Contemporary jewellery is dead. It crashed right before our eyes. See how it now hangs from the wall of the gallery, bent, broken, rigor mortis setting in. Protected by the stylized gravediggers of the art world, on display in its transparent coffin, the stench of rot swirling safely behind the glass.
The obituary, comme il faut, is subtly disguised as an invitation or included in a catalogue, sustaining the semblance of life a little while longer.
At the appointed time the crowd, elegant as always, swoops into the great hall to grace the official ceremony with its presence. Glasses are raised in memory of the deceased, astute analyses exchanged, the lack of recognition lamented. It seems as if everyone, excepting of course those who faithfully attend the High Mass of contemporary jewellery design, is visually impaired.
As the jewellery piece was being nailed to the wall it had let rip one last cry for help. Just when everything was going so well, fate had struck.
The visual arts just within reach, cruising round the next bend right in front of it instead of the usual full lap ahead. Almost bumper to bumper…
All it needed was the extra spurt in a game of catch up that had started somewhere in the heroic nineteen sixties. What hadn’t it done in the intervening years to fall into the good graces of its devotees? Its reputation as plaything of the rich finally cast off, its abstraction embraced, only to be swiftly replaced by the lyricism of the individual artist railing against the dictate of good taste. Museums had become an accepted podium and jewellery decided the time was ripe to celebrate its worth in all its godforsaken vanity once more.
In the pursuit of a place amongst the visual arts, jewellery design had reinvented itself aplenty and now finally the finish was in sight. Justice at last, mission accomplished: game over. But along the way it had become so fixated on acquiring status that it had lost its purpose and hence control over the wheel. The struggle for emancipation had become its ultimate goal. Then the crash came. And now here it hangs on the wall of the gallery like an X-ray of a cardiac arrest. It nestles in its glass case, oblivious to the fact that it already stopped breathing on the workbench of its maker.
Contemporary jewellery is an illusion. As artificial, as the stories told by the scribes, who, with their apologias try to invest a whiff of credibility.
By appealing to the uniqueness of every single creation process, they try to justify its existence; not just of one piece in particular or of a designer’s entire oeuvre but of the discipline as a whole. They tirelessly advocate a myth. In their hands, every piece of jewellery is interpreted as something without precedent. It’s a one-off, singular and brilliant – the work of a genius. And yet it simultaneously turns into a pars pro toto.
Their pens scour the brains of the true bearers of the Word: the artists who tend to intuit what a particular jewellery piece should tell if it is to fulfil its ambition of the new. Personal fear, euphoria and associations form the uncompromising basis from which jewellery will stir towards a new meaning. These are the stories recorded by the chroniclers of jewellery, like telegraphers of the holy above. Take them at their world and you will find yourself dangling from a very thin rope. It seems as if the world of jewellery design is created anew every day and with every invention the truth of that world becomes a little more definitive.
They avow a dogmatic faith in the incessant urge of contemporary jewellery design to be innovative, but forty years on in this alleged revolution their creationist stories can no longer conceal the epileptic fit convulsing the heart of this discipline. Contemporary jewellery pieces are like Rotary badges. As functional and just as steeped in the conventions they once tried to undermine. They have become the shorthand gesture of recognition for those who speak the same language. A rusty code that only has value for the intimate few.
Contemporary jewellery is autistic. It doesn’t read newspapers or books. Not out of principle but because of a lack of interest. It distrusts history as much as it wishes to sidestep reality. It cherishes and nurtures its own, often incomprehensibly cryptic language to avoid criticism, questions, comparison and even the smallest expression of doubt concerning its intentions.
Entrenched behind a parapet of silence it resists criticism and refuses to engage with the banalities of daily reality. Sometimes with such virtuosity that the parapet itself takes on meaning; when the sublime silence develops an autonomous power that lifts the result over and above the natural boundaries of a particular jewellery piece. But as often as not, there reigns a petulant silence, like that of a child trying to get its own way, pursing its lips and with folded arms striking a stubborn pose.
It’s a battle against parental authority that is lost up front because winning or losing in the end simply boils down to who has the longest breath.
In its ambition to remove itself from any form of critical context, contemporary jewellery has only managed to further isolate itself. Not only from the art world, but from its public as well. It complains of a lack of attention, yet wilfully retreats into the shadows of provincial life.
Here, in the safe isolation of the artist studio, passions that run high are hammered into every square millimetre of material and moulded into shape. That process, characteristic for the creation of every piece of jewellery for thousands of years was kept in balance by the astute awareness of its actual calling: as an accessory that ultimately expresses the aspirations and achievements of the wearer, not those of the designer. Yes, conventional, and yes, inevitably judged on craftsmanship but for that fact also recognisable and appreciated by the many.
The goldsmith followed the market and was – depending on his talents and skills – able to influence the tastes and fashions of his time; in exceptional cases even successfully introducing an indelible signature that bore the hand of its maker.
Modern jewellery lost this simple logic along the way. Every designer started to believe him or herself to be that exceptional case. Each of their stories took precedence over that of the end user, the wearer. The maker’s signature no longer had to be proven, was no longer a priori under discussion, now that it was simultaneously the source and ultimate goal of every creation. This transformed the typically extrovert ornament of yore into a piece of almost completely introverted sculpture. It chose the gallery over the shop, the collection over the street, the conversation between friends over social interaction.
Contemporary jewellery is superfluous. After all, what could it possibly contribute that other visual arts do not explore at least equally as well? Intimacy, unease, voyeurism, consolation, exuberance, silence, beauty…?
None of these belong exclusively to the domain of the jewellery designer. The moment the wearer was banished from the equation and the very social codes that had provided it with its most specific meaning were vilified contemporary jewellery gave up its raison d’etre. What followed was a turbulent but futile search for an emergency exit in a tunnel that just got darker and darker. Unless the self-inflicted isolation is radically abandoned, the discipline will have to settle for its position in the fringes of the fringes. Barely noticed and certainly unchallenged. Striving for a safe, because enemy-free existence that is thoroughly uninteresting since it is validated only by those few square inches necessary for its own conception. If it wants a chance of survival its maker will have to step out into more dangerous terrain. Return to his craft, if only to forget it. That means ditching forty years of dogma but getting in return centuries of conformism and defiance that will doubtlessly prove a far richer source.
Jewellery must be sentimental and never look for compromise.
Jewellery must be owned by the public if it wants to touch the public.
Jewellery must steal and seek to be stolen.
Jewellery must cherish its enemies in order to make friends.
Jewellery must forget the psychoanalysis of the studio.
Jewellery must go out into the street to eat and be eaten.
Jewellery must be shamelessly curious.
Jewellery must look where to attack and neglect its defences.
Jewellery must use traditional codes in order to break them.
Jewellery must neither forgive nor forget.
Jewellery must ignore all prescription.
“Celebration of the street: Manifesto for the new jewellery” written by Gert Staal is a part of the book Ted Noten: CH2=C(CH3)C(=O)OCH3 enclosures and other TNs
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