At the time I wrote this piece, I was teaching a course on art and mass culture while working on a PhD on the anti-formalist impulse in contemporary American art. So there was a lot to table about a pivotal term in modernism and its transformation in the postmodern. Which meant that, even though I wanted to build up to some substantial claims for Stieg Persson’s art, the article gives him a walk-on role at the end of a very long overture. A mistake I try to avoid now. In my defence, I think it remains important that key terms in art criticism are examined in their historical specificity.
There was a time, in the 1960s, when the worst thing that could be said about a painting was that it was ‘merely decorative’. Whereas the word ‘decor’ had earlier referred to the beautiful, the formalist lexicon defined it as superficial embellishment. Understood in this negative sense, a decorative painting was one whose formal elements were structured not in accordance with the protocols of high art but rather followed those of its nemesis, mass culture. The decorative was thus inherently corrupt; it was the idiom of industry and mass production. Reeking of domesticity, it was branded an effeminate discourse, whose facile pleasures threatened to lure artists away from the rigours of ‘tough’ non-objectivity.
To make a decorative painting was to fall from grace, to lapse into the realm of design and hence to corrupt the sanctity of the autonomous canvas. Determined to preserve the integrity of the canvas, formalist critics developed a series of ritual incantations, exorcising the decorative from art, excommunicating painters who spoke in the alien tongue of the everyday.
This vilification of the decorative persists today  in spite of the myriad attacks on formalism, and revisionist readings of modernism. At an art critical, museological, even common sense, level, art is still regarded as being separate from, and superior to, design. In the division of culture into high and low, the gendering of cultural practices and the torturous evasion of the everyday, the dream of an autonomous art is constantly renewed.
While such divisions are rendered clear rhetorically, the distaste for the decorative is actually more complex, both historically and ideologically. Even as non-objective painting was (re-)invented in the west, struggled with the decorative. Kandinsky, for example, sought the transcendental, but was acutely aware of the more material consequences of non-objectivity. The non-objective artist took two great chances, he believed. First, s/he risked losing the audience in the face of the obscurity of non-mimetic images. Second, abstraction might produce mere patterns, images indistinguishable from carpets and neckties. At the heart of these fears lies something that non-objective artists often fudged, the issue of consumption.
Kandinsky allows an active role for the audience, unfortunately it is one of active rejection—unable to decipher the non-objective image, they would rest content with the more immediate legibility of mimesis. Worse, consumption in the mass cultural sense might intrude; non-objectivity might gain currency in a bastardised form, mistaken for a product of industrial culture, it would punctuate everyday life not as art but as decor. The villains—the audience (resistant to art, yet embracing mass culture) and industry (the antithesis of art, yet willing to circulate simulacra of its forms)—are the protagonists in a narrative that returns again and again to the tragic condition of modernist culture; the dissolution of hierarchies, the melding of high and low, the failure of artists to preserve elite culture in the face of the rising masses.
In the 1990s, the dismissal of the decorative might seem to be so much wishful thinking, a dated crusade against the kitsch that we now know and love. But the fear of the decorative is, as Kandinsky suggested, ultimately a fear of the audience—not the abstract audience (the public) but an audience engaged in the material practice of consumption. Kandinsky conceives of the audience as alien to art (not vice-versa); actively refusing to consume non-objectivity, or passively consuming it in an ersatz form through the decorative arts. Modernism is redolent with this discourse, perhaps nowhere more so than in architecture. In the classic texts of architectural modernism—the work of Loos, Gropius, Le Corbusier—the decorative (and its audience, for the two are inseparable) is attacked as an impediment to the attainment of a purist utopia. In architecture, the decorative is dismissed in powerfully moral tones. The now-familiar imperative that ‘Ornament is crime’, is transferred to the visual arts, becoming one of the commandments of modernism. (And, given the imperative tone, it would seem to more a case of decorum rather than decor.)
As an aesthetic imperative, the architectural formulation of the anti-decorative discourse—eliminate decor, attain purity—dictates the decorum of modernist painting. It allays the artists’ fear of the audience, but conceals the complexity of the issue. For this rhetoric does more than distinguish between real and simulated art, more than shore up the temple of autonomy; it also conceals a history of painting which valued the decorative in an entirely different way, as a positive goal. The significance of the decorative for contemporary artists can only be understood if the simplistic architecture-derived formulation of anti-decorative modernism is set aside, and the meanings of the decorative for painting rediscovered.
