Before the mid-20th century decorative art was the exception, reserved for those looking to exalt wealth and status. Back then walking through a well-appointed manor was like strolling through an eclectic gallery accompanied by a guide with the social awareness of a melon and the subtlety of a gorilla.
I was just minding my own business…
“I shot this big fella during a safari on the Serengeti two summers ago,” the host bragged while pointing at the stuffed head of a clearly pissed off wildebeest hanging in the great room. This was followed by a lengthy discussion of the man vs. nature struggle the hunter faced while taking aim 100 yards from his prey.
“Charles and I bought this exquisite piece from an artisan working in a tiny studio on some backwater street in Peking,” explained the hostess as she forced a small, lacquered box upon her guest who had the bad sense to notice it. She then offered an unprovoked and all too vivid description of Peking’s public sanitation practices.
“I commissioned Eakins for this portrait of Martha once I heard he was going to summer on the Cape. How could I not?” asked the proud husband as his visitor gazed upon Martha’s pained expression while simultaneously making a mental note to never forget the importance of roughage.
Callers to a cold-water flat in Hell’s Kitchen or a cabin in backwoods Kentucky were never greeted with an inventory of possessions, other than the variety of available alcohol. Early collectors of decorative art would have been more appreciated if they observed this timeless social custom: Above all, first liquor up your guests.
It’s not decorative, it’s literature
Today decorative art extends far beyond the realm of the privileged. Like high fructose corn syrup it is everywhere. From public spaces to modest homes, offices to clubs, restaurants to boutiques, museums and theaters to the streets and underground, decorative art lurks like a super germ itching to infect. And regardless of your station in life, everyone can play the game. You no longer need to be an entomologist to prop up dead insects in a case or a bibliophile to stock your shelves with classic pulp paperbacks. Truth is if a something can be seen you can damn well be sure someone has it on display, often in unexpected places.
Public restrooms are favored by budding Édouard-Henri Avrils and Peiter Geigers. They grace the stalls with crude drawings of fantastical skewed perspectives, drawings long on intent, but short on promise. New York City subways were once a haven for mobile decorative art until the city got tired of all the accurate assumptions. Doctor’s waiting rooms offer decorative distractions to stop you from checking your watch every five minutes. Corporate lobbies boast a weird mix of decorative art which reaffirms the truism that not everything which looks striking is actually pleasing. Even cars are not immune to the whims of the decorative artist. Maybe those enormous flames which stretch the length of a vehicle are meant to demonstrate raw power and a badass attitude, yet behind every lick of fire sits a sensitive soul with 18 inch biceps and trapped inner child. The especially insightful ones expand their medium beyond muscle cars. How else to explain a tricked out Taurus? Of course museums remain a rich source for decorative art, although they call it “collections” and get testy when you touch individual pieces. Curators forget many of the items they now possessively exhibit were conceived and created as decorative art for someone offering an artist a meal.
So yes, decorative art comes in many forms. Paintings, ceramics, posters, embroidery, photographs, furniture, beer cans and dead animal parts. Most anything can fall under its broad span. The Japanese, for example, are known for sculpting tiny pieces of accent art depicting the act of congress. Thankfully thankfully thankfully, this has absolutely nothing to do with John Boehner, Chuck Schumer, Ted Cruz or any United States Senator or Congressperson. People fill glass jars with olive oil and bright peppers, then place them on kitchen countertops for decoration. This is a fine idea until that inevitable stumbling-around-in-the-middle-of-the-night moment when art is mistaken for a half-empty Budweiser. Pre-school children are among the most prolific sources of decorative art. Parents proudly display these works giving the rest us ample opportunity to test our diplomatic patter.
It’s all in the presentation
What has not changed is that every bit of decorative art is accompanied by a backstory. They used to be transparent attempts at impressing people. Now they have evolved into more complex beings designed not so much to draw attention to the actual piece, but rather to the meaningful reasons the owner chose to acquire it. We sip a fine Chardonnay and hear tales evoking philosophical significance, personal discovery, whimsical incidents and family heritage. We are enlightened and entertained through a whirlwind of elaborate diversions and asides. And the motivation behind all this acquisition and storytelling is to reaffirm our shared human experience, right? Well, no. It’s still about impressing people. But now we have the good sense to stick a drink in their hand first.
Learn more about The Common Threads Project