Cosmic and Cosmetic: The Many (Sur)Faces of Ornament

What is so essential about the inessential? Since the nineteenth century, ornament has been the focus of a multi-disciplinary attempt to explain its enduring presence in global material culture, despite long being perceived in Western thought with superficiality and marginality. The belief that ornament could in fact reveal a wealth of information about human nature, creativity, and all cultures past and present drew Victorian anthropologists, art historians, architects, and designers into a shared quest to analyze what proved to be a slippery, multifaceted category. Although this activity slowed during most of the twentieth century following the anti-decoration declarations of early modernists, the past thirty years has seen a flourishing of new perspectives on this topic. The nineteenth-century writings of figures such as Gottfried Semper, Alois Riegl, and John Ruskin have been subject to renewed interest, and a diverse group of scholars and practitioners are using ornament to gather original insights into culture, art, and history. Looking beyond common approaches such as iconographic analysis and style histories, this course will focus on the rich scholarship illuminating how the very creation and presence of ornament has cultural, social, and psychological significance. Classes are organized to connect ornament to specific themes like power, matter, and selfhood, with two sessions dedicated to special topics, including the relation of nineteenth-century writings on ornament to imperialism. Students will be encouraged to explore their own definitions of ornament and how its analysis can enrich their work. The final paper will be an extended case study of an object of the student’s choice that ideally demonstrates his or her engagement with the differing theories and perspectives discussed throughout the course. Knowledge of French and/or German is not required but highly recommended, as the writing in these languages on ornament equal that in English. 3 credits.