Decorative – A Dirty Word

Breakfast at Sotheby'sLast November Philip Hook, a senior director at the famous auction house Sotheby’s, published his book about the art business. “Breakfast at Sotheby’s: An A-Z of the Art World” is partly about the art market – the money side, and partly about his 35 years of experience in the art world as an auctioneer and art expert. Reading down his irreverent glossary of words frequently used to describe, discuss and explain art entertained me no end. He takes no prisoners swiping at some of the ridiculous language employed to promote a work of art. For example;

challenging: obscure, incomprehensible or unpleasant, as in “X’s challenging Abattoir Series”
difficult: one step beyond “challenging”; applied to a work that is so obscure, incomprehensible or obscene that there’s nothing to do but admit it
accessible: euphemism for obvious or superficial (see decorative)
decorative: devoid of intellectual substance

Of course there is a serious side to all this. Here’s the conundrum; by its very nature art is primarily a visually experience and any attempt to describe it becomes a translation of the original. Still, we do need a stock of words at our disposal to share our experiences, but so often an ‘in-the-know’ jargon develops and this is what Hook is having fun with. I understand that any academic discipline has its own terminology and from my own experience I know that Art History is littered with special words – signifier is one of my favourites. But any general discussion involving a wider audience needs to be jargon free and clear. We see from Hook’s glossary that ‘decorative’ used about art is now a pejorative term.

Why then is ‘decorative’ a dirty word? I suppose with an intellectual approach to art, content is more valuable that any surface attractive quality. It takes a very secure contemporary artist to make a piece that is remotely decorative. But, if you review what sells at auctions, what is being collected and what commands the higher prices its surprising how often that work with a decorative quality is more sought-after. According to Hook he informs us that some subjects are more popular than others. For example, paintings of interiors have been selling well in recent times. Now, that is not all interiors, that is domestic interiors not the interior of churches etc and preferably paintings by certain, well-known artists such as Bonnard.

Le Petit Déjeuner by Pierre Bonnard
Pierre Bonnard, Le Petit Déjeuner.
Oil on canvas
63.5 x 95 cm
Painted in 1936
Christie’s, New York. 5 May 2011

Mentioning interiors reminds me of a comment made by one of my Art History professors, ‘Of course you do realise that often when people buy a work of art they consider how it will fit with their overall interior look.’ Hmmm, I don’t know about you, but that is sounding suspiciously as though some art, with or without intellectual substance, is viewed as ‘decorative’! Final thought – just measured my dining room and it’s not big enough for a dead shark in a tank nor will my bank balance stretch to a diamond encrusted skull. Oh well, I’ll just have to make do with this watercolour of an interior.

Conversation at Breakfast - D Hughes Watercolour (34 x 45 cm)
Conversation at Breakfast – D Hughes
(34 x 45 cm)

Author: agnesashe

Artisan, blogger and passionate East Anglian working from home.

6 thoughts on “Decorative – A Dirty Word”

  1. I have enjoyed catching a couple of those Fake or Fortune (it that its name?) series on the BBC. The art world seems a very dangerous place to dabble in, if you buy it more than for what it looks like.

    1. I guess people collect for different reasons, whatever it is they collect. Value is often a factor even if it’s not financial, but I think buying just as a financial investment erodes the soul (bit of a soppy and old-fashioned view I know). Actually I have a couple of fakes. One is a copy of a Van Gogh my mother painted for me. I love it, but nobody would mistake it for the real thing!

  2. As I’m currently relishing this book and its insights in the art market I think I agree with you on this point – ‘decorative’ has become something no modern artist with money in view wants associated to his work, despite its popularity in auction rooms. But then it’s a cumulus of things which justify this view. Decorative pieces don’t usually expound concepts that are intellectually stimulating. And since its major component, its ‘decorative-ness’ is a matter of high subjectivity…

    1. I’d be interested around what period/date you think that art which could be considered decorative no longer contained the intellectually stimulating. I totally agree with you that for a contemporary artist decorative is a big no. But when do you think this sentiment began. Perhaps with Picasso’s ‘Les Desmoiselle D’Avignon’?

      1. I don’t think there can be found any clear date after which ‘decorative’ became a pejorative term. cubism, of course, made the largest contribution to this perception but the impressionists too challenged the academic view of ‘decorative’ works

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