Recent Sightings: Harper’s Lecture

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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 1994 Winter issue, he talks about William Harper's lecture.


At the start of William Harper's lecture at the 1993 SNAG conference, he conspicuously mentioned that he was going to talk about his concepts. Now there's a loaded word: "concepts". It calls up associations with conceptual art, long articles in art magazines that read as if they were badly translated from German, or graduate seminars in every M.F.A. program in the country. "Concepts" has such weighty (but favorably arty) implications, it's even the name of a jewelry gallery in California. We now expect "art" and "concept" to be inextricably tied together. If we were to believe the art magazines, an artist without a concept is like a car without gasoline.

Harper proceeded to talk about the various intentions he embeds in his jewelry. He talked about how the true competence of enameling lies in creating a sense of preciousness, and how that property is a constant reference and counterpoint in his work. Much of his discussion concerned his interest in non-western cultures. He talked at length about his take on several Christian myths, particularly the twisted sexuality of St. Sebastian and the parallels between St. Anthony and the modern artist. The subject of multiculturalism came up, although he did not appear to understand much about it. Also, some young women thought Harper made a few dumbly sexist remarks. But mostly the lecture was thoughtful and witty. The crowd gave him a standing ovation.

Initially, I was perplexed by the notion of concept. Were these really "concepts" that Harper spoke about? If the ambition of some segments of the jewelry field is to become artists - and Harper is clearly in this camp - is the allowable standard of what constitutes a legitimate concept the same for the crafts as it is for the other arts? Was William Harper speaking about a concept in the same way, for instance, as a conceptual artist would?

Consider the benchmark piece of conceptual art for our century: Duchamp's pseudonymously signed urinal. The object itself was an ordinary commercial fitting, chosen for its absolute distinction from everything that had, up until then, been considered as art. In a single stroke, Duchamp inverted every available frame of reference, calling into question received notions of aesthetic quality, beauty, authorship, mastery, and pretty much anything else that great art was supposed to represent. The artfulness of Duchamp's urinal is not in the object itself (after all, it's just plumbing), but in what Duchamp forced his audience to consider. Here, the object is a screen of little substance. The real issue lies beyond it, in the realms of ontology and epistemology.

Now that the urinal has been co-opted into the mainstream, it haunts all of twentieth-century art. It has three profound implications for everything we wish to consider as art. First, it proposes that the art object itself is less important than the concepts it represents. Serious discourse in the arts has shifted from consideration of the nature of the object or even of visual experience, to discourses on more rarefied philosophical issues, even to examination of discourse itself. Secondly, it establishes a system in which radicalism, criticality inversion, and violation of the status quo become the highest positive values. The unspoken demand is that great art of the present-day must be as stunning to us as the urinal was in Duchamp's day. And third, it implies that any return to the traditional positions that Duchamp attacked is reactionary and wrong. If you take the urinal seriously, retreat is impossible.

And so the relation between object and idea is constituted. Nowadays, it seems to be written in stone, or at least in porcelain.

Duchamp's urinal authoritatively defines what is properly conceptual, and what is not. Such an agenda is not particularly sympathetic to craft, nor to William Harper. His jewelry is insistently material and sensual in the first place, competing for attention with any conceptual program. Certain of Harper's ideas, like his emphasis on preciousness, would gain little respect among many art critics, to whom "preciousness" is a dirty word. Harper's personal narrative is justified by Romantic theories of expression that are no longer persuasive to the artistic avant-garde. And his vaguely uninformed musings on multiculturalism clearly showed that he is not up on the latest hot-button art world issues. An observer who believes in the essential artfulness of Duchamp's urinal would find Harper's musings to be shallow and off-the-mark: not "conceptual" enough. I could easily imagine such a response, and yet it puzzled me.

Whatever Harper's limitations might be, he is still a thoughtful artist. Why should his life not be subject matter for his art? Is the story of his painful adjustment to partial blindness any less compelling than a discourse on semiotics? Why should a contemporary take on Christian myth be excluded from the realm of the conceptual? And even if he flubbed multiculturalism, is he any different from the many hot young artists and writers who failed to grasp deconstruction, or completely misunderstood chaos theory?

What we have is a clash of cultures. On one hand we have the children of Marcel Duchamp, with a stringent agenda that hasn't changed much in 70 years. Modernism or Postmodernism, the project is much the same: radicalism, criticality, inversion, and violation of the status quo. Either way, art becomes a branch of philosophy. You can dematerialize the art object into pure philosophy and still have art.

But a craft object dissolved into pure idea is no longer craft. Craft culture (for the most part) refuses to turn the object into a transparent vessel for philosophical musings. Because the craft object is necessarily and insistently physical, and because craftswomen and craftsmen spend so much time learning the mastery of a chosen material, it's no wonder that the crafts have not lined up behind Duchamp. Craft insists on remaining firmly connected to life-as-lived: in being used, as jewelry is; or in serving as a platform to talk about issues we feel deeply about, the way Harper uses his jewelry to talk about his blindness. Nor has craft ever shown much interest in violation and inversion. Instead, ideas about living a decent life, about service, or beauty or healing are more likely to appear on the craft agenda. These are all concepts, too. It is the art world's great loss that the more humanistic (if less rigorous) ideas embraced by the craft culture somehow don't look like real concepts.

Bruce Metcalf spends a lot of time thinking about concepts in Philadelphia.

By Bruce Metcalf
Metalsmith Magazine – 1994 Winter
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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