Working Through Tradition: A Synopsis
The handmade carpet is one of the world’s oldest traditional arts. In the sheepherding lands where it reached its fullest expressions in the past, its production was central to cultural life, a thread that cut across class and frequently connected the nomad to the official, the town to the court, the mountain to the valley. What we lack in records related to the production, art and commerce of the “oriental carpet,” is offset by an abundance of material: thousands upon thousands of antique carpets that are sometimes known by the place names where they were sold; sometimes by the tribal or ethnic groups that are believed to have woven them; sometimes by the name of a legendary workshop, or even the name of an importer.
If names are handles meant to clarify instead of obscure, they rely on consensus, our mutual agreement that we can tell the difference between a “Serapi” and a “Heriz,” a “Mahal” and a “Ziegler,” a “Tekke” and a “Salor.” Much of our thinking and talk about antique carpets goes beyond attributes related to design, palette, materials and technique; much of it goes back in fact, to terms we inherited. To call a rug a “Holbein,” for example, or a “Lotto,” names of European painters who depicted certain Anatolian carpets in their work, is not so much a weakness of scholarship as a statement of western values: paintings matter. To name an Anatolian carpet after a European painter is an association meant to raise the value of that carpet to a western audience. It is the work of scholars to research the evidence, publish articles, and deliver lectures; it is the prerogative of the market—dealers, collectors, consumers, producers—to find ways to fill the gap between the auction catalogue and the bookshelf, to find ways to communicate values.
Reflecting the explosion in world population, an unprecedented number of knots were tied in the 20th century, a period during which the reputation of the carpet as an art was greatly diminished. The prescient writings of William Morris, in the 19th century, along with his foray into weaving a modern carpet rooted in the traditions of Turkey and Persia, did relatively little to enhance the connoisseurship—or demand—for traditionally made decorative carpets into the 20th century. The “mindless” work that characterized the untold quantities of “hand-knotted” carpets—both in terms of artistry and materials—commissioned during the greatest expansion in the history of the world’s economy, was a rebuke to all that Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement stood for. Beyond Morris, the fate of the traditional carpet paralleled the fate of countless other species of art and wildlife over the same period To equate the fate of the world’s environment to the fate of a traditional art is not far-fetched, it is instructive: in contrast to the “mixed-media values” of much of contemporary art and design, the decidedly old-fashioned, utilitarian, craft values of the traditional carpet are intimately tied to the equally old-fashioned technologies—considered nearly “extinct” only three decades ago—of natural dyeing and hand-spinning: materials matter.
What does it mean to be a producer of traditional carpets in the first decade of the 21st century? If the “oriental carpet,” thousands of years in development, survived modernization by returning to quality over volume, then our work must be to continue to look hard and carefully at the material that is our greatest resource: the carpets themselves. The traditional carpet is a marvel of engineering and its values are human to the core: no other object produced in the world today has a greater potential to add or subtract from the value of time itself, yet less is understood about it by the public than is known about the contents in a box of cereal. As such, it is a lightning rod for society’s anxieties about all kinds of social, economic, gender, labor and development issues. To turn the “oriental carpet” into a litmus test for what ails the “developing world” is to persist in a disconnect the world can no longer afford. And to confuse design with tradition at the expense of what it is that brings design to life, craft and materials, is also to ignore the only “true” evidence at our disposal.
It is not foolish now to invoke aesthetics as a basis for thinking about the future, any more than it is romantic to say that unbridled industrial development threatens the future of the planet. It is not even incongruous for a business to say so in an advertisement. It is not too late to assert that traditional art, to the degree that it responds to our common need to find work rewarding, while also allowing us to take pleasure in the objects that fill our homes, may be the best option we have in bringing human needs and desire into balance with the rest of the world. Taste matters.