Recent Sightings: Crafts Culture

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This article was originally posted on Userblogs on 6/27/2017.
By Bruce MetcalfMore from this author

This article series from Metalsmith Magazine is named "Recent Sightings" where Bruce Metcalf talks about art, craftsmanship, design, the artists, and techniques. For this 1993 Fall issue, he talks about North American crafts culture.


There is a distinct crafts culture in North America. After WW II, it grew from workshops where craftsmen and craftswomen taught each other techniques, from craft fairs where a new marketplace was developed, and from art schools and universities. This culture was conditioned more by face-to-face contact than by writing and reading, and evolved in small communities that, at first, weathered glacial indifference from the public. One could imagine the craft world as a circle of covered wagons in some late-night Western movie, banded together for cooperation and common protection. While swapping recipes or fighting off the bad guys, you don't criticize your neighbor: You make nice. What was once good manners has now become entrenched, and the culture of craft is guided by a rigid etiquette of polite behavior.

This culture affords everybody inside the community a common ground. We can all talk shop, trading tech tips and information on new materials or suppliers. We can share the "gee-whiz" admiration for sophisticated technique, which may not be recognizable to an outsider. There's a national network/grapevine, relatively open and accessible, through which contacts are made and information is shared. And, of course, there's always a certain amount of gossip for sheer entertainment. The homey roots of the community still serve us well.

However, the habit of never openly criticizing a fellow craftsperson has an unfortunate side effect. In a culture that prescribes niceness as a primary virtue, it's very difficult to raise public criticism, even if the opinion is widely shared. Over a few beers, or around a lunch table, craftspeople freely complain about the products and behavior of their colleagues. But if you say the same thing in public, watch out. People will begin to say (privately, of course) that you are not a nice person. In fact, people will be so shocked by the transgression of polite behavior, they might not hear what you have to say at all, but simply concentrate, instead, on their outrage that the rules have been broken.

I learned that lesson in the fall of 1992, when I assembled a panel at the Chicago New Art Forms Expo to discuss the question of quality in jewelry. One of the panelists I chose was Keith Lewis - who has already made a reputation in the pages of this magazine as a "bad boy" and left-wing moralist because I knew he would be fearless and blunt in his criticisms. At the same time, i knew Keith could articulate a clear reasoning for whatever rebuke he might deliver.

One of the icons of modern jewelry that Keith criticized was Stanley Lechtzin's famous "Photo Cameo Brooch 56D". The object, which is a very complex construction of carved acrylic plastic and electroformed metal, depicts a nude woman embedded in a transparent organic form. (The piece is reproduced in Untracht's Jewelry Concepts and Technology, in Plate 23-1.) Keith started out by calling the piece "especially ugly", in which opinion he is not alone. He then continued with a more rational line of reasoning: "What is left is a messy baroque peepshow that can best be understood via a retroactive feminist analysis. Feminism, since this piece was made, has dug…into how frequently, social roles and limitations are reinforced by seemingly benign practices. Looking at this piece, and many others, in a feminist light, can elicit insights that underscore the sexist subtext of much jewelry in our culture. 'Art Jewelry' too, can serve that subtext and indeed this piece is a primer in sexism - utilizing borrowed turn-of-the-century imagery of woman as the devouring poisoned flower, the fleur de mal; and adding very little, stylistically or conceptually, to the meaning of jewelry."

I should point out that I believe Lewis's argument is questionable - It is by no means certain that "Photo Cameo Brooch 56D" actually represents a "devouring poisoned flower", and it is highly debatable that the piece contributes little to the meaning of jewelry. Lechtzin's brooch was a culmination of an ongoing experiment in changing the acceptable scale of jewelry, and in adopting certain industrial technologies to the production of modern jewelry. Ugly or not, and sexist or not, it still represents an important historical moment in American art jewelry.

However, the audience did not calmly examine the flaws in Lewis's argument. Instead, the reaction was highly emotional. A few people immediately stormed out of the lecture hall in anger. Later, several of Mr. Lechtzin's former students attacked Keith Lewis, one even suggested that he wasn't qualified to criticize jewelry because he didn't have his Master's degree yet. A gallery owner called me to complain at length about the event, although she could not recall what Lewis actually said. These individuals chose to question the critic's personality, his integrity, and his credentials. Deflecting an argument away from the merits of the case toward the possible flaws of the critic is called an "ad hominem" attack, and as such has no basis in logic. But its emotional appeal is very strong, especially for those who feel offended.

Tactics like that are employed by people who can't agree to disagree. Shocked that some upstart has the nerve to criticize their teachers, mentors, or masters, they attack the messenger rather than analyze the message. Honest criticism is recast as social transgression. and productive debate is pushed aside. Such reactions remind me, once again, that the crafts culture prefers to "make nice" rather than deal directly with hard issues.

There is no shortage of hard issues, and hard criticism is a useful device to deal with them. Unfortunately, too many in the crafts community still think that criticism is always a personal attack. I suppose it's only human to be paranoid about those who disagree with you and to imagine that they must have nasty motives. But in my experience most people merely want to assert their own opinion, or sometimes to ask a question. Disagreement and criticism should be invitations to debate ideas. The community of jewelers and metalsmiths can be large enough, and generous enough, to tolerate a multiplicity of ideas. We don't have to act out the part of the angry parent, slapping the wrists of those who say something that isn't nice. This community needs to grow up. We need to learn how to disagree.

Bruce Metcalf is a metalsmith and a writer on crafts, who resides in Philadelphia.

By Bruce Metcalf
Metalsmith Magazine – 1993 Fall
In association with SNAG‘s
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.

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Bruce Metcalf

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