Friday, July 13, 2012

What is "Decorative Art"? DISCUSS

This week I've been asking myself just what is this thing called "Decorative Art" in the context of those who appear to define it by saying that it's something which isn't "Real Art".

I must confess I'm becoming a bit of a Show Me the Monet addict (see 'Show Me the Monet' - X factor for Artists?) - mostly because of the critiques by the panel which are incisive and in some cases highly opinionated.  It's very educational to see how people who judge art judge the pieces presented to them by artists from a variety of backgrounds.

For the most part I've been pretty much in agreement with their choices.

However one thing keeps niggling - and these are some of the comments which I keep hear being repeated.
"There's not enough "art" in this piece for me"

"This is decorative art and doesn't reach the standard I'm looking for"
They say them - but they don't explain them.

It struck me that the notion of what art is - and what decorative art is obviously vary depending on your perspective.

It made me wonder whether the term 'decorative art' was being used by the judges to refer to 'bad art' - or art of a 'lower standard' having 'mass appeal'.
  • Was it being used as a euphemism - a polite way of saying "This is bad art"?  
  • Was it being used to refer to art which tried too hard to look attractive?
  • Was it being used to reference art with no emotional inner meaning?
  • Was it being used in such a way as to negate the very positive aspects of what I understood to be decorative art?
It then struck me that the way The Hanging Committee were thinking might rule out anything by people like Grayson Perry (ceramicist and textile artist)  - who is an artist who comments on the social condition and is one of the more innovative artists around today.  Then I began to wonder whether this explained why so many people hadn't taken him seriously as an artist - until he became a Royal Academician.

Then I began to wonder about other artists who were not seen as "proper artists" because they failed to conform to the conventional idea of what is "real art".

Three Questions for Discussion

I'm turning this blog post over to my readers - here are some questions to get you started
  1. What is the difference between art (as in 'real art') and 'decorative art'?
  2. How does an artist know when they're making 'real art' and not 'decorative art'?
  3. Should 'decorative art' be spoken of in a disparaging way?
Do please feel free to COMMENT BELOW and add in your opinion of what is art and how you define decorative art - and what makes decorative art "OK"?

I've also added in some resources below which relate to decorative art

Gustav Klimt 016
The Kiss (1907-1908) by Gustav Klimt
180 × 180 cm (70.9 × 70.9 in) oil on canvas
Collection: Österreichische Galerie Belvedere
Gustav Klimt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Decorative Art - what is it?

Below are some links to websites which provide an alternative perspective on decorative art.

Academic Library
Art Museum
Art Society


  1. I'm becoming a bit of an addict as well, Katherine but I certainly experience a little skin crawling at some aspects of Show me the Monet. I quite like that rude David chap because I feel we are getting an honest and thoughtful response from him and he did love that wonderful bull sculpture. I'm immensely irritated by the female representative on the panel!
    I really wonder who can possibly judge what is or is not decorative art apart from the artist themselves. I'm glad you selected Klimt to illustrate your debate because he immediately came to mind for me too.
    Personally I would like to see the Hanging Committee make their judgement on the work first and then hear what the artist has to say about the work afterwards. To be judged fairly I think a piece of art has to stand on its own.

  2. Absolutely! That was precisely the conclusion I came to after watching the latest episode. They should have to review the art first and say what they think of it - and then have the artist in. The at least we don;t have to watch the artist squirming as David comes out with his latest lacerating comment. At least he does say when he thinks it's "bad art".

    I also keep having this niggling feeling some of the people have been put through because they have an interesting story (how art helped me beat breast cancer/brain tumour etc). Art is a great healer - but is it relevant to this show?

    I'm also beginning to wonder if we will ever see some really inarticulate people who make great art!

  3. I've caught the 'Show me the Monet 'bug too, Katherine, since reading your first post, and am finding much the same issues. I admire (really admire) the honesty, but don't see why it has to be accompanied by rudeness. And I have struggled too with the decorative art concept. I imagined that they meant something you might buy in a furniture shop qualified as decorative art - but I've also been thinking that it must be utterly subjective. Early on they argued about 'illustration' versus 'art' - but surely this would mean that they dismissed exhibitions of well known illustrators work, as somehow 'not art'... I look forward to the rest of your readers' responses.

