The Value of Ideas on Metalsmith/Jeweler’s Repertoire

This essay originated as a presentation at the Society of North American Goldsmiths’ conference in Flagstaff, Arizona in 1986. It has been revised and edited for publication in Metalsmith. Metcalf’s theme concerning the value of ideas as part of the metalsmith/jeweler’s repertoire, expressed in his previous essays “Crafts: Second-Class Citizens?” (Metalsmith, Fall 80) and “Techniques for the Head” (Metalsmith, Winter 83), is further explored here.

At a party some time ago, I was talking to a young metalsmith who is presently making a very successful series of lamps. I like him and his work. He is intelligent and articulate, so I was surprised when he made a statement that summarized an entire constellation of questionable values and attitudes. I was speaking, as I often do, about the necessity of reading and writing and theorizing, and his response was neatly encapsulated in one short sentence. He said, “I just want to work.”

Because I’m a craftsman too, I understood him perfectly. His greatest pleasure is working in his studio, concentrating on his craft, making decisions about technique and materials and placement of elements. Like most craftspeople who work year-in and year-out, he loves his labor. After all, the sheer manipulation of material is frequently more gratifying than the enigmas and puzzles posed by criticism and art theory. This man made a singular decision to be a craftsman, and not a scholar. Had he been fascinated with speculation about the nature of visual art, perhaps he would have become an art historian, but as it is, the activity of designing and constructing is far more satisfying to him. Time spent considering more philosophical problems is a distraction, eating into his studio time. Thus, he implied that anything more cerebral than executing a successful design is of no value to him.

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Obviously, he’s entitled to his opinion, and a diversity of convictions is necessary to a vital community. But I believe there’s a problem in the view he expressed, and it’s one that pervades the entire field of jewelry and metalsmithing. Much as I admire this artist’s work, he places altogether too much faith on his powers of imagination, and too little on his intelligence. He proposes a value system that glorifies pleasure in labor, but not in thinking. He maintains that good design and good craftsmanship is enough. He proposes that his decisions are guided by seat-of-the-pans intuition, not questioning and analysis. He implies that he has no struggle with serious issues, no critical examination of his sources, no rigorous description of what he really intends to accomplish with his career. He “just wants to work,” and he is satisfied with going no further.

This value system isn’t unusual. In fact, I suspect it’s typical of contemporary jewelers and metalsmiths. There are only a handful of individuals in this field who can develop a provocative idea, speak knowledgeably about current issues in painting and sculpture or systematically analyze their own work. Even our workshops and conferences are usually devoted to learning technique, to viewing work and to catching up on gossip—not to creating forums for the discussion of new ideas. And only rarely do metalsmiths sit down informally to talk about esthetic questions.

Those who call themselves jewelers are often appallingly ignorant of the history of the world’s jewelry, or even of European jewelry. (How many people know in which century faceted gemstones started to be used, for instance?) Those who call themselves designers suffer equal ignorance of the history of design. We are well informed as to the how of what we do. but terribly deficient as to the what and why.

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I must emphasize that I am not dismissing intuition. Not so long ago, I argued that only intuition could make the crucial difference, that art without the magical presence of the artist’s deepest feelings is always missing an essential ingredient. I claimed that discourse and debate in art is merely an interesting sideshow for a select group of initiates, but all that talk and theorizing is irrelevant to real excellence in art I believed that “soul”—in the sense that we speak of soul music—was the single most important element in art.

Thus, if an artist could pour his soul into his work, no further examination would be necessary. Like my friend, an artist could “just want to work” and the results could still be extraordinary. To this day, I believe that some type of pure intuition and inspiration is important, because an artist becomes a machine without it. However, I no longer believe that intuition, by itself, is enough. For art (or design, or jewelry) to reach the highest level, intelligence must modulate intuition.

Intelligence. Not ignorance.

In all the visual arts, the best work demonstrates intelligence, visibly expressed. Masters in every field use their technical facility to communicate an idea or a perception in a relatively conscious manner. The great artists and designers were never inarticulate dullards; usually they were eloquent and full of fascinating notions. The prototypical goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini had a sharp intelligence along with his predisposition towards exaggeration. The people who led the postwar revival of American jewelry and metalsmithing are all bright—Margret Craver, Kenneth Bates, Alma Eikerman, Phil Fike—and their innovations are based on wide learning as well as hard work and a sure instinct. I have never heard of a great artist who claimed that ignorance was crucial to his or her contribution.

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Knowledge Modulates Intuition

The typical jeweler knows something of the history of art, and she’s familiar with the central propositions of Western philosophy. She might make claims about the primacy of intuition, but she has already learned too much not to be influenced by her education. She operates in a state of awareness that alters and distorts pure naive impulses. A naïve posture can be assumed, and the ideology of fine art can be rejected. But knowledge cannot be jettisoned, any more than reading can be unlearned. In a manner of speaking, most of us lost our intellectual virginity long ago.

