“Ornament and Crime”: Decoration and Its Discourses from Late Antiquity to Today

In his infamous 1908 essay “Ornament and Crime,” the Austrian architect Adolf Loos warned that although “the urge to decorate one’s face and anything else within reach is the origin of the fine arts … the evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornamentation … The modern person who tattoos himself is either a criminal or a degenerate.” As Loos suggests, decoration lies at the heart of artistic expression, yet it has also been demonized across centuries and geographies as sacrilegious, superficial, frivolous, deceptive, seductive, feminine, childish, naïve, foreign, primitive, invasive, subversive, irrational, uncontrollable, uncivilized, anti-intellectual, and anti-modern. Why? This team-taught course investigates global discourses on decoration from Late Antiquity to the present, including ornament’s contrasting deployment in “East” and “West,” its function as a site of cultural exchange, and its status as a marker of “self” and “other.” In the first half of the course, we will examine the ornamental vocabularies of Late Antiquity and the rise of the “arabesque,” the uses of ornament in the lands of the caliphate, and how objects and motifs from the Islamic world were adapted and redeployed in medieval and early modern Europe. The second half will consider the problem of ornament in the modern West, from eighteenth-century chinoiserie to nineteenth-century scientific and ethnographic approaches to decoration through the modernist “criminalization” of ornament, arriving finally at postmodern and contemporary interventions—and celebrations. Students will be encouraged to draw connections between ornament and cultural meaning in relation to their own experiences with and views on design. 3 credits. Depending on your final research project, this course can satisfy the pre-1800 or the non-Western distribution requirement.