Monday, October 5, 2020

Death and Decoration

These are random thoughts, inspired by a suggestion that I address the decorative in my work and by reading an article in Cabinet Magazine this morning on thedominance of rectangular form In Western art. My thoughts are sadly limited to my western euro bias, FYI, but I will say, I think rejecting decoration is a problem of European inheritance.


I used to tat lace.


Two great efflorescences of decoration are the Gothic and the Victorian (I don’t know enough about the Rococo and the culture at the time to comment, but yeah, throw them in there too!). I wonder if one could claim a connection between these cultures practices/obsessions with death and a tendency towards obsessive ornamentation? Of course, cultural preference/rejection for decoration probably follows a pendulum’s path of over-saturation and subsequent draconian palate cleansing. So, there’s that.

Could the rejection of ornament and decoration arise from a fear of death? There is nothing more terrifying than imagining our insides getting out. For this reason alone, people obsess on coloring inside the lines. If you can’t manage your histrionic expressions, what’s to say disembowelment isn’t next on the agenda? De-composition is, a process by which a seemingly integrated thing becomes literally dis-integrated.  Its encoded right there in the word, after all. Could it be that decoration reminds us of our own inevitable end? If art was only striving “to make order of chaos” as is sometimes claimed, decoration would indeed be a crime. When organic material rots, does it not come forth with a profusion of sorts which implies the decorative? When the dignity and authority of a person is devoured by a colony of shiny little maggots, don’t they look pearly and precious; at least if you can consider them beyond the merely disgusting? Aren’t the stages of de-composition the most florid, overflowing and flamboyant? Could decoration be an imitation of death because decoration represents a threat to the orderliness that ensures our insides don’t erupt from their confines? Is this why we love to hate it? 

Enjoy some random details of my work...

If there’s one thing I know about decoration, it’s that it does make it hard to discern the structure and it breaks down the confining outline—that which reassures us that what’s inside is inside and what’s outside is outside. Another comfortable illusion, but I will leave that alone for nw.

Curlicues, arabesques, frills, fur, fringe, lace, swirls, serifs, all manner of lavish flourishings, in all their particulate glorious detail tend to make for a diffuse border that threatens to dissolve whatever it is encrusting into its surroundings. Excrescence makes it hard to see the macro and the micro at the same time. By focusing on the minute, we can’t see the contained whole. Perhaps all this makes some people nervous.


I suppose it’s also possible that ornament and decoration are a Thanatic embrace of “the great unknown”.  An attempt to populate what must necessarily be a void in our imagination with a profusion of stuff. Usually stuff that is pulsating with life or, if abstract, visual energy. Is it an attempt to enact a sacrifice to God— “here, take this fascia, this repeating rosette, this dearest embellishment, this pearly extravagance, (from Latin extra "outside of" + vagari "wander, roam".)  instead of my actual children?” Is horror vacuii an escapist strategy to avoid the terrifying inevitable? Assuming that the decorative focuses on the small details, would that make it sort of the inverse of Romantic ideas of “the Sublime” (this could apply to Rococo and grottoes, cave vs the vast expanse of sky etc)? A deep dive into the eternity contained in the infinite infinitesimally tiny. Come back later, death! I’m busy—with an emphasis on busy (as in “the surface is busy with detail”).

Ornament.  I love it.


Is it a coincidence that when we toggled from obsessive funerary culture to an obsession with sex(iness) at the beginning of the 20th century that we went from ornament to brutalism? When we went from pondering the dissemination of body and soul into the heavens (or hells) to a firm consolidation of body into the corporeal—which no doubt is smart when you want to have the living be the consumers, not the dead, or god, what with their lack of cash and credit and all.

Although consumers tend to like ornament so maybe that theory is a flop. Or maybe it merely ensures the kitschification of ornament when the ultimate “end user” is us mortals instead of God?

