The full title of this essay might be 'Austerity Measures: Current Events Creating Context.' I want to explore the odd phenomenon of how current world events can determine the interpretation and context of visual art, with particular attention to art jewelry. I began to think about this issue after seeing Anatomies, a solo exhibition by Darren Waterson at the Inman Gallery in Houston, Texas. The show was another in a string of superb exhibitions at Inman and this one appealed to my inner chromophobe: black paint and ink covered antique prints, punctuated watercolors and enveloped swamp creatures creating a black, white and gray pseudo-scientific environment. Splashes of yellow-gold suggested refinement in the eerie installation. But most gripping was the materiality of the collected objects. The use of oil paint as a sculptural medium was notable and the smell of linseed in the gallery felt both unsettling and honest. Another feature was the slippage created by Waterston’s repetition of form across several media; for instance, a possum skin and a black watercolor silhouette of a possum, or a nineteenth-century, printed diagram of a rock matrix beside its painted artifice.
Mostly conceived in the first quarter of 2010, the exhibition opened on May 8, 2010, just eighteen days after the Deepwater Horizon drilling-rig explosion. Known in the media as the BP oil spill, this catastrophic event certainly was on the lips and minds of many throughout the country, but in Houston, the center of the American energy industry, it was absolutely a mania. Almost three weeks out from the initial trauma of the explosion and well into the drama of the environmental disaster unfolding, Anatomies struck me as a poetic lament to a terminally ill lover. Piled crabs covered in black oil paint, rows of tombstones rendered in viscous yet transparent washes, how could one escape reading the show as an environmental protest? The work actually carried more cultural currency precisely because of the tragic events of the BP oil spill.
And this got me thinking about another disaster. The big news out of Europe recently has been the austerity measures being formulated and implemented across the continent in response to the economic crisis that began in Greece. Austerity, in economic terms, is when a government reduces its spending and/or increases user fees (i.e. taxes) to pay back creditors. Austerity is usually required when a government's fiscal deficit spending is believed to be unsustainable. This may seem laughable for United States readers whose government has a $13 trillion dollar plus national debt and is currently running a $1.4 trillion dollar deficit. The key difference between the United States and Greece in this respect is demand for debt. Lenders are confident in the United State's ability to repay their loans and so continue to loan money, at low interest rates, allowing the government to continue borrowing.
For many years the Greek government has run a large annual budget deficit, incurring debt, which now totals an estimated $406 billion dollars. When there was not enough demand for Greek debt in early 2010 and it became clear the Greek economy required intervention in order to stabilize itself (due to more factors than those described here) Greece asked the European Union (EU) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a bailout. Historically, the IMF has attached required policy changes to these types of interventions, and concurrently, Germany – whose government does not run a budget deficit – put increasing pressure on Greece to implement austerity measures. Greek citizens opposed to higher taxes and cuts in government services erupted in violent protests in Athens, killing three people on May 5, 2010.
Even after the EU/IMF bailout was approved, global markets did not entirely stabilize. And more alarmingly, Greece's troubles seem to be just the tip of the iceberg. As world markets sour in response to the crisis, the borrowing climate for other countries in the Eurozone seems bleak, prompting forecasts of possible repeat performances of the Greek episode in Portugal, Ireland, Italy and even Spain. In order to prevent further economic decline, austerity measures have been adopted in Greece, Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, Italy and Ireland.
Finding our way back to our topic, I wonder if these austerity measures can be projected into the reading of European art jewelry. For some time the paradigm in continental European jewelry has been that of process-based material exploration. In fact, it was the unconventional use of precious materials (as in the work of Hermann Jünger) and then the rejection of precious materials altogether (illustrated by the work of Otto Künzli) that has helped to define contemporary art jewelry.
The evolution of art jewelry in Europe over the past half-century is the story of the gradual erosion of conventional goldsmithing dictums. This erosion certainly came from the makers themselves rejecting tradition, or perhaps more accurately, wanting to create a new tradition. From an anthropological perspective, however, one might look at this shift as a democratization of jewelry. The new materiality of art jewelry reflects the accessibility of Western consumerism by using familiar industrial materials like plastics and fabrics. Exoticism is now achieved by inventive processes and experimentation with materials, rather than through the harvest and use of rare materials. Jewelry makers have become material innovators rather than artful technicians.
