Over the last several years, a growing number of North Americans have been obtaining nontraditional pierces. Pierced penises, nipples, navels, clitorides and noses have been proliferating. Sometimes this is the result of individuals reclaiming a signifier of their cultural heritage; as in the resurgence of pierced noses among African-American women. Often, however, these pierces are being obtained among the Anglo majority, which, in this century, has sanctioned only the ear pierce, and that almost exclusively for women.
Cultures, our own included, create acceptable cultural uniforms, which clearly indicate social status and serve as badges of conformity. Thus, we unconsciously make assessments based on three-piece suits, wedding dresses and rings, tennis bracelets and Barbara Bush’s pearls. Further, we also assess people based on facial features and bodily appearance. In contrast to these signifiers of conformity, practices like piercing, tattooing and scarification can best be thought of as anticultural phenomena – renegade ornament.
Jewelry for these pierces is much more radical than what we commonly (and smugly) take to be avant-garde. The experimental jewelry that we usually see is created within our small circle in order to preach to the converted – its impact on the larger culture is limited at best. Admiration of “cutting-edge” work is often nothing more than parochial backslap-ping. In light of piercing, what’s so radical about a bamboo body necklace; or about a pin that you wear on your shoulder (but only until the slide is shot)?
Piercing is at the center of a complex and frustrating muddle, where taboo, personal expression and a resurgent sexual puritanism are battling for control. Pierces excite considerable emotional reaction and are often not openly displayed by their owners. In the mind of many, including most metalsmiths, they cross some deep ravine into the land of the unacceptable if not the unimaginable. Yet a hoop through a clitoris or nasal septum is clearly ornament just as much as an earring is.
As makers of wearable objects, we metalsmiths concern ourselves with the cultural language of ornament. Whether or not we claim to be producing art, the creation of such objects requires consideration of questions like, “will it be comfortable?” (“should it be comfortable?”), “is it appropriate?” (why should it be?), “is it too unusual?” In asking these questions we are engaged in challenging or accepting cultural definitions of what is considered to be acceptable or appropriate ornament. As additional inducement to explore piercing, metalsmiths should realize that considerable potential for profit exists in these areas.
In exploring piercing, several important factors must be examined, including the range, goals and practice of piercing historically and currently, and the mainstream cultural value system that piercing confronts. This is a difficult challenge, as we are unaccustomed to looking at our own culture and value system with anything close to open eyes, but it presents the possibility of formulating a cultural critique that will help create an environment conducive to diversity and artistic expression.
Piercing can be performed on a wide variety of body sites, including lips, noses, tongues, nipples, navels and in numerous locations on ears and on the male and female genitals. Precedence for piercing such sites is widespread, especially in many African and Southeast Asian cultures. In addition, piercing has existed as an underground practice in the United States for at least four decades. While pierces serve as sites for ornament, their location may limit the number of people who view the ornament, since our culture has elaborate taboos against public display of the female breast as well as female and male genitalia. Thus, the very location of some ornament can make it culturally suspect.
Further, exotic jewelry, even on publicly viewable parts of the body still evokes responses of derision, disgust and taboo. Amidst a sea of rhinestone poodles, Rolex watches and Paloma Picasso nightmares, a bone through the nose acquires a special meaning.
Some uses of piercing are wholly at odds with our traditional concepts of usefulness and ornament. For instance, the physical manipulation of jewelry in some pierce sites, such as penis, labia and nipple, is specifically intended to arouse pleasurable physical sensations. In other words, some of this jewelry makes sex feel better. In fact, some of this jewelry makes even walking down the street feel great.
By offering an honest focus on sex and sexuality, as well as providing a means to enhance sexual pleasure, this jewelry is directly and vigorously challenging strong cultural taboos, while most of us continue to design jewelry to be as passive and comfortable as possible. Though we may occasionally talk about “how good a necklace feels to wear,” it probably rarely contributes to our orgasms.
Pierces are also being used to stretch and enlarge various parts of the body, including nipples, earlobes, labia, clitorides and nasal septa. By the insertion of increasingly large pieces of jewelry, by stretching with weights and sometimes simply through the normal healing process, tissue can be induced to change shape and size. This synergistic interaction between jewelry and body is fascinating and provocative and opens up new avenues for personal expression end artistic exploration.
Nontraditional pierces also serve commemorative purposes, being obtained to mark important decisions, milestones or events in people’s lives. In a powerful and primal way, they seem to empower by acting as totems and keys to remembrance. They serve as a definition or reaffirmation of self.
Piercing is also sometimes used in trials of endurance and as an indicator of religious devotion. Both the Native American sundance and the Indian ball dance have been adapted to the spiritual needs of a small but growing number of nonnative Americans. The sundance ceremony it involves suspension by hooks through temporary pierces in the chest. The process of tearing free from the hooks induces in the participant a state of altered consciousness and a sense of spiritual achievement. The ball dance seeks similar goals but is performed by having small weights, balls or fruits sewn or hooked to the body. Subsequent whirling and dancing heightens the sensations and altered state of awareness. Temporary pierces are also sometimes used simply for the immediate sensations that they provide.
Jewelry for any exotic pierce is designed for use, in response to needs. It fulfills a variety of functions and the designer must carefully consider how to make the jewelry meet its functions and be compatible with the body. In this sense, it is ironically close to the traditional goal of craft.
