I Strive for a Higher Logical Level in Education. About Critique. Interview with Manuel Vilhena

Interview  /  CriticalThinking   CarolinDenter
Published: 11.02.2020
Manuel Vilhena Manuel Vilhena
Carolin Denter
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From the first seven 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 people from the contemporary jewellery scene to answer questions about censorship, morality and what value criticism has towards the transformation of society.

In this ninth interview of our new series about critique, we talk with Manuel Vilhena, who started making Jewellery in his teens, learning from master craftsmen in Brazil and Italy and completed his Masters’ degree in 1998 at the Royal College of Art in London. Right after that, he founded Postcon which promoted "Post-Contemporary Jewellery" till 2018. In the meantime, he published the books „Do you speak Jewellery?“ in 1998, a revised 2nd edition in 2015, and a couple more storybooks. Presently, Postcon proposes art teacher training seminars and other educational projects.
There is a lot of confusion about criticism, being critical and critique. How is your personal understanding of these three terms?
Firstly, I would like to thank you, and all at Klimt02, for this invitation to participate in your interview series. It is a privilege to be able to show my views on a subject that is close to me. So, thank you.

As for the question, where better to go for clarification of definitions than dictionaries? Below, from Merriam Webster's:

Definition of criticism, noun;
1 : the act of criticizing, usually unfavourably
2 : a critical observation or remark
3 : the art of evaluating or analysing works of art or literature : writings expressing such evaluation or analysis

1 and 2 are recursive. Not very useful. Out they go.
3 actually gives us a fair idea of what it could be.

But now, the interesting bit (from the same dictionary)

Kids definition of criticism, noun:
1 : the act of finding fault
2 : a remark that expresses disapproval
3 : a careful judgment or review especially by a person whose job is to judge the value, worth, beauty, or quality of something

1 and 2 are fine. Emotional, but fine.
3 is definitely not a kid's answer, but we'll take it on board anyway.

We can thus concoct a definition which I particularly like:

Criticism, noun:
The art of expressing a personal, careful, knowledgeable, evaluation - by a person entitled, by agreement, to do so - with the intention of providing information, tools and/or ways for the betterment of a particular occurrence.

On this wake, "being critical" defines the state of criticising (having certain information that is given - or sold - with the intention of somehow providing grounds, information or tools for the betterment of a particular occurrence, and "critique" is what is said, written, expressed from a critical frame of mind (the information itself).

Lastly, "criticism", "critique", etc... tend to come forward with a negative connotation (as kids clearly put it). I believe this is ingrained in our culture and very hard to disassociate from. However, this disassociation is needed to make criticism a platform for discovery, betterment, refinement and a lot of other good and wonderful things.
Extremely, a critical being is one that is always being critical about something. Tiring, and not someone I'd invite to a party.

We understand, 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?
Criticism is part of a human mechanism that strives to make things better (according to someone... usually the one doing the criticising). The question, I think, is not how the jewellery world should handle criticism, but how can individuals learn to do so in a productive way. Sometimes, with its intention (see 1) in mind, criticism needs to be loud, sometimes it needs to be gentle, depending on the sensibility of the one expressing the personal careful evaluation, towards the receiving subject.

As for who can be in a position to criticise... There is a difference between a critique and an opinion - try asking a ten-year-old what they think about your work... - that's an opinion, but sometimes, sometimes great insights come from unexpected sources.

If I design a car, I would want an expert on aerodynamics to criticise the design, an engineer to criticise the materials used, an artist to pick the colour, a home interior decorator for the bumper stickers, etc...
So, who to go for CJ critical thinking? I would like to create a distinction at this point:

1) Criticising work, the jewels themselves - anybody, providing they use solid aesthetic and intellectual arguments.

2) Criticising the field of CJ - anybody, providing they use solid emotional arguments.

I think that we naturally place our attention on people which we respect for their work, life experience, knowledge, etc. to be the ones to do the criticising. In theory they would do it in an aesthetically beautiful, emotionally sound, intellectually factual and knowledgeable way (heaven...). In practice, alas, this is not always the case and criticism can often be used by the baddies as a power trip manipulative attempt. So beware, my friends, beware. Oooo.

In a former interview with Klimt02 about the Postcon Project, you have a critical view on parts of the contemporary jewellery scene. You stated that most pieces that were made at the time, don’t impact anything. They are just pieces being made more and more and more. 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?
The interview you mention was a long, long time ago. My opinions have changed, the field has changed, although I still hold that particular opinion that most jewels done today in the contemporary jewellery field are no more than handicraft sold in fancy places, something you could buy at a craft market for ten percent, or less, of the price you pay for in galleries. On the same note, most galleries are just fancy shops that sell cheap jewellery expensively.

There is a difference in making jewellery within a so-called contemporary setting and in making "contemporary jewellery". The former is a vague entity, a group of like-minded fellows, a network of galleries and collectors and whatnot, the latter is a movement, a critical view in itself about, one, jewellery, and two, the world. Contemporary jewellery is fuelled by intention. Without it, there is craft - beautiful at times, but that's that.

