In 1970 Philip Guston exhibited paintings with estranged images of the Ku Klux Klan, old shoes, pink cities, and incongruous heads. This was a radical departure, a programmatic shift, from his first generation abstract expressionist work which was regarded as lyrical and essentially truthful. At the opening Wilhelm De Kooning mused, “why did everyone have such a problem with this work – accusing him of abandoning the movement, complaining about his making political art”. De Kooning asked Guston if he knew what his real subject was; they answered together “freedom”. “To be free, the artists’ first duty” De Kooning declared, “that’s the only possession an artist has and his only responsibility as an artist.” But doubt of the works’ integrity was the louder buzz in the room among those defending the legacy of painting in and for itself, an eternal manifest. The new work was seen as a digression, mindless sentiment, and emotional substance, not about the experience of painting, but about content and interpretation. To make things worse, outside the gallery were the revisionists, feminists, and Marxists spawned by the turmoil of the 1960s and determined to take a crack at this exclusionary ideal, challenging the genuineness and inclusiveness of modernism’s brand of artistic freedom and its connection to culture at large.
Just a few years before 1970, Susan Sontag had written a warning for art titled Against-Interpretation and De Kooning himself had made it clear that content was a very small part of art. The consequences of modernism’s ambiguous and troubled association with change, authority, and what the work was saying were being challenged and art was in a position of defense. What this event suggests is that the artist, object and viewer are all inevitably players in artistic production and participate with intent or by association in the works’ larger social and historical significance and, can we say, interpretation.
As modernism has moved through the century we have both lived an idea of art as an experience unto itself and challenged that modern model. For the last generation we have been engaged in a semiotic clarification and exposition of shifting meaning and significance as the off center center of where we should be. This shift in what characterizes artistic activity and integrity is connected to shifts in the way we come to understand things and the very idea of the cultural. Although a bit simplistic we have moved the point of emphasis of art and art’s moment from experience, to meaning, to significance. What remains however, and what I wish to discuss is how the function of jewelry can and should go beyond experience and beyond meaning and significance and toward effectiveness.
When we look at the works of artist jewelers like Art Smith, Margaret De Patta, or Sam Kramer we see evidence of a time following the 1930s (the years in which these artists grew up) and its expectations of revolution and reform. The chaotic undoing resulting from the depression seeded a Marxist and socialist ideal which was gaining ground and offering hope, only to lead to consequences that were humanly questionable and emotionally frustrating. The disillusionment brought about by war and the internal conflicts of social responsibility made all values dubious for artists of the time. By the early 1940s frustration and despair gave way to a need for catharsis that found its voice in the models of abstract expressionism and surrealism. Abstraction reaffirmed the idea of a new humanism, which rose again with promises of a universal language in art, where art takes a natural place along side other human activities. For activist, poet André Breton Surrealism was a defiant practice that refused to submit to rational process; oppositional methods of making were adopted as a revolutionary strategy. Breton, living in New York by the late 1930s, was writing essays on various artists’ work who were showing at the Julien Levy Gallery, where numerous Surrealist exhibitions were mounted, including the work of Man Ray and Miro. There is no doubt that many of the jewelers represented in Messengers of Modernism were kindred spirits of this generation of artists’ and they were sympathetic to the styles and principles of abstraction an surrealism. But, by the mid forties another bred of jewelers and silversmiths were initiating programs at universities across the country. Their training and profession as designers or designer/craftsman in the English and Scandinavian functionalist tradition grew philosophically out of architectural principles rather than from studio art Practice. A number of the jewelers in Messengers, such as Paul Lobel, Carlton Ball, and Harry Bertoia, crossed both paths. The overriding aspiration gleaned from this model was the idea of a progression to universality. As corrupt and traditional narratives and allegories were removed from the face of art jewelry, along with the useless and excessive vulgarity of ornamentation, what was left and consequently held shared meaning was form.
