Tag Archives: ornament

The following is taken from the full text of “the Sociology of Georg Simmel,” translated by Kurt H. Wolff, and first published as “Exkurs über den Schmuck” in 1908

The vast majority of what Simmel says here is still quite relevant… with the exception of one fundament; see if you can find it. 

I pointed out earlier that the secret also operates as an adorning possession and value of the personality. This fact involves 
the contradiction that what recedes before the consciousness of
 the others and is hidden from them, is to be emphasized in their
 consciousness; that one should appear as a particularly note-
worthy person precisely through what one conceals. But this
 contradiction proves, not only that the need for sociological attention may indeed resort to intrinsically contradictory means, 
but also that those against whom the means are actually directed 
in the given case, satisfy this need by bearing the cost of the 
superiority. They do so with a mixture of readiness and dislike; but, in practice, they nevertheless supply the desired recognition. It may thus be appropriate to show that, although apparently the sociological counter-pole of secrecy, adornment has,
 in fact, a societal significance with a structure analogous to that 
of secrecy itself. It is the nature and function of adornment to 
lead the eyes of others upon the adorned. Although, in this 
sense, it is the antagonist of secrecy, not even the secret (it will
 be remembered) is without the function of personal emphasis.
 And this, adornment, too, exercises, by mixing superiority to 
others with dependence upon them, and their good will with
 their envy. It does so in a manner which, as a sociological form
 of interaction, requires its special investigation.

5. Adornment

Man’s desire to please his social environment contains two 
contradictory tendencies, in whose play and counter play in
general, the relations among individuals take their course. On
 the one hand, it contains kindness, a desire of the individual to 
give the other joy; but on the other hand, there is the wish for 
this joy and these “favors” to flow back to him, in the form of 
recognition and esteem, so that they be attributed to his personality as values. Indeed, this second need is so intensified that 
it militates against the altruism of wishing to please: by means
 of this pleasing, the individual desires to distinguish himself
before others, and to be the object of an attention that others do
 not receive. This may even lead him to the point of wanting to 
be envied. Pleasing may thus become a means of the will to 
power: some individuals exhibit the strange contradiction that 
they need those above whom they elevate themselves by life 
and deed, for they build their own self-feeling upon the sub
ordinates’ realization that they are subordinate.

The meaning of adornment finds expression in peculiar 
elaborations of these motives, in which the external and internal
 aspects of their forms are interwoven. This meaning is to single 
the personality out, to emphasize it as outstanding in some sense but not by means of power manifestations, not by anything
that externally compels the other, but only through the pleasure 
which is engendered in him and which, therefore, still has some 
voluntary element in it. One adorns oneself for oneself, but can
 do so only by adornment for others. It is one of the strangest
 sociological combinations that an act, which exclusively serves 
the emphasis and increased significance of the actor, nevertheless attains this goal just as exclusively in the pleasure, in the 
visual delight it offers to others, and in their gratitude. For 
even the envy of adornment only indicates the desire of the envious person to win like recognition and admiration for him-
self; his envy proves how much he believes these values to be 
connected with the adornment. Adornment is the egoistic element as such: it singles out its wearer, whose self-feeling it
em bodies and increases at the cost of others (for, the same adornment of all would no longer adorn the individual). But, at the
same time, adornment is altruistic: its pleasure is designed for 
the others, since its owner can enjoy it only insofar as he mirrors 
himself in them; he renders the adornment valuable only 
through the reflection of this gift of his. Everywhere, aesthetic 
formation reveals that life orientations, which reality juxtaposes
as mutually*alien, or even pits against one another as hostile, are,
 in fact, intimately interrelated. In the same way, the aesthetic 
phenomenon of adornment indicates a point within sociological interaction the arena of man’s being-for-himself and being-
for-the-other where these two opposite directions are mutually 
dependent as ends and means.

Adornment intensifies or enlarges the impression of the personality by operating as a sort of radiation emanating from it.
 For this reason, its materials have always been shining metals
and precious stones. They are “adornment” in a narrower sense 
than dress and coiffure, although these, too, “adorn.” One may
 speak of human radioactivity in the sense that every individual
is surrounded by a larger or smaller sphere of significance radiating from him; and everybody else, who deals with him, is immersed in this sphere. It is an inextricable mixture of physiological and psychic elements: the sensuously observable influences 
which issue from an individual in the direction of his environment also are, in some fashion, the vehicles of a spiritual fulguration. They operate as the symbols of such a fulguration even
where, in actuality, they are only external, where no suggestive
power or significance of the personality flows through them.
 The radiations of adornment, the sensuous attention it provokes,
 supply the personality with such an enlargement or intensification of its sphere: the personality, so to speak, is more when it is 

