Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Listening to Objects: An Ecological Approach to the Decorative Arts

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Listening to Objects: An Ecological Approach to the Decorative Arts

Article excerpt

Introduction

Inspired by recent work on ecology and the environment, this study proposes an intervention in the way that scholars encounter, understand, and study what has come to be called the decorative arts in the discipline of art history.1 The laboratory and evidence base for this essay are the people, objects, and spaces of the early modern European home 1400-1700.2

The discipline of art history is at a crossroads in the study of the object, as attested to by the most recent international art history congress sponsored by the Comité International d'Histoire de l'Art (CIHA), entitled The Challenge of the Object (2012). Specifically with respect to the decorative arts, in the author's own field of early modern European art, despite the keen interest in furniture, textiles, ceramics, metal-ware, glassware, and other so-called decorative objects, there is a continuing divide in art historical scholarship between those who study art and those who study the decorative arts.3 Such a separation between so-called high art and the decorative arts in the field of scholarship is mirrored in many modern museums, in which early modern painting and sculpture are rarely displayed together with the furnishings that once surrounded them, such as, for example, the recent exhibition of Renaissance portraits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which only focused on the paintings and sculpture.4

Underlying this divide in modern museums is the distinction between craft and art that begins with the advent of writing about art in the European Renaissance.5 Despite the long history of separation between art and craft, high art and decorative art in our scholarship, this study argues that art historians need constantly to interrogate the categories to which the discipline consigns its objects of study, adopting what Mimi Hellman has called the 'unease of classification.'6 By studying and experiencing art and decorative art in isolation from each other, an isolation supported by major museums and the modernist art historical discourses that have grown up to support this separation, scholarship obscures the fluid, mobile, and interpenetrating nature of these spheres.7

In considering new paradigms for the study of early modern furniture, textiles, ceramics, and other so-called decorative objects that recognize the inter- relatedness of art and decorative arts, and abandoning 'fantasies of boundary marking, mastery and definitive explanation,'8 this study proposes what it calls an ecological approach. This is to be distinguished from E. H. Gombrich's concept of the ecology of images, an idea developed by Gombrich to convey that changes in artistic style are responses to specific social environments and 'to the functions assigned to the visual image by a given society.'9 The present study shares with Gombrich the sense that the arts can be compared to organisms since both respond in unpredictable ways to specific environments. Gombrich was particularly inspired by the concept 'ecological niche' because it emphasized the 'constant interaction' between species of plants and animals and their environment.10 He embraced the concept of 'ecological niche' because it avoided 'rigid social determinism.' As he explains: 'the study of ecology has alerted us to the many forms of interaction between the organism and its environment which render the outcome quite unpredictable.'11 However, in contrast to Gombrich's focus on style, this study explores the constant interaction between art and decorative art, spaces, and people within the domestic environment. Instead of using art historical methods to analyse style, patronage, authenticity, technique or production, this essay examines the decorative arts through an experiential and environmental lens by drawing on phenomenological approaches to the object as well as theories of vital materialism, object agency and human/non-human intra-activity in the work of Tim Ingold, Jane Bennett, Bruno Latour, Karen Barad, and others. …

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