Thinking of Home
In speaking with a couple of artists about the difficulty of selling art in Quebec, I apparently used the word ‘Decorative’ to explain why one artist might sell more than others. I don’t remember using the word, I am aware that Quebec artists are sensitive to it, but if I did, I certainly didn’t use it negatively. Unbeknown to me, however, this artist took it so. Luckily, she called and asked for clarification
I have what I suppose can be called an ‘European’ - or is it Asian? - attitude to art. I do not stratify the value of works by placing so called Fine Art at the apex of a pyramid with Crafts as its base. The usefulness of an object, its ‘popular’ or cultural heritage, its medium or technique, these are not its automatic disqualifiers as fine art objects. Nor is its ability to beautify or integrate decoratively into an environment. Besides the artist’s INTENT, what in my opinion distinguishes art objects from each other is whether they are well made, have a strong aesthetic presence and can stand beside other work of the same medium, aesthetic or intent.
It is clear from museum collections and from what people value as cultural icons that great functional pieces can stand shoulder to shoulder with great conceptual or purely aesthetic ones. Works that are not valued long-term are those in which the artist’s focus on its structural and visual properties, or lack of focus, detracts from its conceptual qualities, if it has any.
To me, the issue of something being Decorative relates exclusively to private ownership questions. Is it something with which people will want to live? If so, is it something that can enhance and enrich the owners’ experience of using the object or of living with it? Once owned, is it something that can sustain that relationship on a permanent basis? And, over time, can the relationship evolve to span multiple levels of response?
To our artists in this province, at least to many of the ones I deal with, the word ‘decorative’ is seen as so pejorative as to cause debilitating bouts of self-doubt in the one at whose work it is leveled. Here, it denotes kitsch, holiday souvenirs, images that match the furniture or blend into a décor and are forgotten until re-decoration time, at which point they are garage sale bound. The very concept of ‘Decoration’ has been so abused and misused that the very word has been demonized in our art millieu. That goes a long way to explaining the level of sales in this province, and perhaps elsewhere in North America as well.
Do we blame universities that focus on the concept rather than on the esthetic (as if ‘esthetic doesn’t include concept)? We could except works that have a Decorative value do need to function on both visual and philosophical levels, they have to engage both the senses/emotions and the imagination/intellect. Good university arts programs go there.
Do we blame government granting agencies that favour so-called ‘experimental’, supposedly ‘cutting edge’ and obsessively ‘new media’ works and create competition between traditional and contemporary approaches? We could, if artists competing for grants feel they must work to the grant’s requirements rather than to their own motivations and modify their practice to get it. Their work then becomes more self-conscious and perhaps more self-important when they succeed than actually relevant in their culture.
Do we blame galleries for their gradual descent into pure commercialism and furniture stores for buying ‘made-in-China’, mass-produced knock-offs or supposedly decorative objects?
Do we blame the educational system that is commandeering art to teach everything except art to students? Sure because people then have no idea how to relate to or interact with art objects, whether they are traditional or contemporary, and only respond to them on the ‘decoration’ level, unable and unwilling to go beyond it, and perhaps convinced that they shouldn’t need to try.
Another problem with this part of the world is that artists have become so defended against the idea of Art being Decorative, and so defensive about that association, that we’ve created a sense of alienation between our Fine Art – Heaven forbid it should be ‘Decorative’ – and the public. We’ve scared away many who might otherwise have wanted to hang it in their living rooms; they now go appreciate it only in museum collections or during exhibitions in galleries.
Once Fine Art went from artist’s studio to private home, maybe via a gallery. Eventually, if it had all the necessary qualities, it might have ended up in a museum, Now, much of it languishes in artists’ studios perhaps until the artists die while too many people’s homes are decorated with kitsch and garage sale fodder which they’ve accepted as decoration.
It’s too bad, Because much of the Fine Art I see as a gallery curator is really excellent Decoration.