After Identity Crisis: the Pole Shift (3/4)

Published: 25.11.2015
After Identity Crisis: the Pole Shift (3/4).
Ezra Satok-Wolman
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For real change to occur, action needs to take place. My intention with “Identity Crisis” was to drop a pebble into the water and hope that some of the ripples turned into waves. It is in that spirit that I am publishing this follow up essay.

This is the third part of a text that will be published in 4 individual texts. Read the previous articles: Part 1: Introduction, Part 2: Ceci n’est pas “art jewellery”.

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It is hard not to compare the world of art jewellery with the world of contemporary art, at least on some levels.  After all art jewellery is a branch of contemporary art that is being cultivated worldwide.  But business in the world of contemporary art has continued to grow like the expansion of the universe, while art jewellery as a movement has failed to generate the same kind of public interest or response.  One of the issues that continues to plague our field is a lack of quality.  It is something that I keep revisiting in these writings because it may very well be the most critical issue of them all.  Beyond “alternative-ism and “extremism, or a poor understanding of what art jewellery is, the real problem that lies at the root of everything is quality, and more specifically a lack of it.
Art in general has changed dramatically in a relatively short period of time.  It was not so long ago that fine art was a very traditional form of expression, often depicting something from nature or a religious or historical theme.  Classically speaking, artists were people who produced art for a living because they were both creative and the best at what they did.  After years of training or education, often followed by working as an apprentice for a master, an artist developed basic skills, only later arriving at a style and approach of their own.  This system remained in place for centuries, until very recently in fact.  A successful artist today may do nothing more than assemble objects together for an installation, requiring nothing more than the objects themselves and a space to construct the piece.  And while art today is often much more interesting than it was 100 years ago, something has changed.
It is almost as if a pole shift  (1) has occurred and our value system has been completely turned upside down.  Skill, technique, and craftsmanship are no longer the cornerstones of an artist’s “toolbox.” This pole shift has impacted the world of art jewellery especially, as the value system that existed previously has been ignored, forgotten, or simply flipped upside down, almost as if the Earth’s magnetic poles had been completely reversed.  Looking at how art jewellery first evolved and what later came from the movement in the 80’s, 90’s and 00’s, you will see a group of artists who were primarily trained as goldsmiths, yet chose to pursue careers making art jewellery.  Those individuals already had a basic passion for jewellery before their ideas about art jewellery evolved.  That being said, those who arrive at art jewellery today through a path that does not begin with a passion for jewellery itself end up at a very different place with respect to the work they produce.
Last year American Craft Magazine published an article about craft titled “Hot Glue and Staples  (2) in which the author, jeweller Bruce Metcalf, states “Craftsmanship often doesn’t seem to matter in the contemporary art world.  It should.”  Metcalf goes on to say “It seems obvious that good craftsmanship is unimportant in the art world. One even can get the impression it’s forbidden.”  In the article he describes how overly common it is to see artists’s installations that use casual fabrication or sloppily constructed assemblages of found objects, a description that almost mirrored my feelings about much of today’s art jewellery.  The article sat with me throughout the course of the year as I continued to write this essay.  It painted a picture that helped me draw a clear parallel between the two worlds. 
For us in the world of art jewellery however, this problem is much more detrimental, as our world is much smaller than the world of contemporary art and therefore our problems are more visible.  Beyond that, craftsmanship is something that has always been directly associated with jewellery, and the idea that artists making jewellery are not concerned with good craftsmanship would boggle most people’s minds.  Unlike paintings, sculptures, or installations, jewellery is made to be handled, worn and physically interacted with.  Craftsmanship is of the utmost importance!  Yet the fact remains that the direction art jewellery has taken over the last decade or so has resulted in a field that places very little emphasis on craftsmanship.  Ask yourself how often you look at the back of a brooch only to find an ugly, factory made pin and finding.  Or the unfortunate clasp that already looks as though it was stepped on before it was affixed to the piece.  It is the equivalent of putting a valuable painting in a frame from Ikea.  This is simply one example, yet it sends a message to our audience that we simply don’t take our artwork all that seriously.  That it wasn’t worth the time, or that the skill wasn’t there to finish the piece properly.  Either way, when it comes to art all of it factors in.
