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Why Decoration Is High Art


Classic Cluny lace doily

It’s the easiest thing in the world. You don’t even have to think. Just invoke the D-word during a critique, at any fine arts academy in the world, and watch the artist crumble.

“It’s decorative.” In other words: trivial, shallow, trite, banal, unintelligent, and unworthy of further consideration. (“Feminine,” is implied but not spoken, as that would not be politically appropriate.)

decorative [dek-eruh-tiv, dek-ruh, dek-uh-rey] : adjective :

1. serving or tending to embellish or adorn

2. Fine Arts. serving only to decorate, in contrast to providing a meaningful experience.

Pop quiz: Does this serve to embellish or adorn, or does it provide a meaningful experience?


Rose window at St. Paul’s Church, Salinas


What about this?


White Shell with Red, Georgia O’Keefe, 1938

Or this?


Michael Jackson and Bubbles, Jeff Koons, 1988

It was at a Jeff Koons lecture in 1988 that I discovered the power of the word “controversial.” “Controversial” art gets people angry. They talk about it. The fact that they’re talking about it makes it famous, and therefore salable for large sums, and therefore valid.

The fact that it’s talked about because the visceral reaction of any sane person to the sculpture above is, “I can’t believe that asinine piece of kitsch is passed off as ‘serious art’ by professional adults” is entirely beside the point.

It’s easy to make people angry. All you have to do is throw poop at them. Monkeys know this.

Decoration, by contrast, has subtler objectives. We may decorate to find a mate. Or to feel “at home” in a space. Or to create feelings of joy, inspiration and awe in the beholder.

Those feelings aren’t merely subjective, either. They create measurable physiological responses; our heart rate changes, endorphins flood our bloodstream, our immune systems flourish and we live longer, healthier lives.

This is hard-wired into our brains. Humans have decorated our environment since we discovered the use of tools. It’s as though we’re driven to imbue every facet of our lives with beauty and significance, using every medium from thread to stone.


The greatest of decorative arts can create a shift in the viewer’s consciousness, a meditation on the sublime.


Labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral

At that point, “meaning” itself starts to seem trivial. Not to mention facile and bland.