Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Decorative -- good or bad?

I have used the title "(something) -- good or bad?"  several times in the last couple of weeks, and maybe you think I'm in need of an imagination transfusion.  That's actually a family joke.  My niece Allison, a social worker, did a year of low-paid community service and found herself in too many discussions among her co-workers in which they earnestly debated the ethics and morals of, for instance, toilet paper.  Bad, because it uses trees and fouls the environment; good, because, well, you know.  So we took to suggesting debates along the lines of "Communication -- good or bad?" or "Sky -- good or bad?"

Today's discussion is prompted by a blog post by Elizabeth Barton about her new work.  She wrote, "But the few people I’ve shown the piece to have objected to it because they didn’t like the colours. They think of wall hangings as decorative items (whether they have a meaning beyond decor or not) and therefore should be in decorative, attractive colours." 

This post resonated with me, not so much for the underlying issue (should your work be attractive, or is it OK to use "weird" palettes?) or the really underlying issue (should you care what people think?) as for the totally superficial issue -- the use of the word "decorative."

I've been reading some books on fiber art and the struggle to get it into the art mainstream, and keep running into the argument that "craft" is different from "art" because, among other things, "craft" is so damn appealing to people!  They want to touch it!!  They think it looks good!!!  Good Lord, it couldn't possibly be "art."

"Decorative" is a dirty word in this critical view, a patronizing put-down of any craft, whether it's fiber or ceramics or glass or whatever.  It's even occasionally used for patronizing put-downs of painting that doesn't meet a critic's high standards.  Another dirty word is "haptic," which means it appeals to the senses.  By contrast, "art" involves thinking, not touching or feeling, and thus is superior to "craft." 

And yet we know that the great majority of quilts or other fiber pieces that are sold did so because buyers were attracted to the haptic, decorative aspects.  People don't buy things in any medium for their homes unless they are decorative, to a certain degree. 

A decorative quilt -- Log Rhythms 2

Sure, some people are willing to have a non-pretty, raw, in-your-face, visceral painting in the living room because they are moved by its message or its emotional strength.  But I suspect they are outnumbered by the people who do so to make a public statement about their disposable income and/or sophisticated taste in art, not because they really like the ugly things.  Artists like Anselm Kiefer or Francis Bacon who paint the dark side must look largely to museums and corporate collections as buyers rather than individuals.

And since most of us fiber artists can't command museum and corporate customers, we're stuck with individuals, and we're therefore stuck with their wish for decorative pieces for the living room (even if they don't match the sofa).  So decorative -- good or bad?  On the one hand, producing decorative work makes it easier to sell.  On the other, it may make the artist feel she's compromising her vision, and it certainly makes it harder for fiber to be accepted in the mainstream art world as long as the art/craft = intellectual/decorative dichotomy holds strong.


  1. Very interesting discussion. I think that artists have to do a lot of soul searching and be honest with themselves about their real goals. Is it money? Then most likely you have to either make more "decorative" art or be one of the very few fine artists who command huge prices. I don't think there's anything wrong with either of those or anything in between. I think the hardest part of the self-analysis part!

  2. I think art can be thought-provoking, heart-touching, startling, confrontational, and even beautiful and accessable! It can be all those things and so many more. I don't think it's less artistic to make something people like- as long as making it feeds your artistic goals too.