Inasmuch as adornment usually is also an object of considerable value, it is a synthesis of the individual’s having and 
being; it thus transforms mere possession into the sensuous and
emphatic perceivability of the individual himself. This is not 
true of ordinary dress which, neither in respect of having nor 
of being, strikes one as an individual particularity; only the 
fancy dress, and above all, jewels, which gather the personality’s
 value and significance of radiation as if in a focal point, allow the
 mere having of the person to become a visible quality of its
being. And this is so, not although adornment is something 
”superfluous,” but precisely because it is. The necessary is much 
more closely connected with the individual; it surrounds his
 existence with a narrower periphery. The superfluous “flows
over,” that is, it flows to points which are far removed from its
 origin but to which it still remains tied: around the precinct of
 mere necessity, it lays a vaster precinct which, in principle, is 
limitless. According to its very idea, the superfluous contains 
no measure. The free and princely character of our being increases in the measure in which we add superfluousness to our 
having, since no extant structure, such as is laid down by necessity, imposes any limiting norm upon it.

This very accentuation of the personality, however, is 
achieved by means of an impersonal trait. Everything that
”adorns” man can be ordered along a scale in terms of its close-
ness to the physical body. The “closest” adornment is typical
 of nature peoples: tattooing. The opposite extreme is represented by metal and stone adornments, which are entirely unindividual and can be put on by everybody. Between these two
 stands dress, which is not so inexchangeable and personal as 
tattooing, but neither so un-individual and separable as jewelry, 
whose very elegance lies in its impersonality. That this nature
 of stone and metal solidly closed within itself, in no way alluding to any individuality; hard, unmodifiable is yet forced to
serve the person, this is its subtlest fascination. What is really 
elegant avoids pointing to the specifically individual; it always 
lays a more general, stylized, almost abstract sphere around man
 which, of course, prevents no finesse from connecting the
 general with the personality. That new clothes are particularly
 elegant is due to their being still “stiff”; they have not yet adjusted to the modifications of the individual body as fully as 
older clothes have, which have been worn, and are pulled and
 pinched by the peculiar movements of their wearer thus completely revealing his particularity. This “newness,” this lack
 of modification by individuality, is typical in the highest measure of metal jewelry: it is always new; in untouchable coolness,
 it stands above the singularity and destiny of its wearer. This is 
not true of dress. A long-worn piece of clothing almost grows to
the body; it has an intimacy that militates against the very 
nature of elegance, which is something for the “others,” a social
 notion deriving its value from general respect.

If jewelry thus is designed to enlarge the individual by adding something super-individual which goes out to all and is
 noted and appreciated by all, it must, beyond any effect that its 
material itself may have, possess style. Style is always something 
general. It brings the contents of personal life and activity into 
a form shared by many and accessible to many. In the case of 
a work of art, we are the less interested in its style, the greater
 the personal uniqueness and the subjective life expressed in it. 
For, it is with these that it appeals to the spectator’s personal 
core, too of the spectator who, so to speak, is alone in the whole
 world with this work of art. But of what we call handicraft 
which because of its utilitarian purpose appeals to a diversity of
 men we request a more general and typical articulation. We
 expect not only that an individuality with its uniqueness be
voiced in it, but a broad, historical or social orientation and 
temper, which make it possible for handicraft to be incorporated
 into the life-systems of a great many different individuals. It is
 the greatest mistake to think that, because it always functions 
as the adornment of an individual, adornment must be an individual work of art. Quite the contrary: because it is to serve 
the individual, it may not itself be of an individual nature as little as the piece of furniture on which we sit, or the eating 
utensil which we manipulate, may be individual works of art.
 The work of art cannot, in principle, be incorporated into an-
other life it is a self-sufficient world. By contrast, all that occupies the larger sphere around the life of the individual, must
 surround it as if in ever wider concentric spheres that lead back
 to the individual or originate from him. The essence of stylization is precisely this dilution of individual poignancy, this generalization beyond the uniqueness of the personality which, 
nevertheless, in its capacity of base or circle of radiation, carries 
or absorbs the individuality as if in a broadly flowing river. For
 this reason, adornment has always instinctively been shaped in
 a relatively severe style.

