A Critical Assessment of Contemporary Studio Practice and the Post-Modern Condition


Jennifer Lee Hallsey, May 2014

This paper was read as along with this presentation.

Literary critic and political theorist Fredric Jameson cites language, and the breakdown of signs, as an important aspect to the transition from Modernity to Post Modernity.[1] “Language has a past and a future, because the sentence moves in time, that we can have what seems to us a concrete or lived experience of time.”[2] We can understand language, and thus words, through the following model [fig. 1]: A sign, a word, or a text, is comprised of two or three components, the signifier, the signified and the third aspect, the referent. The signifier is the word or text, such as the written word ‘gold’ [fig 2]. The signified is the meaning of gold, such as ‘wealth.’ Thirdly, there is the referent of the sign, the relationship between the signifier and the signified to indicate something in the “real” world. Structuralism, in the realm of theory and language, sought to explain the relationship between the signifier and the signified. There has been a belief that ‘reference’ is a myth, one can no longer talk about the “real” in an objective way.[3] The image of Che Guevera is an example of a broken sign [fig. 3]. We no longer reference the ‘real’ Che Guevera or ‘communist revolution’ when we see his image. We are disconnected from the original meaning of the sign, the sign is broken and empty of meaning.

In a paper titled Postmodernism and Consumer Society, Jameson writes of what he calls our “post-modern condition.”[4] Jameson is highly critical of our current point in history. Postmodernity has morphed the past into a series of emptied-out styles that can be consumed and we are left with a fascination with the present. Jameson describes the post-modern condition using the psychoanalytic term schizophrenia.[5] In general use, ‘schizophrenia’ means a mentality or approach characterized by inconsistent or contradictory elements with an overall sense of mental fragmentation.[6] To Jameson, it is the collapse of language and the breakdown of signs that has gotten us to this schizophrenic state; the schizophrenic “does not have our experience of temporal continuity […] but is condemned to live a perpetual present with which the various moments of his or her past have little connection and for which there is no conceivable future on the horizon.”[7]

Temporal discontinuity and the ‘forever present’ has lead to a general schizophrenia, and is a hallmark of the post-modern condition. Without the ability to understand signs, traditional forms of art no longer can function. Specifically, Jameson speaks of the loss of parody:

Parody capitalizes on the uniqueness of these styles and seizes on their idiosyncrasies and eccentricities to produce an imitation which mocks the original. I won’t say that the satiric impulse is conscious in all forms of parody […] A good or great parodist has to have some secret sympathy for the original, just as a great mimic has to have the capacity to put himself/herself in the place of the person imitated […] The general effect of parody is – whether in sympathy or with malice – to cast ridicule on the private nature of these stylistic mannerisms and their excessiveness and eccentricity with respect to the way people normally speak or write. So there remains somewhere behind all parody the feeling that there is a linguistic norm in contrast to which the styles of the great modernists can be mocked.[8]

Jameson’s claims of parody in art and literature is that parody often, but not always, has a mocking tone, but that the underlying concept is that there is an inherent norm and a constant. That constant is the consistent use of language and signs. “But what would happen if one no longer believed in the existence of normal language, of ordinary speech, of the linguistic norm?” To Jamison, “That is the moment at which pastiche appears and parody has become impossible.”[9]

Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique style, the wearing of a stylistic mask, speech in a dead language: but it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without parody’s ulterior motive, without the satirical impulse, without laughter, without that still latent feeling that there exists something normal compared to which what is being imitated is rather comic. Pastiche is blank parody, parody that has lost its sense of humor.[10]

In summary, it is the breakdown of language, where the signifier no longer has the same relationship with the signified, that has lead to one of the most significant features or practices in postmodernism, known as pastiche. Pastiche lends itself to the prevailing sense of a constant sameness and temporal discontinuity, this state of schizophrenia.

It is important to note that these are not new ideas. Theodore Adorno wrote of “a constant sameness [which] governs the relationship to the past”[11] as well in “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” He recognized a society of rampant imitation, and it was 1944. He went on to say, “One might think that an omnipresent authority had sifted the material and drawn up an official catalog of cultural commodities to provide a smooth supply of available mass-produced lines.”[12]

