JEWELLERY IN THE GALLERY Flooortalk 2002
Stella Chrysostom Essay: Making Sense 2002
Can jewellery be art? Does jewellery have a place in the art gallery?
What is art? Art is the thinking, the conversation between the creator and the viewer. For jewellery to be art the object must become a language: a language that can be read, a language that can express ideas, thoughts and feelings. With skilful use of the language the maker's intention will be effectively communicated. Most importantly the maker must have something to say. Too often in the field of contemporary jewellery what is said does little to evoke discussion or thought beyond the banal. For jewellery to be art it must step out of its confines and be audacious.
As jewellers we can all use the same set of parameters to achieve vastly different ends. The jeweller's intention is evident in their approach to the object and its content. Jewellery has rules that are to be regarded and then followed or broken as the intention dictates. Most contemporary jewellery we encounter is concerned with its market place. The jewellers' focus is on considerations of aesthetics and practicalities. Very seldom do the objects elicit anything other than a response on this level. Producing commodity is a valid expression of one's skills but it cannot be mistaken for art. It is important to distinguish between the craft and art aspects of a work. Craft is the skill, the making; whereas art is the concept, the thinking. All objects are either well or poorly crafted, but only some can be considered art (regardless of whether they are painting or jewellery). If the intention is to create new work that adds to the discourse of contemporary jewellery, then the boundaries of what jewellery is, what expectations are held, and how we make jewellery need to be pushed beyond our limited imaginations.
We are all familiar with the traditional and obvious forms that jewellery takes: the string of pearls, the diamond ring, the wedding band. When we think of these jewels we instantly conjure up a picture: the twin set brigade with their pearls, the bride-to-be extending her ringed finger for examination, and the newly-weds' hope that their marriage will last as long as their gold bindings. If we examine the history of jewellery we see that the purpose of most jewellery has been about the giver and receiver, not the maker. This is still so. We buy and give jewellery for occasions or as rewards. These objects are markers of significant dates, of rituals and philosophical or religious convictions; and they classify their wearers into their cultural, social and spiritual groups. A gold watch is traditionally presented upon retirement. The presentation of the watch and what it signifies are of importance, but the watch itself is a fabricated item not an object created out of new ideas or thought. The maker is not relevant to nor revealed in the object. We can think of numerous further examples: the crucifix, the rosary, the engagement ring, mourning jewellery.
Most contemporary jewellery does little to challenge these traditions. It reflects and reinforces the status quo. Why is this so? With increasing numbers of graduates coming through the polytechnic system, with its focus on design and concept, it is surprising to see the safe road that many find themselves upon. Too often jewellers are under pressure for reasons of economic necessity. Many find themselves in a position of compromise, producing commodities which the market expects. While it is perfectly acceptable to produce commodity, it is important to reiterate that this can not be mistaken for art.
It is also important to recognise and understand the dangers of the economic model that is subsuming all areas of art. We are constantly hearing the words 'creative' and 'industry' clumped together. This terminology conjures up issues regarding economic worth and the measuring of art in terms of profitability. But art sits uneasily with this way of thinking. Our system of value is intrinsically inadequate when it comes to art. Using the same scale to measure both art and whiteware is hardly helpful. We can measure whiteware by its physical qualities, that is, the value is inherent in the actual object; whereas the value of art resides not in the object but in the mind of the viewer. Hence art has a value quite distinct from its commodity value. Of course, art and money can go hand in hand but it is dangerous to presume that they should. Is it necessarily the case that a good artist will be a rich artist? Is it necessarily the case that a rich artist is a good artist?
Why is contemporary jewellery entrenched in commodity?
Most contemporary jewellery is made by traditional means with traditional materials for traditional purposes. Predominantly jewellers seem to make objects that are pretty and pleasing to the eye, objects that are easy to wear and do little more than adorn and enhance the wearers' aesthetic qualities. Jewellery is often dainty and delicate, and we expect it to be so. Prettiness, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is "affected or trivial beauty of expression or style". When jewellery can be many things it is surprising to see how much of it is merely pretty. Jewellery needs to move away from this obsession with prettiness if it is to be considered as art. Pretty objects do not evoke an intellectual or meaningful response. There need to be considerations that go beyond the superficial.
Conceptual jewellery is about engaging its audience with the maker's intention and viewpoint. This is a departure from the tradition of jewellery.
How can we approach conceptual jewellery in the gallery?
If we are unfamiliar with seeing jewellery in the context of the gallery it is helpful to consider how we read other forms of art. Just as painting has a relationship with an actual or implied wall and sculpture has a relationship with an actual or implied circumambulating viewer, so jewellery has a relationship with an actual or implied body. The body or implied body is an integral part of a jewellery object. A necklace is supported by the neck, a ring is completed by the finger and with a brooch it is preferable not to pin it directly to one's body. The implied body of jewellery in the gallery provides a framework for reading its meaning.
Successful art uses the vocabulary and grammar that we are all familiar with to explore new ideas and to transport the viewer to a previously unknown conclusion. Art is a means of communication, a language. This communication is achieved by use of vocabulary and grammar. The visual vocabulary consists of references to experiences held in common by the creator and the viewer. The grammar is the relationship between these references, the structure which makes them articulate. Art should be subversive and break the rules, present us with thoughts and images that confound and challenge us. If we can read a book, see a performance or look at a painting and be left untouched than this is not successful art.
The Turner Prize for 2002, Martin Creed, challenges our preconceptions about what art is. At first glance it is easy to dismiss his work: the lights being turned off and on in a room at the Tate Gallery, or a screwed up piece of A4 paper on the floor of The Physics Room gallery in Christchurch. On closer inspection his work becomes more interesting. In the same way that Marcel Duchamp exhibited a urinal in 1917, Creed takes everyday objects and happenings and places them in the context of the gallery. In doing so he makes comment on the role and purpose of art galleries and raises questions about objects and their meaning. The lights being turned off and on may not seem like much but it does evoke a response. The artist is making a comment about what the public wish to see or expect to see. In fact Creed takes the object out of the equation and leaves us with an absence of visuals and hence we are left to ponder the artist's intention rather than to look at a piece of artwork. The artist challenges the audience to think rather than to look.
How can jewellery be art? For objects to become art they must represent an idea or thought. They must have content that raises questions and provokes discussion. The work should have a context that illustrates and illuminates the intention of the jeweller. The viewer should be subverted by the jewellery into thinking or responding in a manner that challenges their preconceptions of jewellery and art.