Art Jewellery. A Reflection on Terminology by Philip Warkander

Article  /  Essays   Arnoldsche   CriticalThinking
Published: 16.06.2016
Philip Warkander Philip Warkander
Philip Warkander
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Arnoldsche Art Publishers
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This article is part of the book "Open Space, Mind Maps. Positions in Contemporary Jewellery" which pursues the current development in art jewellery that is positioned far from the merely decorative in the aesthetic and artistic discourse of our era. 
Through language we make sense of the world around us. As children, we first learn the most basic words to express our needs, but successively we expand our vocabulary, and through on-going and continuous practice we develop the ability to create sentences, express desires and explain ideas. However, the words we learn are part of an already existing world, and through the process of learning we not only master the language itself but we also become affected by its underlying principles and values. It is therefore important to consider the ideological aspects of language and be conscious of how words become attached to objects, and with what effects.

  • What separates ‘design’ from ‘art’, and is this distinction always articulated in the same way?

When an object is named, it is given an identity and thereby made visible. However, this act of naming also places it in a certain category, which simultaneously detaches and distances it from other objects, in other categories. In this way, words have the power to separate and distinguish between different objects, but in order for this separation to be enforced, the act of naming needs to be repeated on a regular basis. Usually, there will be slight shifts in how this is done over time, and if we pay close attention to the differences in nuances, we may detect deeper ideological shifts in culture and decipher developments in ways of thinking about how certain things are categorised. For example, what separates ‘design’ from ‘art’, and is this distinction always articulated in the same way? How is ‘craft’ related to ‘fashion’? Where are the lines drawn, and in which areas do the definitions overlap? How have these lines been redrawn over time?

These seemingly mundane questions hide deeper issues and controversies. Traditionally, the words have operated as sort of code, signalling the cultural value of a certain object. Should it be considered highbrow ‘art’ or lowbrow ‘fashion’, or does it belong to the blurry area in-between of ‘design’? During the Arts and Crafts movement, which developed during the last years of the nineteenth century, the resistance among some artists to the successively growing effects of the industrialist development led to an interest in shapes inspired by nature. The movement’s name was in itself a reflection of this desire to create more naturalistic aesthetics, designed to emphasise the movement’s close connection with nature while at the same time distancing it from the repetitive and mass-produced shapes of modernity.

Clearly there exists an ideological dimension to the words we employ to categorise and describe objects. The terms that are used - or avoided - tell us about how objects are situated in a larger cultural context. For the Arts and Crafts movement, it was about resisting dominant, industry-orientated forces in society. Today, even the concept of ‘resistance’ has taken on new meaning, as society itself is organised quite differently today than it was more than a century ago. Modernity, then a future threat, is now generally considered to be a thing of the past, even though its effects are still present in some areas of society. One of modernity’s most prominent traits was the organisation of words into binary pairs, in this way structuring a dichotomous understanding of the world we live in. For example, ‘man’ was defined through its contrast with ‘woman’, ‘intellect’ was the opposite of ‘body’ and the refined cultural expression of the elite was considered to be worlds apart from the popular entertainment of the masses.

American economist Thorstein Veblen noted during this time that one way for the upper class to distinguish themselves from others was through ‘conspicuous consumption’. Members of this social stratum dressed in garments not suitable for work in order to demonstrate their life of leisure, and they wore accessories and jewellery in ways that communicated their elevated status. According to Veblen, aesthetics had a decidedly communicative function as it separated people into different categories, following strict lines of class distinctions. His research is interesting also from a contemporary point of view as it emphasises a structuralist understanding of aesthetics, disregarding its potential artistic value and thereby underlining (albeit unconsciously) this era’s systematic devaluation of cultural artefacts associated with a more feminine sphere.

  • As art jewellery can both fit in a museum space but also be placed on a physical, human body, it goes against preconceived notions of how we label and value certain objects.