As a teacher, I watch my students go through a progression from ignorance to self-awareness to intelligent observation. Beginning students are raw and naive but excitable and receptive to almost any new information. The best enthusiastically try on all manner of styles and concepts in an effort to find what fits. For the most part, however, their thoughts are predictable and unoriginal, and all but a few are controlled by their emotions and received ideologies.

In the course of education, students are pressured to internalize all kinds of opinions and value systems, often without their direct knowledge. A group of assertions, theories and aims can constitute a political ideology as well as an artistic one, and teachers (along with parents, peers and the media) compete to indoctrinate students with their belief systems. But, at least in the academy, the contention between ideologies makes the nature of the game clearer, and students eventually realize that they can’t possibly believe everything they hear. They start to question what they are asked to receive, they examine what they once might have accepted uncritically.

Outside of the schools, ideologies are every bit as potent but more subtly camouflaged. Each practitioner believes his or her approach to be right and proper, and nobody can deny their liberty to say so. But these beliefs are frequently nothing more than conventional wisdom, assumed unsuspectingly from the surrounding culture. For instance, many jewelers maintain that jewelry must be small in order to be wearable, and they speak for the vast majority of their customers when they voice this opinion. Yet alternatives exist. Men and women of the Dinka tribe in the Sudan or the Wodaabe tribe in Niger wear corsets, bodices, armlets and bracelets that are enormous by American standards, but jewelry nonetheless. A quick perusal of Angela Fisher’s fabulous Africa Adorned will prove that much of the world does not subscribe to middle-class American definitions of the limits of jewelry. Such definitions are culturally determined, and they operate only within a certain context. The assertion that jewelry must be small is nothing more (or less) than a received ideology, one that is unfortunately sometimes raised to the status of truth.

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If ideologies are not called to attention, analyzed and questioned, a student risks becoming the puppet of somebody else’s program, a mere operative for an anonymous authority. The band “Oingo-Boingo” puts it this way: “We make ourselves like clay from someone else’s dream.” Just as the women’s liberation movement asked women to look at all the self-defeating ideas they were taught to believe, so students must question the rules of the game they have been taught. Is the place of the woman really in the home? Is perfect craftsmanship truly appropriate in every situation?

It’s amazing how many restrictions are voluntarily self-imposed, taken on simply because an authority said it was so. Some of my students are fearful of freely expressing themselves, because they think such impractical activities won’t help them get a job later. I tell them that the objective of a college education is not strictly vocational but also a process of self-discovery and gaining flexibility. The notion of making only practical things because the economic payoff is better is a myth, I tell them, and they are better off discarding such restrictions. I frequently think I’m not talking to the students at those times but to the voices of their parents implanted in their brains.

Perhaps one of the difficulties of metalsmithing is that the skills take so long to learn, and are so demanding, that we avoid examining our thoughts. Through the 50s and 60s, metalsmiths struggled to gain control over the tremendous range of techniques that comprise the craft of the jeweler and smith, as if the collective energy of the field was concentrated on a single point. The skill of conceptualizing was neglected so that the craft could be mastered. But, like my students, craftsmen risked becoming slaves to received ideologies. If artists and designers and jewelers refuse to think for themselves, they lose control over half their work. Thinking demands facility, too. Now that the field insists on a certain level of technical sophistication (simple twisted and forged wire just won’t cut the mustard anymore), competence in thinking can be demanded, too. After all, the responsibility of the designer and artist extends to the idea implicit in a work, just as much as the planning and execution.

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I urge my students who arrive at a sound understanding of their values and priorities to start looking outside themselves, at works and readings. They sift through information to find bits and pieces that support and enlarge upon what they already believe. A student interested in contemporary design might read Charles Jencks on Post-Modernism, or Barbara Radice on the Memphis group. Another student drawn to Japanese craft might research Cha-no-yu, the tea ceremony, and its traditional implements. They are not required to believe everything they read; in fact, I recommend a healthy scepticism. In spite of their complaints that research takes time away from their work in the studio, this self-directed education is essential to the students’ growth. Eventually, most students realize that new information expands their horizons, suggests new alternatives and forces them to make intellectual connections they would otherwise miss. As a result, their work becomes richer and deeper, and often more satisfying to the student.

Remedy the I’m-Too-Busy Syndrome

The point is this: self-education is not a luxury, it is a necessity. Abandoning ignorance is difficult and it necessitates time away from the bench. It requires a reordering of priorities.

