The Silversmith Mandate: Looking at the Future

The following are excerpts from a panel discussion chaired by Lois Etherington Betteridge at the Society of North American Goldsmiths’ conference in Toronto, June 1985. The panelists included: Gary Griffin, Head of Metalsmithing, Cranbrook Academy of Art; Randy Long, Head of the Metalworking and Design Program, Indiana University; Kurt Matzdorf, Professor Emeritus, School for American Craftsmen, Rochester Institute of Technology.

Introduction

Traditionally, the mandate of the silversmith was to make functional, liturgical and secular holloware to meet the needs of the church and the elite of society. The term “holloware” referred primarily to hammer-raised vessels. We know that the Industrial Revolution had an irreversible, detrimental effect on the craftsman, only slightly held at bay by the Arts and Crafts Movement at the turn of the century and the Bauhaus movement of the 30s. The latter, in turn, strongly influenced first Scandinavian design and subsequently the North American approach to holloware in the middle of this century, when silversmithing skills were reborn. We are equally familiar with the resulting interaction of technique with design, which became the battle cry of “holloware.”

Now, some 30 years later, the scope of silversmithing has expanded to encompass sculpture, objects where function is of secondary importance, an increasing variety of techniques, some of which are an application of high-technology and all kinds of metals and nonmetals, which now include synthetic as well as natural materials.

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Rather than accepting a mandate imposed on us by demand in the marketplace, we are evolving our own and asking that our work be accepted on our terms. Or are we? And what are those terms?

Certainly, in the public’s perception, and probably in our own, there is confusion as to what it is we make and what it is we are. We may call ourselves artists, though our work is not recognized as art. We may call ourselves silversmiths yet rarely raise a form or use precious metals. We may call our works holloware, though they have no function. We may say we are making sculpture, yet it has a function. We may call our work “architectural” sculpture, though it is never meant to be applied to a building but instead uses the architectural vocabulary. This confusion, even among ourselves, about our work and the terms we use to describe it, is symptomatic of a state of flux and is important to address because it denies our public the vocabulary essential to acceptance of what we do.

Refining the silver on the test (from Ercker, 1574)

Consider, for example, the phrase “revitalizing holloware.” This cliché is often used to imply a “redirection” of silversmithing, too. But, with its functional connotations, is “holloware” the appropriate term when the smith’s redirection is towards nonfunctional objects and sculpture?

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Whatever the terminology, any examination of the broadening scope of metalwork and its redirection needs to consider the reasons behind the changes, their consequences and how best to expedite those changes we consider to be valid.

In discussing possible reasons for the change, we should ask whether it is due to the fact that many of the metalworkers who create sculpture are, in fact, artists, who happen to work in metal, or whether it is an attempt to evoke a response in the marketplace that is withheld from functional holloware. In other words, is it an attempt to share in some of the status (and correspondingly higher prices) accorded the recognized art forms? If that is the reason, will our craft origins and the public’s perception of those origins always work against acceptance of our work as art?

As to the consequences of the change in direction, can we afford to remove ourselves from our traditional place in the market to compete for a place in the art market? If we can, what do we do to convince the galleries, consumers and critics that we are making art?

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Whether we decide to function as artist or craftsman, what do we do to convince the public that functional holloware has an importance in our society? Does part of the answer lie in a clearly defined vocabulary used by metalworkers and understood by the critic and consumer? How much public resistance of our works can be attributed to esthetic, and how much to practical, considerations?

Esthetically speaking, is some of our work too derivative of past and recent sculpture? Are the forms of our functional holloware too boring and repetitive? Is our work too exotic and “precious,” aiming primarily at attracting immediate attention and offering little ongoing reward to the viewer? Is there too little content and concept in our works and too much display of self-conscious virtuosity?