Besides its formal stylization, the material means of its social 
purpose is its brilliance. By virtue of this brilliance, its wearer 
appears as the center of a circle of radiation in which every close-
by person, every seeing eye, is caught. As the flash of the precious 
stone seems to be directed at the other like the lightning of
the glance the eye addresses to him it carries the social meaning
 of jewels, the being-for-the-other, which returns to the subject
 as the enlargement of his own sphere of significance. The radii 
of this sphere mark the distance which jewelry creates between 
men “I have something which you do not have.” But, on the
other hand, these radii not only let the other participate: they 
shine in his direction; in fact, they exist only for his sake. By 
virtue of their material, jewels signify, in one and the same act, 
an increase in distance and a favor.

For this reason, they are of such particular service to vanity 
which needs others in order to despise them. This suggests the 
profound difference which exists between vanity and haughty
 pride: pride, whose selfconsciousness really rests only upon 
itself, ordinarily disdains “adornment” in every sense of the
word. A word must also be added here, to the same effect, on
the significance of “genuine” material. The attraction of the
”genuine,” in all contexts, consists in its being more than its 
immediate appearance, which it shares with its imitation. Un-
like its falsification, it is not something isolated; it has its roots 
in a soil that lies beyond its mere appearance, while the un-
authentic is only what it can be taken for at the moment. The “genuine” individual, thus, is the person on whom one can
rely even when he is out of one’s sight. In the case of jewelry, 
this more-than-appearance is its value, which cannot be guessed 
by being looked at, but is something that, in contrast to skilled 
forgery, is added to the appearance. By virtue of the fact that 
this value can always be realized, that it is recognized by all, tha t
it possesses a relative timelessness, jewelry becomes part of a
super-contingent, super-personal value structure. Talmi-gold
and similar trinkets are identical with what they momentarily
do for their wearer; genuine jewels are a value that goes beyond 
this; they have their roots in the value ideas of the whole social
 circle and are ramified through all of it. Thus, the charm and
 the accent they give the individual who wears them, feed on this
 super-individual soil. Their genuineness makes their aesthetic
 value which, too, is here a value “for the others” a symbol 
of general esteem, and of membership in the total social value

There once existed a decree in medieval France which prohibited all persons below a certain rank to wear gold ornaments.
 The combination which characterizes the whole nature of adornment unmistakably lives in this decree: in adornment, the socio-
logical and Aesthetic emphasis upon the personality fuses as if
 in a focus; being-for-oneself and being-for-others become reciprocal cause and effect in it. Aesthetic excellence and the right to
charm and please, are allowed, in this decree, to go only to a
point fixed by the individual’s social sphere of significance. It is 
precisely in this fashion that one adds, to the charm which adornment gives one’s whole appearance, the sociological charm of 
being, by virtue of adornment, a representative of one’s group,
 with whose whole significance one is “adorned.” It is as if the
 significance of his status, symbolized by jewels, returned to the 
individual on the very beams which originate in him and en-
large his sphere of impact. Adornment, thus, appears as the
 means by which his social power or dignity is transformed into
visible, personal excellence.

Centripetal and centrifugal tendencies, finally, appear to 
be fused in adornment in a specific form, in the following 
information. Among nature peoples, it is reported, women’s
 private property generally develops later than that of men and, originally, and often exclusively, refers to adornment. By contrast, the personal property of the male usually begins with 
weapons. This reveals his active and more aggressive nature: 
the male enlarges his personality sphere without waiting for
 the will of others. In the case of the more passive female nature,
 this result although formally the same in spite of all external 
differences depends more on the others’ good will. Every property is an extension of personality; property is that which obeys 
our wills, that in which our egos express, and externally realize,
 themselves. This expression occurs, earliest and most completely,
 in regard to our body, which thus is our first and most unconditional possession. In the adorned body, we possess more; if we 
have the adorned body at our disposal, we are masters over more 
and nobler things, so to speak. It is, therefore, deeply significant
 that bodily adornment becomes private property above all: It 
expands the ego and enlarges the sphere around us which is 
filled with our personality and which consists in the pleasure and
the attention of our environment. This environment looks with
 much less attention at the unadorned (and thus as if less “expanded”) individual, and passes by without including him. The 
fundamental principle of adornment is once more revealed in
 the fact that, under primitive conditions, the most outstanding 
possession of women became that which, according to its very 
idea, exists only for others, and which can intensify the value 
and significance of its wearer only through the recognition that 
flows back to her from these others. In an aesthetic form, adornment creates a highly specific synthesis of the great convergent
 and divergent forces of the individual and society, namely, the 
elevation of the ego through existing for others, and the elevation of existing for others through the emphasis and extension of 
the ego. This aesthetic form itself stands above the contrasts between individual human strivings. They find, in adornment,
 not only the possibility of undisturbed simultaneous existence,
 but the possibility of a reciprocal organization that, as anticipation and pledge of their deeper metaphysical unity, transcends
 the disharmony of their appearance.

