Why decorations aren’t exactly art

Disclaimer: I am sometimes snarky. Often times snobbish. It’s a character defect for sure. It’s also part of who I am. I’m guessing that some of that will come across in this post. I want to be true to who I am, but I also don’t really mean to offend anyone. My intent is to draw distinctions, and in order to do that I need some clear examples. The pieces I picked go a long way in backing up my assertions about art and decorating. So, I’m not going to make fun of the pieces (even though I really want to.)

Rita and I have been having a conversation this week about authenticity, art, and decorating vs. designing. She showed me a post on how to make cool art with empty toilet paper rolls. It really got me all riled up. Of course I don’t have a right to get all worked up over someone else’s ideas about what is and isn’t art. I know that. There was something so fundamentally wrong with the image I was seeing, though, that I couldn’t help it. Rita and I both dislike the idea of decorating, and what I want to do in this post is describe the difference between art and decorating. This may well be the first in a series of posts on anti-decorating. Maybe we’ll start a movement?

Decorating vs. Art Making

I think there may be times when these are both the same thing, but by and large I think they are different and have different intents. Decorating to me is all about making things look beautiful. It’s all about the end product, and in decorating the end justifies the means. There is no real attention given to the process except to make it easy and cost-effective. For decoration, doing it quickly, cheaply, and with as little effort possible is often very desirable. As long as it looks good who cares that it only took 5 minutes?

Art, however, is all about process:  The means justify the end. It’s just the opposite of decoration. What you get in the end is a result of a process. The artist uses the process to examine and comment on his or her environment. It’s about exploration and self expression. There is a sense of deep engagement. If the process produces beautiful results, then great! If not, then it’s OK because the process is the important thing. Artists are willing to repeat the process again and again until they are happy with the result.

Why I care

The back story here is that I went to art school right out of high school. I studied painting and drawing. At the time I thought I was going to somehow be a painter. I thought that there would be some sort of path to a career there for me. I worked diligently and learned to paint. Graduated and went on to grad school where I worked my way through an MFA in painting and printmaking. I tried for a few years after that to be a traditional artist. I did gallery shows and was part of an art community.

I eventually came to realize that it wasn’t quite who I was. Long story short, I am not a traditional artist today. I still make art but not in such a way that many people would call me an artist. This summer I made websites. I took photographs. I made durodango mudballs. I did some writing. I did some jujitsu. I find that I have a deep passion for creative expression, but I’ll never do it in a traditional way. So, yes:  I care when someone uses the word “art” for something that is, in my opinion, only decoration.

The Cringe

Anyway, it’s with that background that I cringed when I saw this, which was labeled “art”:

image via justagirblog.com

As Rita and I talked, we explored why we had such a negative reaction to this, and I’ve come up with some ideas that typify “art” that is merely decoration.  It’s not an all inclusive list, but it is enough that you can get an idea of how I think the two are different.

(Because we consider ourselves creators, it’s important to us that we don’t violate copyright in our blog.  You can see our statement on the images we’re using in this post at the end of it.)

Art vs. Decorating

tape on canvas art

image via bhg.com

I have an empty space on the wall I need to fill. If this is the motivation for creating something, it may not be art. I won’t say that art can’t be inspired by needing to make a space beautiful, but in truth artists are generally inspired by other things.  It could be the beauty of nature. The play of light and shadow. The sumptuousness of materials. You can bet that Cezanne didn’t look at empty walls for inspiration for his work. Neither did Picasso. True art comes from a need to express and explore the world. The fact that it looks good over the sofa is a nice bonus but not the primary motive.

I need it fast. In decorating articles, fast is a virtue. We don’t have the time or energy to do anything in depth or spend a lot of time on our art. We want it up on the wall yesterday. You can enjoy the process for sure, but it had better not take a long time.

True artists are about the process more than the product. They use the process to explore and express their understanding of their world. It takes however long it takes. For some it’s quick, and for some it’s excruciatingly slow. All, though, are willing to give it whatever time it needs. It’s never a hurry up to the end point.