On the practical side, we should consider whether our work is resisted because of a public idea that it is costly, even though the prices may be quite comparable to those of a good painting or print. Is the fluctuating price of precious metals a factor? Is resistance increased by the idea that our objects (holloware or sculpture) will require constant cleaning and/or are too delicate and susceptible to damage?

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Obviously, then, we do not lack self-analyzing questions. My hope for this discussion is that, as a group comprising a variety of viewpoints, we can engage in mutually beneficial discussion and perhaps arrive at a conclusion or two.

Discussion

LB: The first question I would like to pose is: Does our collective, imprecise vocabulary affect acceptance or rejection of our work among the buying public and in the art gallery, that is, silversmiths who don’t raise, holloware that has no function, sculpture that has a function?

RL: My answer to that is no. I don’t feel that labeling is what’s going to give it the acceptance or rejection by the gallery or the public. I think that it’s hard to define what different metalsmiths are doing as holloware and sculpture. Basically, I feel that whether you use metalsmith or metal artist or whatever terminology, that if you’re doing exciting and good work, the gallery will be receptive to it. There are quite a few new galleries exhibiting metalwork that is in the holloware realm but is not necessarily functional holloware, and there are quite a few metalsmiths doing sculptural work who are getting into recognized art galleries, and so I think the terminology is not the problem.

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GG: First of all, language is basically imprecise in describing symbols, forms, etc., and I think that Jung pretty much proved that, so I find it easier to just accept the fact that language is imprecise. Therefore, one has to formulate questions over and over again to begin to describe objects in terms of language. It’s not the language or the description of the object that is the problem itself. What’s important is not what we call it, but that the object in front of us must be perceived as being art. For example, if we look at a paintbrush as a painter looks at a paintbrush, we see that the paintbrush becomes an expressive tool. If, on the other hand, we look at a hammer, I’m not convinced at this point that the hammer is viewed as an expressive tool, a way of interpreting social realities and a way of projecting thought. I think it’s viewed as a tool to move material, to raise a bowl, etc. I am convinced, however that we’re at a point when someone will realize that the hammer can be an expressive tool and that we may see a bowl, a simple bowl, produced that would be viewed as a work of art.

KM: Yes, I think language does affect a typical rejection of our work among the buying public, but that’s the problem—the buying public, because I think the public relies on semantics and a rose by any other name does smell as sweet. I think it isn’t a question really of what we call it. I don’t worry about it, because some people call me a silversmith, some people call me a sculptor. I call myself an artistic problem solver, and that’s about as close as I can get to the truth. Let’s face it, we are in the world as artists and we get our fellow men to share what we perceive as a visual truth. I mean very definitely as we perceive it, because I find I have to be myself and I have to solve the problem as I analyze it. Now, I happen to be a silversmith and a raiser; I make holloware that has a function or no function, and I also do sculpture that has a function, so I straddle all those lines and I do it very happily, and, as far as I’m concerned, the semantics are someone else’s problem. I’m conditioned to make a piece for a certain purpose, both functionally and artistically in the most imaginative way that I can. I think a lot of confusion has arisen over the last 10 years over purpose. People have stopped thinking clearly. So, if we’re going to revise holloware, as it were, then let’s think about it and let’s come up with a clear answer that’s understandable to people. I’m not working for galleries, I’m not working for museums, I’m working for people, who will use my work, and if my work sits on my table or on the shelf, it’s useless. Again, we’re talking about verbal semantics; let’s talk a little bit about artistic semantics. I’ve been using the vocabulary and the techniques of the silversmith in order to communicate with my public. Can you imagine Shakespeare writing his plays without the control of the language that he had? How do you expect to be a good artist if you don’t know the techniques and if you don’t know the principles of design and if you don’t have ideas?

