Celebrating a New Metals Order

The theme of this year’s SNAG conference, held in Cincinnati Ohio, “Celebrating a New Metals Order” was theoretically and geographically broader than in previous years. The inclusion of European and Canadian speakers from diverse market niches, as well as the number of panels which planned to address critical concerns in education and in SNAG supported the concept of re-evaluation and expansion. I attended the conference to see if my interests and concerns as a recent M.F.A. graduate and newcomer to teaching would be reflected in this New World Order of Metals. Viewing it through a filter informed by a background that emphasizes the examination of structure and relationships through analysis, criticism, and dialogue, I found the conference addressed some relevant issues, though more by implication than by directness.

Among the many relevant issues one of the most cursorily addressed was that of appropriation from non-western cultures. In a discipline that has historically sanctioned the appropriation of style, technique, and imagery from other cultures and time periods, I’m curious as to why there is not more discourse on the subject. Particularly in light of current debates in education, art, and popular culture, I would think that the issue of appropriation would have been a critical component of the “New Metals Order.” Instead, I found such presentations as the one given by William Harper. Harper raised the specter of imperialism by proclaiming himself a multiculturalist, based on his use of images and inspiration from other cultures. Apparently unbeknownst to Harper, multiculturalism has more to do with an acknowledgment of diversity than indiscriminate lifting and modification.

On the other hand, Paulette Werger was certainly more current in her understanding of multiculturalism by acknowledging our indebtedness to other cultures. In her lecture on Ashante casting, Werger structured her talk to include theoretical questions, such as those dealing with the significance of historical and cultural context, and the implications of continuity and change within the Ashante culture. She clearly explained and illustrated the technical process, and discussed the application of these procedures to contemporary metal arts. While doing so she acknowledged the richness and complexity from which this technique originated.

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German jeweler Wilhelm Mattar provided an overview of his own work and educational efforts in non-western countries which was in keeping with this idea of negotiating and facilitating the impact of diverse cultures. The artist recounted that while conducting workshops in Singapore and Morocco, he develops exercises which inform students in Western-based aesthetic, theoretical and technical approaches. At the same time, he encourages students to incorporate their own background and cultural influences into their solutions. His approach protects some cultural integrity, while contributing to the development of a New Metals Order which is global in scope. In this direct and insightful discussion of his work, Mattar emphasized the importance of context, and raised questions about whether aesthetic development was more critically based than end product oriented. These are valuable considerations as we attempt to re-frame our place both in popular culture and in the discipline of art.

Another serious omission of consideration at the conference was a different sort of appropriation; that related to questions of gender. This omission was most disturbing in lectures by William Harper and Alberto Alessi. Harper’s lecture repeatedly raised the topic of sexuality, revealing his belief that artists need to become hermaphroditic (metaphorically I hope) to achieve perfection. During his discussion Harper raised interesting ideas such as the use of sado-masochistic religious myths imbued with notions of purity and struggle; but, his main focus was on the development and perfection of the female within himself. I couldn’t help but wonder what had formed his definition and understanding of the feminine, and how he knew that he was expressing it in his work, particularly in light of some of his other comments regarding femininity and adornment.

Alberto Alessi of the Italian design firm Alessi s.p.a. came to a similar conclusion as did Harper, regarding a merger of male and female. Discussing the development of his design philosophy, Alessi emphasized an interest in working between polarities. He attempts to use design as a transitional phenomenon to link dichotomous opposites such as real/dream, business/culture, and by extension, male/female. As a result he has modeled his company and design philosophy after the idea of a ‘good family’, created from both paternal and maternal cords. Judging from his works it appeared that he defines the paternal and the maternal in terms of stereotypical symbols, married together in products. As with Harper’s talk, I questioned what actual input women (not just the ‘internal feminine’) had in the development of these products and philosophies. Though there are historical and cross-cultural precedents for the effort to merge the male and female, I see these examples as representing an exclusion of the contribution of women in a time when the New Metals Order demands and requires inclusion. This is even more troublesome because both of these speakers are powerful representatives of their respective fields.

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I did, however, appreciate Alessi’s contribution on another level. His presence emphasized an effort to increase the geographic and market scope of an American discourse on metalsmithing while broadening the discussion about the relationship between manufactured and hand-made goods. Alessi was intent in his assertion that well-designed, well-manufactured goods satisfy a specific need for today’s consumers. In light of this, I was curious if he had considered the relationship of ‘fine’ manufactured products to handcrafted work.

Controversy about how to define the direction and assess the health of the field was reflected in numerous presentations. During a panel discussion on issues in education the question of the relationship of metalsmithing to technology was raised several times. There appears to be a fear that as applicable technology expands, metalsmithing, as many people apply it, will become marginalized by it’s craftiness – we’ll become practitioners of a denigrated art. This notion seemed coupled with the assumption that newness and innovation are tied inextricably and exclusively to technology/technique.

Posed in a manner oblique to this apprehension was an inquiry into the significance of and necessity for the handmade/well-designed object. That question begged the definition of well-made and well-designed, or ‘quality’. This reference to quality was raised by such diverse practitioners as Wilhelm Mattar, Alberto Alessi, Harriet Estelle Berman, the education panel participants, and Jocelyn Gobeil in her lecture on her gallery philosophy. Yet, there was neither a clear delineation of measurable characteristics nor a refuting of the concept. This lack of clarity may well contribute to the dis-ease voiced both by students and professionals.

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The discussion of the importance of the hand-made additionally posited that these objects fill eternal human needs (which should give us all a degree of job security). But, lacking, was a comprehensive discussion that included the influence and impact of economic issues, spirituality (tied to objects), and fetishization. To better understand the impact of the fruits of our labor, practitioners in the New Metals Order need to critique not only our internal processes, but the public impact of the objects that we make and put out into the world.

At the same panel there were disheartening queries by students who questioned the future of metalsmithing. While acknowledging the dearth of jobs, they wondered how well their education prepares them for teaching or more likely the unknown future. These questions went unanswered, though some participants attempted to refute the fear that job opportunities are diminishing.

The final presentation by Kathleen Browne wrapped up the conference in an intelligent and positive manner. In “The Future Perfect: Activism and Advocacy” (which will appear in a future issue of Metalsmith) Browne provided a brief historical overview of crafts in the United States, which emphasized the necessity of applying theories found in both Modernism and Post-modernism to the field of crafts. She attempted to debunk the myth that there is no language of criticism available to metalsmiths, suggesting that we look to what written history we have, and develop further from there. She also outlined some of the necessary educational components for successful growth in the field that included the study of history, contemporary theory, technique, design, and critical thinking. Any attempt to truly create a New Metals Order will have to do just this.

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As people who by design or (mis)fortune are categorized as metalsmiths, all that we do informs and creates the field. My hope for the future is that we define this shifting field more expansively through research and critique. And along the way, examine our categorizations, overlaps, disjunctions, and subversions, while applying the lively, contemporary and (dissentious) critical discourse which occurs around us in art and life to this field which is so full of potential. I believe that this is necessary to truly create a New Metals Order that is inclusive enough to offer room for the voices of many, and interesting enough to inspire active/conscious participation.

Julia Barello is a metalsmith who teaches in Las Cruses, New Mexico.