Abstract Answer: Decorative details

After my last clarifying post, I hesitate to use the phrase “Abstract Answer” in my title. But since this is continuing the same series I’m going to roll with it for now. I may change all of the titles, if I decide how, for this series in the future.

From the discourse between Tim Jones and myself this week, “I think the problem is not that the abstractionists think too highly of decorative art, but that they think of it not near highly enough.” Interestingly enough, I was having very similar thoughts in relationship to our banter.

What is decorative art?
In one of the later comments from this week, the Old World Swine author gives the basis for his understanding of decoration:

    “decor… 1897, from Fr. décor, from L. decor “beauty, elegance,” from decere (see decorate).”

    Above from the Online Etymology Dictionary, etymonline.com

In my post in this series titled Baseline banter I charted out how some different tactile arts fall along the lines of the art vs. craft debate. Wikipedia — and yes, I still respect this resource even though they didn’t get it right with the abstract vs. non-representational understanding — describes decorative art almost exactly like my graph defines the crafts. This was a bit of a surprise to me at first glance, but after a few seconds it seemed reasonable.

Jones now firmly believes that all non-representational artwork should be classified as decorative art. The following points examine this idea.

There is a problem, off-hand, with labeling non-representational artists’ work as decorative. It implies, whether intended or not, that they are not as serious as other artists. This is a complex issue I probably don’t have the time or room to get into fully, but it’s there. It harkens back to the eternally elusive definition of art itself. For instance, where does one, along the above graph, begin referring to something as a craft instead of as an art? Do the arts/crafts in the middle of the chart get called both? Are all of them both to a certain degree so that it doesn’t matter what we call them?

In truth each of the above contains both art and craft, and the more I think about these things the less I care about what things are called, despite my keen and continuing interest in this conversation. Some people create beautiful and meaningful paintings, some create beautiful and functional furniture. My hope is that each of these craftsman thoroughly enjoy what they are presently involved with.

I may be a bit of an oddball anyway. I enjoy designing and building furniture or sketching floor plans as much as I enjoy attempting to be a part of the gallery art world. Hence, this blog aims to examine this same range of tactility.

This may be a trickier point still, and one that hits a little closer to home for me. Jones says the following in a comment on Aesthetic Escalator:

    My contention is not that this art communicates in a way too subtle or not-literal-enough… this art doesn’t communicate intentionally in any way at all, which makes it decoration, which is great… but it should not be placed in the “fine art” category at all, IMO.

    This is not to denigrate decorative art! I love decorative art. I just think we need to be clear that this is not in the same universe as the Isenheim Altarpiece or anything remotely like that.

    I enjoy (really!) a good deal of abstract art, as long as there is none of this pretense about “stripping away cognitive barriers” or being some kind of gateway to a higher perception, or passing beyond mere actuality to a deeper spiritual mystery, bah, blah…

This goes directly back to my own comment, which really stoked the fire this week, where I sincerely exclaimed that “I personally fail to see how fruit in a bowl is more engaging than certain [non-representational] works.” Jones doesn’t think non-representational work, no matter how well-executed, communicates at all. To him, nicely painted fruit in a bowl is all kinds of talkative.

Is this realism vs. abstract vs. non-representational banter all for naught? Does what communicates to a certain type of person determine what they like in the arts? I’ve suggested the same here before.

But what about the artist creating non-representational works that he or she intends to communicate? The painter or sculptor has an idea and puts their tool to the canvas or stone. They know from the get-go that not everyone is going to understand exactly what they’re trying to say, but they stroke and carve regardless of this knowledge. Jones derides such pretense as “stripping away cognitive barriers or being some kind of gateway to a higher perception, or passing beyond mere actuality to a deeper spiritual mystery.” While I’ve never heard of such ideas in exactly these words — his first two points are admittedly bogus — I understand what he’s getting at.

But I can’t entirely agree with his third observation. I believe — and here we go again with the personal references — that non-representational art can represent certain spiritual mysteries. It doesn’t take much reading to realize this is the case for painter Makoto Fujimura. He, through his non-representational paintings, intends to communicate. Like him, I believe that non-representational art can speak to people. Not to everyone, but some of us. Just like bowls of fruit don’t necessarily say more than “I’m a bowl of fruit” to others.

The better half
My wife is getting bored with this debate between Jones and I. I can see why. A number of things I’ve noted in this series have already come up in the last year, and it’s not likely Jones and I will ever see eye to eye on all of these things. Maybe not most of them. But that’s all right. God gives each of us different interests, insights and talents to be used for His glory. We won’t always understand what he’s doing in or through someone else within the Body.

I do sense that this last round of bloggy exchanges helped clarify a number of things on my own end, however. In large part, that is what this blog is about: A place for me to work out my own ideas, thoughts and observations. As I go along in this process, I do hope my writing will help readers to “see better” in the words of Betty Spackman.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at pcNielsen.com.

2 Responses to Abstract Answer: Decorative details

  1. Tim J. says:

    I’ve been meaning to delve into these posts, but I have been swamped.

    Some posts are fairly easy to digest and respond to, but these are a meatier type that deserve more thought. Besides, I need time to self-edit so I don’t embarrass myself any more than usual.

    I would say that the idea that decorative art is less “serious” than fine art is one of those persistent myths that need to be scuttled. Art is art. Good decorative art has its own magic. It isn’t the same magic as pictorial art, though.

    As I was saying to someone else today, I want to be fair to the strengths of non-representational art, while being realistic about its limitations. One point that I would like to get cleared up is the idea that European artists of the early twentieth century were inventing something new, when in reality abstraction is as old as art, which is as old as people. The whole concept of abstraction being a bold, evolutionary leap, a new window into a broader spiritual sense of artistic expression, is just farfel.

    I think everyone who enters these kinds of discussions runs the risk of analyzing the subject to death. It’s like trying to dissect a soap bubble. Chesterton talked as if he believed we could never – this side of heaven – fully understand what art really is and what it does.

  2. TAE says:

    “One point that I would like to get cleared up is the idea that European artists of the early twentieth century were inventing something new, when in reality abstraction is as old as art, which is as old as people. The whole concept of abstraction being a bold, evolutionary leap, a new window into a broader spiritual sense of artistic expression, is just farfel.”

    Interesting you should mention this; I’m reading a book on Picasso I picked up used and have been surprised at how the writer attempts to make this farfelly point you point out. I’m starting to wonder why he’s so revered; a lot of the his work is very scrappy, and I don’t like it. He possessed the eye and craft to do well, even with his exploratory ideas. But looking at a lot of his pieces — in a very nicely printed book — make me feel a lot more confident in my own craft!

    And more to your point, abstraction has been around for ages, ages before Picasso (and his compadre Braque).

    I do still think that Guernica is a very successful painting, but at this point I’m wondering how much I’ll come away respecting this artistic icon.

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