AP: I don’t think semantics is the issue really. The way the question was posed makes it seem that there is some kind of impediment to the understanding of holloware because we don’t have the vocabulary to discuss it verbally. What is ultimately going to carry the work is the quality of the work itself, where you’re dealing with the visual vocabulary. If you have the skills and the perception to develop that and articulate that in final form and present it, that’s really all that’s needed. When you become involved with criticism and that type of thing, that’s a whole other sphere of influence. No matter what words you will put to the glass movement or to the ceramics movement, the reason that they were influential, the reason that they gained acceptance was because of the power of the work, the visual quality of the work, and just because much of the craft movement has been preserved within academia, we have tried to embrace various intellectual concepts, which is fine. However, your primary vehicle is the visual vocabulary and that’s what’s ultimately going to make it or break it, no matter what people say about it. The good work prevails, the good work has acceptance and the poor work falls to the wayside. I really don’t see a problem with semantics at all. The reason that craftsmen are artists, they work with their hands and they deal with form the same as what Kurt was saying about the mode of expression, that’s the way that you use your emotion and your intellect as a way of communication. Dealing with the verbalization of it obscures the real issue. If the acceptance is not there, that means the response is not there. Maybe the articulation through your own perception and through your skills to manifest it is what’s in question.

LB: I’m wondering if we do sometimes have some confusion in identifying the object—sometimes we identify it by the process and sometimes by the name of the finished object. Do you have any difficulty with that?

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RL: In terms of talking to each other, we don’t have any problem. But there might be a problem when it comes to art criticism. I do sometimes question the terms of the definition of holloware, whether it should be defined as functional or not. But if we want a term we can all work with, we should be artists, metal artists.

LB: Are we evolving our own market in asking that our work be accepted on our terms, and, if so, what are those terms?

AP: It’s a very complex issue. When you speak of your own personal expression, you might look at the work more as a poetic object, more as a response of your own intuitive feelings, that type of thing. When you’re thinking of, say, the culture as such, the public, the buying public, we talk about the cultural fabric. There’s a reason that certain things happen when they do, not necessarily because of one’s own individual perception, but a cumulative perception of society. For instance, one thing that I’m very involved in now is ornamentation, and it so happens that for whatever reason I became involved with it, the architectural community is also thinking about ornament, and, therefore, because of the timing, I’ve been fairly successful. If 20 years ago I felt that ornamentation was important, no matter how much I would profess my values, they would not have been accepted, because it was not a part of that fabric at the time. You have a responsibility, obviously, to yourself to be honest with those questions in the work you do, but at the same time your responsibility as an artist is to be perceptive and sensitive enough to the environment around you. Take the field of lapidary. Initially, the lapidary was one who worked with a metalsmith to create, focus and accent chalices and various things and would cut the gemstones. There was a point when lapidary separated itself from metalwork and exercised those skills and disciplines of the lapidary to create objects. Fabergé, for example, carved lapis pheasants and so on. What has happened, I think, was that the decorative arts, which embraced ceramics and holloware and glassware, were part of the decorative arts lineage related to architecture. The architectural scheme and, therefore, the related objects have a place and they were appropriate and fell into place. Now what has happened is that the decorative arts, because of one aspect of the Bauhaus, eliminated a lot of that, and these skills are being kept alive for the most part through the academic institution, which I’ve been part of for over 20 years. I think that the answer to whether these things are integral to the society is whether people buy and sell them and if they identify with them. You have to think: Is this a cultural movement, is it a fine arts movement, are we talking about folk art or are we talking about a very singular poetic image? I’m not saying that in a negative way, but you have one set of criteria if you look at it as a folk art movement and another if you look at it as an individual poetic statement. But, if you speak about tradition—raising and forging and so on—you find that the silversmith was a product of the cultural sensibilities of the time. He was a tradesman, and he learned the skill to fulfill those needs of society. Those needs are shifting, yet the skills remain. There’s where the problem comes in, and I think the question has to go beyond the logistics and skills and sensitivity of material and process to the real need, the social need or the human need for these things.

