Stripped of familiar codes and functions, jewelry has become a vehicle for purely artistic issues. Just as the rectangular canvas was freed from representation and became an arena for the exploration of a range of other themes, so has jewelry become a device for conceptual exploration and personal expression. The subject might be reductivism (Emmy van Leersum), social critique (Otto Kunzli), or the limits of jewelry itself (Pierre Degan),* but in each case jewelry becomes a platform for the artist’s agenda.
A friend of mine once said, “Jewelry is a small vehicle.” I think it’s a very accurate statement. As jewelers look to the ambitions of painting, sculpture, performance and installation, they find that many of the concepts originated in these art forms are poorly suited to jewelry. For instance, artists in the 1980’s found that photography was a perfect device to illustrate theories about how mass-media images control the construction of the self. Cindy Sherman’s famous series of self-portrait photographs, in which the artist’s identity seemed fragmented and completely flexible, is only one example. Although jewelers have used photography – Eleanor Moty’s work from the 1970’s comes to mind – and a few have considered the social construction of identity, nobody in the field has yet addressed the intersection of mass-media and the formation of the self as convincingly and powerfully as Sherman. The problem of shoehorning such ideas, which depend on using mass-media imagery, into the vehicle of jewelry has proven very difficult. There are, after all, limits to what a jewelry object can do effectively. The relative smallness of objects that might attach to the body, the limits of weight that portability imposes, the impracticality of directly employing certain mediums (like video or holograms): all these restrictions mean that jewelry can serve some intentions well, but many others poorly.
A new generation of jewelers is addressing issues of identity and social construction, but they are not using devices imported from the artworld. Instead, they employ forms and devices from traditional jewelry. (Jan Baum’s lockets, which contain mementos and texts, are an example where an artist uses a familiar jewelry context to speak to the identity question.) It’s significant that this new work appears to accept the limitations of jewelry.
The inherent restrictions of jewelry-making is simultaneously the greatest liability and the greatest asset of jewelry as an art form. While jewelry may not be suitable for many artistic agendas, its limits have a potent attraction: the majority of jewelers are interested in jewelry because the discipline offers a set of limits. These people disagree with one of the basic ground rules of modernism: that limits exist only to be surpassed.
The very idea of an “avant garde” presupposes incessant progress into ever-new territories, and also subtly implies that territory already occupied is not nearly as interesting. The proposition that established boundaries must be violated is one of the basic assumptions in twentieth-century Western art. The great figures in the Modernist pantheon, from Duchamp and Picasso to Johns and Warhol, all contributed to the revolutions and revisions of how art is defined. Artists like Jacques Lipchitz, who quit abstraction for figuration, are condemned for having abandoned their avant-garde ways. In the mainstream of Modernist art, limitations are automatically suspected of being antithetical to art itself.
Throughout this century, artists have been paring away all the unessential aspects of painting or sculpture. They came up with monochromatic painting and huge stainless-steel cubes, and then moved into conceptual art. Suddenly, in a radical departure from the past, thinking alone was sufficient to the activity of art. But when this process is taken to its logical conclusion, there are no further boundaries to transgress. Everything is permissible and possible: you can paint your face gold and carry a dead rabbit about an art gallery, explaining paintings to it (Joseph Beuys); you can tie yourself to another person for a year (Linda Montano and Tehching Hsieh); you can attempt to count to infinity (Jonathan Borofsky); and it’s all valid art. Some artists even investigated criminal acts and fatal self-mutilation. Apparently, there is no longer anything that cannot possibly be art. There are no limits. From now on, artists must deal with total and absolute freedom – and also a haunting sensation that every territory is familiar.
Many so-called “fine” artists are proud of the apparent openness of their fields, and disparage craft disciplines for their limitations. A sculpture teacher I know discourages students from taking craft courses, because, in his logic, the medium-specificity of craft imposes unreasonable limitations. For him, the freedom of 20th century art is authoritative, unquestionable, and desirable. However, he never considered the value of limits, nor the possibility that some people might desire a restriction on their choices.