The marginalisation of feminine culture is by no means unique to modernity, but its binary organisation of concepts has had effects also on contemporary perspectives on gender and aesthetics. Notably, it has had severe impact on the field of art, design and craft, where for a long time art jewellery has been a somewhat neglected field of study and exhibition, primarily due to its feminine connotations. Here, the modernist juxtaposition between masculine intellect and the embodiment of the feminine again becomes evident. Objects that can both be displayed behind glass in a museum showcase but also have the potential to be worn on the body challenge through their very existence the superficial dichotomy between high and low cultural expressions. They become difficult to name and to categorise, and in this way they undermine a binary and hierarchical way of thinking. As art jewellery can both fit in a museum space but also be placed on a physical, human body, it goes against preconceived notions of how we label and value certain objects. In this sense, art jewellery is situated in a dynamic and flexible context, surpassing fixed definitions in favour of a more investigative approach to the act of categorisation, marked by critical thinking.

In Veblen’s modern society of the nineteenth century, gold objects were used by the elite wearer to signal one’s social position. In 1980, almost one hundred years later, Otto Künzli presented the bracelet Gold Makes Blind, where the precious metal had been hidden under black rubber, humorously playing with the social meaning of gold and its connotation of luxury and in the process turning traditions of modern jewellery inside out. It marks a detachment from conventional ways of defining materials as either inexpensive or valuable and is to be considered an important step in the questioning of hierarchies through art jewellery.

In more contemporary times, David Bielander has continued this explorative path, creating bracelets, watches and other accessories out of what appears to be cardboard but is actually precious metals. A process with certain similarities can also be seen in the work of Tarja Tuupanen, who has created jewellery that from a distance appears light and ethereal but when examined closer reveals that what appeared to be textile material - with feminine connotations - is actually marble, which places it in a completely different art historical tradition. Through these playful hybrid expressions, new and more complex expressions are created, leaving behind previous notions of the strict division between ‘art’ and ‘jewellery’.

  • The body, both in its actual form and as an abstract idea, is central in matters of art jewellery.

On a more abstract level, the art jewellery project Heimat by Iris Eichenberg examines how a sense of belonging and emotional connection to a certain place can linger, even long after the person has left the actual geographical site behind. This project echoes similar questions posed by Hussein Chalayan, who incorporated his own childhood experiences in his fashion collection After Words in 2000. Chalayan, born in the now-Turkish part of Cyprus, was forced to move to England after the Turkish invasion in 1978. This event became the starting point for his investigation into matters of identity, place and belonging, which was materialised in the fashion show by models dressing in furniture and thus making parts of their homes mobile as extended parts of their bodies. Eichenberg continues Chalayan’s exploration, consequently connecting art jewellery with innovative fashion, demonstrating how the study of emotions, bodies and artefacts sometimes transcend disciplinary distinctions.

The body, both in its actual form and as an abstract idea, is central in matters of art jewellery. As previously explained, the traditional, modernist way of thinking, which dominated most of the twentieth century, was formed around the idea of concepts acting as binary couples. Body and intellect were not only detached from one another but also defined as one another’s opposite. Effects of this way of thinking are still noticeable today in many areas, as proximity to a living, breathing body seems to automatically decrease the potential symbolic value of cultural objects. It is for this reason that art jewellery has not always been recognised as an interesting cultural discourse in its own right, as it - even if only in an abstract sense - is defined by its relationship with the human body. However, in much of today’s current debate the body is actually considered to be an important starting point, often made visible in all its complexities, with arguments being made that we need to think more, rather than less, about different bodies’ specificities. Many contemporary discourses in art jewellery today therefore connect to matters of functionality, gender and/or ethnicity, thus actively examining the materiality of the body itself, studying how certain aspects of the body can influence the interpretation of the jewellery, as well as the other way around.

  • Placing art jewellery in the context of the museum can be considered a continual exploration of the boundaries of human bodies in relation to art jewellery, interact and engage with one another.

