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Response to Kevin Murray

Kevin Murray’s recent AJF posting (“Nothing if Not Critical,” June 5, 2011) strikes me as earnest but naive. His essay concludes, “And eventually aestheticism may flower again, just as the garden regains it bloom after a radical pruning. The ambivalence of contemporary jewelry towards ethics is not a bad thing. Aesthetics prevents mindless moralism: it keeps us honest. But without ethics, we are left talking to ourselves.”

Huh? Aesthetics are irrelevant, obsolete? (They may be, but not for the reasons Murray cites.) We are obliged to be, first and foremost, ethical? This is quasi-Marxist bunkum. Good ethics are nice, and it’s hard to defend practices like the use of blood diamonds, but as soon as you start requiring certain behaviors, you enter the ugly territory of intellectual fascism. If we wish to overlook fine upstanding ethical standards and only talk to ourselves, that’s our right.

If you lived through the 6os, you remember the moral certainty of the era. The civil rights and antiwar movements spawned dozens of groups whose absolute moral visions brooked no alternatives. The Maoists, the Trotskyites, the mainstream Communists all laid claim to the true path to social justice and world peace, while at the same time reviling competing claims. I’m sure they all regarded themselves as highly ethical and totally sincere in their desire to fix the world. However, morality very quickly devolves into intolerance. This is the ugly side of ethics: my morality is better than yours. If Kevin Murray thinks his ethical vision is immune from intolerance, he’s naive.

Anyone who proposes that art (or craft, or jewelry) must embrace social activism needs to think about effectiveness. If the goal is social change, then the measure of artistic success must be change itself. Pleasure, if allowed in to the equation at all, is a means, a delivery system that makes the social activism more effective. There’s simply no way around the criterion of effectiveness. You want activism? You must take effectiveness as your primary standard of artistic achievement.

It doesn’t take too much imagination to figure out that there’s a conflict here. The history of modern art is the history of artistic freedom, of the artist’s hard-earned right to do precisely what he deems necessary. While we might take artistic autonomy for granted today, it was not always so. Time was artists were effectively servants of church, state and their wealthy private patrons. In the 18th century, the academies exerted a new control over subject matter, with the most moral subjects given highest priority. It took French rebels like Baudelaire to insist on art that responded first and foremost to the internal demands of the artists, and the rest of the world be damned. If the artist has any moral obligation, it’s to his own freedom. This concept has had a number of manifestations in the past two centuries, from Whister’s Nocturnes to conceptual art.

One would assume that activism is freely chosen, and thus would not undermine artistic autonomy. But the need for effectiveness is something else. The artistic choice is no longer the exclusive property of the artist, but is dictated by whether or not the artwork will bring about the desired change. It’s art driven by results, judged much the same way we judge a good advertising campaign. So, I ask you: do you think judging a work of art the same way we size up a Coke commercial is a good thing?

Now, there’s another way to think about activism. We could conclude that the good ethics of the artwork is sufficient, the moral authority of the art can carry the day, and effectiveness is not necessary. Art then becomes a symbolic gesture. I picked up this concept from Arthur Danto. He proposed that we can act in a way that assumes the world is exactly as we would want it to be. For instance, we could take an activist position against racial bias by refusing to ever act in a prejudiced manner. The refusal is a private matter, and may never be noticed in the larger world. But it is still essentially ethical, and stands as a critique of the corruption of the wider world.

In the symbolic gesture, then, effectiveness is a non-factor. It doesn’t matter if the gesture has the least effect in the world. All that matters is that the gesture was made.

If one has any pretensions towards ethical art, one must come to a position about effectiveness and the symbolic gesture. Me, I’m a big fan of the symbolic gesture. It allows the artist to take an ethical position, but not worry about whether the artwork is effective propaganda.

Art, of course, has a terrible record as an agent of social change. All that well-meaning art, from Russian Constructivism to the late Bauhaus, from social realism to anti-war posters in the 1970s, had no discernable effect on society. Mostly, these artforms preached to the converted, functioning more like cheerleaders that powerful stimulants of reform.

