Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), perhaps the most important European philosopher of modern times, provides in his Critique of Judgement, explanations of charm and beauty which provide especially apt tools with which to articulate our aesthetic response to patchwork quilts.
According to Kant, we regard an object as beautiful if, on the one hand, we see that it has a formal structure of some sort, but we do not possess a concept which captures (or characterizes) this formal structure. Thus, when someone sees a tree in winter with its bare branches outlined against the sky, we see the form of the tree but, unless we are botanists, we do not know what the purpose of this formal structure is. The effect upon us of seeing this sort of 'significance'-clearly the branches of the tree are organized in some way and for some purpose-is that we take delight in the significance of this object (whatever it might be) and express this delight by saying that the object is beautiful.
In other words, beauty is the concept that we use when we do not know how to characterize the form/pattern that we see displayed in an object. Charm is something entirely different. According to Kant, to be charmed by an object has nothing to do with its form. Instead it is the effect of having our attention captured by some element of repetition in the object which does not strike us as forming any discernible pattern.
The classic examples of charm are the flickering of the flames in an open fire, and the babbling of a brook. In both cases, the little trance we fall into (as we are charmed by the variations we see or hear) is a function of the continuous stimulus that these unpatterned variations provide to our imagination. To appreciate the nature of charm we need to look more closely at beauty. With beauty, the suggestion of some sort of pattern or form in the object prompts us to seek to understand it and our understanding supplies various trial concepts ("It is like a person dancing, like a horse galloping, like a tree in the wind, etc.) However, these concepts never quite seem to capture the elusive sense of significance which we detect in the pattern displayed by the object. However, this ongoing process of seeking an apt concept explains why we speak of contemplating a beautiful object, for this contemplation is that process which Kant has described as the harmonious interplay between the imagination and the understanding.
The essence of this interplay can be exhibited via the following dialogue. confronted by a beautiful object, the Imagination says, in effect: "There is something significant here, some pattern, some organization of these parts that is worthy of notice. It invites us to understand it-i.e, come up with some concept that would adequately characterize this pattern." This observation prompts the Understanding to say: "Yes, I see what you are talking about: the pattern which you have drawn to my attention is a bit like (and here it offers some trial concept) but, I admit, that the pattern displayed by the object doesn't quite fall under this (trial) concept." The imagination then begins to play around with the pattern again, trying to find some new perspective on it which the understanding will recognize under some familiar concept. This internal dialogue is of course unspoken but our silent contemplation of beauty and the lively delight we take in it is sustained by this playful interaction between these two faculties.
In the case of charm, the understanding is not engaged in the aesthetic enterprise because no pattern is evident. The sounds have no significance (this is evident in the word we use to describe the sound of the brook-babbling) so there is no motive for the understanding to supply a concept which might explain these variations. They are evidently random variations, though held within some sort of limit. The fact that they are limited is crucial because this limit is what first attracts the attention of the imagination since the idea of a limit is the first hint, as it were, that there is some sort of pattern within these variations. In effect, the imagination is entranced by variations within this limit. (The lack of a limit explains why random street noises are not charming/entrancing.) The sense of a limit which constrains these variations is enough to entice the imagination with the hope of hearing or seeing some pattern that would illuminate the character of the limit which controls these variations. (The imagination has this tendency to search 'hopefully' for such patterns, perhaps because its evolutionary task is to constantly be on the alert for any potential patterns in the environment and thus supply the understanding with such potentially useful food for thought.) It is the continuous character of the variations-randomly playing within the limits-that captures our imagination. In such cases, the variations being experienced have no significance. They have, as we say, charm but not beauty. As such, one does not contemplate the babbling of the brook, one is instead entranced or charmed by its constantly varying sounds.
How does this all apply to the aesthetic response we have to the several varieties of patchwork quilts? One of the fundamental features of patchwork quilts is their division into geometric units or 'patches'. The repetition of these units, in various formal arrays, provides the quilt with its fundamental structure. This formal structure provides the necessary aesthetic starting point: the imagination detects this structural element and turns to the understanding for an appropriate concept. Now, among the initiated, the understanding can supply appropriate concepts for these geometric patterns ('Texas star', 'log cabin', 'tumbling squares', etc.) but the geometric patterns which are the fundamental structure of the patchwork quilt have quite a different effect on those unfamiliar with their names. The aesthetic effect on the uninitiated is much stronger than on the initiated because looking at the unknown pattern initiates a dialogue (described above) between the imagination and the understanding and induces contemplation-the state associated with the appreciation of beauty. Among the initiated, this dialogue is cut short by the fact that the understanding immediately recognizes the pattern in question so that the judgment of this aspect of the quilt is an intellectual judgement ( "That's a texas star design" rather than an aesthetic one ("That's beautiful").
The consequence of this is that those who are familiar with the standard repertoire of patterns are always seeking fresh examples of the art (fresh patterns) since only these will stimulate their aesthetic sense anew. As we will see, familiar patterns never lose their charm but charm and beauty are different and deserve to be properly distinguished.
