Expansive Poetry & Music Online Essay 
Reflections on the Decorative in Art
essay by Arthur Mortensen

The moment that he entered the apartment I had the feeling that the household had become bewitched.  I never found out how he actually did it, but there was no solid object, no implement or piece of furniture, which did not undergo a subtle change, in the process of which it lost its everyday prosaic function.

                           Hannah Arendt on Randall Jarrell, Men in Dark Times

The old warhorse had been to a thousand openings in his life.  A fine abstract painter, one of the originators of the Indian Space movement in the 1940's (obscured by the hype surrounding abstract expressonism, but recently revived), he was not the sort you'd find today at a poetry reading, politely applauding and praising verse as soporific as a vacation in Sweden during the winter.  Entering a now long-closed but then-famous and pricey gallery, he raced to see the advertised special by a painter he had known for decades. Upon seeing the piece, he turned on his heel, stopped briefly by the desk to address an employee of the gallery or perhaps the gallery owner, and shouted "this is shit!".  Asked to explain, he said "it's decorative nonsense, boring, a pastel of Sandy Hook without the overaged nude bathers or screaming children or of rural Vermont without the tourists."  He and such direct speech about art have long passed lamented into history -- lamented by the few survivors of his barbed reactions, to be sure, but lamented nonetheless.

Decorative is one of harshest critical judgments on a painter's work nowadays as well;  today, the connotation of "decorative" is sentimental, silly, denying, or, for Puritans, gaudy, extravagant, sexy, and for fans of John Stuart Mill, pretty but not utilitarian.  Among office architects, decorative is a bad judgment to get on your elevations and blueprints, because an office is for profits, not for attracting attention.  This was not always so.  Look at the now-feared Islamic world, where the Koran's text is used to decorate mosques; to lay these words out in elegant and complex designs is to praise the word of their god.  No Florentine pastor during and after the Renaissance was ever abused for decorating a cathedral; every church in the city is an art gallery, the subject matter generally Biblical, but frequently from classical myth,  the treatment nothing that Oliver Cromwell would have tolerated.  However, wouldn't the staunchest critic of the "merely decorative" blanche at describing a painting by Masaccio decorative?

Of course they would.  It all turns on how we interpret the word.   To a Modernist, decorative is denying all but pure form and pure innovation.  To a post-Modernist, decorative is to allow meaning to what they want us to believe is nothing but a dead convention.  To a feminist, decorative is a picture of a woman that a man might be aroused by.  To a Baptist, decorative is a stained glass window with a picture of Christ in it.  To a social historian, decorative is a sentimental story about the soldier from Montpelier who won a personal battle during the German advance into France in 1940.   To a biographer, decorative might be a Marxist's belief that historical forces were all that mattered in how Proust wrote a novel.  Is there any way around all of this relativism?

Of course, common sense, held in the lowest possible regard by our most advanced thinkers at Yale and Harvard, might suggest the following.  Imagine that you were born on Manhattan Island in the 41st century BC, when, if you survived disease, accident, exposure, and puberty rites, you would then find that life was all about hunting, keeping the cave free of rats and cougars that might bite your hand off or kill your child, having territorial fights with neighbors and other groups, and hoping to sleep those nights when someone else had to tend the fires.  Having solved those problems, and with an excess of intelligence, as human beings have had in matters of survival for all of our known (and speculated) time on earth, what might you do to fill the time?  What do contemporary mill workers do?

