesn't necessarily matter whether or not we think we have made a Good Deal by ditching certain ideas - some people still have them and are diametrically opposed to us, and their have been showing their disapproval lately by stealing our airplanes and starting a war. Again - we can't help but have to deal with this.

Posted by Steve Price on 02-10-2002 04:50 PM:

Hi Sophia,

I'm confused. Nboody here has expressed opposition to learning about other ways of thinking or testing truth; nobody has denied that they exist; nobody has denied that every system of testing truth has inherent, inescapable blind spots. One obvious one in what we more or less loosely refer to as "scientific": if there are such things as miracles, the method is incapable of identifying them.

What's been suggested by some, and opposed rather vigorously by others (including me), is the notion that we can actually experience the world of the 19th century (or earlier) woman who wove rugs, and by doing so, we can really understand the rugs, the historical development of their design elements, and their meaning. You are clearly convinced that you are able to do that, and this is how you know that certain elements in the design have certain meanings. I am just as convinced that this is self-deception.

I don't devalue the role of art. I cite the time I put into this website as evidence that I value it very much. But I don't see it as a source of what I will loosely call objective truth. It evokes certain feelings that can be powerful, indeed. Those reactions are absolutely valid and real. BUT, they are also absolutely subjective, differing from person to person and from time to time. If the aim of our exercise is to extract some objectively valid information about historical events or processes, all the symphonies ever written, all the pieces of sculpture ever carved, all the rugs ever woven, won't give us objective answers from exploring them introspectively.


Steve Price

Posted by Marla Mallett on 02-10-2002 09:22 PM:

Appreciating a discipline and valuing its products is of course not the same thing as understanding it. I have not the vaguest idea of what goes on in chemistry labs, thus do not understand how one discovery or one breakthrough is likely to lead to the next and the next. I can certainly appreciate commercial products that may ultimately result from the research, but that does not help me to comprehend the development.

On the other hand, because of many long years of involvement with assorted creative activity in the visual arts—both in the studio and through teaching—I have an understanding of how some of the necessary creative mental processes work in the visual arts. Every conversation I have had with weavers in Turkey, Egypt and Morocco has confirmed my opinion that their mental processes are the same as those familiar to me. They vary predictably from person to person within a village neighborhood, just as they vary within a group of typical US college art students. Why is it not legitimate for someone with my background to apply this knowledge when studying design evolution in Western and Central Asia in the past? Even though most collectors thoroughly enjoy, appreciate and understand their rugs on a different level? I am talking about the formal aspects of the art form, and not literal meanings or symbolism. I’m not eager to speculate on those matters.


Posted by Steve Price on 02-10-2002 09:58 PM:

Hi Marla,

I'm not sure whether your post is a response to mine, but I'll treat it as though it is.

1. You note that appreciation of something and understanding it are two different things. I think so, too, and I make no pretenses to understanding the works of art that I appreciate so much. In fact, the majority of the differences of opinion that have appeared in this Salon revolve around the fact that some claim to be able to understand the art, others (like me) claim that this is not possible in any meaningful sense.
2. You ask why it is not legitimate for you to apply your background in visual arts to an understanding of the
formal aspects of the art form...not literal meanings or symbolism. Why would you think anyone believes that isn't legitimate? It's the claims of knowing the literal meanings and symbolism that have generated all the heat here.


Steve Price

Posted by Sophia Gates on 02-10-2002 11:22 PM:

Dear Steve,

As always, Marla puts things into the proper words! She is saying a great deal of what I am trying to say. I do think we can empathize with the creative process of another artist, if we know the language. Which is part of what I am trying to share

As far as "claiming to know what the symbols mean" - well, yes - because we DO know what they mean. Crosses have several layers of meaning; stars another; crescent moons and eyes, still others. These are so basic I can't believe we are quarreling over them. And there is no reason why the same form can't carry multiple meaning - for example the flower embroidery that Vincent showed us. Why CAN'T it mean, flower/insect???? These people were very aware of nature and flowers can't be polinated without insects.