It must be remembered that there was a moment in modernism when the decorative was a positive, even a radical, term for painters. From the early 1880s to the beginning of World War 1, avant-garde artists actively sought to incorporate the decorative into their work. For French modernists in particular the decorative signalled an important understanding of the relationship of art and audience, one very different from that suggested by Kandinsky and his ilk. The decorative referred not to the trivial and the superficial, but to the unification of art and craft, image and architecture, artist and audience. The ideal, enacted by Gauguin at Le Pouldu or the Delaunays in Paris, was the creation of an aestheticized environment in which painting, architecture, furniture, fabric would fuse into an organic whole. Art would not be fragmented into a hierarchy of media, nor would it be radically separated from everyday life; art would be a totalising, lived experience—life as a Gesamtkunstwerk.
This inversion of the normal anti-decorative impulse was carried even further by some of the Cubists. For painters such as Gleizes, decorative painting, far from succumbing to mass culture, would actually resist it. The decorative painting was understood in terms of the mural. As a public art, inseparable from its architectural environment, decorative painting would counter the transformation of easel painting into a portable commodity. So here the rhetoric of formalist and purist modernists is inverted; it is actually the autonomous canvas that is the bibelot, a knick-knack for bourgeois parlours. The decorative, then, restores, art to its proper social location and to the proper order of consumption.
Admittedly there is still a tendency in this to avoid the material conditions of modernity; the pro-decorative artists often nostalgically invoke the Gothic as an epoch where artist and audience were united in a now-lost sense of community. All the same, it is clear that the discourse of the decorative in modernist painting differed markedly from that of purist architecture. Above all, it has to be recognised that the decorative is an historicised concept; that its use in a pejorative sense is the result of the dominance of the rhetorics of formalism and architectural purism, and not the product of any inherent incompatibility between painting and the decorative.
At this point it is possible to position some contemporary uses of the decorative in painting more carefully. Most obviously, the decorative is used to contest the persistence of formalist readings of non-objective art, to question its claims for autonomy, its exclusion of vast tracts of visual culture. This might be done in a parodic mode—the decorative, amplified to the level of kitsch, collapses the purist rhetoric of formalism. Or, less commonly, in an historicist mode—the decorative retrieved as a legitimate language in its own right. On a more complex level, the question of the audience is resurrected, particularly through an exploration of the play of meanings conferred on the decorative.
Stieg Persson has frequently incorporated decorative motifs in his work; patterns derived from wrought iron, postage stamps and, most recently, ornamental friezes. The categorical status of the paintings is confused. The incorporation of two allegedly incompatible languages in the one painting—the decorative and the non-objective—can be read as an attack on the formalist division of the image into legitimate and illegitimate spheres. The hybrid paintings, both decorative and formalist, collapse such distinctions in a kind of parodic relativism. In addition, the decorative friezes are removed from their appropriate context—the wall itself—and now hover just before, fragmented and out of scale. The fundamental dilemma posed for painting by the decorative—on the wall or of the wall?—is insistently marked. (Remembering, of course, that the ability to separate the canvas from the wall was essential to formalism.)
But beyond this dispute with a specifically aesthetic discourse, broader cultural hierarchies are also questioned. The decorative friezes Persson uses are frequently of non-western origin. This doubling of the otherness of the decorative—non-art, non-western—registers the narrowness of art’s discourses, in contrast to the sweeping claims made by modernist abstraction. Likewise, what the audience is prepared to do with the images is crucial to their position as cultural practice. Obviously, the works are encountered as art—they are displayed in art galleries and reproduced in art magazines. But by refusing to make the distinction between painting and the decorative himself, the artist invites the audience to do so—and this is something that the modernist always sought to pre-empt, fearful of an audience corrupted by mass culture.
The paintings mark out the way that painting itself has marked out its limited domain. It is perhaps this registration of limits that gives the works a kind of muted, even dismal, tone, as if painting can no longer be thought of as having infinite possibility. But there is also a positive element here. What I think Persson suggests is that painting should not seek the kinds of transcendence advocated by anti-decorative modernism—the transcendence of the audience, of the everyday, of modernity itself. The paintings don’t transcend their status as an historicised cultural practice, but rather seek to move beyond painting’s self-imposed discursive limits. The decorative, then, registers the existence of other cultures, other modes of signification, other audiences against the monotheism of purist modernism.
Original publication: ‘Redecorating: Stieg Persson’, Art & Text, no 45, May 1993, pp 15–18.