In a recent Metalsmith article entitled “The Future Perfect: Activism and Advocacy” (Spring, 1994), Kathleen Browne offered some thought provoking challenges to metalsmith audiences. She wrote about feeling “disenfranchised and marginalized by the art world in general” although hoping “that there is no one who still believes that metalsmithing will someday be recognized as fine art”. She suggested solutions to this problem by demanding a more serious critical response to the artwork of metalsmiths, both through interpretive reviews and historical documentation through books and university courses. In recognizing the limitations of future teaching careers for her students, she questioned the possibilities of success for them in the commercial world where “concept or content based [work] has little financial viability”. Yet, she refused “to succumb to a purely trade school mentality” and demands that her students “produce work that focuses on content; that has social, political, or personal relevance”. She pleaded for support in developing “a marketplace that will support work beyond the simply decorative”.
Although I am in agreement with Browne that there should be opportunities for diverse approaches in metalsmithing, I am disturbed by the underlying tone of her message. I believe she voices a common prejudice among academics that simply decorative work is inferior to idea-oriented work. This prejudice includes a disdain of precious materials and pure design. It also casts doubts on the validity of the vast majority of historical metalsmithing practices. Does Browne’s drive to promote concept and narrative work mean that simply decorative work lacks narrative and meaning? on the contrary, I argue that decorative work, precisely because of its form, is significant beyond form.
In a move from the trade school or workshop to the academy at the Bauhaus (1919) and the Russian Vkhutemus (1918), metalsmithing achieved a certain recognition. Yet, metalsmiths today still complain that their field does not receive the same respect as the so-called fine arts of painting, sculpture, and architecture. It could be argued that Gropius did not intend to raise the crafts to the level of fine arts, rather he hoped to infuse craft into the fine arts through its close association. True, he was committed to the concepts of restoring utility to art and, thereby, restoring art to the people, but, the products of the Bauhaus, more often than not, subverted the utilitarian in favor of aesthetic form. The aesthetic, yet non-functional building, chair, or teapot is restored to the public by its familiar association with utilitarian objects. Once the public tries to use the building , chair, or teapot, however, they quickly learn those objects are aesthetic representations just as non-useful as a painted building, chair, or teapot.
Aristotle’s distinction between the arts and the crafts established the distinction between the useful arts and art-for-art’s-sake. Plato, by the way, never made such a distinction, believing all arts to be useful for good or bad. Aristotle praised art when it functioned, beyond politics and religion, for itself alone. Immanual Kant followed Aristotle with a systematic justification for art-for-art’s-sake in the eighteenth century. Crafts always subservient to utilitarian purposes are therefore, secondary to pure art-for-art’s-sake art. The Bauhaus appeared to raise crafts to the level of art-for-art’s sake. By disabling its usefulness, the metalsmith may hope to raise his/her jewelry to the level of sculpture, thereby assuring him/herself a place among the fine arts. In depriving their works of function they may join ranks with the fine arts which, in the words of Kant, are “purposefully purposeless”.
Many academic metalsmiths survive only on the reputations they earn in exhibitions. As a commercial jeweler once told me, academic metalsmithing is the “land of brooches”. Jewelry as pinned-on, small-scale sculpture aspires to be fine art just as a Rietveld, DeStijl chair pretends to be craft. So-called concept or narrative jewelry is designed more to be exhibited than it is to be worn. The designs are often so uncomfortable or so awkward that no one would want to wear them. Co-extensive with this attitude that metalwork should be useless are the academic prejudices against precious materials, aesthetic concerns of beauty, and commercial use. Non-precious materials, such as those used by the Bauhaus for mass production, now seem to dominate academic designs. The origin of this attitude derives from revolutionary Marxist ideas which protested against the bourgeois who alone could afford expensive jewelry. On the other hand, purely aesthetic concerns are useful for the commercial gallery system. Beautiful form can be appreciated regardless of its inherent meaning, much of which is lost in the work’s divorce from its own culture or place. Conversely, the appreciation of concept or narrative work depends on the shared cultural values of its audience.
