Activism and Advocacy
19 Minute Read
The Future Perfect: Activism and Advocacy was given as an oral presentation at "Celebrating a New Metals Order," The 1993 Annual SNAG Conference in Cincinnati, Ohio
The American Arts and Crafts Movement at its pinnacle, nearly a century ago, ushered in a new era for crafts; it brought together artists, designers, craftspersons, architects and writers who all coalesced around philosophical tenets linking socialistic utopian idealism with art and aesthetics. During the 1930's and 1940's craft production was inexorably linked to the burgeoning field of industrial design. After W.W.II university art departments grew by leaps and bounds due to the influx of veterans attending college on the GI Bill. There was a renewed interest in crafts and to accommodate this interest, crafts, particularly ceramics, weaving and metals, became a part of the university art curriculum. As painters, sculptors, ceramists, metalsmiths, and printmakers were educated side by side, the boundaries separating fine arts and crafts began to diminish. During the 1950's and 1960's the 'isms' that were important in painting and sculpture had their unique expression in craft media. The contribution that California Funk Ceramics made to the Pop Art Movement is only one example. During the post-war years and particularly in the 1970's work in craft media struck a Modernist pose. This failed miserably because craft has always been dependent on its function and is founded in culture. These characteristics were antithetical to the heroic self-referential painting and sculpture of the post-war period.
At the same time a powerful movement was being born. Feminist artists who had been shut out of the mainstream began experimenting with ways of working that were on the fringes of acceptability. There was a liberation felt by being on the outside. They explored installation, performance, and video art and took non-traditional approaches to media that often included craft. One method was to take traditional women's activities: sewing, quilting, weaving, etc. and celebrate them as honorable and worthy activities.
Many craftspersons and fine artists as well were influenced by the what was happening in architecture and the developments which came to be called "postmodernism". Confusing style for content they embraced the colors, shapes and forms of the New Wave or Memphis, or whatever one may call it, without considering the insidious deal struck with Fashion. It was more about a look than an idea.
A troubling stage for craftspersons came from the influence of the French New Left and what came to be know as Simulationism. Jean Baudrillard in his influential book titled Simulations expressed the idea that the cultural cornerstones of Capitalism, such as the information and communication networks, media, publicity, and fashion masked and perverted reality by only presenting a simulation of reality. Although much artistic practice of the mid 1980's was driven by these theories, ultimately it seemed contradictory to produce artifacts which would alienate us further from reality. In other words, to quote Baudrillard, "in the world of simulation there is no object". One can image the horror of a graduate student in crafts encountering this material for the first time and anticipating a gloomy future.
Fortunately, into the 1990's this nihilistic point of view has given way to an atmosphere of openness, a focus on diversity and an emphasis on social engagement. A good portion of contemporary art work is moving away from 'objectness'. Unlike the works of high Modernism craft has always been based in cultural production and collective attitudes.
During a 1986 Mountain Lake Symposium in Virginia leading art critics discussed "The Evaluative Process in Contemporary Art". The Re-enchantment Project as coined by critic and writer Suzi Gablik, called for artists to "redefine art's 'visionary function' of healing and social integration". Yves-Alain Bois called for a "new critical framework based on political morality." Critic Donald Kuspit stated, "to be significant, art must accomplish a psychological task." These three different but related ideas, are ideas that I think craft in general and metalsmithing in particular can speak to eloquently. Here lies a window of opportunity.
I would hope that there is no one who still believes that metalsmithing will someday be recognized as 'Fine Art'. This residue of Modernism buys directly into the divisiveness of hierarchy instead of the strength of diversity. That doesn't change the fact that we still feel disenfranchised and marginalized by the art world in general. The salient question here is, How do we overcome these obstacles so that we can have our proverbial "piece of the pie"? To help answer this question let's look at the recent successes of two marginalized populations: Latino and Native American artists.
Both groups are currently receiving much attention as evidenced by the college Art Association devoting issues of Art Journal to a discussion of their artistic production. Additionally there have been increased venues for exhibitions and the publication of important catalogs and books. How did they do it? Surprisingly, without much compromise.
Political action, advocacy, infiltration and subversion sounds like the 1960's doesn't it? To quote a film character recently played by Dennis Hopper "the '90's are going to make the '60's look like the '50's." Well, with regard to our own much needed revolution, I certainly hope so!
Often Latino and Native American artists are highly politicized. Mainly as subjects of longstanding racism and cultural negation they have had to organize for their own survival. We, on the other hand, are a fairly complacent bunch; we are going to have to overcome a certain amount of inertia to become activists. Advocacy for our field means an ongoing vigilance, a Mormon zeal for getting out the message.