What makes it worse is that many of the individuals making this kind of work are graduates from acclaimed university and college jewellery programs.  As I have mentioned previously, many of these programs turn out dozens of students each year who believe they have been prepared to succeed in an incredibly challenging and competitive field.  We are faced with an overpopulation problem, and now find our relatively small market saturated with work that can’t support the artists making it.  The truth is making jewellery isn’t easy, and there are ways to go about doing things correctly and incorrectly.  It should be reasonable to expect that educators are responsible for bestowing these ideas and standards on their students.  Beyond that, it is up to the various channels that communicate our work to the public, i.e. galleries, publications, and numerous media platforms to adhere to those standards themselves, so that a clear picture of what is acceptable and what isn’t is presented.
It is our responsibility to rebalance the scales and implement some basic standards at the very least.  A set of standards or value system by which we can measure the quality of a piece of art jewellery, and be able to communicate that clearly and justifiably to our audience.  This applies to conceptual value, material value, and the incurred value that exists because a particular material has been worked or manipulated with skill and purpose.  Craftsmanship is a critical element in the value system that for whatever reason has been underemphasized over the last decade, and its hard not to look at how school programs are being run when looking for answers.  Artists who are successfully making art jewellery today are successful because they have learned the basics, and have used those fundamental skills to master both the materials with which they work, and their technique or approach to working with those materials.  I think it is fair to question whether the shift towards alternative materials has been so appealing to students and young jewellery makers because it bypasses the need to become proficient working as a bench jeweller first.  Generally speaking many of these new materials are not being mastered.  They are often ready made and require or tolerate minimal manipulation.  Again, this idea of a pole shift pertains specifically to what we are talking about here.  Not only have we abandoned precious materials and metal in general, but also precious knowledge and skills that have been preserved and passed on by metalworkers for thousands of years.
It was no surprise to me when “Value was announced as the focus topic for the 2015 Shanghai International Jewellery Design Forum, which I participated in last month in China.  What was surprising however, was that it was a young organization in China that had honed in on the criticality of this issue and invited international and domestic artists, curators, educators and gallerists to attend a conference and discuss the theme.  A country who's involvement in the field of contemporary jewellery is relatively new, yet has been tremendously impactful within the last few years.  And while value isn’t a new area of discussion or debate in our field, it was refreshing to approach the topic from the East rather than the West this time.
The specific focus of the forum was on the concept of value in relation to today’s contemporary jewellery, given that the standards by which value is measured are no longer directly associated with the material worth of the object itself.  The curriculum was thoughtfully planned with respect to the international guests who were invited, including myself, Tore Svensson, Karin Seufert, Lauren Tickle, Love Jönsson, and Charon Kransen.  Each of the artists presented a lecture about their work and use vastly different materials that each carry a basic monetary or intrinsic value.  Putting my work, which generally uses precious metals, on one end of the spectrum, and Lauren Tickle's work, which primarily uses US $1.00 bills, on the other end of the spectrum, presents a very clear picture of how vastly different material values can be from one artist to the next.  Taking that one step further, Lauren’s work is a perfect example of how an artist adds significant value to their material using artistic expression and craftsmanship.  Lauren’s highly collectible work is worth much more than the “raw” materials she uses to produce each piece.  Of course the same can be said for the work each of the aforementioned artists, and that is precisely the point.  Value is something that is developed in a successful piece of art jewellery through a process involving concept, design, craftsmanship, and a synthesis of those elements culminating in a wearable piece of art.
More often than not, I can’t help but think that many people making art jewellery today are resorting to shock value rather than taking the time and effort required to produce work of true value.  At the end of the day shock value fades, while true value can last forever.  My only hope is that when the pole shift reverses, as is always the case, there are still artists left who know the true value of skill, technique, and most importantly craftsmanship.

1.  The cataclysmic pole shift hypothesis suggests that there have been geologically rapid shifts in the relative positions of the modern-day geographic locations of the poles and the axis of rotation of the Earth, creating calamities such as floods and tectonic events. source Wikipedia
2. Hot Glue and Staples, American Craft Magazine June/July 2014, by Bruce Metcalf


About the author

Over the last decade Canadian jewelry artist and goldsmith Ezra Satok-Wolman has been active in the jewelry world, establishing a presence in North America, Europe and Asia.  Having studied extensively in Canada and Italy, learning from the masters of the trade, he continues to preserve the practice of classical goldsmithing in his work.  Combining his passion for traditional techniques and contemporary art, Ezra has managed to successfully create a unique and identifiable style. He has received numerous awards and accolades for his work, and participated in international exhibitions and competitions over the years, including Beijing, Milan and Shanghai Design Week events, The Friedrich Becker Prize, The Niche Awards and The A’ Design Award