Many fine artists have a love-hate relationship with the gallery system: Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em. The academic metalsmith depends much less on the gallery system. The choice to teach rather than to compete in the business world gives the academic artist freedom of expression but it also forces the artist into isolation from the people. After all, art made for commercial galleries is art made for the people who sustain and relate to the art. Money is more than exchange value; it is also a qualitative signifier of the meaningfulness of the objects purchased by the people. Twentieth century artists struggle constantly with the dilemma of who should be the rightful owner of art, the people or the art elite. Art for the people implies mediocrity, as Nietzsche said, art with a “herd” mentality. On the other hand, art for the elite is marginalized and impotent. Academics tend to favor the latter camp. Paradoxically however, the artists whom we admire most are those who develop a successful relationship with a buying public. Cash means more than a jury’s acceptance; it represents a commitment to the artwork. Carter Ratcliff confirms this idea by saying: “l believe that our persistent habit of trying to separate market value from esthetic value is misguided…. They are simply not separate things…. The esthetic is an aspect of the economic, as the economic is an aspect of the esthetic…. artworks are commodities.”
The anti-aesthetic tendency in academia coincides with an anti-decorative feeling as well. Meaningful artwork must be conceptually based rather than simply decorative. The purely decorative goes in and out of favor as do the people and the elite who promote it. Gropius and Le Courbusier abandoned decoration because it represented “wasted labor”. Decoration meant exploitation. Accessible art must be low cost and, therefore, plain. To the Bauhaus plainness meant simple geometric forms which also, conveniently, were thought to represent universal symbols understandable to all. Take away self expression, in the guise of elaborate decorative form, and you produce art for everybody. But art for everybody sits uncomfortably close to art for nobody. Thus, Postmodern artists have swung away from the cool geometry of the Modernists towards art that has social, political, or personal relevance. The postmodernist see the politically motivated Bauhaus design as simply decoration. It depends on one’s perspective.
Political form becomes decorative when its significance is lost. Likewise, the decorative becomes meaningful when its significance is understood. The understanding of the decorative, however, is not always at a conscious level. The decorative often bypasses the conceptual and appeals directly to an almost subconscious level of recognition. The decorative doesn’t tell a story, it is the story. Otherwise indistinguishable human beings achieve distinction more immediately by the way they decorate themselves than by their deeds. Frances Borel recognizes that: “The body is not a product of nature, but of culture…. The organism is acceptable only when it is transformed, covered with signs. The body only speaks if it is dressed in artifices.” The body only becomes individualized through decoration. Social and political significance originates in the power struggles of individuation, both collectively and individually. Decoration is the most fundamental sign of individuation and identity. Meaning is inherent in decoration. Decoration is significant: socially, politically, personally.
Thus the following are emphasized in academia: non-usefulness and art-for-art’s-sake at the fine art level, exhibition values versus commercial sales values, a rejection of precious materials and pure aesthetic concerns of beauty, and, finally, a preference for concept oriented work as opposed to primarily decorative work. One might also add there is an emphasis on self expression rather than on tribal, collective expression, in other words, an emphasis on originality. This academic/fine art dynamic needs to be examined. It seems that traditional metalsmithing offers some important models for rejuvenating the fine arts. Just as Gropius allied fine arts with the crafts in order to restore craftsmanship to fine art, today’s fine arts might find valuable lessons in traditional, commercial, decorative metalsmithing.
G.W.F. Hegel stated in the nineteenth century that fine art no longer functions as the place that embodies the god or truth, and therefore, art as a meaningful form of discourse is dead. Since fine art divorced itself from a functioning/useful role in society in order to be pure and in order to be commercially malleable, values such as originality have become more important. In a capitalist system which tolerates individual expression as long as it does not contradict the autonomy of the productive system fine art has become marginalized. Those who care about art know that, for the vast majority, art plays no active role in their lives. Thus, it is questionable that the crafts should try to emulate the fine arts in the first place. On the contrary, the crafts command a more central place in people’s lives because they are useful and economically accessible. For many, the crafts are also meaningful as well as decorative.
