Decoration at Kampnagel. Hamburg-Winterhude, Germany. © Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved.
Amazed by the multiple colours reflecting in this curtain of plastic strips inside the lobby at Kampnagel, one of Germany’s most reputable venues for the performing arts in Hamburg, I was slightly surprised when I learnt that it was merely “decoration” and not a piece of art. It made me wonder where to draw the line between decoration, interior design and fine art, and think about the beauty, function and elitism of art.
“Decorative” and “fine” Arts
The decorative arts are arts or crafts concerned with the design and manufacture of beautiful objects that are also functional. It includes interior design, but not usually architecture. The decorative arts are often categorized in opposition to the “fine arts”, namely, painting, drawing, photography, and large-scale sculpture, which generally have no function other than to be seen.
The distinction between the decorative and the fine arts has essentially arisen from the post-Renaissance art of the West, where the distinction is for the most part meaningful. This distinction is much less meaningful when considering the art of other cultures and periods, where the most highly regarded works – or even all works – include those in decorative media. For example, Islamic art in many periods and places consists entirely of the decorative arts, as does the art of many traditional cultures. The distinction between decorative and fine arts is not very useful for appreciating Chinese art, and neither is it for understanding Early Medieval art in Europe.
Looks crap but it’s art
During the same visit to Hamburg where I came across that curtain, I stumbled upon this piece of street art (click to enlarge).
It says, “Looks crap but it’s art”.
Who draws the line between “beautiful objects that are also functional” and others which “have no function other than to be seen”?
When is a beautiful object merely decoration and when is a piece of crap a piece of art?
People say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Isn’t the same true for functionality?
And how truly meaningful is the distinction between decorative and fine arts?
“If it’s not elitist, can it be art?”
In a short essay, Dutch-Brazilian visual artist Rafaël Rozendaal writes:
“The art world uses intimidation to achieve its authority.
– Intellectual intimidation (you’re not smart enough to enjoy art)
– Financial intimidation (you’re not rich enough to enjoy art)
Without this authority art is too marginal compared to popular culture.
The art world is based on exclusivity, which means a large number of people should feel excluded.
The art market is very different from the mass market. Taste is centralized, a small community decides on what’s good and what’s bad. Collectors will invest in an artist and at a certain point it doesn’t matter if the artist makes good or bad work, the collectors have to protect their investment so they will continue to buy work by that artist.
Sometimes good art is praised, and sometimes bad art is praised just as much.
A lot of people can’t really tell what they like in art, so they just assume if it gets good press it’s probably good.
Whether an artwork is good or not is very abstract. For most people Art is uninteresting, they don’t even bother. They’d rather see a movie.
The mass market is good for certain things, the elite market is good for other things. One is not better than the other, they both exist and that’s good.
(I realize that there are many many definitions of the word “Art”. In this blog post I’m talking about art shown in art fairs and museums)”
The term “connoisseur” translates into two different meanings in German. It can either describe someone who knows and understands something very well, or someone who enjoys something very much. I am an art connoisseur in the second sense. I enjoy art, even when I do not necessarily understand a piece of art in the way it was intended or in the way that others do. I enjoy art that allows people to interact with the artist, to interact with others, and to reflect on themselves.
To enable artists to survive while exploring new art forms and engage in art discourses, the art world will have to remain elitist to a certain extent, whether one likes it or not, and beautiful objects might sometimes be considered to be decoration only, while other objects might be considered as art, regardless of their beauty, function or value. All of these, however, are in the eye of the beholder, as everyone can create or consider objects as art which they enjoy.
Rafaël Rozendaal’s artistic practice is most well known for his moving images and websites, and he is one of the first artists to sell websites as art objects. Rozendaal’s installations involve moving light and reflections, taking online works and transforming them into spatial experiences. He also created BYOB (Bring Your Own Beamer), an open source DIY curatorial format that is spreading across the world rapidly.
“BYOB is a way of making a huge show with zero budget. It is also an exploration of the medium of projection. It is is for anyone who is interested in moving light, sound and performance. Projections are very flexible and create a freedom to react to each others works, move things around, and create a dynamic collaborative experience.”