Jewels by JAR: Art or Commerce?

While commerce and art have always been intertwined, exhibitions of living artists present a conundrum: can a museum morally exhibit the work of a living artist who stands to profit from said exhibition? Many museums have done so in the past, but The Metropolitan Museum of Art has recently received a deluge of criticism for their exhibit on the living jeweler Julius Arthur Rosenthal, or JAR as he is commonly known. (1) A recent review in the New York Times critiqued the Jewels by JAR exhibition for “celebrat[ing] the often frivolous objects on which the rich spend their ever increasing surplus income.” (2) The price of the works displayed in any exhibition should be completely irrelevant. No one would question an exhibition of Impressionist paintings, although they sell for tens of millions of dollars and are often privately owned. Obviously JARs work is not comparable to masterpieces of painting, but he should not be immediately dismissed simply because he works in a costly medium.

Jewels by JAR. Photo via The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Contemporary art should necessarily have to be completed for the sake of artistic expression in order to merit an exhibition. The myth of the artist has been a pervasive force in art interpretation throughout history, promulgated in modern times by artists like Jackson Pollock, whose complicated and depressing lives seem to lend their works emotional subjectivity. These works often command outrageous prices; Pollock’s Number 4, 1951 commanded over 40 million dollars in a 2012 auction at Sotheby’s. (3) The separation between art and commerce is a blurry line. Paintings have always been commissioned and purchased by wealthy patrons, just as jewels have always been placed into beautifully designed settings.

What is truly problematic about the JAR exhibit is not a fiscal concern, but rather a curatorial one. There is a dearth of explanatory text and any sort of context for the show. The viewer is immediately drawn in through the shimmering surfaces and myriad colors that cover the gallery space. Rosenthal’s designs are completely unique: the expectation of large gemstones is subverted with the skillfully molded and sculpted surfaces of animals, bugs, and flowers. However, the viewer should not expect to understand anything that they are seeing. Without any sort of discernable organization, the exhibit washes over the viewer without leaving a mark. It is the curator’s job to provide context for the uniformed viewer, be it historical, intellectual, emotional, or otherwise. Without this knowledge, I walked through the exhibition space wondering what better use it could have been put towards.

Most students are willing to listen to any subject matter as long as it is presented in a dynamic manner. This requires a professor who is willing to explain the context of the material, and why the students should care about it. In the same way, it is the curator’s job to make the exhibition space convey the importance of the artwork displayed in it. Most viewers do not enter exhibits with prior knowledge of the artwork, especially when the artwork in question is a relatively obscure jeweler with only two prior exhibitions. (1) How can students be expected to learn anything if their professor has never shown up to class?

Other contemporary exhibits of jewelers, such as Van Cleef and Arpels and Cartier, have been presented without question as to their artistic merit. Although both brands are significantly larger and more important than JAR, the brunt of their success is due to the curatorial work. Instead of merely being displays for jewelry, they are transformed into a museum exhibition that demonstrates cultural, historical, and artistic value. In 2011, the Cooper-Hewitt’s exhibition of Van Cleef and Arpels presented the various broaches, earrings, and necklaces in well-lit cases organized by various stylistic themes clearly explained at the entrance to each room. The Cartier exhibit at the Grand Palais, which ran this winter, was primarily structured around its culturally and historically significant patrons, like Grace Kelly and Wallis Simpson.  In both exhibitions, the viewer was told why they should care about the works.

Jewels by JAR is not worth the entrance fee. I did not learned anything from the exhibit, nor did the poor lighting and careless display make it easy to admire the individual pieces of jewelry. Even if you are able to look past all of these missteps, the end result is unremarkable. While JAR heavily uses pavé to create various flowing, anthropomorphic shapes, not a single work caught my eye in particular. Without any framework for JAR’s work, I was thoroughly disinterested and disappointed in this incompetent exhibition.





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