Adorno states, “When the detail won its freedom, it became rebellious and, in the period from Romanticism to Expressionism, asserted itself as free expression, as a vehicle of protest against the organization. In music the single harmonic effect obliterated the awareness of form as a whole; in painting the individual color was stressed at the expense of pictorial composition; and in the novel psychology became more important than structure.”[13] Previously, Adorno is stating, there was a belief in the myth, in grand metanarratives and the value of personal expression. “The totality of the culture industry has put an end to this. Though concerned exclusively with effects, it crushes their insubordination and makes them subserve [sic] the formula, which replaces the work.”[14] Today as in Adorno’s 1944, anything slightly subversive is tolerated for a slight period of time and then immediately absorbed by society as a neutered form of itself; stylized and safe for mass-consumption. Paloma Picasso’s Graffiti collection [fig. 4], sold through Tiffany’s, “fuses the influences of disparate schoolgirl scribblings and urban street art.”[15] In reality, The Graffiti collection is not daring, it is not dangerous, it is not “urban”. The jewelry is a banal restyling of script text, far removed from the notion of street art — in “the fiery brilliance of Tiffany diamonds.”[16]

Jameson wrote, “From any number of distinct perspectives, the social theorists, the psychoanalysts, even the linguists, not to speak of those of us who work in the area of culture and cultural and formal change, are all exploring the notion that that kind of individualism and personal identity is a thing of the past; that the […] subject is “dead.””[17] Adorno and Jameson stress that personal identity and individualism is gone. Individuality does not exist because we are all purchasing the notion of an individual identity through the mode of capitalism.

Adorno wrote, “Capitalist production so confines them, body and soul, that they fall helpless victims to what is offered them. As naturally as the ruled always took the morality imposed upon them more seriously than did the rulers themselves, the deceived masses are today captivated by the myth of success even more than the successful are. Immovably, they insist on the very ideology which enslaves them.”[18]

Maker and writer Bruce Metcalf asserts, “In the course of education, students are pressured to internalize all kinds of opinions and value systems, often without their direct knowledge.”[19] Metcalf is speaking of indoctrination. It is without question that as young children we speak with a certain inhibition and we see with clarity, as adults we “unlearn” this ability because of propriety and fear.[20] As young children there is less fear of being incorrect. Metcalf goes on to say that, “students eventually realize that they can’t believe everything they hear.”[21] Metcalf says that students will begin to critically analyze the information that has been presented to them and form their own opinions and theories. In general, his conclusion is incorrect. Of course, there are individuals who do question. But Metcalf himself notes “It is amazing how many restrictions are self-imposed, taken on simply because an authority said so.”[22]

Metcalf, known for his critical writings on the state of contemporary art jewelry and craft, mentions an encounter with a metalsmith in a 1989 essay. In it he writes, “I was speaking as I often do, about the necessity of reading and writing and theorizing, and [the metalsmith’s] response was neatly encapsulated in one short sentence. He said, “I just want to work.”” Metcalf goes on to chide this maker by saying that obviously he is entitled his own opinion, but “[the maker] places too much faith on his powers of imagination and too little on his intelligence. He proposes a value system that glorifies pleasure in labor, but not in thinking. He maintains that good design and good craftsmanship is enough […] He implies that he has no struggle with serious issues, no critical examination of his sources […] He ‘just wants to work,’ and he is satisfied with going no further.”[23]

This value system is not unique. We as jewelers are willfully ignorant. Artist Ted Noten went beyond saying “Contemporary Art Jewellery is dead”[24] in his 2006 manifesto. He goes on:

Contemporary jewellery is autistic. It doesn’t read newspapers or books. Not out of principle but because of a lack of interest. It distrusts history as much as it wishes to sidestep reality. It cherishes and nurtures its own, often [using] incomprehensibly cryptic language to avoid criticism, questions, comparison and even the smallest expression of doubt concerning its intentions. […] In its ambition to remove itself from any form of critical context, contemporary jewellery has only managed to further isolate itself. Not only from the art world, but from its public as well. It complains of a lack of attention, yet willfully retreats into the shadows of provincial life.[25]

The response to Ted Noten, some seven years later, was a benign and safe retort which put contemporary art jewelry right back into its place, further into the grave it has been digging itself for so long, “the visual arts just within reach.”[26]   Writer André Gali raised the least challenging concerns that are ever-present in any ‘critical’ jewelry essay:

I think the variety in coverage also reflects a constellation of questions raised in the discussion, questions that always seem to come up whenever contemporary jewellery is discussed, and that have to do with identity: Is jewellery art or design? Should we call it author jewellery, contemporary jewellery, art jewellery, studio jewellery, or something completely different? Furthermore, what will it take to get the ‘message’ of contemporary jewellery out there, to get people to see that contemporary jewellery can be ‘cool’ or ‘sexy’, and that it has meaningful stories to tell about the body and the world?[27]

Again I question, how can makers of jewelry talk to the wider world of the uninitiated if we cannot even speak to each other? Contemporary art jewelers spend, it seems, more time arguing about personal identity issues than the act of making.