Latino and Native American artists are beneficiaries of Affirmative Action albeit a little too little, a little too late. They have infiltrated Boards of Directors of art funding and art educating agencies such as the College Art Association. They have become highly sought after artists-in-residence at academic institutions. Metalsmiths, on the other hand, are a very isolated group. We rarely journey outside our field. The College Art Association is surprisingly influential in scholarship, criticism, education, and the job market; yet, I rarely see metalsmiths at the conferences unless they are interviewing candidates for their university or looking for jobs; both activities which prohibit them from participating in the conference. At the last three conferences over three hundred sessions were held - only three of them on topics directly relating to craft. We need visibility and leadership in a broader spectrum of arts organizations.
Craft has a tremendous potential to be subversive. Because of the long-standing traditions of cultural engagement, and of function we have access to a wider range of the public. Craft is understood, at times, when fine art is not. If we produce work whose content serves to challenge and/or invigorate culture in some way can we then have a serious impact because of our perceived accessibility? Last Spring I curated the craft exhibition: Material Vision: Image and Object at the table Art Center at Eastern Illinois University. Donna Meeks, the Curator of Education there told me that the workers from the physical plant at the university were coming in on their lunch breaks to see the show, sometimes repeatedly. This group rarely if ever attended exhibitions. The work in the exhibition was not functional or traditional in any way, and much of it was conceptually or socially challenging. I believe that because of the materiality and the involvement of hand skills in the works, these painters, carpenters and plumbers felt that the work was accessible. It got them in the door where they, hopefully, encountered some challenging ideas.
I would like to locus on the language of criticism for a moment. People in our field have bemoaned for years the fact that there is no critical vocabulary or language with which to properly assess crafts. I believed this as well; but, I am now of the mind to think that this attitude is perhaps the greatest impediment to getting down to the business of critical writing in the field. In the Fall 1992 issue of Art Journal, devoted to recent Native American Art, Editor W. Jackson Cushing discussed the difficulty with language in his editor's statement. While selecting a title for the issue the editors felt that "By appealing to a hierarchical system (high/fine, popular, folk, primitive, tourist/kitsch) dependent on class and cultural otherness is to capitulate, conceptually at least, to an aesthetic ideology that valorizes certain media at the expense of others. We thus made a conscious decision not to call this an issue on contemporary Indian art, recognizing that contemporary Native practice includes a variety of "traditional" forms, such as textiles, ceramics, wood carving, beadwork, and basketry, which are not discussed here". Many of the essayists struggled with language as well, finding that it is difficult to characterize the work in Modernist or Postmodernist terms as the work tends "toward categorical nonconformity".
As the deconstruction of post-columbian history takes place, Latino art, art that blends European, Native and African cultures, demands to be analyzed within its historical and cultural context. Like Latino art, crafts is intrinsically bound to its unique history. If we are waiting for great thinkers in our field to hand down tablets from the mount we will miss the opportunity to shape our own future.
The "Year of American Craft" was an opportunity to focus national attention on work being made in craft media. Due to this official designation there were an increased number of exhibition venues. Museum directors seemed less resistant to funding large craft exhibitions first of all because it sounded good on the grant application, secondly, it came with free publicity and lastly because of the warm, fuzzy feeling they got knowing that they had done their part to support a marginalized population.
As makers, writers and curators we hope that this attention will make more funds available for research, and more opportunity for publication. My cynical side hears the echoes of Black History Month or Women's Awareness Month which for many institutions are designations made with the intent to placate women and African Americans so that they can generally be ignored the rest of the year. But not wanting to count the teeth of the "gift horse" it is incumbent upon makers, writers, historians and other associates in the field to maximize the opportunity not only to 'bask in the glow' but to take a long hard look at where we are, what issues we need to address and how to plan for the Century of American Craft.
In spite of the excellent work being created the obstacles that metalsmiths face are significant: scholarship that is spotty and lacks focus, criticism that is soft due primarily to the 'buddy review system', our struggle to maintain educational programs, and our often dubious relationships with the people who sell and represent our work.
Nancy Lee, formerly of the SNAG Book service, has begun to compile a bibliography on metalsmithing and related subjects. This bibliography is by no means comprehensive but it does represent the first tier of materials commonly available in libraries. The bibliography includes generalized historical surveys but as yet does not cover the numerous historical topics such as colonial silver or Chinese bronzes with any depth. The contents of this bibliography do, however, point out some rather large gaps in scholarship in the field: 70% of the entries are technical books; 20% are historical and non-western topics; and 10% are books or catalogs that display contemporary work, ⅓ of which also include technical data.
