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  • Writer's pictureVertu Art + Design


Updated: Mar 29

Design for a Cassone, Italian, 16th Century, Anonymous, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Decorative Art, Definition

Sadly most people do not know the definition of decorative art, albeit decorative arts are well represented at every major museum across the globe (where the term is employed).  Decorative art differs from fine art not in quality (in the vernacular sense of 'fine'), but in medium and perhaps usage. defines the term: 'art that is meant to be useful as well as beautiful, as ceramics, furniture, jewelry, and textiles.' We know that fine art encompasses sculpture and painting (however you will find museum galleries that group decorative arts and sculpture together). Since ancient times many kinds of decorative art, such as textiles, were more costly and considered 'finer' than painting or sculpture; this was true in the Renaissance when luxurious textiles were an important part of a lady’s dowry. Moreover, fine art can be considered purely 'decorative', as the aesthete Oscar Wilde once professed in his essay to art students on the topic:

'What is the difference between absolutely decorative art and a painting? Decorative art emphasises its material: imaginative art annihilates it. Tapestry shows its threads as part of its beauty: a picture annihilates its canvas: it shows nothing of it. Porcelain emphasises its glaze: water-colours reject the paper. A picture has no meaning but its beauty, no message but its joy. That is the first truth about art that you must never lose sight of. A picture is a purely decorative thing.'

The 'decorative arts' are usually referred to as material culture or even the applied arts in English-speaking academic circles. Arts with 'decorative' characteristics were historically placed at the bottom of academic art hierarchies, so it is no wonder that semantics followed suit. The borders between what is classified as decorative or fine have been blurred in recent times, since scholars have recognized anglicized prejudices towards arts perceived as decorative likely stem from its association with the female and foreign - or more precisely 'Frenchness' in previous centuries. In eighteenth-century France, the decorative arts, along with women so closely associated with them, were celebrated alongside natural philosophy (or what would soon be called the discipline of science). The world of contemporary art is increasingly recognizing the inherent value of decorative arts a gateway to understanding the many female and foreign artists associated with this tradition, whose work was clearly marginalized. There is still much to be done to see better representations of such artists in galleries and museums, and the decorative remains an important element in this ongoing conversation.

Original Post: July 8, 2014

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