Wearing Or Making Jewellery Is Democratic. About Critique. Interview with Barbara Schmidt

Published: 23.09.2019
Barbara Schmidt Barbara Schmidt
Carolin Denter
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From the first five interviews about critique, we received many answers and ideas. But more important: more questions came up. We go into a 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 sixth interview of our new series about critique, we talk with Barbara Schmidt, which works in the field for 25 Years. She is a researcher and maker, author, curator, and teacher. Her latest Publication is "25 Reasons why to wear Jewellery".
Please give us an insight on your approach on how to deal with criticism, beeing criticial and critique. How is your personal understanding of these three terms and in which situations you give or receive them?
To be critical or understanding critique about something I find valid criteria helpful. To speak about jewellery I like to use a Japanese method. The artists reflect their work under five perspectives of quality: the material, the making process, the function, the user and the context of time and society. These 5 criteria are like the fingers of the maker´s hand who has to balance out all these factors. In our Academy for Design, Munich we teach how to use these criteria in the creative process. They are also our base to give critique.

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?
Jewellery is about life. Each wearer and each maker who is interested in jewellery could be an expert critic. Critical thinking is something we learn by growing up. How and when applying it we decide ourselves. Wearing or making jewellery is democratic i.e. everyone can. If someone has a philosophy for his or her motivation, – hey - put in your word to enrich the discussion! Interesting pieces can evoke an interesting exchange on a private party, in public or in the media. Unfortunately, the majority of wearers do not talk about their pieces or share their motivation of wearing them. Is it too private or is it too banal? Much more makers could share their motivation of creating jewellery and thus freshen up people´s memories around the qualities of jewellery. It is our task to make it again an issue of discussion.

Moral and normative ethics are questioned to be the basics of our theory of the society. Which role do you think morality plays, and is criticism necessary for the transformation of society?
Our society is under constant transformation. In our European secular society we probably discuss more about values than about moral. Today values seem to erode and the achievements based upon these values are not as solid as we perceived them. Obviously we find ourselves back into a search of basic and mutual understanding: Which values are fundamental? Which values do we still rely on? On which values can we agree? This proably is a starting point to build our ethics on, our codes of conduct. Critical thinking seems an essential strength as we constantly need to define how we want to live together in a growingly multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society.

  • Artists need the theory and critical reflection to sharpen their minds and expressions. Gallerists and curators need it for their work and contribute their perspectives to the discussions. Collectors might be very interested in reading as it is about their passion. I am not sure if the wearers need the theory to wear the pieces – but if they can access to it they can educate themselves – or not. Why lock away our background for experts only.

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?
As jewellery is about the body, very political and yet very personal. These are big issues and as actual as ever. Jewellery is about the essence and we could be more proud of dealing with this essential medium – in my perspective there is no need for a bigger area. The perception of jewellery in the frame of crafts, arts might be a question of perspective. As art-historians discuss and reflect the context of the arts. A philosopher opens up the context of philosophy and crafts experts evaluate the quality of crafts. Artists transform their ideas and intentions into material and tangible forms. If the idea and its´ transformation is interesting it will contribute to the frame´s debate. Consequently, we should highlight and improve the communication around our ideas and intentions.

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 an instrument of expression for both artists and wearers. Artists are critical about the quality of their work, their concepts and their progress. They judge their results within their line of exploration, but probably they are never happy with a finished piece as they already think of the “next best piece”. They could invite the wearers to give critics.

How would you define the “contemporary” in contemporary jewellery? It’s rather a question of a calendar, a (post)historical condition or on the contrary, is the contemporary an always raising condition, a pure virtually… To conclude, why do you think we use the term “contemporary” instead of “modernity” (as an easy escape route, as Pravu Mazumdar suggested in a previous interview?)
Oldest archeological findings of jewellery are approx. 100 000 years old, experts find them all over the globe. There were always certain reasons why to make jewellry and why to wear it and interestingly these reasons have not changed at all. They define our values, open up our frame of context as an individual, within our group, and as a part of the whole. Beautifying us, grooming with jewellery etc. is a part of ritualized behavior we share with other beings like birds or fish. In short – jewellery always has been contemporary – in time and context. Contemporary does not seem criteria of quality to me.