The latter is easier to answer, as it doesn't depend on historical theses to support an observation.  With cave dwellers in pre-agricultural time, we can propose that wall paintings were talismans meant to invite the souls of hunted animals to the tips of our spears, and we can suppose that cave men sat fascinated with fat stone dolls, thinking of future parenthood and sex.  We can suppose a lot of things, and there has never been a shortage of available (but only plausible) "proofs," but we cannot possibly, cannot ever know.  But with the folks at the mill, it's easy to see what they do.  They go bowling.  They sit in a bar and tell stories increasingly larded with bullshit as they add to their bar tab.   They watch baseball, football and basketball games, telling stories of their own sagacity and experience in sports, becoming all-star would-have-beens, but-for-the-knee-injury by the fourth round of lager.   They go to movies.  They sit around the dinner table and tell stories.  They read books and magazines.  They play softball.  More than a few sit in front of an easel and do portraits of their children or pictures imagined or remembered.  Lots take photographs.   Not a few may write about a long ago time -- the Second World War, Vietnam, the Peace Corps, whatever.  These activities are how they decorate their empty time. And for someone thinking that these are nothing but trivial escapes, don't interrupt when they're occurring.  Don't risk your health by deriding a passionate fan discussing the merits of a double play.  Don't scorn a father's drawing of his daughter, or a mother's paragraphs about her days as a nurse in Korea.  Why?

Even at its most day-to-day level, such decoration marks a presence, a passing through, a record of a time, a place, and a person in a way that being an employee-of-the-month in picking pineapples or doing the accounts on a billion dollar product line can never do.  The latter are no different than meeting the week's quota in slaughtered deer in the 41st century BC, a necessity that anyone with the skill to do it must do.  Nobody has to draw a picture, read a book, write about a lost friend in a lost battle, or tell a story about their exploits on the basketball court.  Human beings would survive, however dully, without these deeds.  Does this suggest a different connotation for decorative?

For instance, Vienna never required music.  Business, diplomacy, the getting of goods and services for a normal life, housing, clothing, protection against the weather -- they mastered them well enough to have survived without Mozart or Beethoven, or the dozen architects who graced the city's squares and buildings, or the thousand painters that filled her galleries.  Society can manage without cocktail conversation about the latest symphony, or tipsy sarcasm on the latest painting by Poussin.  It might have been somewhat limited; conversations about agricultural subsidies and foreign wars tend to bore the brighter before long.  Even money has limits; you can only buy so many houses and have time to visit them.  One has yet to see the best horseman ride two horses at the same time.  Of course, the city would have been as dark, shabby and dull as East Berlin in 1963. What matter, though -- as long as you've got your health, right?

A friend who emigrated from Hungary after the tragic and aborted revolt against Moscow in 1956 described night life in his home town.  After dinner, he said, and just as he was about to go to bed, outside his window he'd hear a gradually building sound of trudging.  It would rise to a dull crescendo; finally, after years of listening to this, he looked out the window, forbidden by his father for fear of reprisals by the secret police.  Outside, on the sidewalks, and in the middle of the streets, hundreds of people walked slowly past his window.  They had nowhere to go; they had nothing to do but move from one lightless corner to another.  As soon as he adjusted to life as a high school student in Brooklyn, Peter began to see New York as a place where anyone could go anyplace at night, and they always were headed toward something to do or see.  New York is filled with such decorations, from the video arcade to the Metropolitan Opera House, from the corner pool hall to an editor's office at Random House, from a taxi stand to whole worlds that, to a utilitarian, are purely sentimental, silly, denying, gaudy, extravagant, sexy, and sometimes extravagant.   Whether Fidelio or The Terminator, rap or Robert Frost, a poster of Tom Cruise or a painting by Seurat, they spit in the face of dimwitted survivalists, whether a Marxist on vacation in Havana or the chair of an English department berating a poet for writing historical narrative in rhyming couplets.