Jewelry’s record is no better. Generally, activist jewelry takes the form of badges. The purple and green badges in support of women’s suffrage; political campaign badges; peace signs; black power emblems. Every era, it seems, has an iconic political symbol that can be reduced to a badge. Occasionally, they become quite popular. But do they change people’s minds? I don’t know, but would you vote for Sarah Palin because you saw somebody wearing a Palin badge?

I can think of one example of craft that did have a political effect: the AIDS quilt. This started as a grass-roots project in the 1980s to commemorate the lives of lovers and relations who had died of AIDS. In time, tens of thousands of people contributed their own squares in memory of their loved ones. In the context of the times, when AIDS was widely regarded as god’s punishment for sin and the only good fag was a dead one, just making a square for the AIDS quilt was a pretty radical gesture. When the organizers installed the AIDS quilt on the national mall – covering the entire lawn – the aerial photograph was stunning. The sheer size of the quilt was a visual metaphor for all the people who died, and the fact that every one of them had family and friends who saw fit to memorialize them showed how widely the loss and sorrow of AIDS had permeated the culture. It was undeniable, and incredibly powerful. I have a feeling that the AIDS quilt changed a few hearts and minds.

Studio jewelry doesn’t stand much of a chance as an effective agent of change. Political change is caused by repetition of the message: it must be made again and again, just like advertising. There are some recent examples of design that have had profound social effects, and they have worked only because they could be repeated millions of times. The best case of design causing salutary social change that I know of is the CFL lightbulb. It had been in existence for years before an environmental activist convinced a Wal-Mart executive that they should promote the CFL bulb because it was a social good. Once Wal-Mart came on board, they decided to sell CFL bulbs cheap, and promote them heavily. The reduced carbon footprint in the U.S. directly attributed to the replacement of incandescent bulbs runs into the millions of tons of CO2 emissions annually. Now, that’s success. And it was only brought about because CFL bulbs can be manufactured in vast quantities, and because the nation’s largest retailer decided to promote the cause.

There’s nothing analogous in jewelry to the CFL bulb. Jewelry isn’t necessary the way light bulbs are. Because there will never be single design that applies to all jewelry, it’s not going to be manufactured in the millions. Jewelry is too private and too highly individualized to penetrate into every corner of the culture. In other words, forget the fantasy that studio jewelry will ever be an effective tool for social change. Forget it.

Making PC jewelry might be a nice way to preach to the choir, and a gratifying way to admire one’s own ethics. But it’s sheer fantasy to think that studio jewelry can be an effective tool for political reform.

Murray cites Ethical Metalsmiths as a fine example of craft-based advocacy. But the thing is: the most important agenda of Ethical Metalsmiths is to design and implement clear standards for the production of “green,” environmentally safe and socially benign gold. The means to this end is not the production of nice little objects, but putting pressure on major producers and users of gold. It’s traditional activism, not craft, that will bring their agenda to fruition.

Murray insists that global warming is the evil of the century, and implies that every citizen has a moral responsibility to deal with it. But to suggest that jewelry will be an effective tool to combat global warming is sheer lunacy. Global warming is about burning billions of tons of fossil fuels, and about patterns of excessive consumer consumption. Jewelry is just too small an enterprise to have any role beyond being a symbolic gesture.

If one wishes to be an advocate and push an ethical position forward, it’s extremely important to keep a few insights in mind. First of all, remember that your ethics may not be universally shared. When Gabriel Craig said in his lecture at the Houston/SNAG conference that there was a moral imperative to recycling and green practices, I was quite annoyed. Basically, this guy was telling me what to do. While I respect the green agenda, I do not support all aspects of it, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to sign on to every dumb idea that purports to promote sustainability. So, tolerance must always come first.

One must also think about effectiveness. What if it becomes obvious that turning to political advocacy would be more efficient in bring the desired goal to reality – would the advocate quit making things? Would one become, in effect, a politician?

Speaking strictly for myself, I decided against this option many years ago. I’m a lousy politician, and I despise many of the activities necessary for effective advocacy. My gift is imagining and making things. Only as a maker can I truly excel, and only as a maker can I make a contribution that might matter. If I have a responsibility, it is to exercise my gift. It is to function as an autonomous artist who serves only my own vision. In the long run, this is my only hope to have a real effect on the world. And it won’t be political.

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