Prying Open Pandora's Box

May 27, 2011

My last brief post seems to have struck a chord, and though I'm inclined to avoid discussions involving absolutes when it comes to crafts and arts, I think it's time for a juicy, responsible and well-mannered argument. Consider me to have just pried open this Pandora's box.

The issue at hand: yarnbombing. Some commenters on my post about the New York Times article on yarn graffiti seemed fairly offended by several things, be it that: a) yarn graffiti can harm trees and birds; b) it's a waste of yarn; c) it's a waste of time; d) when people are going unsheltered and unclothed, it's offensive to spend one's resources on such useless crap; e) it shows crochet in a bad light.

I happen to think yarnbombing is wonderful. I've yet to hear of harm coming to ecosystems or wildlife, though I do think this argument is the strongest caution against yarn graffiti. I'm inclined to consider trees strong enough to withstand wearing a sweater for a few months, but I would like to know if anyone's heard of birds coming to harm either from becoming ensnared in yarn bombs or by mistaking it for food.

As for the other points, I see a lot of false dichotomies and judgment being tossed about. I get very twitchy when folks even sort of imply that art is a waste of time or money. Even art that makes you recoil is good to have around. Art makes us feel and it makes us think. Sure, especially in hard economic times it's easy to decide that money spent on "nonessential" things should be reallocated elsewhere, but I'll urge you to imagine a community devoid of art – that's not a very healthy community.

Though street art is more controversial than some other art forms, I'm a fan of it, too. And unlike paint-based graffiti, yarn graffiti is impermanent. It's easy to remove. And for the most part, people find it to be an enhancement rather than vandalism. But to each her own. If your bus shelter is yarn bombed and you're horrified, all you need is a pair of scissors to undo it.

When it comes to how an individual crafter spends her time, what's it to you? You make what you want to make, I'll make what I want to make, and we'll come together and talk about the things we've learned and the accomplishments we've achieved and the satisfaction we've felt. The sweater makers will appreciate the doily makers and the charity crafters will appreciate the sock crocheters, and we'll all be the better for it.

As for giving crochet a bad rap, I don't buy that either. Through yarn bombing, I see crochet featured in art galleries, in magazines and newspapers, and in blogs the world over. Better yet, when it comes to yarn bombing crochet is given equal billing to knitting – yarn bombers are yarn bombers, not crocheters or knitters. It's refreshing! All I see that has the potential to give crochet a bad name is crocheters casting aspersions or implying that the craft is only good for some applications but not others.

So. What do you think? Let 'er rip. And be nice, for topics such as this tend to get heated fast. Let's keep in mind that every opinion is welcome, but haters aren't.

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on May 27, 2011 10:43 AM

Where to begin? As a practitioner of the sneaky stitch it makes me weary to my yarny soul when people say "Well you should be knitting for homeless penguins with TB and not wasting your time and materials on graffiti!".

I am pretty sure they're not buying only the basics for dinner so they can use the rest of the money to feed the hungry, or turning on their TV just for the news in order to conserve our planet's energy reserves. The annoying fact is that they seem to preach that certain people should be selfless with what they do but aren't willing to be entirely selfless in what they do. Do as I say but don't do as I do, anyone?

Add to this the fact that graffiti knitting does more than just look pretty. It changes the way people think about their surroundings. It's not just a lamp post or dull concrete corner, it's a canvas.

And as for wasting materials we're back to the same old same old. Sure Michalangelo's marble would have made a whole lot of nice practical basins for the local hospital. Curse him for thinking it'd be better to carve a giant naked man from it instead. I'm not saying that every yarnstorm/bomb is fine art but it is art. It's creative, inspiring and personal.

As you say a world without art would be a sinister space indeed. Art is of huge importance socially and for the economy. Look at how many designers and makers we have out there in some of the world's biggest companies.

There's a quote from Winston Churchill (which has dubious origins but it's a great quote anyway) that says it very well. The story goes that when Winston Churchill was asked to cut arts funding in favour of the war effort, he simply replied ‘then what are we fighting for’? Point well made, Mr Churchill (or the person who made up the quote and said it was Churchill).

Long live the sneaky stitch.

JaneN1 wrote
on May 27, 2011 11:41 AM

I'm also a yarnbomber (I like to call myself a yarn tagger)--and I like the controversy that surrounds street yarn art!  That is, at least as long as people have conversations about what should be the purpose of art, and what yarn artists might do to share their skills with the world, and what is and isn't "beautiful."

Those conversations should be part of anyone's day, and all of us should have the opportunity to be challenged and stretched in our ideas about art.  Yarn tags on the street can allow those conversations. And maybe they help us all realize that there are many different ways of having an artistic impact on the world.

My small "tagging" group is made up of a couple of general fiber artists, a crocheter, and a knitter.  We used thrifted yarns and yarns from our stash, and use simple stitches so anyone can join us as we collaborate on our pieces. All of us make gifts and charity items, too, and two of us make a living selling fiber art.

Our goal as yarn taggers is to add beauty and handmade art to street fixtures--lamp posts, sign posts, parking meters, etc.--that are merely functional, mass-produced, and--let’s face it--rather ugly. We've gotten puzzled looks and many thank-yous.  

Thanks for bringing up this subject in your blog, Kim!

e11iejane wrote
on May 27, 2011 11:45 AM

I'd never considered the negative aspects oof yarnbombing, and I am a fan! There have been some great examples - one of my favorites is the yarn covered bike at Knotty by Nature in Victoria, BC.

I tend to think that anyrhing that draws attention to yarncrafts is a great thing!

Char55 wrote
on May 27, 2011 11:51 AM

I'm not against art; I love art; I just don't happen to consider this the article said, it's graffiti.

