Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Question of Faith

Ted Noten, Super- Bitch-Bag Lady K, 2008, edition 6/7, Walther PPK, engraved with flowers and gold plated, cast in acrylic, found handbag

Recently we published a talk by Dutch writer and curator Liesbeth Den Besten called ‘The Power of Jewelry’ on the AJF website. It was first presented in January 2009 at Out of the Box, a symposium organised by the Fran├žoise van den Bosch Foundation (of which Den Besten is the chairperson) at the Stedelijk Museum ‘s-Hertogenbosch, The Netherlands. Den Besten reflects on the fact that despite acceleration in the contemporary jewelry field (more graduates, more galleries, more schools, more fairs presenting jewelry), ‘jewellery still doesn’t count as a serious market where money is made and earned. Author jewellery is not a hot topic – the way design has gained a sexy status.’ Contemporary jewelry, she concludes, has ‘an uncomfortable feeling of isolation, and preaching to the converted.’ Her paper is essentially an analysis of jewelry’s current position and potentiality, how it got to be where it is and what we might do about it. (To read the full text of Den Besten’s talk ‘The Power of Jewelry’, click here.)

Here’s some of what Den Besten concludes:
In the past twenty years I have learned some things about jewelers, one is that in general jewelers are not designers, they are not designing the way designers do. Apart from some exceptions to the rule, jewelers are do-ers but slow do-ers, makers but slow makers, finders, people trying out, doing things over and over again, people who want to know everything about the materials they use. Jewelers are material-boys-and-girls. But it doesn’t need to stay like this forever – perhaps now is the time to focus on the market as well, to capitalize your talents – your excellent knowledge of materials, forms and techniques, your capability to work with precious materials. If some succeed in this, others can do it as well.
Another thing I have learned about jewelry is that jewelers are not very communicative. Their work is not created to tempt their buyers. And also in that sense jewelry cannot be compared with design which is overtly designed to seduce the buyer, by its use of colour, form and market strategies. That is why everybody wants the newest i-pod and i-phone – they are designed to overrule all rational decision making, they are bought on an impulse. Jewelry on the other hand tries to convince. Jewelry is a matter of faith, you have to believe in it before you purchase it. But you can stir this faith by clever communication strategies.

Den Besten is talking about the fact that contemporary jewelry allied itself with the gallery, and with fine art, rather than design and fashion. In doing so, it made a few gains, particularly in the heady days of the 1960s and 1970s when everything seemed possible, but it also suffered significant losses, most notably its ability to communicate with people, with a wide audience. Her description of contemporary jewelry as a matter of faith is perfect: that is exactly what attracts most of us involved in contemporary jewelry, but it is also what keeps us isolated and unwilling to actually pursue an audience. Like religion, contemporary jewelry is getting smaller every year as the pool of believers shrinks. Sure, every now and then a new church gets built, a new gallery opens, but it just moves the audience around, shifts it from one place to another. It does nothing about growing the audience, reaching new people, evangelising to the unconverted. We’ve been preaching to the art crowd for years now, and they just aren’t convinced. Like any missionary movement, perhaps we need to recognise that and shift our focus to new mission fields.

Den Besten talks about Damien Hirst’s diamond skull, For the Love of God, as a work that can provide some possible directions out of jewelry’s dead end. As she concludes, ‘What can we learn from this? Well, that there are certain things that attract people, things like uniqueness, craftsmanship, shine, and preciousness – things you can easily handle as a jeweler, things you can all deal with as jewelers, when you like.’ And she talks about the strategies of design and fashion, identifying these as possible worlds the contemporary jeweler can infiltrate, along with the world of conventional jewelry. Why not, she provocatively asks, start working with diamonds, precious stones, all the things that sparkle and glitter and which already have an audience?

Den Besten would no doubt agree that there are no simple solutions to the problem of jewelry’s future, and whether or not you are convinced by her proposals, she appears to be right when she says that the boxed-in contemporary jewelry scene will have to change – and sooner rather than later. ‘I think it is time to step out of the comfort zone and make yourself seen’, she concludes, and that’s a challenge that everyone who cares about contemporary jewelry should take seriously.