The surrealist subject was the psyche, the twisted truth of things, the id, where one could reach to express the intuitions of life through one’s work. The jewelry object was purely a product of the experience of working, where everything else was excluded from art but the self and the solution of one’s own engagement; to do this, it was believed, one reached and touched a social and political harmony through action and form. At the very least they were interrupting the corruption of the misguided value of bourgeoisie jewelry with its diamonds and precious jewels. The work they made bore little resemblance to the past, good or bad. It was a mark to the future and represented open-mindedness and adventure, as Toni Greenbaum has pointed out. To achieve this ideal, however one had to turn inward, ritualizing the practice of making. Beyond the need for justification, form was the result of intuitive activity and a trust in the instinctively natural mark or the psychological cryptogram as an expression of a new beginning we all could reach through the experience of art.
It is difficult for us to understand the consequences of wearing an Art Smith cuff or Merry Renk brooch in the 1940s or ’50s. The wearers’ participation and endorsement signaled that they were as much adventurers as the makers, continuing the romantic heritage of the avant-garde and spreading catalysts for change and advance. That little, two inch brooch had weight and power in numbers; it reified itself in the unanimity of style and claimed the territory of humanist discourse. These were the aspirations for the works’ effectiveness based on the hope that the work itself as an embodiment of self sufficiency, would do something to instigate a better world.
However, by the early 1960s this earnest undertaking collapsed. From jewelry to architecture the entire social basis of art was being transformed. No longer was art an act of advocacy or rebellion, despair or idealism on the fringe of society looking in with an uncorrupted light. Art and craft were being normalized as a professional act with professional societies springing up, craft fairs being established, and homogeneously modern, lifeless steel and glass buildings being piled up in cities throughout the US. Innovation, experimentation, and dissent were institutionalized and made official. While the style and mannerisms of post war modernism continued, sense and meaning were missing. What we saw in the sixties was a political and economic crises in the west. The emergence of third world nations and the women’s movement, increasing restrictions in socio-economic life, and ecological destruction all exposed the exclusionary and failing character of humanistic discourse. The impact of these changes should not be underestimated as they all became of interest to post structuralists, who would in the mid to late seventies expose the complicity of the modernist ideal with problems of social and cultural order.
From the stylistic quagmire of the late sixties and into the seventies, jewelry, like most of the arts, fell into the modern vortex, swirling around on itself, seeking definition, solving problems both of identity and simple making. The work of this period from the seventies to the early eighties, the teenage years of contemporary American jewelry, is awkward, brash, and often without direction, but mostly passionate and venturesome. It is also a vital historical link to where we are heading today, and the reasons for this direction.
Art jewelry of the seventies moved out of Greenwich Village and San Francisco to universities, art schools, and colleges across the US, part of the institutionalization mentioned earlier. There was, in fact, a disconnection from the jewelers in Messengers of Modernism.
I recall going to Sam Kramer’s store/gallery on West 8th Street. I convinced my mother to buy a pair of his cufflinks for my uncle. In my innocence and general enthusiasm I professed my taste for his work to my instructors and I brought one of my teachers glass eyeballs and cowry shells from a basket Kramer had in front of his jewelry counter. It was clearly indicated to me that Kramer and his kind were hacks and had little to do with the tradition of jewelry and goldsmithing or the future of the field. Whatever their individual motives, the practitioners of that brand of modern jewelry were clearly out of favor and replaced with a vision of jewelry that was less singularly stylized and restrictive, technically more resourceful, and reflective of the diversity, one might say disorder, of culture in the 1970s and early eighties. Ironically, the disregard for the kind of work seen in Messengers and our ignorance of it in the seventies undermined our ability to identify an immediate history from which to resourcefully react. (I should point out here that the formalist baton was picked up and modernist iconography and ideology continued through the design strategies of form following function, integrity of materials, and ideas of sobriety and unanimity. It is also apparent that the art jewelers of the forties to the early sixties had greater unanimity and philosophical continuity, most were headed in a single direction and had a sense of moral and social rightness.)
