Thursday, November 25, 2010

In Defense of Decorative Painting

"That man who is without the arts is little above the beasts of the field." 
Haldane MacFall, The History of Painting
Well, if that's not a sweeping generalization I don't know what is. Fortunately, 'the arts' in this case is such a broad term as to render this comment weak: Is any of us not 'with the arts'?

Things seem to have changed a little since 1911, however. There is an effort (mostly from the marketing department) to compartmentalize these arts into high and low, drawing an arbitrary line in the sand between Decorative - and/or Commercial - and Fine Art.

This distinction is a relatively recent trend. William Morris would not have agreed with it, that's for sure, nor would a whole host of others who were perfectly at home with their work hanging in a gallery, or printed on a plate. Yet since the advent of Modern Art the notion of the decorative element in painting has been sidelined as irrelevant, even beneath contempt. God forbid your work is described as 'pretty'.


One glance at Islamic Art and Architecture and it becomes obvious that Art can be both 'Decorative' and 'High' at the very same time. So why is it that a simple Google search of 'decorative painting' yields not much, if anything, in the way of crossover between high and low Art? Why is it that the headlong race to separate from populist art has left a vast dustbowl in its wake?
"This apparent absence of internal critical writing may be because many lowbrow artists began their careers in fields not normally considered fine art, such as illustration, tattooing and comic books. Many ... are self-taught, which further alienates them from the world of museum curators and art schools.
Many in the art world have deeper difficulties with lowbrow's figurative focus, its cultivation of narrative, and its strong valuing of technical skill. All these aspects of art were deeply disparaged in the art schools and by curators and critics throughout the 1980s and 90s." Wiki
Yawwwn, I'm sleepy. 'Everyone I have ever slept with' by Tracy Emin

And yet, so much Art these days seems to mistake being brazenly incoherent for some sort of street profundity, dusting off the art-terrorist tag to protect against accusations of being pointless and just downright ugly. Take Tracy Emin. No really; take her.

But let's face it; who wants ugly Art? As far as I'm concerned, all Art has a major decorative element. The market tends to bear this out: despite annual protestations over the 'death of painting' it is the very sale of paintings that keep the galleries afloat. In hard times, galleries fall back on their roster of painters to help pay the rent, leaving the fiscally riskier work of video and installation in the back room until times are good enough again to wheel it out. Doesn't that seem kind of, I don't know, Commercial?
Some of the 16,400 Google image results for 'Jasper Johns Flag'

There's a great story about Jasper "the flag guy" Johns who, after realizing great critical success in the Art world by stumbling upon the decorative use of the American flag as High Art, decided to put all his early works in a pile and burn them in effigy. It always struck me as a great Wizard of Oz moment: terrified lest someone draw back the curtain (or flag), and reveal his art as 'merely' decorative, he scrubbed the trail leading up to it and left the critics to hail him as a genius.

Takashi Murakami

Yet somehow, certain artists such as Murakami manage to slip through the critical net and get away with creating purely decorative painting, while being at the same time lauded as ironic commentators on the nature of decoration and consumerism. It's a handy critical trope that enables them to neatly sidestep accusations of being shallow. But what's wrong with their just being pretty pictures? Perhaps exhibiting his work in Versailles is less a juxtaposition than it is a perfect match.

Critics seem to have forgotten the answer to the question that every child knows instantly: What's your favorite color?

People like paintings on their walls, it's as simple as that. They add a splash of color, and we like what they say about us. We project meaning onto them, adore them as at an altar, and sit back as they reflect at a dinner party that we are wise, cultured and willing to throw money around. But they better not put you off your meal, so for goodness sake make them pretty.
"The over-scaled compositions being produced by so many abstract painters, which are full of movement and use of color, are ideal example, ideal transformations of an entire wall and entire room.... There is no denying that one of the major attractions of these successful large compositions is their structural decorative use in the contemporary scene... That these large canvases can be superbly decorative may not be considered complimentary by some of the artists involved"
Van Day Truex, Interiors, Character, and Color
So what if they don't find it complimentary: here's to Decorative Painting! Thank you, and good night.

15 comments:

  1. Nice one!
    If i hear one more vapid artnik blather on about this or that artist's supposed "rigorousness" I'm gonna heave. One of the criteria i apply to art (including my own)is whether one would take it with as the bombs are dropping. Beauty, grace, and human stories will undoubtedly take precedence over irony and false naivete.
    Bring on the Bombs!

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  2. Steve, it was our conversation that sparked this rant. So there's two of us now...let's storm the barricades with badger-hair softener in hand!

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  3. Fantastic, Al!!! Thanks for your Thanksgiving rant and opinion of decorative painting and 'fine art,' which is a social term, in my mind, that helps in the segregation of the two terms. Especially with the advent of contemporary art, and the popularity of 'size matters,' there is without a doubt that the quote at the end by Van Day Truex is spot-on. Love the Jasper Johns bit, too.

    Regarding 'fine-artists' such as Jeff Koons or Murakami, these are business men/decorative artists. They certainly aren't the ones putting the brush to the canvas, the camera on the subject, the enamel on the sculpture, or even in some cases, creating the design. They have teams of workers (in Koons' case, 50 in sculpture department, 50 in painting, and 25 or so in computers) creating every piece. Koons' makes/sells at least 3-5 paintings ranging from $1mil - $5mil, and 1-2 sculptures a year starting at $7mil. This is all assembly line work. Sound like anybody you might have learned decorative painting techniques from?

    Hell, I wish I could sell my 'fine art' ideas to clients or designers as easily as i can strie or the shitty venetian plaster, but that ain't the game, nor meat that's going to put food on the table or money in the bank. Anyway, thanks, buddy.