Regardless of our political beliefs or intellectual stance; regardless of age, background or commitment to diversity; pierces usually prompt in us an immediate and involuntary negative reaction. We are simply not culturally prepared to readily welcome piercing into our world. This gut reaction has been denied by some, often by a superficial overlay of intellectualization. Those who doubt this might consider their response to a dentist or school teacher with shoulder-length earlobes. To consider piercing, though, without questioning its traditional absence from our culture and its emotional implication for our own lives would be to miss its most fascinating qualities.
As a culture, we often adopt a dispassionate anthropologist’s mode when viewing the practices and mores of other cultures, particularly those involving body modification or sexual practices. Their difference from us in “quality of life” or technological development permits us to insulate ourselves from other ways of thinking. We must change this habit of viewing other cultures as if they were restricted to the pages of National Geographic.
This supercilious cultural imperialism breaks down when we are confronted by a person of our own skin color and social status who sports a pierced nose or nipple. In the face of such a challenge to our conditioned mores, we usually retreat into the assertion that the urge to pierce is somehow sick, that it must represent evidence of pathology, masochism, fetishism, unhappiness or (at least) confusion. Others declare that, plain and simple, piercing is mutilation – an abuse of the body, even as they wear their pierced earrings.
This is not hypocrisy as much as it is denial, denial that our culture affects our opinions and actions profoundly and vigorously, and denial that our culture also sanctions a wide variety of temporary and permanent body modifications. Some of these modifications are harmless, some are mutilatory and many target and constrain the behavior and freedom of women. In the realm of clothing-induced modification, we have seen corsets and high heels, as well as the famous 1950s torpedo-tit. We shave, pluck, curl, color, crimp, wax and electrically remove our hair on head, face, underarms, groin and legs. We remove the foreskins of newborn males. We tan and paint our bodies and we pierce our ears. We suppress normal body odors. And, perhaps most tellingly, we constantly, obsessively try the change the size and shape of our bodies – surgically, through nose-jobs, tummy-tucks, lace lifts and liposuction, and nonsurgically, through dieting, exercising and by taking steroids. Dissatisfaction with our bodies has even led to two disease syndromes: anorexia and bulemia, as well as to a mostly chimerical diet industry that fleeces Americans of billions of dollars a year.
Despite being socially sanctioned, several of these practices are very dangerous, and it is no coincidence that, to suit the patriarchal sexist ideal, women have borne the brunt of most of them. The choice not to engage in such practices has not been a viable option for most women.
Social pressures are too great and economic and emotional independence too unlikely. Instead, these practices are eagerly pursued despite the fact that next to them most forms of piercing seem pretty benign. These practices are not geared to producing a unique self, but an acceptable self, a self that resembles the actors hawking deodorants and the news anchors predigesting the news. In fact, our own cultural uniforms and body-modification practices promote conformity. Given that we clearly engage in practices that do not respect physical or psychic health nor free choice, what can be said about renegade ornament, which is freely chosen and useful to its owner?
One tatooist has written that “The only difference between tattooed people and nontatooed people is that tatooed people don’t care if you’re not tatooed.” This comment underscores what many practitioners of renegade ornament have come to realize, and what many of us realize unconsciously, that renegade ornament is subversive.
Renegade ornament rejects the concept of slavish cultural conformity and either seeks to produce alternate cultures or provides protection from and ammunition against the constraining influence of the ambient culture. In the words of another tatooist, the possession of a forbidden ornament “provides a constant source of irony and distancing.” Either the ornament is a personal secret, that can be shared or not, or it is a visible badge of the refusal to conform, and a turning of the tables on society. As writer Dick Hebdige says, “…it translates the fact of being under scrutiny into the pleasure of being watched.”
In light of unspoken social constraints, as well as complacency about the role of ornament, piercing demonstrates how jewelry can be a powerful and radical art form. As producers of ornament, we have a special responsibility to understand what ornament means, because we help reinforce its acceptable boundaries. In this context, renegade ornament speaks to the primal need for expression and individuality, even in the conformist consumer culture, and offers the artist unexplored territory for experimentation and expression. Since many piercing sites are usually hidden under clothing, one area for exploration might be to produce jewelry that hints at its existence through clothing. Other areas might include the linking of pierce sites, which leads to increases of scale, and the design of work to maximize sexual and wearing sensation.
As artists, we are often dismissed because of the scale of our work; and we might do well to consider what tatooist Greg Kulz has written [renegade ornament may have] “a more limited audience than a painting in a museum, but [it is] viewed with more care and intimacy.”
This is a heady time to address renegade ornament or artistic expression of any kind – the yahoos and know-nothings are on the rise and have effective spokespeople in Washington. We must recognize that battle lines are being drawn and that as artists fence-sitting is not an option.
Senator Jesse Helms, ever-vigilant, has found time to investigate the publishers of a piercing review, and Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, in a chilling statement, has said that in the presence of genital piercing, “you don’t need criteria” to judge acceptable art. While this may seem irrelevant to the average metalsmith, it is important to realize that the independent craftsperson and the handmade object pose their own threats and challenges to the mainstream culture.
In rejecting manufacturing and accepting handwork; in seeking to produce the unique rather than the repeated; craftspeople too are renegades. This provocative connection between the users of renegade ornament and us as makers of all manner of ornament requires exploration and attention as we attempt to navigate the pitfalls of the consumer culture.
Keith Lewis is a metalsmith, chemist and Gay/AIDS activist living in Ravenna, Ohio. He think that a pierced nipple would do Jesse Helms a world of good.
This column is derived from a presentation at the Society of North American Goldsmiths conference in San Francisco, March, 1990.