The Charm of Repetition
In patchwork, the fundamental geometric arrangement of patches is particularly interesting because, in some cases, the rule for the arrangement of the squares is quite simple and we do have an appropriate concept through which we can characterize the arrangement. This means that we do not regard such simple arrangements as beautiful (for example, a square grid with three squares on each side) This is because we know what rule is being followed in the arrangement of the squares so our judgment is an intellectual one (i.e "This quilt is an instance of the 3 x 3 square grid arrangement.) not an aesthetic judgment ("What a beautiful arrangement"). However, typically a 'charm' quilt which follows some simple array has another element within it which produces the charming effect. Although the geometric arrangement follows a simple pattern and is easily recognized under a concept, the colour variations from patch to patch produce the visual equivalent of the babbling of the brook: an unpredictable set of variations within a limit imposed by the geometric arrangement of the patches. Since in the case of a charm quilt, this geometric arrangement has nothing whatever to do with the colour content of the patches, these colour variations cannot prompt contemplation because the imagination cannot detect any pattern which binds them together. Nevertheless, they are bound together by the limit imposed by the geometrical arrangement of the patches and, as a consequence, these variations charm us. Because, in a charm quilt, the variations in colour are unpredictable, no pattern can be discerned. Therefore it is not a candidate for the 'beautiful' response. This is because the imagination cannot say of this variation - "I detect a rule or pattern here which binds these variations together". Hence, the understanding cannot enter into any interplay with the imagination and we cannot contemplate the beauty of the variation: we can only be charmed by it.
This is particularly evident in the so called 'crazy quilt' in which, as the name suggests, there is no rule governing the colour of the items which fill up the formal geometric grid. The use of colour in quilting is subject to these same aesthetic laws. At one extreme is the crazy quilt where charm is almost reduced to randomness because of the lack of any colour pattern (e.g., light to dark) which the variations can be thought of as exemplifying. The formal pattern (geometric grid of patches) provides a substitute for this pattern that should hold the colour variations together and so we get 'charm on the cheap' so to speak: the variations are only unified (and thus possess the power to charm us) in terms of the formal limit provided by the geometric grid. Such a quilt is not nearly as charming as one in which the variations are played out within some colour scheme, e.g., a number of identical geometric patterns featuring a common dark to light pattern exemplified in different colours. Here there is no pattern evident in respect to which colours (hues) exemplify the dark to light pattern so that this random play of variations is able to charm us. Patterns of brightness (light to dark) provide the limit, unpatterned variations of hue provide the charm. The rule for producing a charming quilt is therefore: always introduce some level of random variation within some limit. Beauty is also a factor that can be more of less controlled by manipulating formal structures. Thus, if the formal arrangement of the squares is very simple, there will be no intuitive sense of 'significance' (what Kant called 'finality' or 'purposiveness') to intrigue us. When we first look at the quilt we will immediately recognize the pattern (a grid of triangles) and hence have nothing to prompt contemplation. Clearly, the more subtle we make the pattern, the greater will be its power to induce a sense of 'significance' which in turn induces the contemplation which underlies the delight we experience when confronted by beauty.
The Baltimore Quilt
Sometimes the theme which organizes a quilt can be quite obvious, as in the case of a block quilt whose squares each picture items which are all clearly related to, say, the elements of springtime, or a Christmas theme. In this case, the beautiful effect is diminished because we can clearly recognize what the theme is and how the variations are related to it. Our response to it takes the form of an intellectual judgement rather than an aesthetic one. We may still be charmed by it but we will not think it worth contemplating. Patchworkers often avoid this result by producing stylized representations of those items connected by themes. When the variations are presented in a stylized way, they will not be recognized as fitting a particular concept (at first glance). The imagination will then have to do something-be creative if you like- in order to succeed in getting the understanding to recognize the relation these stylized items bear to the overall theme. This serves to prompt that dialogue between the understanding and the imagination which is the underlying essence of the contemplation that signals a thing of beauty. However, in this case, the dialogue does eventually end, so that the aesthetic 'puzzle' resolves itself into an intellectual judgement- "Its all about where the patchworkers first met their husbands" - and thus ceases to be an aesthetic judgment. The aesthetic summit in the patchwork world is generally thought to be the Baltimore quilt.
Perhaps this is because, in this case, beauty and charm are interwoven in a particularly subtle way. In the first place, the theme is often entirely abstract in the sense that the designs within the individual squares bear only a family resemblance to each other so that we cannot articulate the rule that binds them all together as 'Baltimore' designs. Yet we sense the family resemblance between them so that the conditions are perfect for contemplation-for the experience of beauty. We know there is a common thread, a rule, tying all the instances together, but we cannot articulate it and so the dialogue that makes for beauty is set in train without any likelihood of a resolution. This confirms and explains Keat's famous observation: "A thing of beauty is a joy forever". Charm combines with beauty in the Baltimore quilt insofar as the variations on the theme-because they do not follow any discernible rule- hover around some thematic centre that holds them together in just the way that the flickering of firelight (or the babbling of a brook) varies within some limit which is internal to these processes. in this case, delight in contemplation (the sign of beauty) and the sensuous gratification that characterizes entrancement (the sign of charm) combine to produces the ultimate aesthetic effect.