Criticism For Jewellery Should Not Copy Art Criticism. About Critique. Interview with Ellen Maurer-Zilioli

Published: 13.07.2020
Ellen Maurer-Zilioli, Photo by Museum Villa Stuck Ellen Maurer-Zilioli, Photo by Museum Villa Stuck
Carolin Denter
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From the series of interviews about critique, we received many answers and ideas. But more important: more questions came up. We go into the second round of interviews and talk with more people from the contemporary jewellery scene to answer questions about censorship, morality and the value of criticism.

In this thirteenth interview of our new series about critique, we talk with Dr. Ellen Maurer-Zilioli, former curator at the Neue Sammlung, Design in der Pinakothek der Moderne. She is currently based in Munich, Germany, where she runs Gallery Maurer Zilioli – Contemporary Arts.
Ellen, you have been working for renowned museums, you curated exhibitions and you have founded the Associazione Culturale Maurer Zilioli – Contemporary Arts (until 2013) which now is Gallery Maurer Zilioli – Contemporary Arts in Munich. Your main goal was to create a place for exchange and discussion of various positions. Please give us an insight into your approach on how to deal with criticism, being critical and critique. How is your understanding of these three terms?
First of all I am an art historian and not a jewellery historian. That means my position confronts certain expressions in jewellery with expectations and parameters that we can apply in general to artistic work and which suggest an evolution in language and criteria to talk about. That means also that I am not so much interested in “bijoux” but mainly in those tendencies in jewellery that unfold wider perspectives, arguments and issues. Jewellery as a whole signifies to deal with a system that produces a number of determining conditions. These factors serve as a play ground first of all. Then interesting jewellery works should be able to enlarge the range of their discipline, to load it by messages and contents, by singular visions and attitudes. That is my field to work with and that is my orientation for criticism, for the selection of the artists and a reason for my own theories – always in connection to what is discussed and what is in circulation in contemporary art of our time in relation to aesthetic or social/political, human or / and philosophical subjects.

There are many different ideas on how the contemporary jewellery world should handle critique and criticism. Some people think there is not enough, some people think there is no place for „loud critique“ anymore. Others wonder, who can be in the position of being a critic. What is your thought on this, where do you see chances and where are dead ends?
In any case it is not the first job of an artist to occupy with criticism. This should be a view from outside that can confront and discuss different artistic positions. Of course everybody has the right for a personal opinion. This is not criticism. For my opinion there is little real criticism in the jewellery realm, simply because there much lesser public, much lesser literature, lesser writing and lesser reflection and awareness. Criticism for jewellery should not copy art criticism but develop an own catalogue of criteria, of arguments, of scales, or perhaps not, but then we should define this lack or this conscious negation of criteria. I am lesser interested in criticism than in an appropriate language and historical analyze.

You do not teach in the usual sense, but you take on a certain role in people's art education with your work as a gallerist and curator. In the educational sector, critical thinking is highly valued but difficult to teach effectively. What do you think, how is it best taught?
I have taught in the University of Passau and worked in museums. Every exhibition has an educational intention, by metaphorical means. And as I explained before, for me it is not criticism that has the priority. I am teaching by expressing my opinion, by explaining and justifying why I think so. Talking, writing, doing, convincing, reflecting, looking for new media outside of the inner jewellery circle.

Moral and normative ethics are questioned to be the basis of our theory of society. Which role do you think morality plays and is criticism necessary for the transformation of society?
I have my own criteria: all of them are critical and ethical. My criteria are mainly feminism and personal freedom, including anti-racism etc. etc. For me feminism includes all of the necessary values. The personal is political and public, that was said decades ago and it is still valid. And as I said before concerning jewellery the first thing is a conviction, a conscious position and a language to express. One possibility to express could be to wear jewellery. Perhaps you have noticed how little contemporary critical or artistic jewellery is worn. This is an essential argument. By jewellery you can talk and illustrate, develop, expose and discuss your identity. Of course we should not abandon certain moral values. Morality is important. But what does that exactly mean in a world with 24hours superspreading of fake and bad news, violence and racism? Where could values come from? At least – for my opinion – we can find orientation number of philosophical theories to learn and to provide values: Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, Blumenberg, even music, Glenn Gould, Cage, Mozart for instance – but still it is we, ourselves, that have to judge and decide in what direction we want to go, morally, socially, politically. 
As stated in our previous interviews, there is critique involved in the process of making, but it is not a critique of oneself as a maker. It lies in the act of transforming a material by envisioning an alternative. How do you think we can strengthen a form of criticism, which supports the process of integrating jewellery to a bigger area, such as craft, art, environment (…), and what are the questions we should deal with?
Subjects that should be discussed: life, nature, climate, being, society, feminism, emotion and public etc. etc. This is already happening. And for enlarging the public and the public echo for jewellery this is probably not the point. The point is how to act, where to act and how change paradigms without losing control or quality. One thing to open the public is to look for wider cooperation, to enter on different platforms, virtually and concrete, to convince different types of museums and public places to show jewellery, to produce communication and marketing, to cultivate social and political engagement. I am working for that. And it is hard.

