This article series from Metalsmith Magazine is named “Recent Sightings” where Bruce Metcalf talks about art, craftmanship, design, the artists, and techniques. For this 1989 Winter issue, he talks about artlike jewelry or jewelry that resembles sculptures.
For the past 15 or 20 years, American metalsmiths have been producing sculpture, or something that resembles sculpture. Some observers like Walter Darby Bannard (see “Craft and Art Envy,” New Work magazine) suggest that craftsmen are jealous of the fine arts, pleading for the same critical status that is accorded to sculpture I interpret the case differently.
In the past 30 years metalsmiths have insisted on having the freedom to experiment and have therefore questioned conventions that were once accepted uncritically. For instance, function (or utility) used to be a means to identify the craft object, but some professionals like Carol Kumata and Thelma Coles have abandoned it entirety. As a result, craft media are more and more frequently employed as a vehicle for personal expression and the exploration of ideas.
Several issues come up immediately. Are these objects sculpture simply because they have no physical use? Are they still craft? Or are they wishy-washy orphans, destined for the scrap heaps of history? Does it matter, anyway?
Let’s be generous and assume these nonutilitarian objects are, in fact, sculpture. I will now envision a hypothetical piece of sculpture and try to look at it closely. The piece is made from brass sheet, spray-painted a range of reddish hues on the outside and left bare metal on the inside. It’s about 10 inches tall, and perhaps 15 inches long The form consists of folded planes, mostly triangular and not entirely joined together at the corners. The planes shift and break; the top edge is jagged; there is no bottom. The sculpture consists entirely of geometry. Although the subject seems to be the relationship of inside to outside the vocabulary of form is a familiar one, derived from welded steel sculpture from the 50s and 60s.
If this object were a teapot, it might be considered radical, or, if it were a bracelet. . .but it is none of these. Lacking any apparent physical function, and lacking any traditional craft context, the object must be a sculpture. It asks to be looked at as sculpture, thought of as sculpture and, thus, to be compared to sculpture. Stylistically, the sculpture can be likened to Russian Constructivism, to the work of David Smith and Anthony Caro, or perhaps to work by more recent artists like Steve Keister.
This object exemplifies one of the central weaknesses of craft production today: it offers only a pale imitation of art. As such, it shares the same problem with much of the craftwork seen in galleries all across the country. To my mind, it’s taking the look of art without taking the hard questions that good artists ask.
The flat, folded surfaces speak in the vocabulary of pure geometry, which first appeared as sculpture in the work of the early Russian Constructivists. But Tatlin and Rodchenko invented much more than a style and a vocabulary of forms. They were incisive intelligent and deeply committed to a radical ideology of social and esthetic change. Just as the Russian Revolution overthrew previous political and economic structures. the Constructivists were attempting to overthrow and replace all previous sculpture. Where sculpture once had to replicate a specific source from nature, like the human figure, the Russians insisted that sculpture could be nothing but itself, devoid of pictorial reference. Where sculpture was carved of stone or cast from bronze, Tatlin nailed wood and glued cardboard together.
If anything, the Constructivist program was to defy convention and to throw all the old art devices away, just as the Russian Revolution proposed to do with politics and economics. Behind the geometric style was a body of ideas, an entire manifesto relating to art and society. At its inception, the very essence of Constructivism was to avoid the signs of “art” completely.
In my hypothetical sculpture, however, the folded geometric forms have no social, political or esthetic agenda. Is sole purpose is to announce to is audience that they are in the presence of art. The piece basks in the reflected glory of Russian Constructivism, which we all now accept as certified art. Here, style is a signifier of art. In the same way, if a student painter pus some drips and splashes on her canvas, then it must be real painting! If a jewelry student pops in a piece of mokumé-gang, why, it must be real jewelry! If we stand in a clean white room with track lighting, there must be an esthetic experience nearby! In each case, a signifier cues in the audience as to what to expect. We all learn to read these symbols the same way we learn to read road signs, uncritically. The naive reaction is that the sign must tell the truth. After all, would the authorities of the art world lie to us?
Of course the question is this: do we believe it? Do we accept these signs at face value, assuming that they are true?
If art were that easy, all artists would have to do is string together signifiers. Just gimme some geometry, a little vessel, and presto! Real Art! That’s what I see in many metalsmiths’ sculpture. It’s a composite of known and certified art signifiers, tastefully arranged into something that resembles art. But it does not have the incisive intelligence of the original sources.
That’s why the piece bothers me. It’s artlike a clever collection of respectable parts. Stripped of the meaning implicit in the signifiers, it doesn’t work very well. What really is the relationship between inside and outside? What’s the real reason for these folded surfaces? And this seductive color, why is it here? Where is the independent intelligence? The answers to these questions are not satisfying. I think the sculpture is just a pale, shrunken version of a larger, “legitimate” sculpture—but without a persuasive logic for being the size it is. It looks like art, but it suffers in comparison with the real thing.
As a teacher, I see dozens of objects that resemble this hypothetical exercise. Students cannot be faulted for making the old college try, and most try again. But if anyone makes the claim of being a sculptor or an artist, he or she takes on a body of history and a range of comparisons that cannot be avoided simply by wishful thinking. In denying the historical precedents and esthetic ideas that surround “art” (or “jewelry” for that matter), the artist tends to adopt signifiers, without much critical examination. However, this strategy is purchased at an unfortunate cost: mediocrity.
Bruce Metcalf teaches at Kent State University and is a contributing editor to Metalsmith.