I came across this review on AJF. It’s great. As always, what appears in bold, is worth remembering.
06 September 2011


Damian Skinner

Cindi Strauss (ed). Ornament as Art: Avant-garde Jewelry from the Helen Williams Drutt Collection. Houston & Stuttgart: The Museum of Fine Arts & Arnoldsche, 2007.
ISBN 9783897902732

This review was first published in The Journal of Modern Craft, v.3, n.2, July 2010, pp.269-272.

And so here it is, the enormous catalogue to the Helen Williams Drutt collection, acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) in Texas and co-published by that institution and Arnoldsche. Presided over by Cindi Strauss, curator of Modern and Contemporary Decorative Arts and Design, the publication is an extraordinary resource, packed full of analysis, images and the tools of art history (biography, bibliography, chronology and exhibition history). Divided into four parts, the book is in some ways a schizophrenic entity, in part an homage to and documentation of Helen Drutt and her collection (and in general the important role of the collector) and in part a scholarly contribution to our knowledge about contemporary jewelry around the world. It is also – and unashamedly – an old-fashioned catalog, featuring a carefully researched checklist of the collection.

Drutt’s contribution to this project is not overlooked. She contributes a somewhat self-serving essay called ‘A Golden Age of Goldsmithing: Four Decades,’ about the importance of collectors and their role as historical caretakers, securing history in danger of being lost by acquiring objects and narratives. Drutt is also interviewed by Strauss, which, while interesting, effectively duplicates and personalizes information we have read before in Drutt’s own text.

While there is much that is impressive here, the title – Ornament as Art – establishes one of the things that remains problematic about this catalog. Jewelry, with the assistance of the concept (and mythology) of the avant-garde, will be transformed into art. As Houston MFA director Peter C. Marzio writes in his foreword, the museum acquired the Drutt collection ‘motivated by the belief that fine art transcends all media and academic classifications.’ ‘The Drutt Collection attacks traditional academic, art-historical categories,’ writes Marzio. Accordingly, ‘This subversive challenge forces us to abandon certain conventional modes of thought and to redefine ideas of sculpture, painting, decorative arts, and so forth.’ Thus, the collection is intended ‘to open up the traditional categories of artistic expression, and to welcome “craft”, “design”, and “jewelry” into the galleries.‘ It’s notable that art is neither mentioned here, nor given speech marks – but of course not, since this is the defining term. Here, jewelry becomes art by ceasing to be jewelry and therefore part of the crafts. Jewelry, it seems, is not subversive enough to tackle the hierarchies of art history, or to affect the automatic assumption of fine art’s primacy.

While it’s common to imagine that the art versus craft debate no longer has relevance, there is still a lack of sophisticated analysis about this issue. This book disappoints because, putting aside the lack of rigor in Marzio’s foreword, the promise and premise of the title is never fully tackled. The major argument about jewelry’s status as art unfolds in Cindi Strauss’s essay ‘Minimalist and Conceptual Tendencies in the Helen Williams Drutt Collection,’ in which Strauss demonstrates how minimalism and conceptual art offer ways to think about a number of jewelers collected by Drutt.

It is nicely done. Strauss notes that the interdisciplinary nature of minimalism and conceptualism made them relevant to jewelry along with other fine art and craft practices. She also saves some agency for the crafts: ‘Many jewelry artists who were active in the major art-making centers and universities during this period also embraced elements of these movements, yet it is incorrect to imply that jewelry artists active between the late 1960s and the 1980s adopted their tenets in a wholesale manner. Rather, they utilized some of the strategies in forging their own artistic identities.’ She rightly suggests that the strategies of both movements hit jewelry as part of a larger shift in the field and that jewelry was restricted in its ability to conform completely to either: ‘Because of its reliance on form and not merely idea, jewelry, whether decorative, sculptural, or born from serious design and intellectual processes, is unable to adopt these strict conditions as defined by [Sol] LeWitt and others. For regardless of artistic or intellectual associations, what sets jewelry apart from other media is that the boundary between the idea, object, and the body cannot be completely separated.’ She demonstrates that Giampaolo Babetto, for example, made jewelry closely aligned with Donald Judd’s sculpture and the work of other American minimalists: ‘Like Judd’s Specific Objects, these three-dimensional works are neither painting nor sculpture (nor jewelry) but rather self-referential works that exemplify seriality.’