A daring thesis: nowadays so much art is created, that in principle only little stimulates a reaction, for example, especially good art, the bad is quickly forgotten and simply falls away. So it is mainly praise or silence that is to be found, but not criticism. What do you think about it and is there, in your opinion, bad art? What are your personal/professional criteria?
Most is bad art, little is good art. My criteria I explained already above. I am art historian and dedicating since nearly fifty years to art. My luggage consists on knowledge and experience, of comparison, of personal approach and personal biographical history. For my opinion, really good art has to be rare. And the more you see and know, the more you eliminate, the more you throw away. It is like that. We don’t need a mass of good art. We need instead criterias of quality, what means good or bad, to prevent of error and bad taste.

  • Jewellery is a perfect field to experiment with auto-criticism, to engage in a critical reflection of tradition, of the symbolical overload the discipline is suffering of and is still conditioned.  

How do you think, we can avoid the misunderstanding of criticism as a self judgmental practice, and to see it more as a fruitful, exploratory and descriptive thing?
Jewellery is a perfect field to experiment with auto-criticism, to engage in a critical reflection of tradition, of the symbolical overload the discipline is suffering of and is still conditioned.

Let’s speak about a calculation: Larry Rivers (1923 New York City – 2002 New York City), an artist of the twentieth century worked with quotation of earlier art works, reflecting, revaluating, recomposing and rewriting art history continuously in his paintings and drawings. So did Elaine Sturtevant or even Picasso, just to name a few. Art is mainly made of quotation, reference, reflection, rewriting and proposing new perspectives and interpretations. Jewellery should be aware of that.

In his interview about critique, Peter Deckers said critics are a link in the jewellery discourse chain, an important community connection, a voice that brings the audience into the exhibitions. Could you tell us more about how you share your critical thoughts, good or bad, and where you find a safe space to communicate them?
I am communicating across my work, my exhibitions and my writings. I am constantly looking for occasions to connect jewellery with a different and not jewellery focused outer space.
What are the leading publications and critical thinkers driving the debate about contemporary jewellery in your country? Please explain to us shortly, what do you appreciate about them?
We have worldwide not enough voices that could be considered as serious criticism. I find this questions superfluous. And so it is in Germany. For that what exists as exhibition catalogues, some publications and books about symposiums – do you really think that is enough to talk really about criticism? We are still in a state of building up, of developing documentation, we try to construct arguments and discussion, but a real culture of criticism – well, I don’t see it. We are not at that point. Please read once a good text on art, for instance Gottfried Böhm on space and figure or Hanne Loreck. Then you get an idea what I am talking about.

  • Working on different projects dealing with avant-garde and contemporary art and following fundamental critical art historian analyzes on figure and room, on identity and history, on fake and real, on a lot of issues – I don’t see little advance, little progress, depth and growth in jewellery critic that can be confronted with what is discussed in the art world.

Dealing with critical writing, there seems to be still a controversial aesthetic dynamic: Not only on academic platforms, but also in magazines and websites (so seemingly „general audience“ venues) seems to be a contradiction where academic writing is taken to be not only bothersome and difficult for contemporary audiences, but the accepted critical standard at the same time. Do you think, this can be part of the problem? Where do you see chances for a change?
Honestly – working on different projects dealing with avant-garde and contemporary art and following fundamental critical art historian analyzes on figure and room, on identity and history, on fake and real, on a lot of issues – I don’t see little advance, little progress, depth and growth in jewellery critic that can be confronted with what is discussed in the art world. If this is accepted by the publico or appreciated, seems not to be the point. The point is to dare, to have the courage to do a really interesting writing and talking about jewellery. Criticism has to be aware that it is not done for pleasure but to give impulses, to disturb, to open eyes.

Where does censorship start for you?
Well, perhaps a sort of censorship is the attitude of the market. Or certain political systems. But for me it is not relevant.

About the Interviewee

Dr. Ellen Maurer-Zilioli born in 1956. Studied art history, history and anthropology at Munich and Basel Universities, taking her MA in 1984. From 1987–1990 lived in Berlin, where she organised the International Hannah Höch Symposium in 1989. She took her doctorate at Munich University in 1991 (dissertation: "Jenseits fester Grenzen. Das malerische Werk von Hannah Höch"). Between 1993–1995 assistant at the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, the Neue Sammlung and the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum.  In 1996 taught at Passau University.  1996–1998 Academic employee of the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen as well as the Neue Sammlung, State Museum of Applied Arts and Design, Munich.  From 1998–2005 curator at the Neue Sammlung, Design in der Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich.  2000–2005 Member of the Council of the Deutschlandportal of the Federal Republic of Germany. Since 2005 living in Italy and Germany as a freelance curator, author, art consultant, representing international fine arts and jewellery arts.

About the author

Carolin Denter completed her training as Goldsmith at Master School for Craftsmen in Kaiserslautern in 2013. In 2017 she graduated as Bachelor of Fine Arts in Gemstone and Jewellery at the University of Applied Science Trier, Campus Idar-Oberstein, where she worked as Scientific Assistance in the Gemstone and Jewellery Departement till the end of 2019. Since 2020 she is working at Klimt02 as Content and Marketing Manager.