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?
During teaching, it is easy to kick off a discursive exchange. The last years I condensed my research and critical thoughts in the book: 25 reasons why to wear jewellery. This March it came out in English translation and probably an Italian edition will follow in 2020 – supported by Le Arti Orafe. Selected artists are a part of this publication and we enjoy a fruitful exchange on the ideas and intentions behind jewellery. Readers get in touch to share their ideas – even private persons who got the book as a gift from galleries or artists.

What are the leading publications and critical thinkers driving debate about contemporary jewellery in your country? Please explain to us shortly, what do you appreciate about them.
A debate lives of different positions and I like the fact that there are different forums in Germany. For more than 60 years, there is “Schmuck” at the Internationale Handwerksmesse in Munich run by Wolfgang Lösche and Eva Sarnowski. Every year a show and its catalogue presents a section in the jewellery avant-garde and reflects the curator`s view. The “Zimmerhof” is like a discourse happening and has a tradition of more than 50 years with a very enthusiastic, non-profit team with Ursula Woerner, Ulrike Ortwein, Ulrich Haas and Prof. Herman Hermsen behind it. Prof. Ute Eitzenhöfer and Prof. Theo Smeets keep kicking the ball around a theory of jewellery in “SchmuckDenken” in Idar Oberstein.
Probably there are as many positions as there are makers. To reflect and discuss ideas on different platforms is helpful for me to perceive their philosophy. To visit “Schmuck” as a teenager was my inspiration to enter the field. Attending “Zimmerhof” as a student was crucial to identify my position in the spectrum. Reading the record of “Schmuck Denken” is inspiring for my research today. To meet my “heroes” in one of these forums is the beauty of it. If I do not find the time to attend in person, I like reading the records and reviews i.e. in KLIMT02.

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 „friendships“ or family-like structures. This seems to be controversial. How do you experience to manage the balancing act between the requirements of being professional under these circumstances, and how do you experience it in your surrounding?
In my work, I hardly come across situations of objective analysis or factual evidence. Mainly it is about people. Obviously, I enjoy and prefer to work with people I like. Within the creative scene, group projects build upon mutual trust, tolerance, and recognition of certain talents. The players network within a frame of respect and exchange. To work with people who share the same interests, values and you like them does not mean that it is not professional work - it can be more fun and things may run smoother. Some of the outcome you may not find on your bank account. The reward can be an increasingly growing friendship or bonding within the jewellery-family-network. The self-chosen family has advantages to grown families: The crazy uncle may be an inspiring sidekick.

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?
Conceptualizing and making things is the same. Artists need the theory and critical reflection to sharpen their minds and expressions. Gallerists and curators need it for their work and contribute their perspectives to the discussions. Collectors might be very interested in reading as it is about their passion. I am not sure if the wearers need the theory to wear the pieces – but if they can access to it they can educate themselves – or not. Why lock away our background for experts only – it makes our issues more relevant and highlights the relevance. Unfortunately, there are not many quality platforms or magazines where the private audience can find access to our vital scene.

About the Interviewee

Barbara Schmidt passed an apprenticeship as a goldsmith for high jewellery in Munich. She worked with Günter Krauss, Max Wilpert and Prof. Fredrich Becker before she studied jewellery design at The Staatliche Zeichenakademie in Hanau. She took her MA in Designmanagement at the University in Birmingham. Since many years she teaches in international institutions and her work is part of several public collections. Since 2005 she heads the Academy for Design of the Department of Crafts of Munich and Upper Bavaria. In 2016 she published her research on why we wear jewellery: “Innovation oder Mimesis”. The English version: “25 reasons why we wear jewellery” came out in 2019.

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 until as Marketing and Design management 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.