  4. Oh goodie! Katherine: what a great subject, and one that has played on my mind for a long long time. I havent’ seen yesterday’s SmtM yet, but thought the one before very entertaining (the one where David got pretty direct about a lipstick-lady lying on a riverbed). I agree, the show would be better if we get to see their discussions, without the artist present. It might be more revealing and interesting.
    ‘Decorative Art’? Well, I suppose it was always art that ‘decorates’ something.So, historically, we’re talking about wallpaper, stained glass windows, furniture, fabrics, very close to craft and applied art, etc etc. So if you translate it into paintings I assume we’re talking about paintings that are made to look pretty or nice.
    Now for me this is where it gets problematic. I make paintings. I don’t think about it much but I wouldn’t call them decorative items. But that said, I have always thought that when it comes down to it, I am making pictures for on the wall. Nothing more, nothing less. They can decorate your house. Whether they are simply ‘nice’ or ‘beautiful’ or perhaps even ‘evocative’ or ‘confrontational’ or any word you’d want to fill in doesn’t really matter, or does it? It seems that it becomes ‘Art’ when it goes beyond ‘pretty’ and becomes ‘beautiful’ or when it goes beyond a street scene and becomes a comment on the urban environment. So it is the ‘beyond’ bit that matters. But ‘beautiful’ and ‘comment’ are vague terms and open to interpretation....Perhaps ‘interpretation’ is the distinguishing word here?
    Yes paintings are things that we hang on the wall - it decorates the wall. But when it is merely a pretty background it might be called ‘decorative’. When the shapes and forms chosen by the artists are only chosen because the ‘look nice’, it might be called ‘decorative’. When there is interpretation, meaning (aah that word!!), soul or it manages to touch the viewer, I think we’ve entered the realm of art.... did I paint that stroke just now because it looks nice or because it means something? AArch!

    1. Spot on Sophie - it was the lipstick lady who made me start thinking. As it happens I think they were spot on. This was a lingerie ad masquerading as the pre-raphaelites! Comments were rather blunt but accurate.

      It was a painting which for me was a classic case of what happens when somebody tries to amalgamate several features from photos into one work - the lighting goes to pot.

      Let's also not forget poor Lizzie Siddal, who caught pneumonia while posing for Ophelia for Millais! That was a painting which was much liked for its beauty!

  5. Me too, watching late at night on iplayer has meant that I have slept through some and had intermittent signal through others...however it is a very interesting debate, I love the Klimt as a suggestion of decorative art, it is massively decorative and also wonderful real art. I don't know the difference, not verbally but I think I know it when I see it, its an instinct thing for me. There is something invisibly shallow about "decorative" art, it has no smell but you can sniff it out. There has to be a degree of soul in a work of art, beyond nice to look at, beyond functional. Grayson Perry s work is a very good example, his work could be seen as decorative art or craft but it has the secret ingredient that takes it a step further. Its not enough to be good at painting/drawing/whatever there has to be the extra layer. This is so garbled because I think it is almost impossible to categorise, you just know it when you see it.

    1. I think you know it when you see it ONLY if you have been exposed to enough "good" "real art" that you can tell the difference both in terms of whether or not it is only decorative with no merit in an artistic sense

      My failsafe test is does it remind me of Kinkade and his glowing window paintings.

      The chap who did the lipstick lady in the wood was reproducing them as giclees and then painting tweaks on top. Run that bit again on the iPlayer and you'll hear him talking about what he sells.

