By Ananda K. Coomaraswamy


As remarked by Clement of Alexandria, the scriptural style is parabolic, but it is not for the sake of elegance of diction that prophecy makes use of figures of speech. On the other hand,

'the sensible forms [of artifacts], in which there was at first a polar balance of physical and metaphysical, have been more and more voided of content on their way down to us: so we say, "this is an ornament" … an "art form"… . [Is the symbol] therefore dead, because its living meaning had been lost, because it was denied that it was the image of a spiritual truth? I think not' (W. Andrae, Die ionische Saeule: Bauform oder Symbol? Berlin, 1933, 'Conclusion'). And as I have so often said myself, a divorce of utility and meaning, concepts which are united in the one Sanskrit word artha, would have been inconceivable to early man or in any traditional culture.
[…] As remarked by Karsten, ‘the ornament of savage peoples can only be properly studied in connection with a study of their magical and religious beliefs.’

We emphasize, however, that the application of these considerations is […] to all traditional arts, those, for example, of the Middle Ages and of India.
Let us consider now the history of various words that have been used to express the notion of an ornamentation or decoration, and which in modern usage for the most part import an aesthetic value added to things of which the said ‘decoration’ is not an essential or necessary part. It will be found that most of these words, which imply for us the notion of something adventitious and luxurious, added to utilities but not essential to their efficacy, originally implied a completion or fulfilment of the artifact or other object in question; that to ‘decorate’ an object or person originally meant to endow the object or person with its or his ‘necessary accidents’, with a view to proper operation; and that the aesthetic senses of the words are secondary to their practical connotation; whatever was originally necessary to the completion of anything, and thus proper to it, naturally giving pleasure to the user; until still later what had once been essential to the nature of the object came to be regarded as an ‘ornament’ that could be added to it or omitted at will; until, in other words, the art by which the thing itself had been made whole began to mean only a sort of millinery or upholstery that covered over a body that had not been made by ‘art’ but rather by ‘labour’—a point in view bound up with our peculiar distinction of a fine or useless from an applied or useful art, and of the artist from the workman, and with our substitution of ceremonies for rites. A related example of a degeneration of meaning can be cited in our words ‘artifice’, meaning ‘trick’, but originally artificium, ‘thing made by art,’ ‘work of art’, and our ‘artificial’, meaning ‘false’, but originally artificialis, ‘of or for work’. […]

We have said enough to suggest that it may be universally true that terms which now imply an ornamentation of persons or things for aesthetic reasons alone originally implied their proper equipment in the sense of a completion, without which satis-faction (alam-karana) neither persons nor things could have been thought of as efficient or ‘simply and truly useful,’ just as, apart form his at-tributes (ā-bharana), Diety could not be thought of as functioning.

Ornament is related to its subject as individual nature to essence: to abstract is to denature. Ornament is adjectival’ and in the absence of any adjective, nothing referred to by any noun could have an individual existence, however it might be in principle. If, on the other hand, the subject is inappropriately or over-ornamented, so far from completing it, this restricts its efficiency, and therefore its beauty, since the extent to which it is in act is the extent of its existence and the measure of its perfection as such-and-such a specified subject. Appropriate ornament is, then, essential to utility and beauty: in saying this, however, it must be remembered that ornament may be ‘in the subject’ itself, or if not, must be something added to the subject in order that it may fulfill a given function.

To have thought of art as an essentially aesthetic value is a very modern development and a provincial view of art, born of a confusion between the (objective) beauty of order and the (subjective) pleasant, and fathered by a preoccupation with pleasure. We certainly do not mean to say that man may not always have taken a sensitive pleasure in work and the products of work; far from this, ‘pleasure perfects the operation’. We do mean to say that in asserting that ‘beauty has to do with cognition’, Scholastic philosophy is affirming what has always and everywhere been true, however we may have ignored or may wish to ignore the truth—we, who like other animals know what we like, rather than like what we know. We do say that to explain the nature of primitive or folk art, or, to speak more accurately, of any traditional art, by an assumption of ‘decorative instincts’ or ‘aesthetic purposes’ is a pathetic fallacy, a deceptive projection of our own mentality upon another ground; that the traditional artist no more regarded his work with our romantic eyes than he was ‘fond of nature’ in our sentimental way. We say that we have divorced the ‘satis-faction’ of the artifact from the artifact itself, and made it seem to be the whole of art; that we no longer respect or feel our responsibility towards the burden (gravitas) of the work, but prostitute its thesis to an aisthesis; and that this is the sin of luxury. We appeal to the historian of art, and especially to the historian of ornament and the teacher of the ‘appreciation of art,’ to approach their material more objectively; and suggest to the ‘designer’ that if all good ornament had in its beginning a necessary sense, it may be rather from a sense to communicate than from an intention to please that he should proceed.

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