Jewels By JAR: Art or Commerce?
Jan 28 2014
Art or commerce? Does it matter?
Today's post is in response to art critic Blake Gopnik's review of the Jewels by JAR exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Besides the fact that he finds JAR's creations tacky and utterly unworthy of the Met, Gopnik sees the exhibit as an indication that "at this moment in American society, the wealthy are casting their tastes across the rest of culture." In his words:
"What really gets me about this, I guess, is I think it reflects a profound change in our culture. And that is the dominance of an entire society, economy, and culture by the 0.1 percent."
First, it's worth noting that it wouldn't be the first time in Western history that the tastes of the day are dictated by the very upper echelons of society. 17th and 18th century tastes in the fine arts, decorative arts and fashion were largely dominated by the French aristocracy and that aesthetic could hardly be qualified as "restrained". A stroll through the Palais de Versailles in all its "blingy" splendor will attest to that. The same is true of American history. Just think of the lasting influence of the Robber Barons and their progeny on 19th and early 20th century tastes in America and beyond. Or, more recently, consider the influence of the Kennedy's from the mid-60's onward. Who were the Astors, Vanderbilts, Carnegies and Kennedys if not the 0.1% of their day?
Secondly, I take issue with Gopnik's claim that as "one of the few critics in this country, maybe the world, who cares deeply about contemporary jewelry, (…) JAR has never been taken seriously by the art establishment". Gopnik's pompous self-description aside, even if you take his assertion that the art world does not take JAR seriously at face value, it fails to persuade because it ignores the weight of art history precedent.
What constitutes "art" and the determination of which art gets included in an institution like the Met is and always has been a relatively subjective exercise. Influential art critic Clement Greenberg famously dismissed the work of Warhol, Lichenstein and other Pop Art pioneers as superficial or too easy to be taken seriously as art. He wasn't alone. Had this view swayed the day, Pop Art might not be hanging from the walls of the MoMa, the Met or the Tate today. Impressionists weren't taken seriously either during their life time. And yet, what self respecting museum today would exclude either Pop Art or Impressionism from its permanent collections?
The controversy surrounding the Met's JAR exhibit is not unlike that which has accompanied previous artists or art movements that challenge the status quo. Is it any wonder that JAR's colorful creations and unusual shapes would stand out in a culture that has come to hold Tiffany's white diamonds set in platinum as the ultimate benchmark for good taste? Part of JAR's appeal amongst jewelry collectors is precisely that his pieces don't look like anything already out there. JAR's pieces challenge assumptions about what fine jewelry should look like, how it should be worn and ultimately how it should be valued monetarily. It all sounds strangely familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in art history.
The Luxe Chronicles