    Happy holiday weekend!
    jp

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  4. "Instead of reacting against the minimalist impulse that is still prevalent today, ornamentation could now blend with it and ease the sense of alienation that has been the trademark of the twentieth century."
    Veronique Vienne, Metropolis, August-September 2002

    I like this quote from Job Smeets of Studio Job: "We just move on with our own story; so we are loose from what is done in the world of design. We don't even care about design,we don't care about art, we just make the things we want to make because we want to be free."
    Cheers!
    Kim

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  5. Thanks Kim, and you're right: It should be enough just to be centered within one's own creative vision, and not to care what happens outside of that.

    I love that Smeets quote. I linked to that interview with him in another blog post. Their genre-defying work is very refreshing, and makes me realize just how creatively constrictive definitions can be if we let them bother us...which I guess I did in this post.

    Thanks for the reminder that it's not really important what everyone else thinks.

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  6. Proverb:
    "It is not what you are called, but what you answer to."
    Source: (African)

    Kim :-)

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  7. I'm taking a blogging class with Allison Carruth at Stanford continuing studies. Our main text is Clay Shirky's "Here Comes Everybody". I can't resist this one last quote (please don't hate me:-) "But there's one compensating advantage for the people who escape the old system: when the ecosystem stops rewarding complexity, it is the people who figure out how to work simply in the present (like Job Smeets -kd), rather than the people who've mastered the complexities of the past, who get to say what happens in the future." [From Clay Shirky's Thurs. April 2010 blog post.]

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  8. On a mental "high' after attending the workshop with Carolina D'Ayala Valva, I was in a shuttle heading to the airport..the driver asked me what I did...I said "I am an artist"...(after painting for four days up to ten hours a day, I certainly felt like one)...he immediately asked,,,,"Oil or acrylic?" and what type of canvas I used....sigh....I just said "acrylic" and left it at that.
    I am tired of feeling like the stepchild in the art world! I think Europe understands and appreciates decorative art more than North America.
    I will continue to paint what is in my head and my soul and educate the people around me about the incredible world of decorative ornament.....(sorry, guess I needed to get that out!...will step down off of the soapbox now.)

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  9. High vs Low art -"Let others make that decision, they usually do..." (Sondheim)
    Laughing through the tears. I've straddled the fine/commercial art for all my working life. Saying I'm a sculptor gets yawns, saying I worked on movies gets attention. Yet when I realized that monsters and dead bodies were what would pay the bills, I left LA and rarely looked back.
    Working is the point. Any art that helps pay the bills and keep us going is fine by me.

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  10. I am surrounded by those who have truly extraordinary talent and possess a vast knowledge of history and an innate sense of design and artistry. They are decorative painters and in my heart of hearts, I call them what I believe they are: artists whose work will be well regarded into future centuries. Of course, the amount of research, preparation and imagination that it takes to create decorative ornamentation is not taken into account -- if masses could see the process, I believe the art form would elevate. (Maybe seeing the process of art that I consider sub-par would change my mind as well but I can't see how it would compare to the creative discipline required of decorative painting.) This unfortunate need to box artists into separate categories with different hierarchy levels frustrates me -- and I agree with Theresa that Europe appreciates the artistry for what it is. Perhaps the US is set for an eyeopener.

    A recent request to change the description of a person from "artisan" to "artist" gave me pause. I thought long and hard about how we react to the descriptions assigned to us and we project and continue this cycle as well. It will take a breaking out and serious education of not just the art world, but of designers and related industry folk as well. I'm glad you posted this, Alan, and I'm glad you're one of those -- with this blog and your work -- that is helping to change these assignations and perceptions.

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  11. werd! i started out when beauty was a pejorative term in fine art and wandered into this because of what i was attracted to. i rarely worry about whether my work is too commercial, or not enough. it supports me in more ways than one. what else matters?

    btw was at the walker art center last week and the garderobe area is all wallpapered by mirakami. it's just hilariously great.

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  12. This is from Regina Garay of www.fauxology.com (re-printed with her permission), regarding the above blogpost:

    "I am surrounded by those who have truly extraordinary talent and possess a vast knowledge of history and an innate sense of design and artistry. They are decorative painters and in my heart of hearts, I call them what I believe they are: artists whose work will be well regarded into future centuries. Of course, the amount of research, preparation and imagination that it takes to create decorative ornamentation is not taken into account -- if masses could see the process, I believe the art form would elevate. (Maybe seeing the process of art that I consider sub-par would change my mind as well but I can't see how it would compare to the creative discipline required of decorative painting.) This unfortunate need to box artists into separate categories with different hierarchy levels frustrates me -- and I agree with Theresa that Europe appreciates the artistry for what it is. Perhaps the US is set for an eyeopener.

    A recent request to change the description of a person from "artisan" to "artist" gave me pause. I thought long and hard about how we react to the descriptions assigned to us and we project and continue this cycle as well. It will take a breaking out and serious education of not just the art world, but of designers and related industry folk as well. I'm glad you posted this, Alan, and I'm glad you're one of those -- with this blog and your work -- that is helping to change these assignations and perceptions. "

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  13. I agree Alan and enjoyed this post very much. Speaking of JJ's bonfire, I believe Michelangelo was also accused of destroying his early works so that for posterity he appeared to emerge as a fully formed genius. (by the way)

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  14. Thank you for an excellent post; it was fascinating to read and I agree with you wholeheartedly!

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  15. Wow!! what a creativity , really very beautiful post,I love this,thanks for sharing.

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