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LB: I wonder if we could approach some of the esthetic questions. Could we say at the present that metalwork is, generally speaking, and in some specific cases, too derivative of past or recent sculpture in other media—you mentioned pottery, for instance. Is functional holloware too boring and repetitive? Is it too precious and exotic but lacking in content, and has it too little content and concept and too much display of self-conscious virtuosity?

GG: In terms of this notion of derivation with regards to the metalsmith and the sculptor, in my mind there’s a very clear difference between the two. That is not to say that they’re not both artists. I believe that they can be. There may be metalsmiths who make things that as a final object we call sculpture, but I think that the process that they go through, which includes the conceptual process, the thinking, the manipulation and their attitude towards that is very different than that of the late-20th-century sculptor. I think their concerns are very different, and I think their historical background is very, very different. There is some overlapping, however, and there always has been historically. I mean, the Gorham Company did manufacture bronze sculpture at one point, and metalsmiths have always moved into that area, but primarily it’s been formally, except perhaps if we go back to Renaissance work. So, I think that there is no question that there’s a good deal of sculpture made by metalsmiths, that it’s extremely derivative of sculpture, but I also believe that there is some sculpture being made by metalsmiths that is not at all derivative and is very fresh.

With regards to virtuosity, that dovetails right into this notion. In other words, one of the things that is very distinctive about what we do is that we do care about materials and process, and I think that it’s in a very different way from the sculptor of the latter part of the 20th century. So, I don’t see a problem with virtuosity as long as it’s not an end in itself. I think that my stuff’s well made, and I’d have a hard time doing it any other way, to be quite frank with you. I’ve just accepted that.

I do think that with regards to functional holloware, my perception is that much of it stops asking questions about the nature of the function and when it’s made in terms of time. In other words, when you look at the period you live in, you should be asking questions based upon that time and the nature of function at that point in time.

AP: Every point that’s brought up here; Is functional holloware too boring? Is it too repetitive? Is it too precious? All these questions seem to posture a negative perception of what holloware is about. People talk about marketing and revitalization and things like that. I’m in a different position, I guess I have a different point of view. I went through the academic system. I taught holloware. I’ve been involved with all those problems that you’re involved in. My own work has developed in the architectural arena and I’ve been dealing with things there. But in Jamie Bennett’s lecture on holloware today, when he showed the newest avant-garde things coming out of the Memphis school, there was holloware. It was fresh, it was new, it was innovative, it was on the cutting edge of what people were thinking about. It’s there and it’s obvious and it’s an international thing. Now why is this a negative posture? I mean, if holloware is dead and there’s no need for it, these things would never surface, but, nevertheless, there it is.

I sit in with architects all the time who are designing buildings and they say, “Do you know anybody who can make finials for stairways or lamps for the lobby or sculptural relief? We’re dying to find these people; they’re not around.” Nevertheless, I know hundreds of people out there that are making little vessels and little containers and doing this and that and intellectualizing about them. There’s a market there, and, the skills are there. It seems that everybody’s in a small group, and it’s not that there is not acceptance for these and it’s not that there’s not value, but from my perception the whole market is ready to blow apart. What I mean is, with all of the intellectualism, and I’m not at all knocking that, but all the intellectualism and the personal insight that I saw with the things that Jamie was showing and then what came out of the Memphis school that showed what can be done, why not use those perceptions? You’re not going to have any trouble finding a market, I mean, that stuff is going to sell as soon as it’s out. There’s a ready market out there for all of that stuff, preciousness, fine, the little silver platters and silver dishes, they’re functional, there’s all kinds of objects and fountains and these things that are just dying to be made, and there are people there that have the skills to do it, so why not do it and make money? You don’t have to ask these questions, it’s no problem. I can’t understand what’s the value in turning this over all the time. I’ve been sitting on these panels for 15 years, going over the same thing, and out there people buy and sell stuff and things happen and we keep on going on. Is it sculpture, is it art, is it a function? It doesn’t make any difference. It’s how you perceive it.