Jewelry especially takes the lead as the most valued craft. The works of Matt Bleything and Pat Flynn illustrate this analysis because their work represents many of the best qualities that craft may offer as models for the fine arts. The work is commercially viable, fully supporting the artists. Bleything and Flynn produce both one-of-a- kind creations and designs for production. Bleything utilizes high karat gold and precious gems in his works while Flynn combines precious stones with precious metals and unexpected metals such as iron. Both artists respond to historical models as well as original impulses. Their prices range from the inexpensive, in the low hundreds, to the more expensive in the thousands. The inherent qualities of the materials often dictate the direction of the designs. Although both artists produce for the market, they always reserve time to make pieces that appeal to their own aesthetic sense. The quality is high and, therefore, with time, even unique and expensive creations find homes among discriminating buyers. Bleything’s work is made for wearing, not exhibition. He keeps no photographic records of his work. For this artist the people who buy, wear, and cherish his work testify to its meaning and value far more eloquently than a photograph or an exhibition.
Traditionally, jewelry played an important role in people’s lives as magical fetishes imbued with protective powers. Although that meaning is rarely accepted today, precious jewelry still symbolically represents the safety conferred by economic success. Expensive ornament wins social respect; people value precious materials. Fine jewelry, especially among relatively poor peoples, remains the most valued heirloom to be passed from generation to generation. The materials themselves, unlike fine art materials, have a permanence throughout time. As in earlier times, jewelry still functions ritualistically. The crown jewels represent the sovereign of a people; a wedding ring, the bonding of two people; a watch, twenty years of loyalty. More than any other gift, fine jewelry, attests to love, loyalty, friendship, and power. Life passages such as anniversaries, birthdays, and graduations are signified by fine jewelry. Jewelry also acquires value through its association with people, especially, loved ones. The Chinese prize jade ornaments because they absorb the bodily oils of their owners, gaining a human essence and increasing in value with time and use. The gods may be embodied in fine art, but humanity inhabits jewelry. Fine art may bring higher prices and achieve a more respected position among the elite, but precious ornament is more universally owned and appreciated.
The nineteenth century art critic Theophile Gautier noted that: “The ideal disturbs even the roughest nature, and the taste for ornamentation distinguishes the intelligent being from the beast more exactly than anything else. Indeed, dogs have never dreamed of putting on earrings.” Not only does ornamentation distinguish man from man, it provides the visual bond that represents the tribe. Many Postmodern artists have rejected the concept of originality as a bourgeois idea separating the artist as genius from the hoi polloi. Feminist and Marxist theories have questioned this separatist, elitist idea. Early in the nineteenth century Wilhelm Worringer analyzed the psychological basis for abstract or decorative art, which is pertinent even today: “…the urge to abstraction is the outcome of great inner unrest inspired in man by the phenomena of the outside world…. The style most perfect in its regularity, the style in the highest abstraction, most strict in its exclusion of life, is peculiar to the peoples at their most primitive cultural level…. it is because he stands so lost and spiritually helpless amidst the things of the external world, because he experiences only obscurity and caprice in the inner-connection and flux of phenomena of the external world, that the urge is so strong in him to divest the things of the external world of their caprice and obscurity in the world- picture and to import to them a value of necessity and a value of regularity…. man is now just as lost and helpless vis-à-vis the world-picture as primitive man.” Rejecting capricious natural form man adopted decorative form which provides the stability of repetitive symbolism.
The repeatable symbol prescribes the visualization of cultural identity. Man, in seeking safety within the group, adopts the symbols of that group. Often these symbols are worn in the form of jewelry. The extra large gold chain in Afro-American inner city culture, the crucifixion necklaces in the Chicano cultures, the Rolex watches of the executive elite signify an identification with a like-minded collective. Although decorative, they are not simply decorative. As Meredith Rode, in a recent presentation stated, “It is not that form is significant, it is that something significant has been given form”. Decoration has meaning. Perhaps the fear of the simply decorative indicates a far deeper fear of the loss of meaning in our world. By and large, fine artwork has lost the ability to represent the group. Ornamentation, on the other hand, still has the power to signify something greater than itself. In representing cohesion, security, significant events, or milestones, fine metalwork provides a model which the fine arts should hope to emulate. In doing so, fine art may, like the crafts, find a home in the world.
Elizabeth Jones is an Associate Professor of Art History and Art Theory at the University of Texas at El Paso.
- “The Marriage of Art and Money,” Art in America, July 1988.
- “The Decorated Body,” Parabola, Fall 1994, pp.. 74-76).
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- “Abstraction and Empathy,” in C. Harrison and P. Wood, eds., Art in Theory: 1900-1990, pp. 70-71).