Further, this is an example of what I mean by dualism. We have an either/or mental system. Dualism - a huge part of Oriental philosophy, says things can be BOTH. In fact, each part needs the other. Male/female, day/night; flower/insect. Seemingly Western "scientific" thought demands a one or the other approach; we may yet learn we are wrong, in the concrete, scientific sense. Nobody listened to Galileo either, folks. But even if you only "get it" on the artistic level - and it seems to me this is actually a very important level - it represents a major breakthrough in philosophy.

As far as whether some forms are dragon/scorpions or leaves - well, I'm sticking to my guns. A jagged edged form which looks dragon-like, in an environment literally crawling with the critters - well, let's quote Pat (and Marx, not Karl)


In "visual language" - FORM IS CONTENT.

Posted by Steve Price on 02-11-2002 06:43 AM:

Hi Sophia,

Excuse me, please, I'm baffled. I've reread Marla's post and yours a number of times now, so while I can't be absolutely sure I know what you mean, I am pretty confident that I understand what the words say.

Marla says, very explicitly, that her artistic background and experience ought to be useful in trying to understand the
formal aspects of the art form...not literal meanings or symbolism. The art form is, of course, weaving.

You respond by saying, "Hoorah for Marla, she got it right, as she almost always does!" No quarreling about that from me. Then, just when I think I know what's going on, you go on to say that you know the artist's language and the literal meaning of the symbols. Not only that, you think EVERYBODY does. Hey, Sophia, meet one person who doesn't. Me.

I know that I'm a pretty linear thinker, and I understand that this puts limits on my ability to comprehend. But:
How the hell can your statement be consistent with Marla's?


Steve Price

Posted by Sophia Gates on 02-11-2002 01:44 PM:

Which Statement?

Dear Steve:

Now I'm confused. How does Marla's statement that, as a creative artist, she can tell you what's involved in making art, contradict mine?

Is it the symbol thing again?

This is the only place I can see where we diverge. I'm stating that we respond on a subconscious level to certain visual stimuli, consciously depending upon our level of education to certain symbols.

The visual stimuli that seem to effect us are innate: beautiful woman, the color red, eyes, so forth. The SYMBOLS have various meanings depending upon culture but appear to have evolved from very old sources, back when they had meanings related to our survival. I'm arguing that on THAT level, they still affect us.

For example: large eyespots. Snakes. Sun symbols. Moon symbols. Shapes of people. Flowing shapes indicating water. These are so basic to our survival that their very forms have survived all this time and still have innate power.

Does this make sense? These by the way are TRADITIONAL symbols. I'm not making them up or claiming to be the only person who understands them.

Posted by Steve Price on 02-11-2002 02:31 PM:

Hi Sophia,

Marla's statement that she is in a pretty good position to understand the making of art, being an artist herself, seems completely reasonable to me. By extension, since you are also an artist, I think you are in a pretty good position to understand the making of art.

Then Marla went on to emphasize that this does not give her any insight into the literal meanings or symbolism, and she refers to attempts to do this through what we might call artistic intuition as speculation.

OK. Marla says she does NOT have any special insights into literal meanings or symbolism by virtue of her artistic background and training.

What, you ask, is contradictory to this in your post? The following:
As far as "claiming to know what the symbols mean" - well, yes - because we DO know what they mean. Marla says we can't know literal meanings and symbolism, you say that we can and do. Both statements are clear. I think the two positions are contradictory.


Steve Price

Posted by Marla Mallett on 02-11-2002 05:45 PM:

Sophia and I are in total agreement in regarding the ESSENCE of a work of art as being of first importance… that the MOTIFS may often be irrelevant and the source of them unimportant. Artists are always looking for ideas to use and it hardly matters where they are picked up. I’ve seen Anatolian weavers hungry for new “themes,” and they don’t much care where they come from. Sophia has tried to stress that FORM IS CONTENT. If we concern ourselves primarily with tracing the migrations of motifs, we might as well be collecting stamps as rugs. The visual arts are, first of all, concerned with the disposition of formal elements within a space, and the realization of an idea in physical form—whether or not there are literal references. The character of the formal elements carries the primary significance. It is in this rather nebulous arena that Sophia and I both claim to have some knowledge and understanding. Any practicing artist experiences a whole slew of nitty-gritty daily problems and agonies when involved with the creative processes…and very few of these are related to the choice of motifs. That’s usually just the starting point for a creative individual. For anyone who is content with copywork, it’s a different matter entirely.

