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Seduction and Subversion

Having recently endured my 59th birthday, I’m compelled to wonder if my thinking shows my age. Certainly, some young would-be rebels on various craft blogs have made that accusation, although the evidence they present is mighty thin. And yet, I wonder.

When I was 20, I was all for the subversive gesture. Anything that might upset the apple cart was OK with me. My friends and I were fascinated with “anti-art,” a catch-all designation for anything that opposed conventional notions of high ambition, good taste, and propriety. We loved the absurd. We threw leaves on the floor of an exhibition; we produced chaotic happenings with loud music and those Indian cigarettes that give you a dizzying high. We thought art was anything that had never been done before. And, I have to admit, we had a blast doing it all.

While I still appreciate a good subversive gesture, I have lost my appetite for making them myself. Subversion is easy, requiring little more than impatience and a modest amount of creativity. And subversion habitually demands a radically simplistic view of the world, one I can no longer believe in. Life is complicated, and youthful faith that “the establishment” is bad and out-of-touch now eludes me. In some cases it’s true… but in others, no.

Which brings me to jewelry, and to the possibility of a jewelry avant-garde. The modern avant-garde has always been linked to subversion. Similarly, there is a segment of the studio jewelry world that seeks to subvert high ambition, good taste and propriety, just like I did 40 years ago. In fact, the impulse has been around since 1900 or so: check out Madeline Yale Wynne’s clunky art jewelry set with pebbles in “Inspiring Reform.” (Davis Museum, 1997.) In the 1980s New Jewelry offered a menu of devices for subversion: large size, offbeat materials, impromptu or temporary objects, social critique, experiments with installation and performance. More recently, there has been a substantial body of jewelry designed to subvert jewelry’s conventional function as a signifier of wealth and status.

What we have now is a familiar recipe for subversive jewelry. Is it possible for those two ideas coexist–subversion and familiar? Isn’t one of the assumptions of the avant-garde that the artwork must be unfamiliar in some basic way? Doesn’t the artwork lose its power to disturb and undermine if it trades in convention? (Actually it can, but only if the strange and the expected are carefully orchestrated.)

In any case, the menu of devices for subversive jewelry is no longer surprising, even if the particulars might be. While we may be accustomed to the idea of weird art supplies, it’s still surprising to see a brooch composed of floor sweepings. Suffice to say that my interest in making avant-garde jewelry has waned. It’s a game for people who still want to épater la bourgeoisie, but I don’t want to play anymore.

However, I didn’t lose interest in pushing the jewelry envelope. What I find compelling is the project of making jewelry that people will actually wear, and therefore jewelry that people will actually buy. Wearability and marketability (if you can call it that) both impose constraints on jewelry. Part of the challenge is to make jewelry that is fresh and interesting and even provocative, while still making something that people want to wear.

Which is not to say that avant-garde jewelry never gets worn. It does, and when it does, it functions as a badge of difference. It says of the wearer, “I’m not the same as you. I belong to an exclusive tribe.” A subtext for most observers is this addendum: “And you don’t belong to my tribe.” In fact, most “art jewelry” does this to varying degrees.

But there’s something about stridently asserting difference that bothers me. Claiming membership in an exclusive tribe is nothing special. Dividing people is easy. I hate that tendency to divide in politics – it’s the basic tool of demagogy. And I’m skeptical of the impulse in the arts to speak in a language so removed from public discourse that it becomes an isolated outpost of culture. What I always liked about the crafts is that they are accessible, available to all. There’s a long tradition of democratic crafts, of objects and ideals that encourage everyone to participate. Crafts, for better or worse, eschew division. It’s hard to feel alienated from a warm scarf or a comfortable chair.

There are many ways in which jewelry can be made accessible to the multitudes: precious metals, glittering gems, conventional motifs. I’m wary of those devices, though. They are so common, so prone with commercial manipulation. I’m far more interested in seductiveness. Jewelry has been used to make wearers attractive and sexy for ages, and every culture invents a language for adornment. In this culture, one of the projects of studio jewelry is to invent new languages for seductiveness, or at least freshen up the old codes. I’m enough of a Modernist to believe in the injunction to “make it new.” (The phrase is commonly attributed to Ezra Pound.) But the idea also goes back to Ruskin, who insisted that nothing is worth making in which “invention has no share.” If sparkle and sheer expense are taken off the table, what’s left? What are the inventive possibilities for seductive jewelry?

My heroine in the project of renewing seductiveness is Sharon Church. Her best jewelry is beautifully crafted and powerfully seductive. And, I might add, more than a little dark and strange. Here is beauty that seems entirely appropriate for our age. And it seems to work: most of Church’s jewelry sells to her local client base, and most of it gets worn. She employs some of the familiar codes of jewelry: softly reflective metal, for instance, or floral imagery. And yet, her jewelry is never a rehash of historical devices. It’s always fresh and inventive. Here’s a jeweler who pushes the envelope – quietly perhaps, but definitively.

I think it’s significant that Church’s jewelry gets bought and worn. If jewelry is sufficiently attractive, it will find a market, and it will be worn. In seductiveness, jewelry can retain a measure of democratic participation. I love that. We may be accustomed to thinking of seductive jewelry as corrupt, but I think of it as an invitation - an open door through which anyone can enter.

Obviously, the level of participation in jewelry is limited by its price points. Both Sharon Church and I make moderately expensive objects, and most people don’t feel they can afford them. But people can participate vicariously in many ways: seeing the work first-hand at SOFA and exhibitions; looking at pictures in books or online. Ironically, mechanical reproduction keeps studio jewelry from becoming completely elitist.

Anyway, I’m no longer the young rebel I used to be. I’m not interested in rubbing anybody’s nose in anything. I don’t aspire to the avant-garde anymore, with its undertones of Marxism and moral superiority. Maybe it’s just a symptom of growing old, but these days I favor seduction, not subversion.

November 11, 2008

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