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Rethinking Decoration

I just read a fascinating book about a theory of decoration. It’s “Rethinking Decoration: Pleasure & Ideology in the Visual Arts, by David Brett (Cambridge University Press, 2005). Sarah Burgess recommended the book to me – Thanks, Sarah!

Brett is a very well-read fellow, with a decent knowledge of the history of aesthetics as well as any number of other fields. In this book, he’s thinking about decoration, but the problems that decoration face are almost exactly the same as those faced by craft. So, any traction he can get for decoration will probably apply to craft.

Brett realized that a theory of decoration must be different from any past or current art theories. It must accommodate a broader range of experience, including the somatic. At present, there is precious little theorizing about bodily aesthetic experience, except perhaps in the specialized cases of feminist and queer theory.

Brett also realized that decoration is often a form of coded social meaning, a fact that James Trilling (in “Ornament: A Modern Perspective”) ignores. Instead of radically narrowing the realm of decoration, Brett’s sense is expansive. Brett thinks of the social codes embedded in ornament as a form of ideology, which is normally understood as power relations. But he thinks mostly about pleasure.

To arrive at a broad definition of pleasure, Brett investigates pre- and post-natal experience, when the infant supposedly cannot distinguish between self and environment. The deep desires and pleasures of this oceanic experience are the basis for many later pleasure, Brett claims, and serve as the foundation for his theory of the many pleasures afforded by decoration. It’s a very interesting thesis.

At the end of the book, he contributes a chapter on craft. For the most part, he relies on Dormer’s sense of tacit knowledge – that which is known, but cannot be explained – but he draws a rather different conclusion. In the end, Brett declares that modern ornament is weak because so many of the traditional forms have been jettisoned. Obviously, he hadn’t seen the recent revival in decoration in jewelry, textiles and ceramics. The most recent piece of craft he illustrates is a raku vase by Lee Segal, made in 1991.

Some of the research he cites is shaky: what does Julia Kristeva know about the pre-natal experience? He takes no account of evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology. And to be truly persuasive, his theory of the pleasures of ornament would have to speak to an experience that can be only located in the regard of ornament, not the other visual arts. His conclusions on this issue are murky.

“Rethinking Decoration” is not a fast read, but anybody who is serious about clearing an intellectual space for craft should read this book. The immediate comparison is to Adamson’s “Thinking Through Craft.” Adamson spent most of his book calling up one art theory after another, ultimately writing that he couldn’t think of much to say about his favorite Art Carpenter chair. I thought that was a massive cop-out. Brett, in contrast, takes relatively little from art theory, except as a foil to his own thinking. Because of this refusal, I find Brett’s book far more appropriate to the problems of thinking about craft.

“Rethinking Decoration” can be found on Don’t make the same mistake I made and buy a copy at full price! I paid over $100. Used and resale copies are much cheaper.

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