As for literal meanings, here Sophia and I do tend to differ, at least in our emphasis. My graduate school training was in painting, and the more literal aspects of that medium suited my temperament less well than textiles, where my focus could be placed far more comfortably on the formal aspects—more on structural design, as in architecture or music. I love manipulating pure geometric form, and know that many other more “craft” oriented artisans do too; thus I am unhappy seeing literal references and symbolic intent so frequently attributed to other people’s weavings. That often means that important aspects of the work have been overlooked. I do not deny that symbolic content may be present. I just don’t know what it is, unless the weavers themselves have told me.


Posted by Sophia Gates on 02-11-2002 07:44 PM:

Dear Steve, Marla,,

Marla and I have discussed this point in the past, where we tend to diverge a bit. Marla is correct that things that LOOK like symbols can be created in carpet art, by virtue of the techniques employed in making the carpet.

And she has a good point when it comes to claiming to understand the symbolism inherent in ANYBODY'S work - weaver, writer, or painter. Nevertheless a study of iconography will reveal that, in many works, traditional symbols are present and they connote a very precise meaning. I do agree further with Marla, though, that if there's any medium in which a symbol might not be a symbol it is in weaving - due to the geometric nature of the very technique.

I tend to think that people get ideas which they proceed to make. Again, this is more of a painter's viewpoint because painters have to WANT to make a shape which in a weaving might occur by virtue of the act of weaving. In fact, geometric shapes require straight-edges, taping, so forth - they must be deliberately created and are actually harder to do in paint than in a weaving.

So - two opinions, which could probably both true at different moments of time and depending upon the work of art being made and who is making it.

Again: I believe I have been offering theories, not claiming to be the Libyan sibyl. So I can't fully understand the hostility with which my ideas are being received by certain individuals.

I am not claiming to be clairvoyant. Indeed, I have stressed how difficult it is to understand others and that art is one of the means we have of communicating thought, feeling and information. And Wendal and Michael's comments to the contrary, an education in the arts, and in art history, is absolutely of great benefit in understanding both the art and the process that created it. I think people are annoyed that I have mentioned that an understanding of dance, music, the history of the ancient world, belief systems and the study of art forms OTHER than rugs - might be beneficial in aiding their perception of rugs.

On the subject of symbolism, there are many, many works written. I'm holding one right now:

An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols
J. Cooper, 1978; Thames and Hudson, London
Library of Congress no 78-55429

I'm sure a quick visit to Amazon would reveal many others. It is a fascinating subject.

I think the fact that symbols can be ambiguous, taken out of context or insufficiently precise is one reason people invented written language. Words are symbols! Take these three letters:


Now - is this a furry creature with big eyes and lots of claws? No - but in English - it means one. It stands for one. Similarly, this word


means a symbol that can stand for many things, one of which is Christianity. One of the topics I tried to introduce in my Salon is the possibility that Armenian Christians had an important influence on Caucasian pile rugs. Nobody has grappled with that one. I think somehow we got bogged down in the dragons.

Dragons, incidentally, are such a complex and universal symbol that they require several paragraphs just to define in Cooper's book. I do NOT mean to infer that the dragon form on my bag evolved from Dragon Rugs. I do think they are possibly related to the 15th century ANATOLIAN dragon which is illustrated in the Icon/Symbol post (I think). The Kurdish people travel throughout that region and there is no reason to assume that they would not have been familiar with such symbols. Certainly they were familiar with such FORMS - strong, clear, geometric forms of great vigor.

I will resend the scans to Steve so you can see what I'm talking about side by side.

One more thought on symbolism: both Chinese and Hebrew "words" - I use the quote because Chinese words are expressed as symbols - can mean several things as written. Hebrew vowels are not generally expressed in writing, so the exact pronunciation and therefore meaning of the word/symbol must be inferred by connotation. And the Chinese symbols must be interpreted by context or voice: the voice "sings" in the Chinese language and the improper tone will connote a wrong meaning.