I came across a great article on the art jewellery forum that responds to this year’s SNAG (Society for NA Goldsmith’s) annual conference, and speaks a great deal about the language and material transitions affecting contemporary craft, or rather anything made by hand.
Jewellery as an Art-with-a-capital-A form tracks closely parallel to the major contemporary art movements of the past century, becoming a forum for political, conceptual, material and embodied discourse and reflecting the issues of a material society. The rich histories of traditional techniques and contextual use have been appropriated as commentary and innovation seek out new platforms of expression. And new technologies have helped transform the industries and practices of makers with greater efficiencies and capabilities.
However the discourse and means to describe contemporary jewellery and the practices of making have not transformed. The author (who unfortunately remains anonymous) comments:
…a chronic nagging question was amplified. What, exactly, is it that I do? In passing conversations I never seem to be able to explain it to any acceptable degree without endless digressive hurdles. In the simplest terms I set out with the word “jewelry” though even this is a personal conversational concession. The litany of descriptors we can now alter jewelry with can leave a person breathless – art jewelry, contemporary jewelry, sculptural jewelry to name a few. Casual conversations always include “no, I don’t make that kind of jewelry”. And when I start using phrases like “abstract life forms” and “composite resin” people’s faces screw into frustration. When I’m feeling less motivated I just say “I make jewelry out of plastics . . . various plastics”. But it feels condescending both to whomever I’m speaking with, and what it is I like about my work. I’ve spent nine years and borrowed tens of thousands of dollars for two degrees – a BFA with the words “Metalsmithing and Jewelry Making” at the end and an MFA with the alternate “Jewelry and Metal Arts” attached. But I find none of this mixing and matching of terminology to be of any help when trying to actually articulate what it is I do with all of my time.
The challenges facing the author and their contemporaries is not uncommon – what language to we use to accurately describe the full rich emerging new 21st century spectrum of practice when the language is appropriate for traditional practice? Where’s the neologism that speaks qualitatively to the essence of practice in 2010? What is the relationship to the pop culture craft resurgence and DIY hacking? How does sustainability factor into a culture or material expression? Or class and the social strata?
As well, how does the identity of the maker change when the linguistic focus is on the materials vs the work itself? Material loyalty is valued for the connection to the earth, enabling participation in the somewhat tenuous thread of human continuity and history, its relatively analog capacity for recombination and invention and the rich availability of terminologies and taxonomies. Jeweler, silversmith, weaver, potter – these are neatly described occupational slots with comforting specificity. many makers now use general terms to describe their practices: artist, designer, hacker- that describe the active practices of making as opposed to any material loyalty or predilection. This ambiguity serves a boon to a transient industry and seemingly unending possibilities for expression.
I wonder what we lose in this ambiguity, in this liminal place between taxonomies. And what we retrieve in the emergence of new terminologies and neologisms. A great blog that I read regularly, Paleo-Future, explores failed historical visions of the future – I am waiting for the curator of lost or failed practices of making.