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What I Think Academia Gets Wrong About Art and Art Jewelry

I’ve been getting into reading artist blogs lately to get a sense of how others use their voice to express creativity. Many of the artists whose blogs I follow have a background in academia (graduated with a Master’s) and are now practicing artists. Most of them are Boomers so their take on art varies greatly from my own, and some of them are now teaching. They have been pioneers in the Contemporary art jewelry world and while their work has shaped the accessibility of art jewelry to the world, they fall short when it comes to how art jewelry is now perceived. Especially in the age of the internet and the age of social media and online sharing.

I studied architecture in college and received my Bachelor’s in the field, so my academic background doesn’t extend as far as these other artists, but I got enough of sense of it that I didn’t want to go back to college. If I’m honest, I was rather disgusted with how academia treated design and art. I returned to a community college that hired only Master’s-level teachers for their jewelry program and while I learned a lot how to technically assemble a piece of jewelry, I felt like there was still a massive disconnect between what the school was teaching and the reality of our world now.

I’m far from being in the “art as jewelry” world because I didn’t want to play the game of artist jeweler. But I could also see that it was an area that I didn’t want to fit in with. Essentially when you graduate, you go out in search of a gallery who will represent your work and you collaborate (or pay to collaborate) by putting together shows and openings for the public. There are things about the art + academia + gallery world that I like, but I also don’t think that they are rooted in reality.

Here are some of the questions that kept coming up for me when I was in my design and jewelry classes.

Concept-Driven Art, but Where Does Beauty Come into Play?

Much of what is taught in design and art school revolves around coming up with a good concept. These concepts are usually ideas, or a comparison of ideas, that put into question aspects of our humanity or the human experience. These concepts are abstractions of something usually complex and they are distilled in the form of a piece of art. The art is designed to represent that concept through materials, techniques, and commentary. The art has to be explained. It is very word-driven so you can’t just look at a piece of art and make an assumption; you have to approach it with a certain degree of knowledge that is shared with you via the artist, curator, gallery owner, or academic.

I do agree that good art is rooted in a good concept, but what I don’t understand is why we aren’t pushing that further to include beauty. When did beauty lose its appeal or become unimportant? I understand that contemporary art and contemporary art jewelry questioned the meaning/purpose of beauty, but I also feel like there’s something missing. Even the ugly or disturbing used to be symbolized by a motif or image so it had a part to play in the art world.

Now, it’s like we’ve completely pushed away all of those old metaphors and motifs and are arguing that the color grey is ‘beautiful’ because it represents the opposite of black and white. Like what? It’s as if artists are becoming writers or public speakers more than anything. I believe that art can be complex and intellectual and conceptually interesting, but it also has to appeal to more people than just the academics. Which is why I believe beauty is so important: it brings more people into the conversation simply because it’s nice to look at.

I don’t think that these teachers, gallery owners, or curators are seriously questioning this other aspect of art anymore. Beauty has its place in the world, and it’s not easy to create something beautiful. It’s quite difficult to portray complicated concepts while also making them aesthetically-pleasing.

Exploring New Methods of Engaging the Public

As much as I criticize social media, there is no denying how it can be used as a powerful tool to connect and share ideas with others. And yet, nearly every teacher I’ve had is in total denial of it as a valid tool. I’ve even met jewelers who deny the power of the internet and see no value in even having a website. I realize that the internet can be daunting but to not even try to understand it, is a missed learning opportunity.

The internet (to me) offers a wide range of tools, but as with any technique, it is about selecting which tools work best for you. You don’t approach jewelry and use every single technique available; you learn all the various techniques and then decide which ones speak to you the most.

One thing that artists do when they graduate from a university is that they continue showing their work through galleries. Many times a gallery will put on a theme-specific show and that artist works within that concept to contribute to the dialogue that the gallery owner is interested in exploring. During opening night, the artist is often asked to speak at these events or at least converse amongst viewers their take on the subject and how they used their art to portray their idea.

A university-level artist does something similar in the form of a presentation, critique, or dissertation. They come up with a concept, create the artwork to support the concept, and then present it to their class or the public.

To me the best place to practice and to engage an audience would be through the internet. Why aren’t we using social media as a place to present our work and gather ideas from an audience that is outside of our normal worlds? I know that social media is closely tied to vanity and that it’s hard to separate the two, but what if academia pushed for students to explore and share and engage with an outside audience and then bring those insights to class?

It would also give students a foundation of followers and they could continue to grow with their audience and be able to leave university not having to start from scratch. The whole point of going to university is to better prepare students for the outside world and yet they isolate the students by not encouraging this level of engagement. When you’re a budding artist, it is scary to put yourself out there and see how the public will receive your work. If you’re nurtured properly from the start, and you have your niche audience to be by your side, going out into the real world would feel a lot less intimidating. Have you ever approached gallery and asked them to share your work? It’s terrifying.

The New Reality of Selling

Trust me, if they taught you how to sell your work online in college, most of these galleries and market organizers would be out of a job in no time. It would eliminate the middleman in an instant.

The problem is that I don’t think academia views an online sale as a legitimate sale. They want the buyer to have engaged with the work in person at a gallery and feel a connection to it by handling it. If this is the same mentality coming of a pandemic, then academia is definitely missing the point.

The internet offers artists the opportunity to communicate directly with the buyer. We could do this before at markets, but even the nature of markets is changing. Often times, high-end markets don’t want to invite a younger, lesser-known artist to their venue a) out of loyalty to previous vendors, or b) out of distrust that the artist’s work will be ‘on brand’ with their event. The reality is that it is very difficult for a younger artist to get into a gallery or into a market; the jurying process is tough and you’ve only got a few chances per year to become noticed.

But again, isn’t the whole point of art to be out into the world? An artist only becomes better with practice and if they can’t sell their work then they can’t continue practicing. And I’m not talking about these marketing gimmicks where a teacher is expected to explain what a flash sale is to the class. I’m talking about the encouragement of selling, I’m suggesting that teachers try to learn with the students these new tools and ways of selling your work. Galleries and markets aren't the answer for everyone, and the beauty is that now the art student can test out these new methods and see which path works best for them.

I know that I'm critical of academia, galleries, and markets but it's just because I believe we can do better for the art community. We can teach students right from the beginning how to put their work out there, how to build and engage with their audience, and how to explore these new tools that we have right at our fingertips. It's a disservice when we deny the validity of tool like the internet. I am continuously on the path to find what works for me and my business while also questioning how it fits in the art world, in the jewelry world, and in the internet world. I wish that I had some support with this path from my mentors because I could've bounced ideas with them and not felt like I was pursuing something that was so foreign and unknown. By having teachers closed off to the idea of a certain path, it makes it feel like you're not doing something legitimate. Does that makes sense?

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