Jewelers of the seventies, such as Helen Shirk and Lee Peck, were far more flexible, seeking technical, emotive, and political ways to distinguish themselves from the past. Their work was anything but singularly directed; to call it pluralistic is a generous word, in that it suggests intentionally. The contribution of the jewelry of the seventies was not its effect on culture nor its ability to change the climate of things, but its ability to absorb and replenish the spectrum of things. Representations of individual habits, techniques, and processes, faithful and sometime absent formalism, and stylizations of pop and funk art all came into play. The political choice of non-precious materials by the jewelers of the fifties, for example, opened the door to the sentimentalizing of the materials of jewelry in the seventies. The idea of personal expression as a vehicle to reach a higher goal and to find a common thread among us, to have a social goal, was replaced by personal expression as a form of proclamation, self medication, and individual authority. The advent of the personal narrative in jewelry had a jump start in the seventies by way of the academic studio. The confusion and parochial nature of jewelry in the seventies was a result of a bombardment of signals coming in and a lack of any far reaching meaning or clear signals going out. Sense was often replaced by sentiment.
Part of the complexity of the jewelry of the seventies, and it continues today, is the unintentional crossing between the models and systems of design and those of art. Hybrids without the strengths of intention created a jewelry that had weak connections to the legacy of Messengers and equally shaky links to the functionalists’ ideas of design and the historicists’ preservation of goldsmithing. This all had to be shored up, and sorted out.
When jewelry entered academia the teachers became the models of the profession. They and their students looked to each other for examples and as a resource, initiating a cloistered, incubator-like world within which ideas, techniques, and a fundamental vocabulary would be exchanged, developed, and secured. A clear example is the orthodoxy of form, language, and shape determinants associated with Heikke Seppa’s school: Washington University in St. Louis. Another example of the internalized eye was what metalsmith and chronicler, Lane Coulter characterized as “the attack of the wondering tendril,” a jewelry device to be found everywhere in the early to mid seventies. For the most part, this influence can be traced to Art Nouveau, but the direct influence was Albert Paley’s work, via Stanley Lechtzin. People were not so much looking outward as they were looking directly at themselves; nor were they looking to nature as a philosophical model. It was simply a matter of working where the action was. An exception to be noted is the work of Jem Freyaldenhoven, who found great power and frightful beauty in the duality of nature through this form. The eclecticism of this period in American jewelry reflected a search for meaning, but illustrated the frustration of too much unchallenged information, and a lack of tools necessary to engage the formal, conceptual, and stylistic activities of the time.
This is not to suggest that serious and influential work was not being done in the seventies. On the contrary, I would suggest that the work and habits and culture of the seventies have had greater impact on the appearance and resolution of jewelry and its propositions today than did the work and makers of the forties through sixties.
There is little question that the seventies and early eighties were an era of experimentation, technical development, and aesthetic naiveté in American jewelry. We were either proudly or uncomfortably self absorbed. By the mid seventies we were invested enough in academia that the challenges and questions of the fine arts were well into play as a stream of European jewelers, most of whom considered American work to be unintelligent, emotional, and jewelry that showed little regard for being jewelry, including Claus Bury and Wendy Ramshaw, had visited the US. While the nonsense of art and craft distracted us on one hand, few welcomed, on the other, the restraints European jewelry imposed on the creative alternatives associated with art and individual freedom. These challenges made us simultaneously more determined and more defensive. We ambitiously continued, while realizing we had to acquire an understanding of an American sensibility in jewelry. There were a number of problems, however. While the work often had social or political meanings, the object, whether a ring or necklace, was treated much like a sculpture’s pedestal and seldom configured conceptually into the politics or point of the idea. We had not yet figured out our relationship with the object or the discipline. While protecting our own sovereignty as artists and makers we were not relating to the authority and property of the field. Perhaps we were not yet prepared to be aware of or understand jewelry’s own voice. Before developing the capacity to become engaged by the enterprise in which we were working there first had to be a shift in our perception of jewelry.