KM: One thing that I want to mention rather strongly right now is the fact that if the Memphis school is the latest thing, don’t do it, because it’s already done. You’re not doing anything original, you’re arranging ideas of other people.

Is functional holloware today too boring and repetitive? Some of it’s awful, terrible. See, what the people in the Memphis school have done, they have approached the problem from the point of view of what do those forms mean to me emotionally, me the creator, and they came up with a configuration of forms, colors and structures, that have been tried before, and that esthetically, in some instances, are very pleasing, and in other instances are rather awful. As I said, I consider myself an artistic problem solver, and when I solve a problem, I go back to the elements of form and the principles of design, and that’s the one thing that artists have followed from time immemorial. If you find that the forms of the past are boring, don’t repeat those forms, invent your own.

Are we being too precious and exotic but lacking in content? Yes, and by lacking in content I mean that the human element very often is missing. And the other part of the question, has it too little content and concept and too much display of self-conscious virtuosity. In my opinion, definitely yes, because we are being so precious about ourselves, we think we have to parade our artistic powers. Of course, we do, but we do it in our work. We don’t matter, because we’re all going to be dead in 70 years. There won’t be a single one of us around, but your work is likely to be, and that’s what you want to think about. So, when we talk about working in today’s style, we must ask what that is. And, of course, it is what we make for ourselves—that’s what is today’s style. We as artists are the eyes of a half-blind world, and we have to show it a new way of looking.

GG: One of the things I’ve been concerned about in this whole discussion is that I get the feeling that the intellectual, the critic is on the defensive. We live in a time where we have mass bombardment visually in terms of slides, we live in a sea of slides, we have video advertising, all this type of thing. So, today, you could just emotionally react and be right on without the use of the intellect, but I don’t believe that works. I think that there has to be some kind of balance or blend, or one has to ask questions. For example, Kurt said something about, don’t do Memphis. I say, hey, don’t do art deco, don’t do Renaissance, don’t do all that other stuff either, but you ought to know something about it, its lineage and how it developed. Then, perhaps, with some kind of blend between working with your hands and thinking, something will happen. I don’t think this will take place in isolation. I think what takes place in isolation is that everyone gets excited at each jewelry show they see or each holloware show they see and then they do a bunch of it, and nothing is going to come from that that one can say is artful.

In terms of something that I’d like to share about the way that I operate—I find it’s very important to find links to make sense of what I’m doing, and, generally, I do that by trying to make historical links, although in an unscientific manner. I try to prove my point rather than disprove it, and I think that this is a rather positive position. In other words, is there a lineage for metalsmiths who make sculpture? Do I have to create a new category, or has it really always been there all along? What I find most often is that there always is a lineage and that there are always those antecedent practitioners who had a similar idea but at a different time, and it’s that time factor that makes the difference. I find that very reinforcing. It’s very buttressing to know that these things existed, and I don’t fear change because of it. I will always have colleagues.

From audience, Arline Fisch: I’d like to hear a little more discussion about different approaches to the manipulation of metals, because I think that is conditioned by ideas. It does not necessarily make the idea; the idea makes the method of choice. It would be interesting to conjecture about the range of what’s happening with metalsmithing right now. There is not a great deal of actual beating on metal. There are many ways metal has changed in the past five years. Al is beating on metal and Gary is beating on metal, but not so much recently. Gary, your way of working with metal has changed rather drastically in the last five years. Could you make some observation about why you changed the way you deal with metal and the way you see the future of metalsmithing?

RL: I would like to agree with several things that Kurt brought up, and I think that the human aspect is immensely important and how you respond to the materials themselves.

The metals field has come a long way in the past 10 years and I am encouraged by much of the work that I see being done by individual artists. But the field of metal in general can be held back by metalworkers who don’t think critically and creatively about what they are trying to express in metal. There are professional metalsmiths doing work that is derivative of work that has been done in other media.

