That hairstyles, the decoration of one’s head, impact on one’s thought was recognised even by religious orders of the Sixth Century. Celtic Christian communities very nearly split completely from their Roman brothers specifically over how their tonsures should be shaped. The former shaved crosswise over the front portion of their scalp, while the latter preferred the circular bald patch at the rear. Maybe this was a question of before whom one chose to be naked: to be exposed before the entire world, ‘God amongst us’ being the theological motif, which perhaps not coincidentally produces a rather wind swept look, or to be revealed beneath a specifically hierarchical and therefore more stable conception, ‘God above’. That we are now familiar (on Christmas cards at least) with monks wearing their hair as if a make-do halo indicates how the argument was resolved. Power goes to one’s head. This is very old knowledge also for, at about the same time, liturgical combs were introduced into church services, especially for ordination, wherein the combing of the hair was symbolic of the ordering and tidying of the mind.
Combing and ordering are weaving.
That weavers in particular, together with scholars and writers with whom they had much in common, tended to suffer from melancholy and all the evils associated with it, is understandable given the nature of their work, which forced them to sit bent over, day after day, straining to keep their eye on the complex patterns they created. It is difficult to imagine the depths of despair into which those can be driven who, even after the end of the working day, are engrossed in their intricate designs and who are pursued, into their dreams, by the feeling that they have got hold of the wrong thread.
Or it is a luxury, crafts as a visual indicator of wealth. Excessive. This contrary economic argument maintaining its siren call upon a populace.
Thus a moral tone enters. The economic arguments are never allowed to stand alone.
Contested as if it were a symbol and condemned for its paucity of meaning, pattern, ornamentation, adornment is not symbol nor is it without symbol; it is not meaningless but nor does it aspire to meaning.
It is sense, a process, bodily sensation; if it can bring order it can only do so as it is experienced and as it is recalled. Pass it by and the order passes away, dissipates. Yet reinvigorate it with one’s perception and like an electron beneath the scrutiny of measurement, resolving from an indeterminate to determinate state, so the pattern is animated. Is it this instinctual, tactile, bodily perception that keeps us reaching for our baubles and bangles, our swirls and stripes, these overburdened carpets that surely display souls like rich, ripe on the bent branch fruit?
Wealth displayed becomes richness appropriated.
The richness becomes sweetness, an almost pungent exuberance. A vertiginous moment of de-sublimation.
Pierre Bourdieu writes:
We mentioned war earlier.
Benjamin describes war as the only means by which “to mobilize all of today’s resources while maintaining the property system.” And concludes it: […] is evidently the consummation of l’art pour l’art. Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. It’s self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.”
The battle becomes either ridiculous or dangerous (or both). If one continually pushes fearing and dying elsewhere the battle becomes either ridiculous or dangerous and both. If art can only operate by its very own rarefied rules then, gradually, all life, or rather, all life other to it, becomes squeezed out. And so this feminized, long standing, popular, persistent, sometimes mute or barely articulate, perhaps hardly notices stuff; the decorative stuff is thus said not to be art stuff. And to the extent that decorative stuff is not art stuff then, it seems, the decorative remains in life.
The aspiration to organise and shape a purifying radiance.
Loos’ ethnographic point of reference is somewhat skewed nonetheless. He seems to be describing Maori ornament. The men of Papua New Guinea are, traditionally, more likely to adopt face paint and piercing than tattooing. The point was nonetheless strongly enough made for Le Corbusier, twelve years later, to use this same savage metaphor in his manifesto for Purism.
Having confused literal luminescence with the light of divinity and placed this hybrid concept (not at all pure) at the pinnacle of aspiration, so a hierarchy is imposed and qualities both Loos and Le Corbusier professed to admire, the frankness of childhood, the artistic expression of native peoples, are forced into a lowly position. So lowly, in fact, that by the rush of their own polemic these potentially positive expressions become “degenerate” along side the “daubs” and “scribbles” of ornament. For Loos, a cobbler is to be pitied because brogues are patterned. Furthermore, this small pleasure should be allowed because the cobbler is incapable of listening to Beethoven (we are not told why) and nor is the architect able to offer any pleasure to replace such tiny joys.
