Focus on building an infrastructure. About Critique. Interview with Philip Warkander

Interview  /  CriticalThinking   CarolinDenter
Published: 06.04.2018
Philip Warkander Philip Warkander
Carolin Denter
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Klimt02 want to start a discussion about critique and show various perceptions, we chose different interview partners from the field of art and design. Working in art and design might seem like a wonderfully idyllic and relaxed career choice, where you have pure freedom to let your creative juices flow. Each of them represents a unique view and gives us an overview of their own experiences. This is the first interview of seven.

We talk with Philip Warkander, who is the world’s first Ph.D. 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. 

With your background in Fashion, you are used to a general public interest which is accompanied by several critical voices like magazines, fashion critics or even laymen. When you compare this critic from fashion to contemporary jewellery, what do you observe?
Fashion and jewellery find common ground in the fact that both expressions can be considered part of a larger design category. Sometimes it is difficult to work as a design critic, almost everybody has a relationship with design objects in their everyday lives, and therefore most people consider themselves to be an expert on the subject. However, there is also a distinction to be made between fashion and jewellery. Because of how fashion is organized into two seasons, writing and reviewing fashion is easier than when studying jewellery. This lack of a more organized industry has worked to the disadvantage of jewellery.

Can you explain what ‘critical’ means today in general?
The concept of being “critical” is often misunderstood. Many think that it refers to a negative point of view and trying to find flaws. Instead, it is about studying a certain type of expression or occurrence, understanding why it looks the way it does and how this correlates to its particular context.

  • I advise jewellery to stop telling other people that you belong in their space and instead focus on building an infrastructure of your own.

To go further, what is art criticism, and why do you think we need it?
Art used to be,  and in many ways, it still is, a manifestation of power and wealth. For a long time, art was limited to the private mansions and palaces of the rich as well as to the church, which also used art as a demonstration of its power and to tell stories about its influence. One of the first important steps in changing this occurred in 1737 with the opening of le Salon at le Louvre to the public. This was not only the beginning of a democratization process of art but also the first step in developing art criticism as a genre. When more people were given access to art, there was also a new need to develop a common language in order to better understand and decode art. In his text “The Production of Belief: Contribution to an Economy of Symbolic Goods”, Pierre Bourdieu wrote about how art as a kind of symbolic capital is produced through the interaction between artists, gallery owners and art dealers. However, also art critics play a valuable role in the construction of particular art discourses. Their texts can add value to art but also detract from it. In this way, art critics are not external, neutral observers but should instead be understood as, at least to some degree, integrated in the business of art as well. To briefly summarize, we need art criticism to develop a shared language about art, but by doing so, we have also created a kind of agent who also holds a particular power over what is considered valuable and not.

You as a writer pay particular attention to critical thinking and the analysis of a text. I noticed, that there is a growing online presence to art writing. How do you see these changes influencing the role of the critic/writer about art?
Yes, I think you are right. I am very happy to be seeing a growing number of voices and perspectives, but at the same time I worry about the regular lack of proper remuneration for this kind of work. Often, these texts are written for free which is not a sustainable way to work. For one, it is difficult to continue working as a critic without being paid. Being a critic requires a long temporal perspective, often having personally visited exhibitions, galleries and shops for a period of many consecutive years. This is difficult to achieve when not paid for the work that is carried out. Secondly, if a critic is not being paid, this makes the person vulnerable in relation to the companies, artists and designers that one is writing about. I have personally witnessed how struggling critics find it difficult to navigate between being fair and openly critical in their reviews while at the same time maintaining a good relationship with influential actors that can provide much needed access to shows and seminal designers in the future.

Critical thinking is seen as an important key qualification in our professional lives, for example, to come to a better decision, to make processes and products better(…). Critical thinking is required, but it is rarely defined what critical thinking is, or is necessary for. Can you define your position and explain us your thoughts about that?
I don’t ask critical questions just for the sake of being a nuisance, but because I believe that by engaging with what is around us, we can become better at what we do. In my own work as an academic, I am constantly being scrutinized and I receive regular feedback from both students and peers about my work. I know where my strengths lie but also which areas need improvement. Without this feedback, I wouldn't develop neither as a person nor as a professional. It’ important that we all develop a critical eye! But, in academia, we often talk about reading with a “generous mind”, meaning that we focus on what is of good quality and when we find a flaw, instead of merely pointing it out, we also add suggestions for improvements. This ensures that criticism doesn’t create unnecessary feelings of inadequacy or enhance gaps between those who are struggling and those doing well, but instead that it instills a sense of community and togetherness.