People who have heard me make this point in public complain that I ask too much, that most jewelers are too busy to tackle such a difficult project. It’s OK for professors like myself to read and write because we have so much free time, they say. (Another myth—that teachers are less busy than “real” jewelers!) Of course, a person who makes a livelihood from his craft must pay his bills, meet deadlines, create new designs and produce his wares. But all instruction comes in small increments and a great deal can be learned in only 20 minutes a day.

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One of the best devices for self-education is talking. Ideas flourish in an atmosphere of discussion and debate, and thinking evolves most easily in a communal, participatory process. This is the reason why cities become art centers: a community of artists creates a fertile ground for the growth and exchange of ideas, which in turn stimulates the growth of art itself. Artists isolated from an intellectual marketplace are handicapped because their thinking is not challenged and sharpened by discussion. It’s curious, but one must exercise the mouth to develop the brain.

Unluckily, the metals community is not concentrated in a single city, and there’s no Cedar Street Tavern we can all retire to each evening for a session of heated debate. To air our ideas, jewelers and metalsmiths must rely on conferences, workshops and informal visits. Luckily, the crafts disciplines have a readymade context for the commerce of ideas because of the tradition of workshops created to share technical knowledge. Outside of the art schools and universities, which contain only a minority of the practitioners in the field, these gatherings are the only forum for the verbal exchange of new concepts. The annual Society of North American Goldsmiths conference and the “Conversations” weekends developed at State University of New York, New PaIu are valuable for precisely this reason.

For those who must stay at home there’s always reading. A reader of this magazine is making an effort to educate herself, but I don’t believe the project should stop when Metalsmith is put down. The magazines that focus on other crafts fields offer a wealth of ideas. I find the rich surfaces of ceramics and the seductiveness of glass to be intriguing, and I’m curious to see how artists in these disciplines exploit these properties. Art magazines offer both thoughtful insights and verbose nonsense, but it’s useful to sample both. Actually, intelligent commentary on any subject can stimulate the mind, particularly for those with an inclination towards analogies. Fiction, poetry, even Scientific American, can serve as a point of origin for a productive train of thought.

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The Transforming Power of an Idea

Having collected ones thoughts, having questioned ones assumptions, having read and thought, does it make any difference? Some will maintain that it is better to do, than to think. They will say that time in the studio is far superior to time in a library. But all my experience, as artist and teacher, indicates that exercising the hands without stretching the mind leads to imbalance. Thoughtless work is mindless work.

One of the characteristics of the crafts that perplexes and fascinates me is the range of things we don’t know. Crafts have a history in every culture the sum total of which can be traced to the times before recorded history began. What is the extent of this material, and what implications does it have for us today? Why, with such an extensive background—one that far exceeds the history of painting and sculpture—are the crafts still the 90-pound weakling of the arts scene? Why is royalty to material so strong among craftsmen? Why are jewelers so compelled to work on a tiny scale and what are the implications of small objects? What is the meaning of fine craftsmanship? Is the craftsman really an anachronism, or do we have something of vital importance to offer to contemporary society?

The answer to these questions might provide an enlightening insight to the craft. On occasion, such an answer becomes an idea with the power to transform everything it touches.

An example of how an idea has had a profound impact on a discipline can be found in the invention of the “vessel-oriented clay object” by Garth Clark and Betty Woodman. In the mid-70s, a number of ceramists were making pots and potlike clay objects, but no binding theory gave their activities a common focus. Michael Frimkess made pots that referred to classical Greek and Roman vessel forms, Ron Nagle made small decorated cups without bottoms; Wayne Higby was making open forms that could be regarded as landscapes. Many other clay artists made objects that similarly recalled the simple pot but also served as a vehicle for agendas not traditionally associated with functional pottery. While all these artists shared a common background and a common enthusiasm for clay, there was no conceptual marker that pointed either to the differences or the similarities of their work. Ceramic artists sensed their ideas were related, but nobody could give the relationship a name. Without a name the connections could not be discussed, without discussion, the issue remained mysterious.

The story goes that Clark and Woodman were talking with a group of students in Colorado, trying to put their collective finger on the relationship that had so far eluded them. In looking at functional pots, hollow forms that used the pot as a point of departure for sculpture and forms that alluded to pots without actually being a pot, the group produced a name and a concept: the vessel-oriented clay object. The phrase contained a fascinating accuracy and inclusiveness that attracted wide attention. it was shortly abbreviated to “VOCO” so that conversations could proceed without the long phrase being repeated interminably. The concept neatly raised an umbrella over a vast array of ceramic art, calling attention to the overriding similarity while also allowing for diversity.

It could be said without exaggeration that the “VOCO” prompted a whole generation of artists and students to look at the clay pot differently Suddenly, the humble pot was clearly seen to be a starting point for a variety of explorations. The artist could concentrate on historical reference on sheer development of form or on using the container form as a metaphor, but the relationship was finally made clear. By 1980, it was fashionable for neophyte clay artists to declare themselves to be “vesselmakers” for the name had the sound of validation. The vessel-oriented clay object had become ubiquitous Despite the eventual trendiness of the concept, it brought a cohesiveness and direction to ceramics that had been lacking since the 50s.