Architecture is for the enjoyment of those not degenerate, those evolved to some greater state, and yet the architect will actively engage in planning housing for those classes which, it would seem, are not expected to appreciate the work. Here in 1908, housing estate graffiti explained in full detail, even before those estates were properly drafted: unable to find small pleasures in an environment designed for an aesthetic Ubermensch, the degenerate, probably tattooed, must ornament their surrounds; they are compelled to shroud walls in sexual cipher and marks of decorative arousal. Indeed, the Modernist aesthetic of modulated radiance, far from curing the degenerate, far from robbing the criminal of an erotic need to scrawl, finds such urges freed from the confines of public conveniences as a vast array of cubicles are built that may, in turn, be decorated with the art of sublimated Papuans.
Le Corbusier’s wife, Yvonne, covered their bidet with a knitted cosy. Her husband had placed it in their bedroom but such utilitarian elegance can apparently have no place in here; a space to be filled with soft bodies rather than technocratic efficiency.
Ornament fills, connects spaces, pushes at borders and often, vulgar detail, clutters, crowds, overspills. (The optical overspilling of pattern, rhythm, whose curves and pauses seem to re-echo beyond itself.) Gombrich describes it as an “amor infiniti”; framing, filling, linking.
Small and simple codes proceed through “graded complication” and can thus easily move towards infinity. Loos clearly distrusts amor infiniti. Infinity is time and it is space. The new architecture hoped for a new time, desiring a break from the past as much or if not more than wanting clean space for its future occupants. Le Corbusier would follow up on this by suggesting that:
White walls reduced to a solid box. It is a statement of disgust. And in the architectural displacement of his own corpse, in his art, Loos, perhaps unwittingly, adopts a decorative form; the dado.
rule, class or arrangement.
Indeed, one has imposed order.
The orders were derived from Greek proportions, systematised, especially through Roman architecture andthe canonical Ten Books of Architecture by Vitruvius. Such dogged reinventions as Le Corbusier’s Modulor only seem to underscore their basic precept of having proportions related to those of the human. Each order consists of a column headed by a capital and entablature, the latter divided into architrave, frieze, and cornice. According to classical theory there are five orders but by Vitruvius’ reckoning only four: Doric, Tuscan, Ionic and Corinthian. The Doric is equated with a well built male, with the virile gods, and hence it is suitable for civil and military buildings. The Tuscan is a simplified Doric and might therefore be suitable for second or third division football grounds. The Ionic has a femine slenderness and calm refinement, its gods are Diana and Apollo, therefore often carved with laurel leaf and suitable for buildings dedicated to arts and learning. The Corinthian is taller than the Ionic and yet resembles the slight figure of a young girl.
To decorate is to furnish with adornments and especially so a church with flowers, a street with flags, a house with new paint or paper: decus – oris, beauty: and church, street, house, become beautiful vessels.
To adorn; add beauty or lustre or furnish with ornament.
Ornament in its earliest form maintains a cultic connection, demonstrates an auric lustre, for ornaments are accessories of worship such as the chalice and other sacred vessels, such as altar and sacred books, vessel forms again, and then an ornament is used to adorn someone whose presence confers grace or honour. A wreath of laurel might suffice. And in this archaeology it is only after music, grace notes, that ornament means adorning, being adorned, embellishment for decorative purposes.
But what is the purpose of decoration other than to foreground ornament, and ornament is to mark out the sacredness of the vessel, and how is it to do this but by beauty, and what is beauty for but sweetness and richness? A divinity which is the great blatant and likewise latent beauty of all things. Hence all things are ornamented, hence the proportions of your wallpaper with borders marking out dado and cornice, and hence explicitly name your own domestic space as a temple; no surprise then that we kick off our shoes for if walls become our aspiration then certainly the carpet is the soul, an inhalation.
Sugared death heads, baroque skeletons, flowers on skulls, and candle lit picnics around the grave all to say; reduction is absurd, the dead are alive.
The decorative serves as a hybrid whose job it is to wrap and otherwise prettify the apparent absolute. The patterns around the edges say; yes, the dead are alive, but there is no need for them here. Outside the mutual service of memory the dead are generally supposed to remain dead and, more so, buried. The ornament and pattern are a serving net in which sunshine may be captured and stored. These very same combinations of the pretty and clever treasures may also serve as protection as you move through these decorated streets and ornamented moments; so the festival allows its patterns to be possible, briefly, and the ghosts of the living and the of the dead may share a mutual presence.
If the ornamental was founded on the need for superluminal life, so at each imposition of a conscious and architectural need other sublimatory needs breed from within. Consciousness inevitably becomes architectural. Our never fully illuminated conscious architecture therefore is the actual progenitor of an ornamenting unconsciousness.