It is impossible to discuss this inevitable shift without discussing the advent of Postmodernism and how it first characterized itself in American jewelry in the early to mid-eighties. The evidence of Postmodern thought in jewelry initially presented itself in two ways. First through the so-called new jewelry, which emphasized material and form exploration, particularly in ways that challenged ideas of value and taste. The new jewelry also explored the parameters of jewelry’s relation to the body, questioning traditional locations and manners of wearing jewelry. While jewelry’s relation to the body was considered and investigated, the questions were primarily formalist or historicist. The second characterizing quality of Postmodern activity was that it was simply a stylistic movement that had historical markers and borrowed from principles of architecture and design. First initiated by the architects Robert Venturi and Charles Moore, who were influenced by the writings of Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes, postmodern buildings showed a wry mixture of romance and irony. They challenged the fixed and purist identity they felt was plaguing architecture. Their changes to the principles of the practice produced an image of Postmodernism which was immediately codified. Most important was the movement’s return to historical models, which is most recognizable in the work of architect Michael Graves, who had a significant impact on many jewelers’ style of working. The influence of Graves and the designers Ettore Sottsass and Phillipe Stark on jewelry was for the most part, short-lived and very quickly subverted by commercialization. The role and trustablility of history was not brought to question in jewelry, it was simply being made officially available again. What is most obvious about these two activities and the changes in jewelry’s direction is that they primarily represented a change in form. They did not produce nor clearly intend any perceivable change in the social function of jewelry nor did they challenge ideas of jewelry’s behavior or significance. This was due in part to the Postmodern style’s lack of coherent objectives.
What then has brought us to the present and to work that again seems to be as principled and confident, though certainly not as homogenous, as that of the Messengers of Modernism? Postmodernism’s relationship to and critical dependence on modernism has characterized both the achievements of the work in Signals and the consequences of the earlier attainments of the work in Messengers. Development has occurred both through lineage and through individual leaps. As a modern commandment progression must inevitably find new modes of expression and in turn reject or plant over the old. What has occurred is the critical consideration of what works do, as well as what they say. The investigations of jewelry, when jewelry is considered an integral part of the social process, encourages the exploration of differences, exceptions, desires, and rules. The complicity, between jewelry and social structures is being dismantled in order to recreate a jewelry which understands its operative qualities and is not derailed by either its own language, or its adoption of another (jewelry as sculpture to wear, for instance). The dynamics of jewelry have surfaced. How we determine the role and soundness of visual representational systems and the functions of our language will influence the effectiveness of our practice. Some jewelry from the mid eighties on has acted self referentially, as a critique of both the bad habits of Modernism as well as the historical inequities and erroneous favors of antiquity. We lost faith in the ideals of humanism and enlightenment, finding them to be corrupt in their authority and narrowly nationalistic. It became very easy to be cynical and self effacing. Western concepts of goodness and fairness provided us with a great deal of subordinates and exclusions in the order of things. Jewelry itself was, of course, in its appropriate place, in a well ordered if not dissenting hegemony of modern art activity, and it also maintained its unenviable role as a sign of wealth and power.
As we tried to rediscover jewelry’s sociality an awareness of the forces which control and subordinate it had to first be scrutinized The moment between Messengers and Signals has appropriately provided these tools and a means of rethinking the function of jewelry. It would be impossible, in this short time, to provide adequate definition or a full analysis of the language of ideas that changed the face and momentum of jewelry. Clearly the opportunity for jewelers to see and evaluate what they make as jewelry emerged from a context of specific social interests. The use of theory and the energy of simple determination was harnessed to solve a practical project: what is the use of our jewelry? Among the fields mined for the tools of inquiry was literary criticism, which gave us theories of deconstruction as practiced by post structuralists such as Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man. Semiotics, the study of signs and sign systems as a means of establishing meaning, came from the field of linguistics. Feminist issues grew out of political science; phenomenology and discourse theory and Marxism was derived from philosophy; and psychoanalytic theory came from psychology. While the arts became a more complex practice, jewelry revitalized itself and defined itself as a field that was engaged in the idea of discursive techniques as a strategic mean of making more meaningful and socially relevant jewelry.
These various theories and their signals are not engaged merely as a matter of academic interest. They are employed because a more satisfying account of jewelry is at stake. They serve to enrich and restore the role of jewelry which, as we will see, is not singular.
The idea of art signaling or signifying something other than itself is not new; we can cite traditional allegory to prove that. We have long been immersed in the making of substitutes, where the signal or representation compensates for an absence. What Postmodernism has a quality unto itself, not only in contrast to modern or pre-modern, is its emphasis on the viewer as a critical participant in the making of the work. In jewelry this idea is even more profound, in that the wearer is a direct and often determining participant in the work’s success and intentionality. The piece of jewelry and in turn the wearer is forced into signifying. A momentum is produced which moves the work away from the site of style and iconography to an action, with the viewer in front of the piece of jewelry and the wearer behind it. These conditions of reception articulate the effectiveness of the work. A discursive activity, moving, changing, taking up time, rather that an act of frozen figuration, changes the idea of what jewelry can be.
