This article series from Metalsmith Magazine is named “Recent Sightings” where Bruce Metcalf talks about art, craftsmanship, design, the artists, and techniques. For this 1998 Spring issue, he talks about Jamie Bennett.

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“If, as I suspect, a modernist impetus has become institutionalized, if the interesting legacies of the great formalist and Dadaist years have created a new Pompier art then I would hope and pray to be post-that.”
– R.B. Kitaj, as quoted in Marco Livingstone, Kitaj, Phaidon Press, 1992

Professor Jamie Bennett has made quite a stir lately, first with his article “Jewelry Mediating Jewelry” in the Winter 1998 issue of Metalsmith, and then with his debate with Keith Lewis at the SNAG conference in March. In his writing and in the debate, Bennett describes a methodology, as well as an idealistic potential, for contemporary jewelry. As near as I can tell (after reading the article three times), he seems to outline a practice in which the means and ends of jewelry should become a discourse, with its subject matter at the proper Postmodern distance from the maker. As Bennett says, “…jewelry …defined itself as a field that was engaged in the idea of discursive techniques as a means of making more meaningful and socially relevant jewelry.”

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Bennett underlines the idea of social relevance, stressing that jewelry should be effective. However, he is a little vague about what jewelry should be effective at doing. At one point, he says that “Jewelry can alter the consciousness of the body”; later he says that jewelers “…can affect the direction [ the body ] takes and the attitude it has.” Otherwise, he doesn’t say much on the subject, but the subtext of social intervention and change has been made clear.

At first glance, this appears to be all very forward-looking. Bennett seems to describe the proper artistic approach for our era; the proper vehicle for the inexorable march of progress. Those who don’t get on the bus, well, they’ll just be left in the dustbin of history. Other approaches that characterize previous decades, like the Surrealism of the 1940’s, the “good design” of the 1950’s, Funk and Pop Art of the 1960’s, and the self-expression of the 1970’s, appear to be obsolete in Bennett’s view. And, in fact, the debate at the SNAG conference was about Bennett’s assertion that the personal (by which I think he means autobiography) is no longer a legitimate subject matter for jewelry.

A number of artists in jewelry and metalsmithing meet with Bennett’s approval, and appear to follow his directive. Myra Mimlitsch-Gray, Lisa Norton, Alyssa Dee Krauss, and Julia Barello all come to mind. And, looking at the 1998 SNAG Juried Student Exhibition in Seattle, it’s clear that a number of students have identified this discursive approach as the jewelry avant-garde. Their work was characterized by a number of strategies that also characterize current art-world practice. These strategies include the idea of drawing subject matter from the field itself, the use of installations, photography, and text applied to objects, and a general attitude of questioning any form of authority.

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Don’t get me wrong: I like this kind of work if it’s done well. But I also have my doubts. What Bennett is describing is the new formula du jour, the academic style of the decade. Basically, he reiterates the strategies employed in the past decade’s conceptual art, embodied in the work of artists like Mike Kelley, Janine Antoni, and Lorna Simpson. These artists all have two things in common: first, they have returned to using real objects in their artworks ( as opposed to dematerializing the artwork in pure text or performance ). Second, the concept is clearly more important than the object itself. From one point of view, Bennett is simply trying to drag craft into the mainstream of twentieth century art. But from another point of view, Bennett is betraying one of the bedrock values of the craftworld – its loyalty to medium and process – by declaring that material is always secondary to idea.

Bennett will no doubt protest, and say that he doesn’t really mean this. But if there is to be a true conceptual craft, it has to play by the artworld’s rules. Are you loyal to your ideas, or are you loyal to your craft? You’ve gotta choose. The conceptual artist will give up the craft in an instant, and adopt the material and format most appropriate to the idea. But a omitted craftsperson won’t give up her craft: it’s simply too valuable to throw away. In my view, this loyalty to medium and process is one of the essential differences between craft practice and art practice. It’s what sets craft apart, and is important precisely because it marks a difference.

So, I would say that most of the paragons of craft virtue that Bennett mentions are not really conceptual artists. They’re craftspeople. Myra Mimlitsch-Gray continues to make metalwork, with exacting skill. She carefully restricts her ideas to the range of metalwork itself, so she can continue to use her craft as the medium of her expression. She doesn’t use the typical formats of conceptual art: video; performance; text-on-the-walls. She uses metalsmithing; she’s a metalsmith. For Mimlitsch-Gray, the craft comes first, and it limits the range of her ideas.

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Why is this important? Because I think craft and art are different things. Craft objects embody a different set of desires and impulses than art does. And if we want craft to survive in the next century, we probably have to focus on the distinctive qualities (and strengths) of craft, rather than the ways in which it is identical to art practice. In my view, we have to underline differences, not sameness. If the forces of sameness become institutionalized, then I think people should be suspicious, just as Kitaj was.

In his article, Bennett intentionally obscures the differences between craft and art. At the same time, he proposes a new Pompier art, an institutionalized formula for the production of high art. He doesn’t say so explicitly, but his agenda clearly includes the possibility that jewelers who follow his directives could be regarded as artists, not just as jewelers. It’s the old status gambit. Bennett implies that we are really artists – that we can and should practice a slightly modified version of conceptual art – and that we’re only incidentally craftspeople. But is this so? What do we gain? And what do we lose?

Bruce Metcalf is a metalsmith who practices his craft in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Notes

  1. Jamie Bennett, “Jewelry Mediating Jewelry”, Metalsmith, Volume 18, Number 1, page 30.
  2. Page 31. The italics are Bennett’s.
  3. page 33
  4. For a very concise explanation of the priority of idea over object in conceptual art, see Adrian Piper, “Ian Burn’s Conceptualism”, Art in America, December 1997, page 74-75.
  5. For a detailed exploration of the author’s view of these differences, see his “Craft and art, culture and biology” in Peter Dormer (editor), The Culture of Craft, Manchester University Press, 1997