This shift might also be a form of metallurgical abstinence. If in the past jewelry made of precious metal and gemstones were symbols of luxury, extravagance, aristocracy and the patriarchal system, then contemporary European art jewelry must represent moderation, restraint and democratic, socialist and egalitarian values. The systematic rejection of precious jewelry materials by makers recasts the cultural value of jewelry as more relevant – and even participatory in a semiotic way – in progressive European society.
So now that the stage is set for austerity, perhaps it is the right time for a supporting historic interlude. In about 1806, wealthy and patriotic Prussians began donating their gold jewelry to help fund the ongoing war against Napoleon – the Napoleonic Wars. In exchange for the gold, those who donated received Berlin Iron jewelry produced by the Prussian Royal Iron Foundries. Quite an interesting cultural phenomenon, Berlin Iron came to symbolize not only patriotism, but also generosity, austerity and good fashion. In fact it became so popular that it spread throughout Europe (though devoid of its original patriotic significance), was shown in the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London and is now a duly celebrated chapter in Western jewelry history.
It is of note that austerity measures are often accompanied by some patriotic scheme. The logic must be that communal hardships create solidarity. In the above example the exchange of gold jewelry for iron became the mechanism to leverage austerity into patriotism. The second thing to take away is the significance of the shift in material. Iron came to be the socially endorsed material for jewelry making during the early nineteenth century in Prussia.
In recent years, European jewelers have used conspicuously non-precious materials to create jewelry that reinforces cultural and economic austerity through material usage. Ela Bauer and Mia Maljojoki are two great examples of this. The question is, now that Europe is in a period of austerity, will art jewelry come to be viewed in light of current events, much the same way that we view Berlin Iron as inseparable from the Napoleonic Wars, or the way I read Darren Waterston as intertwined with the BP oil spill?
Perhaps this is a question that cannot be answered just yet. A clue may be found in dissecting Iris Bodemer's recent body of work titled Ingredients. Bodemer's jewelry has, by degrees, moved further and further away from precious materials, but has never abandoned them entirely. Looking at her Untitled Ingredients Neckpiece from 2008, none of the materials look like they are treated with particular reverence. I wonder if it is even possible to determine whether she used precious materials or not. Can you tell?
In fact, she has used gold, ebony, iron, pyrite and ribbon. Bodemer's material promiscuity finds precious materials treated the same as any other, as if to deny their inherent value. The gold and the ebony could have just as easily been brass and plastic or gold paint and steel. For contemporary art jewelers like Bodemer, Bauer and Maljojoki, form clearly reigns over material. As the forms read like aestheticized ambiguous primitive body adornment, the question becomes: what context is there to read these objects in if not the insular context of their own creation? I don't mean this as a slight in the least. Objects that reject precious material's primacy and use materials developed for industry in an organic way willfully deny participation in a generally readable material context. To an increasingly savvy material culture reader (this being the entire industrialized public) this absence of material context creates a gulf between the object and its cultural context.
So where does this leave us? One possible outcome is the projection of meaning onto jewelry objects by outside cultural forces. My proposal is that this can happen through cultural phenomena such as current events. As Europeans are plunged into political, economic and cultural austerity, art jewelry, made of non-precious materials, has the ability to engage European viewers as meticulously created objet d'art that speak to the restraint that their society is collectively exercising. As we saw with Berlin iron two centuries ago, this is not such a far-fetched idea. Jewelry has long been used to express virtues or qualities of the wearer. Interpreting contemporary European art jewelry in such a way would allow citizens to express their solidarity with the austerity measures aimed at stabilizing their way of life. Art jewelry could even become a fashionable and patriotic statement.
Unfortunately, I can't really conceive of this happening. The Livestrong yellow rubber bracelet becoming the symbol of fighting cancer in the United States is a cultural phenomenon that owes much to both a sports celebrity and a vigorous marketing campaign by Nike. Who will speak for art jewelry as a symbol of austerity? Angela Merkel? I hope European art jewelry enthusiasts can find the silver lining in the austerity cloud, especially since it could afford the practice of art jewelry making greater cultural notoriety.