    2. Just did, felt sorry for the poor lipstick man but agreed with the judges. Kinkade is a good test, sadly sometimes stuff like Kinkade sells very well but a good and proper artful soul should never, ever paint to sell, truth will out!!
      I am thinking on watching more of these programmes that they are not really looking for real art, judging by what they selected to appear on the programme, let alone the exhibition, I suspect they are looking to make a TV programme...I so wish there were more programmes about real artists and good contempoary artists, it would be so interesting to have regular slots about proper healthy painting and honest hard working artists, not hobby painting or x factor style programmes like this show me the monet thing...we are all watching because we are so starved of interesting TV about artists working today who arnt called Tracy or Damien or David or Lucien (I know he is dead) They were interesting TV but I just want more!!
      OK rant over, back to my easel now, I have a deadline!

    3. I think the problem with the BBC generally is it sacrifices quality for ratings. This is a tired format and it's fine so long as it also runs alongside more in-depth (but not arty-farty) programmes about successful artists sharing how they think and work.

      Sadly the latter seems to have pretty much fallen by the wayside - with the recent Grayson Perry programmes being the honourable exception. Shame we no longer find this sort of television experience at the dumbed down BBC and have to look to Channel 4 to provide this type of programme!

    4. the American Painting Video Magazine fills a gap that we should copy in the UK - unless the BBC does it. An online video magazine with artists interviews, profiles, reviews etc etc.

  6. It's a tough one. I know many people who love the mass produced craft items or the images from IKEA. And while I appreciate them I don't consider them fine art, but design.
    For me the art has to have some sort of intention and meaning and I've seen artists who have that, but their skill or technique can be a bit ropey. However I've seen folks who have amazing technical ability, but don't do anything with it, they just make pretty pictures. Nothing wrong in that, but they could explore ideas in a more interesting and inventive way.

  7. Sarah puts it well - and it is very very difficult to define for me as well.

    You asked: Was it being used as a euphemism - a polite way of saying "This is bad art"?

    I think No - or it shouldn't be. That's too much of a generalisation - there should be specific reasons given. Explanations of what is bad are needed.

    You asked: Was it being used to refer to art which tried too hard to look attractive?

    I think sometimes yes - pretty pretty (Kincaid) with no depth of ideas involved. Not sustaining. Good paintings are ones you can visit again and again and feel something new about them.

    You asked: Was it being used to reference art with no emotional inner meaning?

    I think yes, though the emotions/inner meaning don't have to be highly intellectual, may be purely visual but again, have depth, some sort of resonance.

    You asked: Was it being used in such a way as to negate the very positive aspects of what I understood to be decorative art?

    I think no - decorative art can have more depth as in Sarah's examples. Frank Bowling, Modigliani or Rothko can be very decorative - but there is more to them than just that.

    Not a very articulate explanation as, like Sarah, I find it difficult to explain!

  8. One of the problems is that what often started out as cutting edge innovation...after time becomes so popular...e.g. renoir...that then it is thought of as decorative. It became a point of fear when I was doing a fine art degree...if someone said .."oh that's a bit decorative" you were never sure whether to defend or change direction. now I don't care too much as the word anyway means ...something that you work at to perfect...even the art of blogging!

  9. Yes the term decoration was clearly used in a derogatory sense.

    However, you only have to look at the works of art decorating the gifts on sale in the gallery gift shops to realise the distinction between art and decoration is often blurred by popularity and mass production.

    Perversely it does not seem to work the other way round, i.e. “decorative art” produced solely for commercial decorative purposes is seldom if ever considered “fine art” by the art establishment - hence the derogatory reference in SmtM

    So perhaps it all boils down to a question of quality, not decoration versus fine art - and in this respect “Show me the Monet” should also educate while entertaining. I suspect the judges do in fact offer constructive criticism off camera, but that does not make good mass appeal television. Why do I think that?, because one of the artists “valued the constructive feedback” whereas nothing of the kind was shown on the actual broadcast.

    How about widening the debate to consider the following:

    1 Can decoration ever be considered fine art?

    2 Can illustration ever be considered fine art?

    3 And following on from today’s Show me the Monet, can fine art ever be created solely on the basis of photographic reference?

