This is SNAG’s third installment of “Compelling Questions.” We pose a question to one or more people in the field of jewelry and metals and post their answer(s). This month we hear from Nanz Aalund:
“As a long time designer, who has witnessed many trends in both the art jewelry and fine jewelry fields, how do you think contemporary artists and designers can move forward?”
Paradigm/ noun/ 1. Technical: a typical example or pattern of something; a model.
“there is a new paradigm for public art in the country”
If you google the word, this is the first thing that pops-up and how odd that the example should be a reference to art. Here I will discuss art historical and philosophical influences, which have either consciously or unconsciously changed how art is made. I propose the current approach to making art is in need of a new paradigm.
To provide a little background and set an understanding of the current art making paradigm I’ll explore some philosophical insights into the concept of beauty. It is the nuance of “modern/contemporary” art to eschew the importance of beauty. To quote the mid-20th century painter and sculpture, Jean Dubuffet, “Esthetics bores me… I don’t believe that these notions of ugliness or beauty have the slightest foundation: they are illusions.” This statement from Peter Selz’ article; New Images of Man published in 1959 pretty much sums up the prevailing thoughts that have dominated a whole range of art making practices for a hundred years now.
I say a hundred years because I am marking the beginning of this train of thought with two other artists, namely Pablo Picasso with his Demoiselles d’ Avignon, 1907, and Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, 1917. While Picasso consciously accepted the “ugliness” of savage/primitive aesthetics as a positive experience, ten years later, Duchamp took the ugliness of a mundane urinal and by applying the mocking trickery of “conceptualism” elevated a mere prank to fine art. It was especially Duchamp’s insistence that art be an expression of “the mind and not the eye” and his mass-produced readymades, which were seized upon by Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Warhol, and subsequent others, that have lead the art world and art academia to this ego driven dead end where beauty, ugliness, and art have all become mere illusions of the mind.
It is my contention that beauty and ugliness are not illusions, but real, relevant, life experiences. To seek a way of defining those experiences I have turned to philosophy. Remarkably, in philosophy to define beauty, what is meant by ugly must first be defined. For brevity, I will select the Middle English “uggen” or old Norse “ugga” meaning fearful, dreadful, terrible. As philosopher, Herbert Read, states in his article: On Beauty, from 1987, “Indeed, we might say that modern art invariably avoids beautiful shapes and seeks for ugly ones…however, ugliness has always been present in art, from prehistoric times throughout all subsequent periods.”* And we have all seen things that could be considered ugly, even disgusting, but when rendered through an artist’s loving care have been transformed into a thing of “art” (i.e. Road Kill Necklace – Bob Ebendorf). In the next passage, Mr. Read betrays his own aesthetic prejudice by referring to the Venus of Willlendorf as ugly in its primitivism. Yet, I would contend that during the intervening 30 years, since Read wrote his article, there has been an effusion of ever more meaninglessly ugly art. It is the relentless practice of Duchampian conceptualism that has lead to the complete disavowal of beauty being relevant in art. I postulate that at no other time in art history has so much truly mundane ugliness been foisted on an undiscerning public, than since the advent and devout application of conceptualism. Or as it was expressed to me by a master goldsmith, “If you can’t dazzle them with your brilliance, baffle them with your bullshit.”
With the consideration that both beauty and ugliness contain an element of fear and terror, the philosophers begin to use the term “sublime” to more succinctly define beauty. It is expressed that when the beauties of the earth (extraordinary mineral specimens or a resplendent view of a natural wonder) are experienced, they are so intense as to excite evidence of the divine in them. This spine tingling, goose bump inducing evidence of the divine is the visceral experience which defines sublime beauty. Within this sublime state, beauty is experienced with both awe and terror that transcend mundane existence. The transcendent experience of sublime beauty elevates an individual into the realm of the profane, which demands surrender of the egomaniacal machinations of the mind. The terror experienced in the presence of sublime beauty is generated by the willing evisceration of the ego.
This is where the delineation of the visceral experience of beauty as opposed to the experience of ugliness can be measured. The terror that is experienced in the presence of ugliness has more of a negative glamor. Ugliness, in art as in nature, (a necrotic lesion, a dismembered corpse, an open pit mine) involves revulsion, disgust, and a fear of possible contamination in its claim over our attention. When applied with skillful craftsmanship and finesse (Saturn Devouring His Son – Goya) these emotional experiences can exert immensely powerful messages. Unfortunately, the constant, repetitive use of the ugly by unskilled, clumsy conceptualists has desensitized and alienated the viewing public. Because of this desensitization, works made under the paradigm of Duchampian conceptualism must increasingly depend on the shock value of revulsion to excite a response.
The problem at hand is to find a new paradigm. To solve this problem it may be helpful to go back and look at Pablo Picasso’s Demoiselles d’ Avignon, with its “primitive” African imagery. Picasso, Brancusi, Henry Moore and numerous others were influenced by African sculpture while knowing nothing of its original meaning. While it is probable that they recognized the fundamental spiritual quality of the African sculpture they encountered, it was not as important to them as adapting its abstract graphic qualities to their own efforts. But, I suggest that it is the original spiritual meaning, of African as well as other creative works by aboriginal peoples, that can offer the riches ground for a new paradigm. For while aboriginal works of art are in no way related to the canon of beauty established in the Greek or Renaissance sense, they do hold a dynamic energy. They are the embodiment of sublime forces that tap into a transcendent experience. And while the sculptor Henry Moore was still limited by his Renaissance concept of beauty when he said, “Between Beauty of expression and Power of expression there is a difference of function. The first aims at pleasing the senses, the second has a spiritual vitality.”, he does direct us towards that new paradigm.
Optimally, working within this new paradigm, makers would seek to unify beauty and power in its truest expression of spiritual vitality. Herein lies the problem that each maker must undertake, to break free of conceptualism. Yet, with the unifying trait of designers, metallurgists, artists, engineers, and jewelry makers being that of problem solving, I have faith that the solutions in finding a post-duchampian path will be diverse.
*On Beauty: Beauty and the Beast; Read, Herbert; Lecture originally presented in 1962 by the Eranos Foundation, Ascona, Switzerland; The Eranos lecture series, ISSN 0743-586X; published by Spring Publications, Dallas, Texas, printed in 1987.
About Nanz Aalund:
Although her fascination with Jewelry Design was evident at the tender age of six, Nanz Aalund’s first recognized jewelry piece was a silver pendant, which won her a “Gold Key” Scholastic Art Award in high school. She continued her training by serving an apprenticeship in Chicago and receiving her BFA in Jewelry Arts from Northern Illinois University. After serving as the Fine Jewelry Designer for the fashion retailer Nordstrom, Aalund completed her MFA in metalsmithing under Mary Lee Hu at the University of Washington in Seattle.
After serving as a fine jewelry designer and marketing consultant for Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, and Tiffany & Co., Aalund taught jewelry and metals classes at the University of Washington and at the Art Institute in Seattle. Some of Aalund’s many professional jewelry design awards include: an AGTA Spectrum Award, two Gemmy’s Awards, two Platinum Guild International Awards, two Saul Bell Award Finalist, and two DeBeers Diamond’s Today Awards.
She authored the 40 biographies for the book, Masters Gold, published by Lark Books in 2009 and served as technical author and associate editor for Art Jewelry Magazine. Currently, Nanz is writing an Apprenticeship Guide for MJSA, due for publication in spring of 2017.
SNAG would like to take this opportunity to recognize our Corporate Members for their support: Aaron Faber Gallery, Halstead, NextFab, and Pocosin Arts.