So far no book traces the contribution metals has made to the 20th century crafts movement. Historical articles about individual metalsmiths occasionally surface in such periodicals as Metalsmith, Ornament or The Anvil's Ring but no comprehensive survey of important figures in the field has ever been attempted. These histories are passed down, rather quaintly, from professor to graduate student, nostalgically as part of an oral history. Exhibition catalogs that accompany such exhibitions as Lifetime Achievements: The American Craft Council College of Fellows in Metal exhibition at the National Ornamental Metals Museum are indeed important documents. But these efforts don't compare to the quality of catalogs coming out of Europe. American craft exhibition catalogs are often folksy and contain extraneous anecdotal information that serve to deny scholarly intent.
One must remain somewhat hopeful as the next generation of art historians look to crafts as a viable field of study. Until that time metalsmiths, such as Mary Douglas, a recent Renwick Fellow in Craft Criticism, will do double duties as artists and scholars.
This year Metalsmith magazine will begin publishing a 5th issue. The intention of this issue is to showcase new work in the field. I hope the content of the issue goes beyond photographs and can serve as a yearly scholarly document assessing the field. This could be best accomplished by inviting a writer/critic/scholar outside the realm of making to evaluate the work and perhaps put it in its historical context. I would also like to see SNAG take on the task of compiling and publishing an anthology of articles about individual artists that have appeared in Metalsmith over the years. It would at least be an attempt to gather this important information into one place.
Metalsmiths, like artists in other craft media, are a close-knit community of people. Community affiliation in the crafts has its origin as far back as the guild systems of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The magazines that focus on the activity in a certain medium are often published by the organization to which many of the artists working in that medium belong, like SNAG. In metals, many of the articles and most of the reviews are written by fellow artists and members of the organization. When very few reviews call into question the quality of the work or go beyond description or mindless cheer leading, it makes one think, are we just that damn good? Or is the system, incestuous by nature, not providing a forum for a critical review of the work? These reviews get bogged down in description of subject matter, materials, and techniques and conspicuously avoid confronting issues regarding content, let alone quality. What is needed are writers trained in criticism to come from outside the realm of making. But in reality, although the numbers are growing, this is still a relatively small pool upon which to draw. Those among us who do write criticism must be willing to scrutinize the work without the fear of diminished peer popularity. Many metalsmiths decry the fact that criticism in our field is soft but I suspect that many of us have become too comfortable to put our own work on the line. To gain credibility as a group we have to be willing to take our punches.
In preparing the presentation from which this article comes I examined reviews from 5 years (20 issues) of Metalsmith and I found some startling statistics. I only looked at reviews of contemporary work eliminating reviews of historical exhibitions or reviews of conferences and symposiums. Out of 152 reviews only 1.5% gave a negative assessment of the work; 3-5% of the reviews were neither positive or negative but were merely descriptive; 18% of the reviews were mostly positive but called into question some aspect of the work. (I was very liberal with this category in that the slightest negative comment would put the review in this category); the remaining 77% of the reviews made a positive assessment of the work.
Another area examined was description verses interpretation of the work. By interpretation I mean the reviewer attempted to interpret the work or talk about the content or meaning of the work in some way. 36% of the reviews were primarily descriptive. In other words the reviewer described the formal elements of the work and/or the techniques and processes employed in the making. The remaining 64% described the work as well as attempted to interpret the work. These numbers support the position that we are promoting instead of critiquing the work.
While doing this research I came across a review written by Seattle critic Ron Glowen. I have followed his columns and reviews in Artweek for years and have never known him to pull his punches. In his review of The Integrity of Metal, I, II, III exhibition he states "Large group shows also tip the hand of the reviewer. The works one selects to discuss or mention may be exceptions to the general tenor of the show, or they may only reflect personal taste and judgment. With the wide artistic and technical range presented by 35 artists, I feel inclined to simply point out the works that attracted or intrigued me the most." He was gentle with his criticism after making the above disclaimer.
This quote points out the rule and not the exception to the way crafts and particularly metals is reviewed. Pick out a few nice things to say and avoid the rest. The quality of the work is one of the least discussed subjects in our field.
The other important issue regarding reviews is "who is reviewing whom?". By far the best reviews I read were written by people outside the realm of making; Janet Koplos, Michael Dunas, Vannesa Lynn, to name a very few. That is not to say that some metalsmiths don't write excellent reviews but often times they are too close to the work or too close to the person they are reviewing to make a independent assessment. I found repeated instances of, what I would consider, inappropriate review relationships such as close friends reviewing each others work, or more typically, students reviewing former professors work. In one instance a curator reviewed the show he curated. With such obvious conflicts of interest how can we take ourselves seriously or be taken seriously by others?