I am pretty sure I use decoration in my artwork as I described Victorians and Gothic people using it above. Even as an atheist I have come to see the hellhound at my heels as one of god’s avatars. A god who craves bling. One whom I am most anxious to please, lest I or my loved ones be recalled before we are ready!  Although my own pleasure and that of the audience is of great importance to me, it is ultimately unwise to aim the work that low.  Apologies to all humans for what must seem a disparaging remark—I do not intend it to be so—just an indication that we are exceeded by the celestial empyrean at least in metaphor and believe me, nothing matters more to an artist than metaphor! And human connection always needs a lubricant and I can’t think of a better one than embodying love in various modalities both material and metaphorical and for some that means taking the time in ever-so-painstaking devotion to detail and embellishment of an object.

There's a reason I call myself a "Militant Ornamentalist"


I used to think each single instance or inspiration was the last one I would ever have. So, it would be nothing at all to invest a few months, if not decades in elaborate diversions into my imagination (not to mention materials and techniques) which is to say, decoration was and still is a way of creating a stay of execution most literally. I hope god is pleased. I am also aware that other people tend to like it too.  Win/win! Meanwhile, I find that I would rather work on one piece for a long time than many pieces for shorter times.  So long as I am in the midst of a project, I have a reason to wake up in the morning. I truly loathe beginning new pieces.  So, if I can drag out the process for a few months or years, all the better.


Apropos of all this, it saddens me that ornament and decoration are pejorative terms in art school critiques. Still!!!  (You would think by sheer force of time and fashion trends we’d be over it by now.) I do see a hefty element of sexism, homophobia and white supremacy in that—a rejection of notions that, for reasons of pure coincidence (and I could go into this…) have become feminized. It could be as simple as the curves of a female implying an indirect path that men (or those invested in securing their status as something different from a female), cannot afford to be deviated (or, more importantly, devianted) by as they focus on reaching super-linear goals. It is a way to maintain a white male images of male seriousness, of gravitas and genius.  A lot of males have bad association with anything that seems “sissy-like”, so goodbye decoration which somehow got cast as the domain of the female or gay man. It all seems rather capricious, but that’s how exclusion works.  You gotta have some set of traits that are the good ones—even if you are attaching these values arbitrarily.

In fact, these motifs are increasingly become my whole game.


And then there is the dependence on hierarchical understanding of art history; as if art could somehow progress! As if one could install a certain aesthetic as “top of the heap”. It’s ok to be influenced by “primitive” but make sure to establish dominance over it...yadda yadda (see Adolf Loos for the ultimate and hilariously dated explication of this and watch how he sticks decoration as the lowest of the low, because …well, just cuz. Mainly because he didn’t like it..and why…oh the circles you will go round...)  Rejecting ornament in no way ensures you have secured the true path to enlightenment! It’s just a reassurance de jour that seemed all kinds of right in the mid 20th c back when ideas of “purity” were allowed to persist. A form of Modernist reductive lunacy when we should have learned our lesson ca 1945.

Let me repeat that: any theory of aesthetics that disparages decoration because it “obscures the purity of structure” did not learn the lessons of extremist thinking about racial purity put forth by Nazis.  STOP IT. 


Finally, just because decoration reminds us of bottleflies on a corpse doesn’t mean it doesn’t make our brains turn on the pleasure juice switches. Why, why, whywhywhwywhywhy does sensual pleasure always end up reminding us of excess’ inevitable rot? That’s easy.  We are terrified that pleasure is temporary, and the true state of life is endless suffering so why get your hopes up?  And yup, life can be that way!  Everything we love will die.  But that’s one lousy argument for becoming an austere, celibate, pleasure rejecting fool. The problem with preciousness (in the itty-bitty-beauty-pretty sense rather than economic although they are related)—is that we suspect that if we succumb to our passion, we will be rendered so powerless in its presence and we go directly from dazzle to despair. That we will literally be inviting maggots to eat us. 

Because I said so.

So, we sometimes hate precious things. We sometimes hate beautiful things; we sometimes hate decoration and ornament. But you know what?  You were already powerless.  So, go out and enjoy some decorative art today!