Arguably, the women’s movement has had more effect on where jewelry is today in America, than any other theory or phenomena. This movement redeemed ideas of lived experience and the discourse of the body. Even the change in language from the modern figure to the feminist body asserts this critical disjunction. In modern empiricism experience was relegated to the privilege of the private, the secluded moment of an epiphany; while for the feminist, one neither needs nor sees such distinctions between questions of the human subject and questions of political struggle. They are one and the same. What and where we are is a social condition, all to often configured by an idea of rightness and authority.
One feminist strategy takes the form of a challenge; it does not invest in jewelry, it exposes jewelry. It does not engage in an exchange; it counter punches. It argues from its position of power and escalates the singularity of challenging. What feminism also offers is an understanding that the significance of jewelry is not that it is just for the body, but that it essentially confirms the human body. The point of such work is not simply to pronounce and generate a sign system as a directive or as a correction. That strategy only produces a simple read and is eventually insignificant in effect. Jewelry when worn is alive and telling; its form and subject act on us and with us. It participates in the meaning of both what a human act is and what we propose it is. It is not there in the sense of being figurative. It is a vibrating signal, a signal which enters into the squabble and if its objectives are well considered it can be an out of the way voice in the crowd of things. What we have learned from feminism is that jewelry, along with other discourses, acts as a signifying practice. It produces effect and it fabricates matters of consciousness and unconsciousness, sometimes reaffirming and at other times reversing existing systems of power. Thus, the coming and going of power can be influenced by the function of our practice. This connection is the ideological link between discourse and power.
It is unlikely that jewelry in and of itself can be transformative and make us better, any more than can Calvin’s Obsession, or a Mike Kelly installation of stuffed rag dogs. We can not consider it in isolation from the determining social context, nor can we sequester the object from its action. In order for jewelry to effectively change our day there must be a genuineness in its essential relationship to people, and in its graspablilty.
The jewelry in Signals works at this in several ways, and not necessarily with a single objective or cause. A good deal of the work plays sentimentality off of irony, a showdown between reverence, desire, and sensuality, that is a psychological and political idea of lack which needs to be fulfilled. Yet, in reaching back to mythology or the mystification and recollection of nature and material, it provides no final meaning or meaninglessness. The work continues articulating and yearning, at times quoting and poeticizing from Victorian jewelry or gothic art; it pastiches modern and anti-modern, scientific and anthropological sources side by side. In reclaiming and reinvesting in the ideas of the traditional and the modern it declares simultaneously the bankruptcy of both. It undermines the value they hold together in providing more space for one to act. This argumentative current of romanticism provides a means to question; it is a tool used by these jewelers to intervene with stereotypical prototypes of jewelry’s function. What we see here is not the repression or the sublimation of desire, but its realization. Images of flowers and buds, co-ordinates of gold, and arteries of silver stand in for both psychic and physical identities. The natural and the historical world are again connected to our experience and perception, and are part of the production and seduction of codes and signals. As we look at the signified, the context, the cause, or the philosophy, we must also look at what the piece on the body is doing, its material deployment and the social intervention being accomplished by its signified elements. Jewelry can alter the consciousness of the body through these associations.
Some of the work in this exhibition messes with the cult of popular and official jewelry, romancing a bad girl interpretation of the concept of people who wear jewelry. It measures the influence of romanticism on taste and the efficacy of pseudo-gems on power and seduction. This wholesome commodification has its own way of flattering and then employing the wearer and viewer as participants in an act of corrupting jewelry du jour. The dignity of beauty is somehow misquoted and all of a sudden the original is unretrievable. We are stuck somewhere between honesty and dishonesty with an artificial masterpiece confirming, with a wink of an eye, the maker’s and wearer’s good taste. In such work the wearer’s attitude creates the setting in which the jewel can expose itself as a rather attractive trick. Prospecting in this area is Myra Mimlitsch Gray.
