The art of decoration

Humans decorate. Its what we do. We make our surroundings and even ourselves more interesting and more beautiful. We make our public spaces and private sanctuaries just so. We adorn. We garnish. We ornament. We festoon. We lavish. We encrust. We mold. We personalize. We beautify. We embellish. We sculpt. We design. And we do all of it because it matters, to us, and at least potentially to others.

Restaurants present food as artfully as they can. We decide what shoes to wear with what pants, what pants with what shoes, make-up or not, jewelry, new hair cuts, dinner gowns, business suits, uniforms….. We put bumper stickers on our cars. Racing stripes. Details. More details. Even more details.

A Little Bit Of Nonsense, by Randy Blair

A Little Bit Of Nonsense, by Randy Blair

Everywhere we go and everything we do is an opportunity for something to be expressed, some value. We make the world more to our liking by changing it, adding to it, curating it. Its a most human impulse, and in some cases can even be seen as an imperative. The question for me is the difference that speaks to. When are the changes we make coincidental, something like rearranging the furniture, and when are those changes constitutional, as in changing the living room into the kitchen?

And I think this is a good question for artists. Are we just globbing on some cosmetic touch-ups, or are we making something different, something that stands on its own and by its own rules? This is actually a big question. Its part of why addressing quality in the arts is so complicated (See my essay here for a run down of some of the issues)

When a talented painter sketches a drawing are they decorating a piece of paper, or are they drawing a sketch? What is the difference?

Think about that.

Is what they are doing ‘decorating paper’, as if the paper needed some spicing up? Is what they are doing for the sake of the paper, to make the paper more interesting or beautiful?Does the artist buy a sketchbook thinking “My God! All those poor blank pages! Something must be done!”? Or, is there a picture waiting to come out from the artist’s imagination and this page of the sketch book is next in line? Or even, “While sitting there gazing at the marvelous texture of this paper I started to see the shapes. I began drawing, and it was as if the paper was telling me what would happen next”? These are differences, but what kind of differences?

As you can perhaps see, its at least partly a question of properly identifying the means and the ends. Does the decoration serve the canvas or does the canvas serve the decoration? That might be one set of questions to help understand the differences better.

As I’m a potter, and the pottery field puts enormous value on decorating pots, this is a big question for me personally. The question for potters often comes down to the role of the form and the role of the surface. Is the pot itself just there to carry the decoration, that same decoration could have been perpetrated on some other pots just as easily, or is the decoration there because the pot ‘needs’ it? In what sense does the decoration belong on this pot and only this pot, or in what sense is the pot itself irrelevant? In what sense is the decoration irrelevant? The answers to such questions swirl in many potters’ minds, if often below the surface (Was that a joke? Double entendre? Is anyone besides me laughing?).

I’m not saying one way of looking at it/doing it is necessarily better than another, merely that they are different, show our priorities to be different, and show our expectations for what we do to be different.

Another way of phrasing this distinction might be to ask what matters more, the drawing you put on the pot, the pot with or without the drawing, or the pot specifically with this drawing. Is the point of what you do to put drawings on pots, to make pots with drawings, to make pots and then decide if they need drawings, or to make this one pot just to have this one drawing? Again, think of these questions in terms of means and ends. There is no right answer.

The questions I am asking help to solve really only one issue, when it comes down to it: What is the part we think of as necessary? This is the question of what we think we are doing and why we think we are doing it. And the truth is that sometimes the difference between necessary and unnecessary is a difference in kind, and at other times it is a difference in degree. The ‘why?’ can be all consuming or it can be incidental.

Asking this allows us to put the cart where it belongs and the horse where it belongs. We may have a sure sense of this, but the difficulty is that our horses don’t always look like horses to outsiders, and our carts can be so impressive that its easy to imagine putting them first. And this is part of the confusion between makers and their audience…..

For instance, other people looking at the same pot, the same artwork, the same anything, can always understand things differently, that the necessary part was this other thing. It is also true that we cannot understand what we cannot see. So the question is sometimes also whether we successfully communicate our interests and values in terms that are understood by outsiders. If the pot is actually ‘about’ the drawing on it, will the audience get that? If the drawing is incidental to the form, will they understand? If there is nothing drawn on the surface is that a lack of some kind (are pots supposed to have decoration/imagery?)? What exactly does the audience understand, and what does it expect?

The reason I bring this up is that imagery and other decoration is often what folks notice, first-most, second-most, and last-most. Generally what is noticed, what is seen, is not the thing being decorated. That part gets excluded from our understanding, to greater or lesser extents. For instance, we also see the pencil drawing, and not so much the paper it is drawn on. We see the blaze of imagery and not so much the qualities of the clay, the form of the pot, and the proportion and structure of its parts.

The exception: Other 2-D artists will notice the paper, and other potters will notice the pot, but the public at large has a pass that circumvents the need and even desire for that understanding.

And what about arrangements of pots that are a ‘still life’ rather than ‘merely pots’? Jack Troy marvelously explored this in a Ceramics Monthly essay at one point (You can read it here). The fact of a bowl being an ingredient in a still life gets messily obscured with a pile of yogurt in it. Just what does that say about what a thing is and what we think it is?

So where am I going with this?

These are all more or less unfamiliar (to some) observations and questions we can ask. What do you see and what do you think?

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Beauty, Ceramics, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery. Bookmark the permalink.

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