Those of us in education know that the university system gives us ample opportunity to practice advocacy and activism; on the most fundamental levels - to save programs from total elimination. (I am indeed one of the beneficiaries of Bruce Metcalf and his student's militancy exercised to save the metals Program at Kent State University.) Within our programs we are charged with the task of teaching design, technique, safety, conceptual development, critical thinking, current theory and craft history; all in six hours a week, 16 weeks a semester.
Very few schools offer a History of Crafts course and if they do it is usually because a studio person has put in the time and energy to develop it and teach it. If that person is a one person area, teaching the history class is sometimes to the detriment of the studio: a damned if you do damned if you don't situation. A compromise situation might be to meet with the art history staff and offer to augment certain courses with a lecture or two presenting some aspect of craft history or a crafts perspective.
One of the big questions I ask myself as an educator is: Am I preparing my students for a professional life in the field? When there are 2 - 3 university teaching jobs available each year with as many students receiving MFA's from each graduate program in Metals one cannot believe or lead their students to believe that teaching is a viable career goal. I still believe in the idea of a liberal arts education. I feel that the main purpose for an education is intellectual and personal development while most students see it at a stepping stone to career opportunity. I could focus on skill development, speed and marketing but I refuse to succumb to a purely trade school mentality. I expect that my students, particularly at the graduate level, produce work that focuses on content; that has social, political, or personal relevance.
Unfortunately, work that is concept or content based has little financial viability in this country. As an educator I get a check at the end of each month which gives me the freedom to produce work without regard to marketability. There are plenty of non-commercial venues such as university galleries and museums where studio jewelry can be shown. One of the most pressing questions we face is how do we develop an active market that will support individual artists outside academia?
To get more insight into this question I conducted telephone interviews with a number of gallery directors. I selected galleries from different geographical locations. The type of work shown in these galleries ranged widely from high karat gold, at Quadrum Gallery in Boston, to more conceptual and narrative work at Susan Cummins Gallery in Northern California. These gallery directors hardly spoke with one voice but there were some interesting consistencies.
When asked how they would characterize the type of work shown in the gallery most of them said the work focused on good design. Several of them said that they also carried narrative or content oriented work but I felt that only two in this group had a strong commitment to representing this work. When asked: "How important is intrinsic value or the preciousness of materials to their sales?" most said that such considerations were not important. But when asked "What is the easiest work to sell?" most said work made from precious materials at a good price. "The hardiest to sell?" Conceptual work out of alternative materials, because clients don't understand why the work is so expensive. There seems to be a substantive difference between what dealers think and what they do.
Those that handle narrative or content based work say that developing collectors for the work is a long process. The collectors start out with more conventional purchases but ongoing advocacy and education on the part of the gallery personnel will eventually lead collectors to purchase more conceptual work. Few galleries, I suspect, have the where-with-all or the resources to see this process through. When asked how their staff stays informed about the trends in contemporary metalsmithing all said through periodicals such as Metalsmith (their #1 choice). What an awesome responsibility we have and what a tremendous opportunity.
I asked "How important are artist's statements in interpreting the work?" some said "not very" one said she preferred to interpret the work herself. Most said they are helpful but one felt that they are often poorly written (she calls this the "mist on the mountain" syndrome) and chooses to have long, detailed conversations with the artists instead.
Overall I found a direct correlation between the galleries ability (and desire) to sell concept and content oriented work and the amount of time and energy the gallery personnel were willing to expend on the process. I ask you, how can we actively support and enhance this process? Certainly our publications provide some opportunity but it will take a much greater effort on our part to develop a marketplace that will support work beyond the simply decorative.
I have certainly asked many more questions than I have answered, but I hope that I have given voice to many of the issues that concern us so that we can open a dialogue that will offer some solutions.
Kathleen Browne is a metalsmith, an activist, and a teacher of metals at Kent State University, Kent, Ohio.
ARTnews (September 1987) as quoted in Grant Kester, "The Rise and Fall of Baudrillard," New Art Examiner (November, 1987).
Shaw Smith "Postmodernism Seeks a Soul," New Art Examiner, (March 1987): 32.
Jackson Cushing, "Critical Issues in Recent Native American Art," Art Journal, (Fall 1992): 6.
Jean Fisher, Ibid.
Ron Glowen, "The Integrity of Metal, I, II, III," Metalsmith (Winter 1993): 45.
Martha Schneider, Schneider, Blume, Loeb Gallery, Chicago Illinois.
Susan Cummings, Susan Cummings Gallery, Marin, California.
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