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Profound perplexity.

Isabelle Frank, editor The Theory of Decorative Art: An Anthology of European & American Writings, 1750-1940. Yale University Press, 424 pages, $22.50 (paper)

"What are the decorative arts?" That is the first sentence of Isabelle Frank's introduction to her superb new anthology, The Theory of Decorative Art. In the "decorative arts" department at, for example, the Brooklyn Museum, one finds "period rooms" (including a re-creation of a seventeenth-century Dutch farmhouse), chairs, tables, beds, jars, dishes, pitchers, and sundry items of fine porcelain, glass, and silver. The period rooms, with their fine moldings, are indicative of the way most museums subsume all of architecture under the "decorative arts" heading. Indeed, as some of the essays in Frank's volume attest, locating the precise dividing line between architecture and decorative art is not possible. (What is the difference between an architectural detail and a decorative detail? Often one cannot say. Are the false I-beams on the facade of Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building an "architectural" or a "decorative" feature?) The Museum of Modern Art and others add "industrial design" and "product design" to the mix. Some of the authors in this book discuss clothing, jewelry, and tattoos as species of decorative art. It almost seems as though the field is so broad as to suggest there is no such field. And, as the essays in this book again attest, no theory of decorative art can even attempt to encompass all that we place under that heading.

This volume is an expertly selected and annotated collection of essays written between 1750 and 1940 on the characteristics and aesthetics of the decorative arts. The book presents many well-known writings, conveniently gathered together for the first time, as well as several lesser known essays, including some that David Britt has newly translated, from both French and German, for this volume.

This unequivocating passage, on England in the early eighteenth century, struck many readers of John Wain's wonderful biography of Samuel Johnson (published in 1974):
 It was a place in which ugliness was very rare; indeed, with the important
 exception of the ugliness that disease and disfigurement produce in human
 beings and animals, ugliness was unknown. This alone would make our England
 and Johnson's into two wholly different places. To us any object, from a
 city to a teaspoon, that is anything but hideous is immediately recognized
 as something special, probably the work of some world-famous artist. In his
 day there was probably no such thing as an ugly house, table, stool or
 chair in the whole kingdom.... [T]he main reason is known to all of us. It
 is that industrialism, by moving people away from the natural rhythms of
 hand and eye, and also from the materials which occur naturally in their
 region and to which they are attuned by habit and tradition, cannot help
 fostering ugliness at the same time as it fosters cheapness and
 convenience.


Wain wrote of a period at the outset of the timeframe Frank has selected for her anthology. This timeframe is apt. Before 1750 there was little overt theorizing about the decorative arts. There was, indeed, little sense of decorative arts as such: as Wain suggests, "habit and tradition," not theory, were important. By 1940, we had theorized the decorative arts well-nigh to oblivion. Therein lies a story, told here in the voices of its participants, from d'Alembert to Frank Lloyd Wright.

So, what are decorative arts? The pithiest answer is that which lies between fine art and non-art. (E. H. Gombrich calls it "un-regarded art.") This is to say, a very great deal indeed. We are talking about anything from a teaspoon to a church fresco. The painter Pierce Rice makes the distinction between decoration and ornament. The latter he defines as pattern; the former as pictorial imagery. Rinceaux are ornament; a figure relief is decoration. I do not think Rice has any particular etymological standard for his distinction. It is useful nonetheless. A teaspoon is ornamental, not decorative. A church fresco is decorative, not ornamental. That is a workable distinction; pick different words if you want, with greater etymological resonance. The distinction helps us to make sense of this stew that lies between fine art and non-art. The stew exists in the first place because the Renaissance gave us the whole notion of fine art--painting, sculpture--as distinct from anything else that before then had been termed art. Nowadays, the decorative arts--and non-art--again dissolve into fine art, at least at the Whitney Biennial.

Frank divides her book into three broad sections, based on discernible approaches to the study of decorative art. The first section is on the function of decorative art, the second on the materials and techniques of decorative art, and the third on ornament. She rightly says that theorists have tended to focus on one of these three broad areas. In the first--and to me perhaps the most interesting--section, we find scintillating words from John Ruskin, so superb a describer and critic, and always worth reading and rereading, as here in his admirable adumbration of a hierarchy of function in the decorative arts. Frank packages Ruskin between two other great Englishmen, Pugin and Morris. Pugin was himself a decorator of enormous fecundity, indeed of genius, and his writings never measure up to his artistic practice. So do I feel it was the case with Morris. Their theorizing lent itself to inclusion by Pevsner among the sources of the Modern Movement. Here too are Semper and Riegl, and the sociologists Georg Simmel and Norbert Elias. Frank was very clever to include these latter two along with the art historians. In the second section, on materials and techniques, where much of the discussion revolves around the role of mechanization in decorative art, we again find Ruskin, the only writer to appear in all three of the book's sections. David Britt's new translations of Goethe, Adolf von Hildebrand, and Semper are reason enough to purchase the book. The final section, on ornament, contains the volume's more cockamamie offerings, including Adolf Loos's notorious essay "Ornament and Crime."