Did any of these "yarnbombers" ask permission from the sculptor of the bull on Wall Street or the statue of Rocky in Philadelphia, that was covered in yarn?

How would you feel if you spent hours working on a sculpture only to have  someone come along and paint it or cover it because they didn't like the way it looked. What makes the yarnbombers opinion of the piece more important than that of the creator of the piece?

Doesn't that artist have rights too?

Kim Werker wrote
on May 27, 2011 12:01 PM

@Char55 – You raise a good point. One of the reasons I think yarn bombing is so great is that it poses no permanent threat to street fixtures or public art. I'm inclined, as a creator, to enjoy the growth and sometimes the challenge of someone riffing off something I've made. As a fan of public art, I appreciate commentary on that art. The question of whether yarn bombing is vandalism is a good one. I'm inclined to think it isn't, since it poses no threat to the original integrity of its subject. The sculptor of that bull may disagree with me, and the argument we'd have would (hopefully) be a good addition to public discourse on art. (One of the things I enjoy about yarn bombing is that it raises the same types of discussions modern art tends to raise – "That isn't art." "That's brilliant art.")

LisaB@82 wrote
on May 27, 2011 12:51 PM

@char55  I'm inclined to think that if artists are that offended by temporary alterations to their work, they should not be making art that gets put in public places.  

Reminds me of the outdoor sculpture park in Seattle which has huge walls of rusting metal as one of the art installations.... and a guard who stands there to make sure no one touches them.   In contrast with outdoor sculptures in Vancouver that kids use as play structures.  I prefer the art as play structures.  Artists that don't want their art touched, played with, temporarily covered in yarn, etc. should keep their stuff in galleries, I guess.  

I feel differently when the alteration is permanent (like paint graffiti) -then I'm with you, but yarnbombing is not permanently altering anything.

on May 27, 2011 1:54 PM

I think I should prefix this with the fact that I'm a public art maker and run my own community art non profit.

I feel that things like yarn bombing brings attention to and a focus back to the pieces of public art that have been there so long that they blend into the landscape... without being destructive or permanent. And that's a huge point, all it takes is some scissors to remove the yarn - unlike paint which can destroy the work underneath.

It makes the art/landscape/street meter pop back into our conscious thought and brings an appreciation for them all over again.

On the note of homelessness and using yarn for a better purpose. While I feel I can make whatever I want with my yarn and no one better try and tell me otherwise. A group I was involved with in Chicago yarn bombed public art with mittens, hats, and scarves and the homeless were encouraged to take ownership of them. So it's not always just for the spark of color, it can be both.

The environment - birds often pick the yarn apart and use it for nests, it never lasts long enough to damage a tree, and bugs most likely love it. I've never heard of paws, feet, claws getting stuck in it. And it's a heck of a lot less destructive than say painting a mural - which I can personally attest to killing over a 1000 bugs and fuming out myself, 3 volunteers, and who knows how much wild life.

Now the whole topic of whether or not this is an art form, that's a whole other huge pandora's box of discussion. Personally, i feel it's all in the intent. Is the intent to make an art piece? I'm not saying one is better over the other, I'm just saying that some yarn bomb projects might be considered art, while the same exact piece in a different context/ with a different intent/by a different person could be considered just a yarn bomb and nothing more. And that's how I see graffiti, street art is different than gang tags, though the method may be the same (spray paint).

And on a last note, the only time I'm against yarn bombing is when it pertains to safety - like the project that covered railroad crossing bars. Or say piece over traffic lights/stop signs, and that kind of thing. Don't be a jerk. Don't cause accidents with your yarn.

Char55 wrote
on May 27, 2011 4:32 PM

You say that the artist should be flattered because it brings attention back to the art and that it isn't really vandalism because it's temporary. I say if it's not your property and/or you don't have permission, it's vandalism.

LisaB@82, you said "In contrast with outdoor sculptures in Vancouver that kids use as play structures.  I prefer the art as play structures. " Okay that being the case what would you say if one of the "avant garde" artist types that like to cover everything in urine and *** (thinking MOMA exhibits in NYC) decided to do that to the art that you define as play structures. Would that offend you? After all, they are artists, it calls attention to the artwork, and it's only washes off.

Or sticking to yarn bombing, yarn tends to stretch, slip and's pretty, but if it's on one of these pieces you define as "art play structures", and some kid still sees it as a play structure, and gets hurt because the yarn slips and slides while he's climbing...who pays for the kid's injuries and/or gets sued...the city, the property where the art is displayed, or the yarn bomber?

cdthomas wrote
on May 31, 2011 12:05 PM

... and would a yarn bomber be flattered, or angered, if a large piece were tagged by the paint graffiti crews whom cities now fight as gangs? Why should one group be privileged citizens, and the other, not?

And if we're so careful to otherwise recycle, why not care about what types of yarn are used, so their dissolving/dismantling's effect on the environment is minimal?

As for the question of What Is Art? I know that harkens back to the avant-garde and abstract expressionism, and the borderline between art and craft, itself -- but it doesn't mean we should stop asking the question, or developing our personal aesthetics. I thought crafting should be useful art; I know YMMV.

cdthomas wrote
on Jun 2, 2011 12:33 PM

And a related essay, on how the Art for Art's Sake argument doesn't hold water the way it used to:

D.B wrote
on Jun 3, 2011 2:20 PM

I don't believe that Yarn Bombing should be lumped in with Tagging, they are two entirely different things. One creates permanent damage, is used to mark territories, issue death threats and when applied to homes as I've seen here in Los Angeles , is disrespectful. Most bombers simply want to add a little color to the glass and concrete jungles we call cities and hopefully bring a smile to the people that happen to see it. Bomb on Sisters , Bomb on!!!!!

attain98 wrote
on Jul 21, 2011 4:38 AM