    1. You've raised some excellent points David - and I'm happy to widen the debate along the lines you suggested

    2. Second thoughts - maybe not the last one as that diverges from the topic of this thread which is decorative art (and because it's a whole debate on its own!)

  10. I have not seen the show to which you refer. Our BBC programming access is limited in the US, however, I wanted to weigh in on the use of 'decorative' as a dismissive.

    The essence of artfulness is that it is a gift, from artist to viewer and that gift is at least sensed and hopefully treasured. 'Intention', for better or worse, is somehow infused into the work.

    'Decorative art' means mass-produced art. No self-respecting painter wants to know their work was purchased because it matched the drapes. Why? Because the assumption is that this is the ONLY reason, and therefore their 'gift' was missed.

    So when 'Decorative' is applied to a 'serious' art entry, it is either an insult to the artist's skill, or they are calling out the artist as being more interested in sales than in quality. Their intentions are showing.

    This is why Kinkade suffers from the decorative category, and I really feel for him in this. In his defense, he was articulating the very dreams of a certain generation of middle America. This is what they truly dream of...impossible gardens, homes all aflame with love and security, etc. To 'ordinary' people this is ART because it speaks to them, it is about them, and for them. It matters not at all to them that he made it affordable via giclees and licensing. Without this they would have not been able to touch it. His work touched the audience for which it was made and THAT (IMHO) is the definition of art.

  11. Here is in my mind a very interesting link to the site of the late art critic Clement Greenberg:

    As we know Matisse was critizised for making "decorative art". If it was decorative or not I feel that Greenberg is right in saying that Matisse's influence on art nowadays is still big.
    Judgements like "decorative" art, "real" art or whatever sound rather snobbish to me. We live in an age where there is no status quo. All that matter is the quality whether it be abstract, figurative, a combination of the both, video art etc.

  12. Karin - Many thanks for the link. It's a very useful addition to the debate - as are your own comments.

  13. For those who can‘t see the show some clips are on you tube.

    In my point of view the most important aspect for an artist is authenticity. If his work is “only” beautiful or decorative but it represents the artist personality 100%, so let it be. By saying your art isn’t good enough because it’s decorative a critic is implying that there is something wrong with the artists personality. Actually that is kind of snobby.

    Why is it so hard to accept all the different kind of art branches which exist? In music people don’t seem to have these reservations. Folk, Country, Classic and Modern music happily co exists in their own right.
    In the end it is about being able to touch the soul and evoke emotions and this might differ a lot according to the viewer.

    It just occurred to me: In modern contemporary art which is sold for high prices, how many times has an artist heard the comment: “ My 4 year old daughter could do this.”?

  14. Wow, not much to add to this discussion as its always been a puzzle to me. I had a friend at art college whose work was always dismissed as 'illustrative' rather than 'art. However, another friend whose final show was pouring paint down a wall, was considered worthy of 1st class degree?
    I have just watched 2 of the shows in question and there was one instance when they used the word 'decorative' and that was the textile work in the first show - Queen Mandisa
    by Kudzai Sibanda, I wonder if there was a bias because it was a textile work and so is not traditionally considered 'art' or a cultural bias as it seem no more 'decorative' than the first painting picked, 'moment in time' by Gillian Lee Smith. In fact I was surprised the first one was considered as it seems all too much like the work you will find on Etsy. Not that is bad but if they are saying they are looking for innovative work, you only have to look on the internet and you will find a bucket full of such painting. As I am inclined in that direction, its something I see all the time. In fact if you look up Gillian's website you find she is indeed offering work on Etsy.(note its temporary closed, no doubt due to the success of the show)
    As to a previous comment about IKEA, 'while I appreciate them I don't consider them fine art, but design' so all the mass production of Monet, Matisse etc plus the work of one of Katherine's urban blogger friends can just be dismissed as design is absurd!
    Personally I have given up on categorising work and just try to assess it on my reaction to the work and the maybe the technical skill but not necessarily so. My boat is rocked by many different things, what is my art maybe your complete opposite.