Art historian Damian Skinner describes Otto Künzli’s work as exemplar as the work deals both with the critical and conceptual nature of contemporary jewelry. Künzli is also cited by other artists as “the key figure in contemporary art jewelry.”[28] But Otto Künzli.The Exhibition, a retrospective of Kunzli’s work from 2013, falls short in communicating with a general audience. The exhibition emphasized objecthood over communication. The power of effective communication is illustrated with Otto Künzli’s Ring for Two from 1980. When displayed or photographed as an isolated object, the intent of the piece is unclear [fig. 5]. It is open for debate how one is to even engage with it. In the 2013 Ring for Two was shown as an autonomous object behind vitrine. When depicted as being worn, Ring for Two is no longer a sterile object [fig. 6]. Susan Cohn writes of the photography of objects, “the photograph is not about making an object clear, but about making the object more real. This is different from reality itself.”[29] It goes beyond simple documentation.

Skinner’s review of the exhibition is that it the gallery had the feel of a high-end luxury goods store [fig. 7]; the pieces were not organized in any logical manner and were “stripped of their worldly connections […] Künzli’s signs run the risk of becoming a brand: perfect, sophisticated, and ultimately safe.”[30] Art historian Liesbeth Den Besten spoke of the same exhibition, “Insiders could rejoice to see in reality all those pieces they only know through image, [But] the objects in the showcases must appear as puzzling as UFOs in space to those visitors who are not acquainted with the work of Otto Künzli, not to mention with contemporary jewellery in general. The lack of documentation and information made this exhibition a true insider-event.”[31] Sadly, ‘safe’ is never how an ‘insider’ in the jewelry world would describe Künzli’s work. Skinner says, “at its best, Künzli’s work finds ways open both our understanding and expectations of jewelry and of social and cultural formations.”[32] In other words, it is not ‘safe’.

I must acknowledge my own schizophrenia, my own inconsistencies and contradictory approaches to the act of making and thoughts on making. I simultaneously hold antithetical and ever-changing beliefs about the importance of authorial intent, wearabilty, and objecthood. I also knowingly choose not to address these issues in my work. Here I am, one of the biggest proponents of work standing for itself without the need for explanatory texts and artists’ statements, saying that Otto Künzli did a piss-poor curatorial job of his own retrospective. The retrospective, stripped clean of any explanatory text and documentation, placed the emphasis primarily on contemporary jewelry as objects of artistic expression as opposed to how the pieces fit critically into the practice of contemporary art jewelry. Ring for Two became a sterile autonomous object. Skinner found the retrospective was not Otto Künzli. The Exhibition, but rather, Künzli: The Curator.[33] The exhibition placed the priority on Künzli as an artist, as an author, and not on the issues of engagement with the audience. “To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing.”[34]

I refer again to Jameson. “Hence, once again, pastiche […] stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum […] the imprisonment in the past.”[35] Presently, when I look around the contemporary art jewelry field, I see pastiche is the empty vessel we fill. Ganoksin’s Orchid Gallery features user submitted work and one has the ability to follow the gallery on Facebook. After awhile, the work begins to look the same. [fig. 8] I am not referring to the issue of intellectual copyright infringement, of one contemporary artist copying another, I am speaking of a broader issue: “Contemporary jewellery is superfluous. After all, what could it possibly contribute that other visual arts do not explore at least equally as well?”[36] In other words, what do these pieces add to the conversation about the work of Gustav Klimt? Of enamel? Of cloisonné? Do they contribute, or do they just exist as superfluous objects, and if that’s the case, is this fine enough? From my place, I see that we create work that references history without knowing history for an insider audience that celebrates its own ignorance. We create safe work, consumable work that is limited by size, simply because we believe it is supposed to be small so it may be wearable.[37] As students we are taught, forced, to create artist’s statements and explanatory text and as professional artists, we carry this into our professional practices without asking why. We bicker about identity and designate ourselves to the schools of ‘craft’ or ‘art.’ We hide from critical discourse. However, we don’t question why it has to stay like this. Leaving an ideology is difficult, so we don’t do it.  Slavoj Žižek states:

I already am eating from the trashcan all the time. The name of this trashcan is ideology. The material force of ideology makes me not see what I’m effectively eating. It’s not only our reality which enslaves us. The tragedy of our predicament, when we are within ideology, is that, when we think that we escape it into our dreams, at that point we are within ideology. […] Ideology should be glasses which distort our view and the critique of ideology should be the opposite. Like, you take off the glasses, so that you can finally see the way things really are. […] Ideology is not simply imposed on ourselves. Ideology is our spontaneous relationship to our social world, how we perceive each meaning, and so on and so on. We, in a way, enjoy our ideology. […] To step out of ideology, it hurts. It’s a painful experience. You must force yourself to do it […] Freedom hurts.[38]

John Rajchman writes “Post-Modern theory became so heavy that it lost even the desire to look for those real points that allow thought to move and recreate itself – in short, how it became so dead.” He continues, “Time has come to reinvent theory. It is sometimes thought that theory falls to us prefabricated from the heavens, like a set of abstract edicts, whereas in fact it too is fabricated, invented here on earth, as new questions arise to displace habitual ways of thinking. Too long have we been content to live off theory that has already been made elsewhere by others, adopting its enunciatory positions, assuming the roles in its drama, rather than creating new ones for ourselves.”[39]

While it is important to embrace a new thinking, to move away from the schizophrenia of the post-modern condition, it is also vital that we understand where we have come from and where we presently are. It isn’t as simple as forgetting “the psychoanalysis of the studio.”[40] How does an artist grapple with being forced to identify oneself daily, for if not, someone will do it for her? And once outside, how does an artist communicate with a general audience who willfully refuses to engage? Advocating for a ‘lightness in theory’[41] demands a knowledge first of theory. Yes, “thoughtless work is mindless work”[42] but the act of creating mindful work can be debilitating, even paralyzing.

Works cited

[1] Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” in Postmodernism and Its Discontents, ed. E. Ann Kaplan (London: Verso, 1988) 13-29.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Oxford dictionary (American English), “Definition of schizophrenia in English,” N.p., n.d. accessed May 25, 2014, http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/schizophrenia.

[7] Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society.”

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” in Dialectic of enlightenment, (1944).

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Tiffany & Co.,”Paloma Picasso – Graffiti Love Ring,” accessed May 27, 2014, http://tinyurl.com/paloma-graffit

[16] Ibid.

[17] Jameson, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society.”

[18] Adorno, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.”

[19] Bruce Metcalf, “On Abandoning Ignorance,” Metalsmith, 1989.

[20] In John Berger’s “Ways of Seeing” from 1972, he discusses how as children age, they “unlearn” the ability to ask questions, out of a fear of looking wrong. <http://youtu.be/0pDE4VX_9Kk >.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Gert Staal and Ted Noten, “In Celebration of the Street: Manifesto of the New Jewellery,” Metalsmith, 2007.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] André Gali, “After the End of Contemporary Jewellery,” Norwegian Crafts, accessed May 17, 2014, http://www.norwegiancrafts.no/magazine/01-2014/after-the-end-of-contemporary-jewellery.

[28] Damian Skinner, “A Künzli for Our Time?,” Art Jewelry Forum, accessed April 7, 2014, http://www.artjewelryforum.org/exhibition-reviews/a-k%C3%BCnzli-for-our-time.

[29] Susan Cohn, “As Seen by Others: Photography as Strategy, ” Metalsmith, January, 2013.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Liesbeth den Besten, “The Golden Standard of Schmuckashau,” Art Jewelry Forum, accessed May 14, 2014, http://www.artjewelryforum.org/articles/the-golden-standard-of-schmuckashau.

[32] Damian Skinner, “A Künzli for Our Time?,” Art Jewelry Forum, accessed April 7, 2014, http://www.artjewelryforum.org/exhibition-reviews/a-k%C3%BCnzli-for-our-time.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” In Image, music, text (1977).

[35] Jameson, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society.”

[36] Ted Noten, “In Celebration of the Street: Manifesto of the New Jewellery.”

[37] Bruce Metcalf, “On Abandoning Ignorance.”

[38] This is a shortened quote from Slavoj Žižek’s The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. “The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2012) Movie Script”, accessed May 27, 2014, http://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/movie_script.php?movie=the-perverts-guide-to-ideology

[39] John Rajchman, “The lightness of theory,” (1993).

[40] One of the 11 edicts outlined in Ted Noten’s manifesto, “In Celebration of the Street: Manifesto of the New Jewellery.”

[41] The title of John Rajchman’s essay, “The lightness of theory.”

[42] Bruce Metcalf, “On Abandoning Ignorance.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s