In section three we also find the Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, there being no one, I sometimes feel, who should have designed more and talked less. Sullivan is represented by an essay in which he seems to be calling for a moratorium on ornament in architecture, strange indeed from a man whose greatest contribution to architecture was as a designer of ornament. Sullivan's only competitor as an ornamentalist in the 1890s in America was Stanford White, who never wrote anything, and had no theorizing impulse, and who today seems the cleaner character for it. Not only did White not theorize but no one theorized on his behalf, so that one of the greatest flowerings of decorative art in the history of mankind, that which took place in America between 1880 and 1920, has no voice in this volume. These designers were anti-theoretical, having assimilated what Geoffrey Scott called the "canon of forms." This isn't quite what John Wain had in mind with his "habit and tradition," though, in fact, it is all about habit and tradition, transmitted through academies and ateliers, and through the European apprenticeship system that produced master craftsmen and that immigrant artisans transplanted to America. While William Morris ranted and exhorted on behalf of handicraft, Italian carvers in New York, working anonymously and off the books, sometimes moonlighting from their jobs in the studios of the panjandrums of sculpture, created some of the most intricate, finely modeled, and delightful relief sculpture to be found on buildings anywhere at any time. Go look at the Apthorp, an apartment house on Broadway and 78th Street in New York, built in 1906-08. Look up at the four fully modeled, classically gowned female figures in limestone on the facade. They are exquisitely carved, at a level of craftsmanship that can stand with anything. These are decoration, not ornament. They delight us, and I cannot believe they did not delight their makers--whoever those makers might have been, for we do not know who they were. So these may not be fine art. Their expression is an untheoretical, bred-in-the-bone transmittal of the classical canon. Their allegory, if it exists, is murky. We best appreciate them as the pure forms they are. They are perfect decorative art, and they have no theory, need no theory--only the imprimatur of "habit and tradition," so crucial to the building of towns.

Frank herself suggests that an alternative organizing scheme for the anthology might have been: the English, the Germans, and the Modernists. The salient distinction among some of these theorists may not be to which aspect--function, materials, ornament--they speak, but in the tenor of their approach, and of their speech. The English tradition of writing on the decorative arts--and on the fine arts--markedly differs from the German. The English approach, even when it attempts to be theoretical, shines in its empirical, inductive, descriptive way of seeing the world. The Germans were more systematic, more truly theoretical, and, for the most part, were historicists; they were exemplars, as the English were not, of Geoffrey Scott's "biological fallacy"--notwithstanding which some of these Germans produced works of magisterial acuity, as for example did Wolfflin, well represented in this volume with a passage, written in 1886, on ornament. One wishes that Frank had violated her temporal schema to allow as a pendant to Wolfflin some passage from E. H. Gombrich's Sense of Order, probably the most important contribution since 1940 to the theory of ornament.

In Frank's volume I feel the absence not only of Gombrich but of Geoffrey Scott, whose Architecture of Humanism, in my view this century's most brilliant philosophical discussion of architecture, speaks directly to the issues raised by many of the writers in Frank's anthology. Scott wrote The Architecture of Humanism in 1914, so it falls well within Frank's temporal compass. If one argues that Scott's book is on architecture and not the decorative arts, just read him on Ruskin or Pugin, and one will see how apposite his words are to the discussion carried on in the essays in Frank's volume. This is a mere quibble, however. Frank's is a rich and extremely useful survey of thinking on the decorative arts, and everyone should own it. Yale University Press has made a handsome book, reproducing images where appropriate from the original texts. Frank ably annotates the essays, provides biographies of the contributors, and supplies a good bibliography and index. If in any way the book disappoints, it is because writers on the decorative arts over a two-hundred-year period tended to disappoint, not because Isabelle Frank disappoints, for she does not. Overall, we see among these writers--that is to say, among those who bothered to write on this subject at all--a deep unease about their subject, an underlying sense that decoration and ornament need to be justified within strict boundaries, as though left untempered they will devour the world. Who among these writers thinks Rococo decoration is just swell? The answer is none. There is also a pervading sense of the decorative superiority of folk cultures or non-Western peoples.

In her introduction, Frank writes:
 By World War II, the theoretical debate about decorative art had in fact
 come to an end among Modernist designers and artists. Decorative art (or
 its equivalent denomination) had vanished from their vocabulary, replaced
 by such terms as industrial art, industrial design, or simply design, which
 clearly referred to a different type of artistic creation free of
 ornamental accretions.


The key, I think, is in what she says earlier:
 Although these attempts are fragmentary, many of them delve into the nature
 of artistic creativity and perception precisely in order to challenge the
 aesthetic canon developed by writers from the Renaissance to the eighteenth
 century.


Some of these writers, like Ruskin or Owen Jones, are hardly anti-ornamental. Nevertheless, they do exhibit the Romantic unease with the "aesthetic canon" of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Frank suggests that the desire to establish the arts of decoration on an independent footing--not subservient to the high arts of painting, sculpture, and architecture--fueled the challenge to Renaissance authority. Given that the decorative arts of the Renaissance were so splendid, I do not believe this challenge was necessary, but for purposes ultimately--as Geoffrey Scott wrote--extra-aesthetic.

Lacking as we do the sense of significant detail, and of the ordering patterns that "habit and tradition" and the "canon of forms" bequeathed to us, we toil today in a state of profound perplexity. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our debate over various proposals for a memorial at the World Trade Center site. We, as a culture, have no clue what to do. We are flummoxed. Some suggest that minimalism, a la Maya Lin, has become our new lingua franca of memorial making, as classical allegory and Scott's "canon of forms" were for earlier generations. Others suggest that minimalism is appropriate insofar as we wish to commemorate the morally ambiguous. But heroism? I submit we have theorized ourselves to lack confidence in the canon of forms, and it is just now that we may deeply regret allowing that to happen. This book is, among other things, an excellent starting point for understanding how it happened.
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Title Annotation:The Theory of Decorative Art: An Anthology of European and American Writings, 1750-1940
Author:Morrone, Francis
Publication:New Criterion
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 2002
Words:2204
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