I am Not Superior Over The Artwork. About Critique. Interview with Saskia Kolff - van Es

Published: 17.06.2020
Saskia Kolff - van Es​ Saskia Kolff - van Es​
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 twelfth interview of our new series about critique, we talk with Saskia Kolff - van Es, a Dutch art historian who writes about contemporary jewellery, the meaning people attach to jewellery and the histories behind jewellery materials.
Please explain to us about criticism, being critical and critique. How is your understanding of these three terms?
Being critical has to do with the effort of looking at an exhibition carefully, being with an object, holding it if possible. I am indebted that attention to the artist or curator: I try to be honest about what effect it causes in me and then I see if I can find precise words for that. I address anyone who wants to deepen their jewellery experience. By definition, they won’t 100% agree with me, and that offset might lead to fruitful explorations.
I am not sure if I am even a critic – extra thankful you invited me to share my thoughts. See, I am not that wine taster with years of experience, casually saying ‘perfectly herbaceous’ here and ‘too astringent’ there. I am not superior over the artwork. I oppose the idea that an art piece is unfinished per se and only reaches its potential after the critic has given words to the intention. I can only be curious about whether the intention of a piece or an exhibition for that matter, worked out. Sometimes it doesn’t in my opinion. I believe that different critiques - experiences of critics - combined tell something valuable about the achieved effect of what’s on show.

Objectivity is not always possible. I often think of Theo Smeets’s clear set of criteria for the assessment of his students. I try to follow a similar checklist, but honestly...  My critical eye is not ‘innocent’, as the expression goes. I have previous experiences inside and outside art jewellery and I have my blind spots. I am drawn to a piece because it resonates with my personal library of stories and images. It is like finding a piece of myself, and it is supposed to hurt a little to see the familiar in a new light.

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?
Once, when I had just discovered contemporary jewellery and was captivated, I visited an exhibition by Terhi Tolvanen in Amsterdam. I loved the work, wanted to know more, share and compare my experience with kindred spirits. I asked the gallery owner Rob Koudijs, who is writing about this? And he said, no one is. What a huge contrast with theatre, for example. When I read the reviews, I enjoy the show once again and challenge my own opinion at the same time. That is my dream for the field of jewellery, to have several voices and compare.  

Critiques, be it edited contributions or unverified content directly posted on the internet, cost time to create. Here is a dead-end you asked about: funding. The other day I was talking to maker and writer Jillian Moore whose texts I enjoy reading very much. It turned out she does not write anymore. The payment was minimal, it was an economic calculation.

Another dead end: lively discussions. Another writer told me he had hoped his articles would prompt a reaction but hardly anything happened. Apparently an international online platform is a place for sending, not for a debate, despite technical possibilities and comments sections. I do recognize his frustration of the whole thing being a one-way exercise. What should we change to arouse responses? Shorter, more personal, less well behaved?

I am envious of the engagement some art bloggers evoke, like the Dutch Kunst Kijken. Visually attractive and accessible like talking to a friend – they signal and entertain rather than write a textbook critique with its classic steps of describing, contextualizing and analyzing. Keeping it short and simple – you know how hard that is!

I’d say, there is room for both and it would be beneficial for the discourse. Something hopeful I noticed: quarantined jewellery addicts have started to stream studio visits, interviews and exhibition tours. Exchange is possible! And don’t be afraid to differ in opinions. Politely holding back reactions is the worst, it is like giving up on each other, giving up on the field. Whether you say something long or brief, for the Journal of Jewellery Research or post a video on Instagram, for your academic peers or to spread the love, please join the conversation.

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?
Peter Deckers is right, critics are part of a healthy, mature art system. But they cannot take on the responsibility of being enthusing, bringing in the audience. When someone decides to head to the gallery, that is a welcome side-effect.

And now the million-dollar question: where to communicate our thoughts in writing? And why ‘safely’? Since mainstream press hardly devotes space to jewellery, we write for readers that are in the know already, preaching to the converted. Both Klimt02 and Art Jewelry Forum, with carefully edited content, play an important role. What I like too, is that these platforms have a searchable database. The two of them sketch the international discourse fairly comprehensively. I would like to see it evolve so contributions respond directly to others. We are not served with a ‘safe’ space, smothering each other in understanding.