This leads to another aspect of the blurring of boundaries and questioning of dichotomies. If previously the museum space and the physical body of the wearer have been considered as distinct and separate entities, and subsequently also valued differently, current discussion strives to take the physical body of the museum visitor into consideration. Who enters the museum exhibition to look at art jewellery, and how is the contact between visitor and object facilitated? Within academic research, there is a long tradition of problematising the showcasing of objects that have a connection with the body, and many theorists have claimed that vital elements are lost when they are placed behind glass in galleries, thus losing their connection with the living body. The general notion among scholars has been that objects are brought to life when used and that the disconnection with human experience as they enter the museum somehow transforms them into muted, dead objects. However, this perspective disregards the agency of the museum visitors’ bodies, as well as the imaginations and dreams that are brought to life as visitors move through the exhibition spaces. Placing art jewellery in the context of the museum can therefore instead be considered a continual exploration of the boundaries of human bodies in relation to art jewellery, challenging more dichotomous notions of how objects and bodies are supposed to relate, interact and engage with one another.

Returning to the initial discussion on terminology and the constantly shifting meaning of words, there are some concepts that have had a more turbulent development than others. In particular, the definition of ‘art’ has been disputed, surprisingly often from inside the art world itself. Contemporary art is nowadays far removed from the status commodities described by Veblen and can instead take the shape of a temporary installation or a spoken word event or be organised as exhibitions shaped primarily through the visitors’ own actions and words. The hegemonic position of the oil painting or marble sculpture in culture has been unpacked and is now less secure than ever before.

  • Art jewellery can be the result of two bodies coming together, as demonstrated in 1998 by Åsa Skogberg when she produced the effects of a pearl collier around her own neck by asking her partner to give her hickeys.

By adding art jewellery to this exploration, a further step is taken in articulating new definitions and ways of thinking not always regulated by hierarchical definitions and exclusionary terminology. If anything, the concept of ‘art jewellery’ itself can be used as a tool for continuing to open up, rather than to enforce, strict demarcations between aesthetic expressions. Contemporary art can engage with smartphone applications such as Instagram, as in the 2015 installation Konsekvensanalys by Bella Rune, while art jewellery can be the result of two bodies coming together, as demonstrated in 1998 by Åsa Skogberg when she produced the effects of a pearl collier around her own neck by asking her partner to give her hickeys. Through these intriguing works, different techniques are used to question ingrained assumptions of technology and authorship.

To summarise, the act of formulating a strict definition for a certain object has often been used as a mechanism of exclusion, implementing an understanding that some things are more valuable than others, often articulated by the category in which they are placed. In the context of the art world, this has been translated into a matter of presence and visibility - what is being allowed into the museum collections and exhibitions, and what is left out? However, with a more dynamic and flexible approach, it can also be used to open up new frontiers and for mapping previously uncharted territories.

Art jewellery, situated in the larger context of contemporary art but with historical connections to also other aesthetic practices and expressions, has the potential to break free from out-dated distinctions between high and low culture and to pose irreverent questions regarding what constitutes ‘art’, all the while continually unpacking stereotypes concerning the concept of ‘jewellery’. By continuing to interconnect and interlace matters of art, jewellery, bodies and space, new ways of framing these creative expressions will develop, and in the process, art jewellery will both continue to challenge the showcase it is placed in and engage in critical - but hopefully also humorous - dialogue with the body it is (sometimes) worn by.

 Philip Warkander

About the author

Philip Warkander, born 1978, the world’s first PhD in fashion studies. Currently he is assistant professor in fashion studies at Lund University while also working as a fashion writer and consultant for a selection of fashion magazines and brands in the Scandinavian region. He has also worked with a number of cultural institutions, such as the Swedish Embassy in London, Swedish Institute in Paris, and the Hallwyl Museum and Bonniers Konsthall in Stockholm.

© By the author. Read Copyright.

© By the author. Read Copyright.

© By the author. Read Copyright.