“Real art, like the wife of an affectionate husband, needs no ornaments. But counterfeit art, like a prostitute, must always be decked out.” – Leo Tolstoy, What is Art?, 1898
In the mid-20th century, art was dominated by a rather formal language of abstraction. Minimalism, Formalism and Conceptualism made up the artistic mainstream. To call an art work decorative was to deride it. Then, in the 70s, the Pattern and Decoration movement (P&D) was formed to revive the highly sensuous language of ornament and free it from the label of triviality. It challenged what Joyce Kozloff, a major figure of both P&D and the Feminist Art Movement, called the “dumb blonde theory of art”: the belief that something that is beautiful cannot be intelligent. After all, P&D artists not only expressed an affinity for the formal aspects of patterns, but also raised issues of identity, power and gender.
The political dimension of the movement becomes obvious when one considers that the rejection of ornaments as legitimate subject matter is specific to modern Western art. In the artistic production of some cultures–as in Islamic art, for instance–ornaments even play a pivotal role. In Western traditions, however, ornaments and decoration are associated with femininity and domesticity, and are relegated to the ‘minor arts’.
To uncover the ideological implications of this, Kozloff and her P&D colleague Valerie Jaudon examined the language of art history, which assigned decoration a lower place in the high art/low art hierarchy. In their essay Art Hysterical Notions of Progress and Culture (1978), they brought to light racist and sexist assumptions underlying the depreciation of decorative art. While this may seem less relevant in our own times, when racist and sexist attitudes have improved, one should bear in mind that our (Western) tradition of art theory is based on texts that are clearly discriminatory (see quote above).
The perhaps most extreme example can be found in a text that is said to have informed modernist architecture: Ornament and Crime by Adolf Loos (1908). Loos argues that civilized people do without ornament, and that the use of ornaments marks a lesser state of existence: “No ornament can any longer be made today by anyone who lives on our cultural level. It is different with the individuals and peoples who have not yet reached this level.… I can tolerate the ornaments of the Kaffir, the Persian, the Slovak peasant woman, my shoemaker’s ornaments, for they have no other way of attaining the high points of their existence. We have art, which has taken the place of ornament“ (Loos after Jaudon & Kozloff, 1978).
Image: Courtesy of the artist. RED is my name, 2008, digital drawing
© Parastou Forouhar
In the last decade, ornamental art has re-established itself in the Western art world, perhaps due to an increasing interest in non-Western art. A contemporary artist who really impressed me with her ornamental art is Parastou Forouhar. The Iranian, now living in Germany, employs ornaments to reflect on Western perceptions of the Orient, politically motivated violence (certainly in reference to the murder of her parents by the Iranian secret service), and the role of women in the Islamic world.
The strength of Forouhar’s works lie in their ambiguity; she contrasts the alluring beauty of the ornamental with distressing motifs. The resulting tension accounts for her works’ intensity. Her series RED is my name, GREEN is my name, illustrates this technique. The digital drawings depict small green and red patterns, which [upon closer inspection] consist of male genitalia or weapons. These patterns are disrupted by human figures, which are subjected to violence. Forouhar herself offered the interpretative key for these works in an interview, explaining that they deal with hidden structural violence. Everything that does not subordinate itself to the prevailing order is “made unseen”.
Jaudon, V., & Kozloff, J. (1978). Art Hysterical Notions of Progress and Culture. Heresies, 4, 38-42. Retrieved April 3, 2011, from http://deadrevolutionariesclub.co.za/node/59
Frauke Ehlers holds a B.A. Arts & Culture with a specialization in Arts, Literature, and Culture, and is currently a candidate for the MA Arts and Heritage – Management, Policy, and Education at Maastricht University, Netherlands.