  15. I am getting in a little late here.
    Haven't seen the shows but 3 good questions.

    Question 1:
    We certainly have to have some kind of definition in order to have worthy discussions.
    I think the wikipedia definition is good for that. It breaks it down as it has been applied through history right up to today where much of it now called applied art or design.
    So its fine to categorize by 'fine art' and 'decorative art'.
    Interesting to note, both fine art and decorative art include 2 and 3 dimensional mediums.

    Though there are always some gray areas. Klimt, by your example, is thought by some to be decorative and that's a fair assessment since some styles or schools of 'fine art' (painting in this case) were born out of the (traditional) decorative art movements like Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and the Arts and Craft Movement, spilling into 'fine art' forms like prints and painting. Influences run both ways.

    Question 3: That is not to say it should be disparaged though.

    I agree with some previous comments that much of it is snobbery and says more about the person using the term than the art itself.
    Instead of using 'decorative' as a criticism why don't they (critics) just cut to the chase and say 'lower quality art' or some term a little more direct, say what you mean.

    I personally don't place that kind of pecking order on art since I equally like pottery/ceramics, drawing, painting, glass, photography, design (auto, industrial, interior, graphic etc), illustration, sculpture, architecture, textiles etc. They are just different mediums to me.

    So I don't give decorative art a negative connotation.
    Quality or lack of is more important, regardless of where it fits into the definition.

    But quality does not always have to mean the best technically either. A lot of great art has 'soul' or 'the artist themselves instilled in the work' but is not the best technically and that why it is great.

    On the flip side of that, some decorative art is intentionally void of the individual artists personality, answering first to the larger 'brand name' or manufacturer as in famous glass, ceramic and pottery studios, but does not suffer from a lack of quality, beauty or meaning. The individual artists and designers must still have the highest skills.

    Question 2: "How does an artist know when they're making 'real art' and not 'decorative art'?"

    I would say check the definition but remember there are gray areas.
    Really though, who cares? The critics do but most of them don't MAKE art themselves.

    What are your intentions? What is the purpose? How will it be used?
    If you are a solo artist, put yourself into it. If you work for a 'brand name' do your best work and be proud of it.

  16. Thank you David - a very useful contribution to the discussion!

  17. Decorative Art would be a work of Art made predominantly for decoration... to embellish a space.
    Art is very complex thing to define because many people feel Art should be A certain way...
    Looking through Art History one can infer that Art is made for a number of different reasons. whether we like the reasons they are being made or not.
    Decorative should not be a dirty word... but I would understand why an Artist would take it as such.
    Art in my opinion is concept driven. It is trying to define a concept... from the artist perspective...
    art does not have to be pretty... art just needs to successfully express an idea.
    I commend the producers of these shows that try to bring more attention to the arts....
    but you can not make Art a competitive sport...
    because art strives to be higher than that...
    it is supposed to help us understand the world we live in and each other.
    so by making it a race you lower the dialogue.
    I have not seen the show.
    But many people use great art to decorate spaces... so they are in essence using the works of art as decorative pieces.
    I could be wrong

  18. I looked at the definition of "decorate" in the dictionary and it says: make (something) look more attractive by adding extra items or images to it.
    Based on that definition, isn't any piece of art decorative? I struggle with the concept of trying to qualify art, ie. "decorative" art, "real" art, etc. Isn't beauty in the eye of the beholder? What is art for me might not be art for somebody else. I just remember when they used to say that Astor Piazzola wasn't really playing Tango and therefore disqualifying him as an artist!

  19. Hi Katherine,
    Your blog post and the discussion in the comments are illuminating. I'm struggling with the term "decorative" and trying to understand what is meant by "too decorative" as applied to a painting.

    I had just had a painting of mine critiqued as "decorative and contrived" which I find puzzling. I was experimenting with some ideas when I developed the concept. However, I wasn't trying to create a painting just to sell to a mass market.

    I don't want to be defensive, but I certainly find the critique puzzling.

    Anyway, your discussion gives me some insight. Thanks!


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