The main criticism I have of work that draws upon other media for its inspiration is that there is not always the consideration of the importance of the material in the concept of the original work. A form or image that is exceptional in glass may lose much of its meaning and impact when duplicated in metal. A sensitive artist is aware of these differences and the inherent qualities of materials. However, exploring the ideas, forms, techniques and textures that are typical of one medium and translating them into another can bring fresh ideas to the field of metalworking when creatively applied.

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Metalsmiths who borrow ideas, forms and work formats from other media and do not develop the work beyond mere imitation are no better than metalsmiths who copy the work of other metalsmiths. No one is fooled, and the plagiarist is thought of as a second-rate artist by their peers because of their lack of originality and inability to be innovative. My feeling is that these metalworkers are cheating themselves of the real pleasure involved in creating artworks—the joy of discovery. They are more concerned with the end product than the artistic process and personal search. Metalwork that has been inspired by other artforms, both contemporary and historical, must at least equal this work in vigor, concept, clarity and presence if it is to have any lasting significance.

The thing that Kurt mentioned too was the idea that we are trying to show other people another way of seeing or a new reality for that particular object. It’s nice to have that reference point, saying I’m starting with a compote or a cup form. Or are you just doing a nebulous object that doesn’t have any reference point? If so, you’re not going to be communicating.

GG: I’ve been working on this piece and there was a particular area where I had to make something that looked like dirt. And all the things I’m doing now are in steel, so I never made dirt before, or anything that looked like it. So, I figured out that if I took the arc welder and turned it up full blast and held it six inches away and just cut loose that it might work. It just blew metal all over the thing and it looked great. So, what I’m trying to illustrate is the point that you come up with an idea of what you want to do and then you figure out a way to do it. If you’re doing jewelry that’s really hard-edge, geometric, sparing in terms of surface embellishment, then bending is probably a good way to do that. On the other hand, if you’re after volume, there might be another way to do it. It seems like a rather obvious course of action, that is that you choose a method to illustrate the ideas you have, whether they’re about form or content or whatever. Of course that’s based on good exposure in school. It seems simple to me.

RL: I think that because there are not as many people in universities doing smithing, people don’t see it as an esthetic direction worth pursuing. For myself, the reason I don’t do smithing is because visually those aren’t the types of forms I respond to or the way I choose to work with metal. I’m not going for volume and I’m not going for organic form. I want hard, clean, delicate form, but maybe that direction and esthetic are more acceptable in metalsmithing right now and that’s why everyone is doing it. For myself and for my students, it has to do a lot with the time element and process. Smithing is not as direct a method. You have to anneal the metal often and wait for it to pickle. Raising may be perceived as being more time consuming than constructing, not that it is necessarily.

AP: I want to respond to Arline’s question about the folded and bent metal versus manipulation. In the Artist Blacksmiths Association, which now includes about 3,000 members, people are out there forging and manipulating metal all the time. I think that it’s not that it’s not being done, but the categorization of blacksmithing and silversmithing get very involved and we have a tendency to isolate ourselves in these different groups. What it gets down to is a thought process. I hope that we think and then we do, and it so happens we use these skills, whether they are forging or whatever. As far as the culture is concerned, and even within academia, forging and manipulation is done more than silversmithing now. It so happens that with all these people that are doing it, 99% of them are doing trivets and fireplace tools. Now, the sensibility is there, the skills are there; they know how to work it, but the thought or the need to do anything more than that is not there. Whose responsibility is that? If you want holloware or anything else to be significant, you have to make it significant. Nobody is going to do that for you. These skills are not dead and the need is not dead. But you can’t expect someone to pick you up and put you somewhere. The educational system has allowed the preservation of those skills and they’re being offered. And it’s a matter of taking them somewhere. With all the talk, and all the personalization and all the introspection, it’s mainly your own volition that allows those things to develop beyond the obvious and the immediate. No simple answers to it.

By Lois Etherington Betteridge
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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