In fact, it is fair to say that fine art is of essence decorative. As miraculous sauces were invented by the French to cover the flavor and smell of rotten meat, a great mural in downtown Mexico may give hope to an otherwise desperate and out-of-place campesino.  What a cynic might call a coverup becomes in a fine artist's hands a light in darkness.  You have only to follow the crowd through a museum to see this.  There are generally two classes of museumgoers:  the eternal sophomores who read the essays interpreting the works while quickly passing the real things; and people who, educated or not, are stunned by images, objects, shapes and colors, and in how they were arranged.  The former, whom you will see concentrating as much on hearing a docent's lecture as paying attention to an exhibit of Mantegna or David, have concentrated the decorative on themselves.  They are inflated with their sophistication; at cocktail parties, they will quote reviews and essays but, pressed to respond to the brushwork in Bonnard, or to the odd expressions Velazquez would sometimes put on royal subjects, they can at best offer social commentary via a contemporary deconstructionist; they have apparently not seen the art.   The latter, fresh from dull offices, from apartments where only their own furnishings cover architecture more suitable to a cell than to a home, and from roomsfull of screaming children and everyday woundings and pleasures, will come away perhaps abashed that they didn't read the essays on the wall, but in a restaurant afterwards will chatter for hours about color, polish, shape, form, story  -- beauty and narrative, as if they were the only things that mattered.   And if you asked a stupid question, such as "well, what do you need all that stuff for?" the chances are that one of them would say unashamedly "you don't" before continuing the prior conversation.

In such terms, decoration, and as it was understood long before modern connotations turned it sour, remains a mystery to polemicists, social historians, politicians, and some, but by no means all, accountants. Faced with bad decoration, such as a poem about a flower where the flower is all there is in the world, critics may justifiably be offended.  Faced with art that proposes to violate its own raison d'etre, such as a poem that proposes to teach lessons about foreign policy or the treatment of the poor, audiences generally react with scorn; they can get that stuff on the editorial page, or they can form their own opinions.  Art is decorative by nature; it isn't necessary; it is a flourish to spite a nature that doesn't give a damn about an individual life; it is a declaration by a whole city, as in Florence, of a view of a distinctly human world, a world apart from the quotidien, whether hunting for deer or feeding a child his oatmeal.

Where art becomes merely decorative is a hard boundary to define.  The writer thinks Chinese ink washes are silly and uninteresting; his wife thinks they're miraculous.  The writer thinks late Romantic symphonies are tedious; the writer's father thinks they're the greatest music ever written.   Another writer on this page thinks Norman Rockwell's use of color is "sheer delight;" this writer has always thought his colors were muddy and boring.   Taste, whether for quality in beer, or in judging the difference between Leonardo and Bronzino (the writer is told it's easy -- he's glad some are so certain), is not entirely personal but it's never thoroughly collective.  One only has to read about the fights between artists in Florence in the 1400s or in New York in the 1950's to realize this.   Each group had a similar, general aim; however, they were willing to ruin each other in disputes over details of what was best in realizing them.  Some succeeded, just as debates end in ruin for poets now.

The writer's guess on what is "merely decorative" is that it's art that appeases audiences rather than art that exploits an audience's expectations.  To him, it's the difference between Stephen Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick.   Both consistently filmed stories based on popular novels.  Both, by the very nature of the art they worked in, aimed at mass audiences, not the thousands of people who heard Beethoven, but tens of millions of people, whose only requirement for attendance was the now $10 for a ticket.  Spielberg's films have always struck this author (with a few exceptions, such as Schindler's List, which seemed created by another filmmaker altogether) as precious, fawning, with supermarket lighting leaving nothing to chance or to mystery.  Kubrick, on the other hand, took similar stories and, using almost formulaic storytelling techniques, led audiences into blind alleys and places they had never imagined before, at least until his last several movies.   One supposes there is a lover of paintings somewhere who would tell me that this is exactly the difference between Bronzino and Leonardo.

But one could never dispute that neither one of these were in any sense essential parts of the survival of the human species.  Both arose in times of relative affluence, when patrons (now called investors, but not very different if you look at the overall balance sheets) could afford to dump excess value, as Marxists are so fond of calling it, without either bankrupting themselves or endangering their lives to the vengeance of a starving populace.  Their art decorates our time, not only for its subject matter, which even in Spielberg can be compelling, but for its light, its structured beauty, and its insistence that we can focus in a world that often seems to be without eyes.

                          Arthur Mortensen

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