I need it easy peasy. I don’t want to learn a lot of new stuff. I need it to look good the first time. I can’t spend time to learn a difficult skill or something that will take some repeated failure to master. I want my toilet paper roll art to look good the first try. If I can’t get a good one the first try then it’s not worth the trouble. This easy peasy attitude is a virtue in the decorating community. Why learn to sew when you can just hot glue it? Don’t want to learn to carve wood? Fine, we’ll just make it with toilet paper rolls instead. It’s easy AND it looks good is the best possible outcome. 

With respect to ease and creative work, Ira Glass really says it best I think

“All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

This is the farthest thing from easy peasy. True artists are willing to take the time to do it right. They are self critical. They are always looking for ways to improve. They know it takes time and effort. They forge ahead and learn the difficult skills.

I think Ira is really talking about what it takes to be an artist of any type. If you think about what he is advocating here you’ll see that it’s a far cry from something like this tutorial on making a collage.  Now, I’m perfectly fine with someone making this kind of collage. I’m also fine with them putting it up on their wall. I do take issue when they start using the word art for it, though. I just don’t think it is. At least not by my definition of the word. 

via bhg.com (made from cupcake holders and plastic)

I made it with toilet paper rolls/ scrap materials/ found objects/cheap materials. There are many artists who use found objects and discarded bits of things in their work. It’s a legitimate way to work and has been a huge part of the 20th century modern art movements. The difference between that and the decorating use of found materials is appropriateness.

The artist uses found objects because they are the perfect and most appropriate medium for the job. Not because they are the cheapest and most available thing. The work is often about the scraps and pieces and found objects themselves. The materials are crucial to the meaning and character of the work.

In contrast the decorator often chooses the materials based solely on availability, cost, and ease of use. Of course artists sometimes have to make these compromises as well, but it’s never the first consideration. If someone can look at the piece and think that it could have been made better by choosing more expensive, time consuming, or harder to get materials, then it might just be decoration and not art.If you look at the toilet paper roll piece above, it would be easy to imagine it made of wood, glass, steel, bronze, plastic, or a host of other materials that would have made it more beautiful and durable.  It is obvious that toilet paper rolls weren’t the best artistic choice. They were a compromise to get ease of use, time, and skills.

This really isn’t about toilet paper rolls

Now, I don’t necessarily think that everything made of toilet paper rolls is junky decoration. To illustrate that here’s some real art using toilet paper rolls as medium. None of the 4 issues above apply to these works.

via http://maxcdn.thedesigninspiration.com

You can see more of this art here. What I love about this piece is that the medium is part of the message. It would not be the same art if the artist had chosen a different cylindrical form to make the work. There isn’t an attempt to make the toilet paper roll look like some other medium or to hide what it is–because this medium is the most appropriate. You don’t get a sense that it would be better in a different medium. Quite the opposite; you get the sense that it would not be as whimsical in another medium.

Another example from the same blog:

via http://maxcdn.thedesigninspiration.com

Again, this one does it right. There isn’t quite the sense in these that they were made from toilet paper rolls but the medium is integral to the final presentation. They would not look the same if made from clay or wood or metal.  The toilet paper roll simply lends itself to certain kinds of folds and bends. Those folds and bends are part of what make the expressions and features of the faces.

I don’t know for sure but I get a strong sense that the artist finds the faces in the bends and folds rather than creating a vision and then executing it. The medium is again part of the message. It’s the tactile quality of the material that informs the expression in these works. Another material that bends and folds differently like clay would yield very different results. This is art.

There you have it.  This is my idea of why gluing toilet paper rolls to your walls may not be art.

What do you think?

Rita and I have been talking about this because we think deciding what we put on our walls goes a long way toward defining how we want to live. We’re wondering what others think.

How do you decide what to put on the walls of your home?  Do the origins of the things on our walls matter?   Are we snobs who need to just lighten up, or do we have a point?

Please let us know by leaving a comment here on the blog.


Note on copyright:  We’ve used some images here that we didn’t obtain permission to use.  Fair use says that’s OK:  
“The 1961 Report of the Register of Copyrights on the General Revision of the U.S. Copyright Law cites examples of activities that courts have regarded as fair use: “quotation of excerpts in a review or criticism for purposes of illustration or comment;…” (http://www.copyright.gov/fls/fl102.html)
We’ve provided sources for images, but not links.  You can get to the original sources if you really want to. Our intention isn’t to belittle anyone or make them feel badly, but to explore ideas around decoration, art, and making a home.