The seriousness of challenging class systems, the crisis of cultural authority, and signs of power in Western European civilization are not always subjected to humor or satire. Some jewelry addresses such issues head on and uses jewelry as a carrier, a transport for issues and images of crisis. The subject matter is a means of destabilizing the authority of jewelry itself, and whatever is in the way outside. This practice recognizes the tyranny and conspiracy of the participants and pursues and presses jewelry’s complicity with power. While such wholesale condemnation may argue jewelers out of existence, it can expose a system of power that allows and encourages one type of jewelry or thought, while prohibiting, blocking, and dismissing others. In an attempt to dismantle signs of authority, however, what may be produced may well become just another law enacted by the user of the new field of discourse. What is possible, however, is an insistence on difference and a proclamation of the Other. This offers an extension of jewelry and acts as an instance of conceiving difference without polarization or absolute authority.
What we are beginning to see is jewelry as forms of activity inseparable from the wider social relations between makers, wearers, and bodies; objects, beholders, and bestowers. The work, then, holds reduced and inarticulate meanings outside of the social conventions and conditions which were considered in its making and produced in its wearing. As culture more and more signifies our practice, we make notice of what society needs. We move from recognizing the signification of actions to employing them as a tactic to produce change.
The strategies of such practices start from the choice of methods and theories which support our aims and those that contribute to our identification with the human condition. The concern for effectiveness embraces and shares the principles of formalism and semiotics, the devices of structure and significance. There are valuable concepts to be learned from various theories that help create an operative discursive practice. While our discourse presents itself as a form of power and desire, it more importantly offers the tools to move out of the modern vortex and to punch holes in the idea of the strategies’ effectiveness of simply understanding and producing more signs. While signs have stable meanings, signals, in their gesture, do not necessarily know what they mean. They may have contradictory or multiple meanings and purposes. The sign is not substance; it is a marker of recognition. The activity of jewelry is not pure sign; it is a thing tied to a voice, to materiality partly object, partly sign. The object of jewelry can be the sense making part, the evidence of the body veiled by signs, signals, reasoning, and metaphors. The success of meaning is dependent on our going beyond watching signs to using signs. For a signal to be a signal, its reception must suggest use and an interest in what is being conveyed. Meaning is then carried across the work and into the moments of everyday life.
What the jewelers in Messengers of Modernism began and the jewelers in Signals have retrieved is a concern with the nature and effectiveness of discourse and the virtue and eloquence of their objects: Meaning and the rhetoric of meaning. Rhetoric is neither as precise nor as politically charged as semiotics; but the production of meaning, how things look, the craft of making convincing work, work that is visually effective, and work that has an idea of beauty is apparent in both of these exhibitions. I am not advocating a dogma of style, but a pro-active attitude in making work in which the physical actuality does something to us. Rhetoric is not necessarily gratuitous nor insincere, nor is it simply a formal concern. It is the idiosyncratic attention to what the work looks like, the very skin of the work, its discernible existence as a phenomena. It is simply a tool that reinforces the virtues of visualization. We still make things and these exhibitions are a testament to the use and power of this marginal and outmoded activity. The uniqueness of making today is, however, tempered by the fact that we learn from everywhere. Such learning can be a virtue or a vice. It is a risky business that can make all of culture commonplace without commenting on any of it.
Ours is an unorthodox voice in the complexity of art today. Art engages ideas of its extendibility by the user/viewer and is no longer seen as a solitary act, but seen instead as a that body. They can affect the set of changing acts, engaging the body of its participants. Jewelers are as close as anyone to direction it takes and the attitude it has. In our society the socialization of people is instigated by messages and signals; it moves forward when we care as much about what we have to do as what we have to say.
Jamie Bennett is an artist living in Stone Ridge, New York. He is head of the Metal department at SUNY, New Paltz.
It is difficult for us to understand the consequences of wearing an Art Smith cuff or Merry Renk brooch in the 1940s or 50s. The wearers’ participation and endorsement signaled that they were as much adventurers as the makers, continuing the romantic heritage of the avant-garde and spreading catalysts for change and advance.
It is unlikely that jewelry in and of itself can be transformative, and make us better, any more than can Calvin’s Obsession, or a Mike Kelly installation of stuffed rag dogs.
What we are beginning to see is jewelry as forms of activity inseparable from the wider social relations between makers, wearers, and bodies; objects, beholders, and bestowers.