Robert Smit's use of lead, Renzo Ildebrando's "giving the gold back to the mountain" piece/action, Bruce Metcalfe's cartoon-like brooches, David Watkins and Wendy Ramshaw's paper jewellery, to show a few examples, are political statements. They address particular worldviews, they are pieces for action, they procure change. For me that is "contemporary jewellery", the rest, is "jewellery", and I make no judgement in that, it is simply a distinction.

Where do I share my critical thoughts? Through this interview, for one, with my students, with my colleagues, in my books and whenever I meet people with the same interest for CJ who are willing to share opinions, especially at dinner. The thoughts are neither good nor bad in and of themselves, just opinions, always biased, always ready to be changed if something more appropriate, more whole, more beautiful, comes along.

Ah! And there is no safe space for communication. Just space for communication. You never know what lurks from behind the closet... he, he. Arghhh!

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?
We don't need to. Criticism is, by definition, a judgemental affair whether we do it to ourselves or to others. It is also a trigger for fruitful and exploratory adventure, but that depends on how it is given (oftentimes out of time and place) and how it is received (oftentimes defensively and self-absorbed). As a practical solution, I propose an exercise of giving and receiving feedback on one's work to be done regularly on even days over a period of, say, one month - just to get things rolling. After that, it becomes second nature and a practical tool, instead of an intellectual and emotional daunting experience.
Also, it would be pertinent to ask if we really need all that criticism to start with? What for? And if so, are we going to drink it down, unfiltered, or are we going to savour and distill it for personal use? It is always up to us how to digest what is being proposed. And, again, what for? But I'm repeating myself... onward and forward. Next question, please.

You once said you are striving for a higher logical level in the educational field of contemporary jewellery. What are the leading publications and critical thinkers driving the debate about contemporary jewellery which you recommend to us? What do you appreciate about them?
I did and I was, but now I don't. Now I strive for a higher logical level in education. Not specifically jewellery or any other particular field of expression. As an aside, I point out that by "higher logical level" I don't mean "better", I'm talking about a structural way of organizing information as Bateson (1987) explained in his "Steps to an ecology of mind" essays.

My focus nowadays is in researching how teaching and education can create the environment to ontologically make one excel in one's own chosen field, be that jewellery, poetry, cooking, teaching... whatever, really.
This brought me to gradually loose interest in the field of contemporary jewellery as an arena for discussion about itself, and, as such, I have to say that I do not, anymore, read any publications about CJ and I especially shun newsletters. I like to see artist's books, to look at their work, some are really beautiful (the books). And I do like a good conversation and heartily recommend a meeting and a talk, preferably over beer, with any of the still active contemporary jewellers over 75, as a reminder of the values and intentions that created the field.
I suggest no publications, people instead, live, on the spot, to be able to see opinions and ideas shifting as the conversation proceeds, to get elated, angry, amazed at what can be generated thusly. You may even fall in love.

Critical thinking is defined as the process of forming judgments based on the objective analysis of factual evidence - with analysis being rational and sceptical as well as an independent and unbiased evaluation as Theo Smeets stated in his interview about critique. On the other hand, there are events such as the german Zimmerhof Symposium, which was titled „ We are family“, pointing out that the jewellery world is like a family. Many people experience, that all private, social and professional contacts they have, are built on „friendship“ or family-like structures. This seems to be controversial. How do you experience to manage the balancing act between the requirement of being professional under these circumstances, and how do you experience it in your surrounding?
An undisputed fact is that Theo Smeets looks very sexy in his motorcycle attire, and as such, his comments are beyond questioning. I don't see however how his definition of critical thinking is related to the Zimmerhof Symposium affair.

It is true that the CJ world is like a family, or, for me, it was, as I confess I do not know most of the new "members of the family" on the scene nowadays. There are too many to keep up with in a personally meaningful way.

I do not see any need for a balancing act, as you put it, between professionalism and friendship, though.
Considering that most of us are over twenty (...), we would have within us the capability and the ability to switch states/modes-of-being according to particular situations. As such, I can have a professional conversation, as fiery and violent as it may be, with Theo, and still be friends (I hope...). Friendship and professionalism have nothing to do with one another, so, no balancing act is needed. To ask a friend for a critique of one's work is to engage in "the one who criticises" and "the one who receives the critique" frame of mind. This agreement is tacitly present in schools, tutoring plans, mentoring plans, etc... but once we're out of that environment, well, things are different.
As for myself, I currently follow thirty students. In class, there is a certain mode where we talk, comment about CJ and related matters, where my criticism is sought and given. Outside of the school environment we are mere mortals and behave, well, like mortals.

In 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?
Academic writing follows certain aesthetic codes. It is an art form in itself, much like painting and sculpture for it too deals with content and form. As with the arts or any other field, it may seem ungraspable for the uninitiated. The more you experience it, the subtler the distinctions you are able to make thus increasing your understanding and enjoyment.