Luckily we have a local platform as well, where I can share ideas: SieradenMuze, a website of Dutch and Flemish museums with fashion and jewellery in their collections. In the blog, you’ll find unpaid but edited articles by people in the field. SieradenMuze sometimes uses hyperlinks to videos or related articles. That way the reader can determine to what level they want to dive in. It was not intended by the participating museums for overly critical reviews, but I enjoy their original and accurate reads.

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?
I can only explain that grudge with what we in Dutch call the Calimero complex after the cartoon chick: we use our underdog position and think because jewellery is small, we don’t have to learn from our shortcomings. The point of departure should be curiosity, not finding the flaws. If you as a critic have the opportunity, run the text by the artist or curator to check the facts, before you publish.

Moral and normative ethics are questioned to be the basics of our theory of society. Which role do you think morality plays in the field of criticism and is criticism necessary for the transformation of society? 
Morality free criticism does not exist, moralism free criticism hopefully does. In the ideal situation, you not only use your set of moral ethics to measure your actions against, but you regularly question that set itself. Silly example: If I debate Andi Gut’s fishbone-shape of nail clippings, I can explore the moral ethics behind my approval or disapproval. Do I hate wasting material? Do I value challenging limits? Do I believe personal hygiene should be kept private? The next person can have good reasons to give priority to yet another norm.

Andi Gut, Nagelplatte, object, porcelain, palladium, nails, 1996. Photo: Arnaud Conne. Copyright: mudac, Lausanne, Switzerland

Jewellery has its own inherent ethical dilemma. Gold, silver, gemstones, animal material, so-called recycled materials – environmentally most jewellery materials come with a dark lining. Their global, socio-economic histories play in the background. Aluminium has shaped societies. So have rubber, cowrie shells, you name it. I am not against any of these – I am hopelessly attracted to most of them - but I am against ignorance. I expect that discussion to come more to the surface in jewellery.

About the transformation of society: some jewellery makers address topical issues, some are triggered by other themes. In either case, the works reflect the society that produces them. Critics can discuss those works as markers of a particular time and place. That can be valuable in clarifying what is at stake. Valuable, I wouldn’t dare say that criticism is necessary to transform society. Art is.

  • Morality free criticism does not exist, moralism free criticism hopefully does.

When do you think censorship starts?
If it comes to censorship, I am afraid we have the enemy among us. A maker told me friends of his in fine arts are used to receiving reviews, raving or crushing or in between. Whereas, when he presents a new jewellery collection, he only hears ‘nice’ from the people who like it and ‘interesting’ from the ones who don’t. What keeps jewellery people from speaking their minds? Self-censorship, most likely. In this small jewellery community, does the critic fear to be excluded at the next event? Sad as it sounds, that might be true. I am not immune, on the contrary, I want to be liked more than anyone and – more importantly – I don’t want to be cut off of information, my main staple.

  • What keeps jewellery people from speaking their minds? Self-censorship, most likely. In this small jewellery community, does the critic fear to be excluded at the next event? Sad as it sounds, that might be true.

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.
Jewellery expert and writer Liesbeth den Besten possesses inexhaustible energy for the jewellery field. The way she uses Instagram is intriguing, as a microblog for immediate, brief, personal accounts of the jewellery she sees. Her posts are not critiques - Instagram still is a place of mildness and support – but they are part of her wider critical work. She is active in several foundations, for instance, as a co-founder of MASieraad with Gijs Bakker, Ted Noten and Ruudt Peters amongst others. I like how they’ve courageously written down what they stand for, almost as a manifesto.
The platform Current Obsession is international of course, but since it is based in the Netherlands I want to mention it here. You might know them of Munich Jewellery Week when they make the map and newspaper. They have a perfect eye for new kids on the block and for quirky jewellery-like things such as dental grills or film masks. The magazine itself is a bit daunting for me I have to confess, but their website, their activities and social media posts are full of life. All gorgeously designed. Editor Marina Elenskaya is a sharp interviewer with her finger on the pulse of almost everything.