In the literature, critical thinking is often seen as a skill. This includes e.g. the „conscious, self-regulatory formation of judgment, which includes interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and conclusion.“ How can you transfer this to the field of contemporary Jewellery and do you think these special capabilities are widespread enough in this bubble?
I don’t think the field of contemporary jewellery has any particular, large problems that are not shared with other design and art areas. All areas of design and art criticism struggle with the same problem – how do you balance the act of criticism with your own personal taste? Can you ever be free of your own past experiences or is all writing merely an effect of who you are and where you come from? Knowing oneself is a prerequisite for being a skilled critic, as this means that you are conscious of your own proclivities and prejudices and how these affect your way of seeing. To not base a critical text on one’s own taste is (or at least it ought to be) a continuous process.

In your Essay "Art Jewellery. A Reflection on Terminology" You write about the connections and interconnections of jewellery, body & space. You point out that you expect from the future a humorous but also critical dialogue between body and jewellery. How could that look like?
I think most areas of life should involve a bit of fun! Even though art and design criticism is a serious matter, the best texts are the ones that are engaging and fun to read. The same goes for art and design. Think of a fashion brand like Prada, which is known for its clever design but also its subtle sense of humour. The history of classical art is also filled with pieces that are not always so serious. This becomes particularly apparent in the types of design that you wear on your body, such as garments and jewellery. But, I don’t want to give guidelines for what it should look like, if anything it’s more of a general advice in life (which of course includes both critical dialogues and contemporary jewellery)!

Contemporary Jewellery is already fighting for its platform in art. How do you think critics can affect its position and to what extent can it be convincing?
This is a popular type of question that however leads to a series of important follow-up questions. Who is it that needs to be convinced? Why are actors working in certain fields, fashion and jewellery in particular, so interested in gaining the approval of people who work in other design and art areas? Does contemporary jewellery really need a platform in art? Why can’t they create this without convincing people in other (often competitive) fields? For many years, many fashion critics tried to convince the art world (as well as themselves) that fashion is art. I say that it is not, that fashion is design and should be treated as such, albeit with strong influences from art. I advice jewellery to do the same: stop telling other people that you belong in their space and instead focus on building an infrastructure of your own. I am not one for strict boundaries or clear delimitations, so if jewellery is at times positioned as art and at other times as design, then so be it. But, this flexibility should be understood as a strength as well as a deliberate strategy with the aim of building as many bridges as possible. Stop trying to put jewellery into just one category and instead let it move the way it wants and see where it will take you.

What role do you think art critics can (or should) play in the jewellery bubble?
This is a much more interesting suggestion! Instead of defining jewellery as either art or design, see what happens when you approach it through different lenses and ways of understanding its shape and its materiality. How does an art critic interpret jewellery and in which way is that different from what a design critic sees? I am certain that they will value different works differently and that there will be less consensus than if only critics already trained in the existing discourse of contemporary jewellery engage in the conversation.

Where do you see problems of criticising art?
It is not wrong to criticize art per se, but when the critic is too close to the industry, there often will be problems of self-censorship on the part of the critic. To avoid that, my advice is to not engage so much in the social aspects of the job. Don’t go to all the industry dinners and opening parties. Try to keep an arm’s length of distance. Avoid, to the best extent possible, becoming personal friends with the people whose work you will need to critique publicly. It’s not possible to stay completely neutral but one should at least try, especially if you want to be credible in the long-run.

About the Interviewee

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.

About the author

Carolin Denter completed her training as Goldsmith at Master School for Craftsmen in Kaiserslautern in 2013. In 2015 she made an Internship at Klimt02, where she is working since 2016 as Content Manager. In 2017 she graduated with Bachelor of Fine Arts in Gemstone and Jewellery at University of Applied Science Trier, Campus Idar-Oberstein. After her graduation, she started working part-time as Marketing and Design management Assistance at Campus Idar-Oberstein in the Gemstone and Jewellery Departement.