And so it continues, with references to David Watkins and Gary Griffin (Minimalism) and Otto Kunzli (Conceptualism). Strauss concludes, ‘The intersection of Minimalist and Conceptual strategies with contemporary jewelry presents new frameworks for understanding jewelry, frameworks that reinforce the validity of art forms across media, regardless of function. . . . Jewelry that prioritizes ideas, whether Minimal, Conceptual or something else, refuses to be pinpointed as simple adornment. The result is that, by removing artist-made jewelry from the realm of the expected, its true nature and possibility can finally be experienced and realized.’

In actual fact, what is realized is not jewelry’s true nature but its nature as art, which means adopting a submissive and provincial relation to fine art. Discussing Babetto’s minimalist jewelry, Strauss writes, ‘The fact that they were made from precious materials and required the hand of a craftsman would have negated them ideologically in Judd’s eyes; however, the lineage of influence still remains strong.’ Jewelry, it seems, can only ever be poor Minimalism, compromised Conceptual art, which surely leads to the question: why bother making it into second-rate sculpture? Why not leave it as really good jewelry? And why not make the case that Babetto’s jewelry actually challenges the legitimacy of Minimalism’s conclusions, offers a critique of Minimalism’s limitations?

But the main problem I have with Strauss’s discussion is its restricted terms of reference. As a platform for arguing the premise of the book – that jewelry is really art, and can play with the big boys – why choose such a limited focus as minimalism and conceptualism, which at best only relates to a small portion of this collection? There would be a range of other possible ways to effect this transformation, including appropriation, relational aesthetics, postmodernism – even modernism itself would get as good and much more inclusive results. Indeed, the first section of the interview with Helen Drutt makes the case for modernism very strongly. ‘I had never seen a brooch before that could be identified so closely with the aesthetics of fine art,’ says Drutt of her first purchase, a brooch by American jeweler Stanley Lechtzin. Take modernism as a movement of philosophical propositions about art – not as an aesthetic or stylistic phenomenon – and you have the tools to argue that almost all of this collection is art.

As a reader from outside North America and Europe, one of the most notable things about this publication – and Drutt’s collection – is its geographical inclusiveness. Drutt really got around the globe, making connections overseas and getting to far-flung locales where contemporary jewelry was happily being produced. To her credit, Strauss works hard to maintain this global outlook in the book, especially in the essays on featured works in the collection. Between two and twelve pages each, these texts are well-illustrated and comprehensive introductions. Most hearteningly, they sustain the awareness of the breadth of contemporary jewelry practice happening all around the world, not just in Europe or America.

But this dynamic is hard to juggle and at times Strauss’s act comes tumbling down. In her essay ‘A Brief History of Contemporary Jewelry, 1960-2006,’ an almost impossible task, Strauss writes from a kind of moving geographic position, shifting zones as required to lay out the significant movements and ideas of contemporary jewelry internationally. The essay is focused on infrastructure, sociological information about groups and networks, exhibitions and institutions. In part it is a checklist, demonstrating the depth and breadth of the Drutt collection and revealing how this collection gathers authority through its encyclopedic coverage of jewelers who have been central to the practice from the 1960s to the present.

Yet there is also something limited about this presentation of international jewelry discourse. The Drutt collection is great because it allows for a wide range of locations for contemporary jewelry; people all over the world get a look in. Strauss also pays attention to a varied array of countries in her essay. But much is flattened, homogenized. This isn’t global jewelry discourse so much as European one masquerading as something international. The opportunity to challenge definitions of contemporary jewelry practice is again not fully capitalized on. The catholic selection of jewelers working in varied and often conflicting ways, suggests the real possibilities of Drutt’s collection to construct some kind of international jewelry discourse to which everyone is invited. But Strauss’s attention often seems to be elsewhere.

The limitations – indeed the impossibility of what Strauss and this publication set out to achieve  – is most on display in the chronology in the appendix. This heroic but ultimately doomed exercise results in a surprisingly detailed document that is at the same time extremely parochial in its concentration on Europe and America (with a sprinkling of Asia and Australia thrown in). I’m really not sure it is even meaningful to try and achieve something like this, since either everything from everywhere is included (clearly impossible) or the chronology can’t support the scope of the collection and the international story it tells.

This very interesting and impressive publication is required reading for anyone seriously involved with contemporary jewelry. The problematic aspects of it are not unexpected, since what project with this kind of grand ambition would not suffer speed wobbles somewhere along the way? But it seems to me that some of the limitations of this project are intimately tied to Helen Drutt and the way her stamp is felt everywhere in this book. What might have been possible if Drutt herself was less central to the end result? This book is a lavish celebration of an amazing collection and an extraordinary resource that the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston is lucky to have. But as a monument to one woman’s activities, it becomes a flawed representation of contemporary jewelry and, for all its marvelous aspects, somehow less than one would hope for.