Liesbet Bussche is a maker of conceptual jewellery and a writer, currently, she researches jewellery materials in this era we call the Anthropocene. Also, Vanessa de Gruijter comes to mind, whose topics are things like decolonizing contemporary jewellery and cultural appropriation. A more hands-on voice is Chequita Nahar who encourages her academy students to be able to make a living and have a realistic plan for the audience they design for. She has a big heart for anything jewellery, comparable to the spirit of Marjan Unger, and flings open some windows here and there. Jewellery curator Anne-Karlijn van Kesteren at Museum Arnhem showed jewellery in the context of societal issues, jewellery protesting infringement on privacy for example. For me, that showed that politics are not completely absent in jewellery.

Jewellery Perspectives comes to mind, a research project about the context of jewellery and its relevance in society. I suppose they reach a much smaller, and more in-crowd audience. The current project is on customer reviews of jewellery like you would find on eBay. I heard researchers Evelien Bracke and Irma Földényi describe themselves once as in a love-hate-relationship with jewellery. They are a refreshing warning against an inbred kind of l’art pour l’art.

Looking at the international field of author's jewellery, what actions do you think are necessary to build a healthy structure and promote both criticism and good communication. 
The field can be proud of what healthy structure there is already: academies, galleries, museum collections, fairs, books and magazines published, international online platforms and symposiums. And people who wear it! But let’s keep expectations realistic. We operate in a niche. I have witnessed the continuous laborious battle of the Françoise van den Bosch Foundation to keep the spotlight on contemporary jewellery and attract a new, younger audience.

The only thing I can think of is: out with the unwritten codes that keep the ranks of jewellery closed, such as the hierarchy of brooches and neckpieces over earrings, the need for a concept, even if you have to make it up, the ban on wearing your own work, the squabbling over the correct name like contemporary or author or art jewellery, an inverted snobbism about proudly not using gold and precious stones, raising eyebrows at designing for a brand, at taking part in makers’ fairs, at whatever.

  • The field can be proud of what healthy structure there is already: academies, galleries, museum collections, fairs, books and magazines published, international online platforms and symposiums. And people who wear it! But let’s keep expectations realistic. We operate in a niche.

The art market has been booming for decades now, and online sales are also rising steadily according to the Art Report of Art Basel 2020. But author jewellery seems not to have found its place yet. From your point of view, do you think that a more active exchange regarding opinions, sales and collectors in the jewellery field could lead to the establishment of a lucrative market? 
Yes, of course! But I can understand a reserve about exchanging sales figures from the part of the galleries too. About these online initiatives, some offering affordable editions, like AJF on offer, Klimt02 Jewels on Sale, Rob Koudijs’ Editio or One World by Gallery Loupe: I find them very fascinating and it would be interesting to know how much they yield and see if that is a way forward. Personally I admire anyone launching new initiatives that are low-threshold and where you can actually touch, hold and enjoy jewellery. A new collective has just opened their gallery in Amsterdam, The Pool, presenting multiples. They are right in the center of town, perfect for spontaneous explorers. Do you know Studio 3000’s Salon? Two times a year, artists Morgane de Klerk, Julia Walter and Benedikt Fischer open up their Amsterdam studio, and invite colleagues and makers from other disciplines to present their work with them. For the occasion, they make fairly priced editions. Are they selling out art jewellery? No, they are realistic about the small number of people who can afford their gallery work. And – that is me hoping – they invite some hesitant newcomers to the field as they go.  
The art market grows without us? Not, it’s not hopeless. Collecting photography had to be defended not so long ago and is now taken 100% seriously!

About the Interviewee

Saskia Kolff-van Es​ (Amsterdam, 1972) is an art historian. She writes texts on contemporary jewellery, such as exhibition reviews. Her fascination: jewellery materials. She was a board member of the Françoise van den Bosch Foundation. More at

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.