Something that has always been somewhat of a puzzle to me is the emphatic limits that practitioners in the field of Metalsmithing place on the words that we use to describe ourselves. At the same time however, we attempt to project expansive connotations into words which we use to describe our work. Some examples of limited words we use to describe ourselves are: jeweler, studio jeweler, commercial jeweler, production jeweler, jewelry designer, craftsperson, student, educator, and of course metalsmith. Now to contrast those people labeling words, which are used very specifically and with limited definitions, to these work labeling words used expansively without fixed or limited definitions: process, content, concept, conceptual, idea based, art jewelry, author jewelry, installation, material, investigation, precious, found object, etc.
Metalsmithing is a label that we have given ourselves for better or for worse. During my socialization (or perhaps more appropriately my indoctrination) into metalsmithing, it was presented to me as a label that described both a long historical tradition of metalworking (including coppersmithing, goldsmithing, silversmithing, blacksmithing, and all other jewelry making), and also current work and practices of the contemporary equivalent to the historic metalworker. This makes sense to me. Someone who makes jewelry out of plastic is still correctly called jeweler and in turn a metalsmith by virtue of their association to the historic forms used to adorn the body. You would not call them a plasticsmith, and likewise they are still within the scope of metalsmithing even though they are not smithing metal.
metalsmithing /ˈme-təl⋅ˈsmith⋅ˈing/ -
any work or practice, historical or contemporary, that could be considered part of, or thematically related to, the history of metalworking, jewelry, or adorning the body.
The use of this new definition is essentially an umbrella term that would allow the field of metalsmithing to hold on to tradition, while also moving forward into contemporary paradigms. Perhaps this will work, but only time will tell whether the field of metalsmithing can unite under such a controversial banner as “metalsmithing.” I guess that is neither here nor there. What is of particular interest to me is the trend of increasing acceptance among works thematically related to traditional metalsmithing issues by craft and metalsmithing institutions. For the sake of convenience I will call this type of work “Thematic Metalsmithing.”
The magazine that bears that name Metalsmith has been mining the rich territory of outsiders whose work is thematically related to the interests of the readership since before I started reading the magazine five years ago. I propose that the future of Metalsmithing depends on its constituent’s ability to work together to further a field with varied interests and outcomes while maintaining a common thread. This can be done through the use of a ductile label.
In the Trenches of Thematic Metalsmithing
- The tremendous pressure on an artist to make new and original work in the highly academic and intellectualized climate we find ourselves in, perpetuates experimentation and risk taking in the studio. The outcomes of this risk taking sometimes fall within a recognizable traditional framework and sometimes not. For the hundreds of truly emerging artists, parameters that limit acceptable outcomes is tantamount to censorship and is no more than a ploy by established and well connected metalsmiths to remain on top.
- The commodified object that is traditionally the outcome of the metalsmith’s studio practice is not conducive with many contemporary practitioners’ objectives. These objectives include: environmentally and/ or socially conscious work, communicative work, affordable (egalitarian) work, and collaborative production.
- The idea that parameters can be set and perpetuated is a flawed notion. The current metalsmithing (and craft) infrastructure must be willing to incorporate new models and paradigms or risk further marginalization. Two major examples of this are: the Indie Craft Movement creating an infrastructure independent of Craft Institutions and Thematic Metalsmiths creating work that can and does function in the sculpture and “fine art” spheres. Instead of harnessing the amazing energy of these metalsmiths to help reform our field, they are forced to join other communities.