A single incisive idea can alter the way hundreds of artists (or designers or jewelers) look at themselves. When ideas are marshalled into a cohesive whole, or when they become more speculative than a simple observation, a theory emerges. A great theory can change the way we look at the world.

The intimate relation between theory and practice can be illustrated by a bit of crafts history. The Arts and Crafts Movement in 1880s England was the first to examine craft apart from the simple production of wares for the working classes and decorative items for the rich. John Ruskin and William Morris both perceived craft to have more importance than technique and salesmanship, and their ideas laid the groundwork for a popular enthusiasm for craft that continues to this day. Every present-day craft practitioner owes a profound debt to Ruskin and Morris, not so much for the objects they made (Ruskin did not work in any traditional craft media, although Morris mastered several), but for the ideas they advocated. Our accomplishments rest on theories developed a century ago, and many of our contemporary debates were first delineated then.

William Morris in particular did not confine his thinking to craft alone. He was interested in the relationship between labor—the physical labor of the craftsman—and social structure. Being a socialist, he opposed capitalist factory production, especially in how mass production forced workers to perform meaningless, repetitive tasks. Morris speculated that the craftsman in the antiquated guild system had an advantage over a factory worker, because the guildsman could invest pride and care in his work. Ideally, the traditional craftsman controlled his own production too: he decided what to make and he kept the profits from the sale of his wares. To Morris, the older system was superior to industrial-age manufacturing. Not only was the laborer happier and more dignified in his work, but he was also the primary beneficiary of his production.

In this manner William Morris drew a number of connections between the making of crafts and much larger social issues. Weaving a tapestry or throwing a clay pot suddenly became more significant than just making a beautiful thing: it was also a gesture that criticized the capitalist economy and proposed a more humane alternative at the same time. Craft became a form of protest and Utopian injunction.

Previously, craft was often regarded as dumb manual labor, the activity of peasants and commoners. Because of the idealistic overtones that Morris associated with craft, and because Morris and his followers promoted his ideas with religious zeal, a generation of talented young visionaries joined the movement. Just as antiwar activism attracted a huge number of concerned and intelligent young people in the 60s, so the crafts appealed to thoughtful people who envisioned a better world in Morris’s day. The appeal was not so much the labor of craft but the meaning invested in it. Morris’s theories gave the body of craft an idealistic luster that proved irresistibly attractive. The movement, and is fervent message of improving the world, was exported to the United States, where it became the American Arts and Crafts Movement.

Although the socialist analysis that Morris prescribed has since fallen out of favor, his theories in their own day had a powerful motivating force that changed crafts in the Western world forever. Morris looked at far more than the production of hand-made objects, he considered the whole society. The scope of his vision encompassed a great web of causes and effects, and some of the questions he raised are still being debated. We still question the role of the machine in the crafts, for instance because we are not sure if mass production is an efficient way to generate income or just a compromise to the values of handwork. This same issue was one that Morris addressed. It is a credit to his imaginative reach that the issues he raised continue to be relevant.

Not everybody can be as farsighted as William Morris, nor can most of us hope to work such profound changes on even a tiny corner of society. But we can seek to comprehend ourselves and the culture in which we operate. One of the strengths of any craft is that its producers are not alienated from the larger culture: we make the pots and clothes and jewelry that hundreds of thousands of people use. While many aspects of this relationship are only dimly grasped, what craftspeople understand of themselves, their work and society has significance and resonance. Naming these connections and comprehending their logic is vitally important. After all, what we do affects people.

This being so, we might as well accept our condition and proceed to become informed about the world. As artists or jewelers or whatever one chooses for a label, it is no longer forgivable to live in ignorance. The innocent period of American metalsmithing is over. Now that we have learned the technologies, we must prepare to exercise our skills intelligently. We must go about educating ourselves. Just as the past three decades have been devoted to learning how to use tools, the succeeding 30 years can be devoted to understanding why we use tools. Those who “just want to work” are tackling only half the enterprise: the complete metalsmith will also want to understand.

The point is this: self-education is not a luxury, it is a necessity. Abandoning ignorance is difficult and it necessitates time away from the bench. It requires a reordering of priorities.

Thoughtless work is mindless work.

A single incisive idea can alter the way hundreds of artists (or designers or jewelers) look at themselves.

Our accomplishments rest on theories developed a century ago, and many of our contemporary debates were first delineated then.

Bruce Metcalf teaches jewelry and metalsmithing at Kent State University and is a contributing editor to Metalsmith.

By Bruce Metcalf
Metalsmith Magazine - 1989 Spring
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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