Having said that, I have in the past three years read and perused many a master thesis and, sadly, the great majority have not much to say and say it in an as obfuscated way as possible. Hard to read, hard to understand, saying not much, easy to forget. A terrible combination of serious loss of time.

So why should these texts be regarded as touchstones? Probably because they are so unfathomable as to be accepted as a product of a superior mind. In my view, this is a contradiction and far from being so. I believe that if one cannot explain whatever it is to an eight to ten-year-old child, one does not know it well enough. Now... granted, we are older than that, we possess more expressive vocabulary, and we cannot (why not?) speak to our fellows as if to a child, but, alas, there are limits to the verbal self-importance people cloak their opinions or critiques with.

An academic paper is intended for a specific - academic - field where it can be fully appreciated within the shared aesthetics of that field. A bit like mathematicians revelling in one another's formulae with exclamations such as "beautiful!" and "wow!".

There are, however, many styles and individual nuances on academic papers that do not overuse language that bars the common folk. They are engaging, interesting, informative, knowledgeable, and aesthetically pleasing to read - even if not Dylan.
As a practical exercise - yet another one - I suggest that the writer keeps in mind that people are genuinely interested in what they choose to read and, as such, make life a little easier for them. It would be for the benefit of both.
And, if they know what they are talking about, they most definitely can.

Since we all, as artists, brands or institutions, start using social media more and more for self-marketing purposes, it seems to me that self-reflection, self-critics and empathy are disappearing more and more. As most of us know, we have the possibilities to „block“ any person on your channels, which do not agree with us. I get the impression, that people use this, to create their own little online Utopia. Do you think, that this behaviour and the censored contents of social media make us less capable of dealing with criticism?
I am afraid I cannot fully answer your question for lack of practical knowledge.
I do not use, recommend, or at all endorse social media platforms (or social manipulative platforms, as I call them). Actually, I am forthrightly against them for reasons too long to expose here, censorship being one of the last in the list - nor is it the place for that.

As they say in old England, "too many cooks spoil the broth", I also think that too many opinions and critiques spoil the free and flowing expression of one's own work. However, it seems contradictory that one who wants to open up to the world in this fashion then proceeds to block said world from entering. It just doesn't seem coherent to me. Might as well ditch the whole thing from the start.

So, I do not know if the use of this technology makes us, or not, less capable of dealing with criticism.

What appears to me is that people are more and more immersed in their technological gadgets, became more and more dependent on the companies running them, on the information being "served" to them, and are exposing intimate and precious (because intimate) information to a world that either is not sensitive enough to understand it or is more than ready to use it for its own profit. This is the big online Utopia. The end of individuality, the homogenization of thought.
Where then is our singularity? In the (limited) possibilities to change app colour? To change to our liking the voice of siri® or alexa®? To feel elated because a newer, better, version of social media platform now LETS you do this or that?

It appears to me that this full immersion actually destroys the ability to be critical in the first place, let alone deal with it.
OK, I'm ranting, but isn't that what our work is (was?) for? To build bastions of singularity standards and to inspire others to the possibility of doing the same? Aren't we artists?

Always good to end with a question.


About the Interviewee

Manuel Vilhena, born Lisbon 1967, started making Jewellery in his teens learning from master craftsmen in Brazil and Italy. He later completed his training as a goldsmith in 1989. Curious about the Contemporary Jewellery phenomenon, he made his way to Cologne, to study with Prof. Skubic and later enrolled at the Royal College of Art, London under Prof. Watkins, where he completed his Masters’ degree in 1998.
In 1999 he founded Postcon with Boekhoudt, Fink and Hansen. The group disbanded soon after but Postcon remains active in promoting ‘Post-Contemporary Jewellery’ and other far-fetched ideas. Some are contained in Manuel’s book Do you speak Jewellery?© (1998), a seminal text for Contemporary Jewellery theory.
He has taught extensively at jewellery related institutions around the world. He was workshop leader at the Salzburg Summer Academy for two years and held a Professorship at the Oslo National Academy of the Arts for four years. He is an entertaining lecturer and most of what he says is true. He practises worldwide, aiming at developing the creative potential of people through the arts. He lives between the mountains of central Europe and sunny Portugal with occasional stops for bird-watching here and there.

About the author

Carolin Denter completed her training as Goldsmith at Master School for Craftsmen in Kaiserslautern in 2013. From 2015 to 2016 she made an Internship as Content Manager at Klimt02 in Barcelona. In 2017 she graduated as Bachelor of Fine Arts in Gemstone and Jewellery at the University of Applied Science Trier, Campus Idar-Oberstein. After her graduation, she worked as Assistance at Campus Idar-Oberstein in the Gemstone and Jewellery Departement till the end of 2019. Since 2020 she is Digital Account Manager at Klimt02.