Tom Sutcliffe: The pious politics of the quilt

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I went to the Victoria and Albert last week – with a heavy heart – to see their new show Quilts 1700-2010. I don't think the stolid functionality of that title helped quell the apprehension, though there was a certain unintended comedy in the precision of the dating. "Quilts – All the Interesting Ones We've Got" would presumably have been just as accurate, unless there was some startling development in 1700 that transformed the world of medieval and renaissance patchwork. But I think it was the starkness of the monosyllable that did it, really. Quilts. Take it or leave it. And, barring a professional obligation to see the show, I would almost certainly have left it. I'm glad I didn't, though, because I emerged from the show with a light heart; and while that would have happened anyway – since I would have felt that I'd eaten my vegetables and could move on – it wasn't just relief. There are delightful and beautiful things here – and moving things, too.

One reason for the heavy heart though, was a dread of the pious politics that the show might represent. It's quite neatly summed up by the subtitle of the catalogue to the show – "Hidden Histories, Untold Stories" – which carries, like the faint scent of lavender in old linen, a faint perfume of grievance, a sense that all this stuff had been unfairly sidelined because it was traditionally women's work. It's very explicitly represented in the show by a thuddingly literal piece of contemporary work which uses dryer lint as a padding material and decorates the quilt with beautifully embroidered images of the instruments of women's oppression, such as microwave ovens and washing machines. For visitors with problems grasping the bleeding obvious, the artist helpfully glosses the work's meaning: "small pieces of fluff are trapped within the quilt in the same way as women are trapped", reads the label.

This dread wasn't unfulfilled – though nothing else in the show is remotely as dreary as that bit of rubric. And there's absolutely no question that there's creativity on show here – that point being driven home, paradoxically, by the fact that some of the quilts are very dull indeed or eye-wateringly ghastly. There are some that display all the subtle grasp of colour harmonies you might expect of a Shetland Terrier, but then you turn a corner and see something so lovely that you know at once that an artist's eye is at work. And the fact that you can tell the difference between the merely diligent and the inspired is proof that inspiration really is present, rather than mere pattern-making.

What is harder to resolve, though, is whether these pieces represent an art form that has been improperly marginalised in the past because it was the almost exclusive possession of women, or whether they are craft objects that are being artificially elevated now for the same reason. Was quilting really an expression of these women's creativity, in other words, or a good way of keeping it quiet? The prevailing orthodoxy is to take the former view – which is why contemporary artists celebrate this heritage in the modern works which use the techniques for pieces that wouldn't even be recognised as quilts by their predecessors. But I couldn't help but wonder what those historic needlewomen might have achieved if they'd had a less tradition-bound form of expression. There are beautiful things here – but the best of them are haunted by the question of what their makers might have become in a society that prized them as artists, and not just as needlewomen.

Quilts 1700-2010, V&A, London SW7 (020 7942 2000) to 4 July

A literary fury

Lionel Shriver's new novel So Much For That is by some distance the angriest I've read for years. Though I found it easy to think of angry plays and films, it was a bit tougher with novels. If you were trying to name the angriest sitcom you'd have a throng of contenders, including One Foot In The Grave, Fawlty Towers, Curb Your Enthusiasm or The Thick of It. Sustaining the mood is a little bit trickier in film, where anger tends to decay into bitterness and pathology, but Network, Falling Down, Crash and Dead Man's Shoes would have a claim. In theatre you'd think of Look Back in Anger, Lear and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. But books? I'm told the novels of Thomas Bernhard are impressively splenetic and I know The Catcher in the Rye gets quite a way on teenage scorn. But there must be others to go head-to-head with Shriver (pictured) for literary apoplexy. It's curiously soothing to read, so I'd be grateful for any suggestions.

James Cameron, announcing the DVD release of Avatar, joked that he has a deal with Fox that allows him to "leave the crap off" whenever his movies make over a billion dollars. So, Avatarians or whatever they choose to call themselves will only get the movie, rather than a hectoring FBI message about piracy and five unskippable trailers. I don't know whether he's serious about the deal, but he's certainly touched a nerve with consumers, many of whom seem to loathe the compulsory trailers you get on some DVDs. Given the success of trailer download sites – which have millions of people volunteering to be advertised to – this distaste must have to do with the compulsion rather than the trailer. One overexcited Avatar fan compared the idea of sticking forthcoming attractions on the DVD release as akin to putting ads in the Bible (that must have been tried, surely). I think that's going a bit far, but making the ads unskippable is like forcing you to read a bit of Dan Brown before you can open up page one of the Ian McEwan novel you were actually looking forward to. Directors should follow Cameron's example and fight a bit harder for the right to have the crap follow their films,

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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