Ornament – on the content of loss of content
Rainer Fuchs

Although ornament is an art form largely disengaged from figuration and narration, the history of its styles and concepts contains hidden narrations on the conditions and developments of social history. The intricately intertwined or geometrically toothed shapes also reveal the ideological entanglements of public and private spheres, of society and individuals and closer examination of the alleged self-reference of ornamental shapes turns out to be a semantically highly charged subject. The uses of ornament and its forms mutually refer to each other and are a kind of seismogram of cultural existential interests and their historical shifts.

This historical reference of the apparently ahistorical is revealed not only in the present discussion on gender mainstreaming in its relation to ornament and fashion but also in historical retrospect. It becomes apparent up to which point the central notions and lines of argument for the assessment of ornamenting are rooted in modernity. Therefore today’s discourse on ornament is interspersed with references to modernity and marked by the attempt to protect present interpretations from ahistorical approaches by accounting for the past. A good example are Llewellyn Negrin’s remarks on “Ornament and the Feminine”.1 Following a period of rejection and stigmatisation of ornament in the wake of an avantgarde of functionalist orientation, this author subjects a recently widespread commitment to ornament seen as synonymous with affirmation of existence and self-confident femininity to a critical historically oriented examination. With reference to studies such as that of Norma Broude2 which try to rehabilitate ornament as a purely formal and visual phenomenon without deeper meaning, Negrin draws attention to the affinity of this view with strategies of defamation of the ornamental and female in the Modern Age: “To conceive of ornament as being concerned simply with surface effects lacking in substance is to ‘short change’ its richness and value as a communicative medium. Insofar as recent feminist champions of ornament defend the value of the ‘inessential’ over the essential, surface over depth, the sensuous over the rational and excess over restraint, they merely reverse the terms of these modernist dichotomies rather than transcend them.” 3 As the most appropriate instrument against semantic neutralisation of ornament and the associated danger of involuntary continuation of problematic ahistorical approaches, Negrin proposes studying the history of ornament in the Modern Age because the conflicting points of view perfectly prove the great variety of meanings that contradicts its stereotyped characterization as form without content. “As long as ornament continues to be treated in this way, the celebration of it as a reassertion of the value of the feminine does little to unsettle patriarchal associations of femininity with the realm of appearance over essence and style over content. A more fundamental challenge to the modernist dismissal of ornament requires rather that one recognizes its role as a communicator of cultural values and seeks to engage critically with the meanings that it once had, in a way that makes it relevant to the present.” 4 So which is the suggested cultural and ideological significance of the ornament in the Modern Age? Which arguments were used then as legitimisation or defamation of the ornament and which social orders and concepts of civilization backed them? In fact, suppression and devaluation of ornament were accompanied by its denouncement as a sign of backwardness and primitiveness standing in the way of a new rationalism and functionalism in the course of industrialization and capitalization of modern society. In this context also the image of the woman seen as synonymous with the ornamental was subject to an oppressively irrational assessment and sexualization whose spokesmen presented themselves as saviours of the rational.

Adolf Loos was the figurehead of this way of thinking and his criticism of ornament also included a polarizing view of the old and new world, of female and male identity. His aversion to ornamentation which he considered to be anti-intellectual drive satisfaction uninhibited and unfiltered by any cultural barriers rooted in Sigmund Freud’s idea “that every civilization rests on a coercion to work and a renunciation of instinct”.5 Therefore, Loos considered regression and degeneration to be the unmistakable signs of unrestrained pleasure in ornamenting and furthermore considered body tattooing to be a kind of criminal offence: “… a modern man who tattoos himself is either a criminal or a degenerate. Tattooed men who are not imprisoned are either latent criminals or degenerate aristocrats. If a tattooed man dies free, this is because he has died prematurely, before committing his murder.” 6

With Loos, the link of the ornamental with that which is instinctive and uncontrolled was accompanied by an atavistic disdainful conception of femininity as reduced to the sexual: “In the final analysis, women’s ornament goes back to the savage, it has erotic significance.” 7 The crude biological determinism that can be found in this passage and that culminated in Otto Weininger’s treatise “Sex and Character” 8 also characterized the association of ornament and femininity which Loos considers to be synonymous with inferiority and backwardness: “Externally, women’s clothing differs from that of men through the emphasis on decorative and colorful effect, and through the long skirt completely concealing women’s legs. These two aspects demonstrate how much women have lagged behind the advances made in recent centuries.” 9 Loos degraded woman and ornament to backward counterparts of male reason and rationality, which he saw as unmistakable signs of a new social awakening.

His cynical criticism has to be interpreted against the background of ornament’s ambivalent situation in the fin de siècle: on the one hand, industrialization had led to mechanical mass production of consumer goods and thereby let ornament, which up to then had been proof of handicraft production and originality, appear anachronistic; on the other hand, however, historicism and art nouveau made an attempt to transform the entire reality of life into a metaornament. Façade ornamentation, which in historicism and its architecture was used as overall coverage, conjured historical styles in order to mask its own emptiness, as critics observed, as well as the intention of the art nouveau artists who transformed reality into an ornamentally shaped Gesamtkunstwerk while real capitaliststyle functionalism and rationalism determined the life of the masses, found their most radical critic in Loos. “As there is no longer any organic connection between ornament and our culture, ornament is no longer an expression of our culture. The ornament being created now bears no relationship to us, nor to any human being, or to the system governing the world today.” 10 The fact that Loos took offence at the anachronistic nature of ornament was, among other things, due to his experience with the rational production methods which were charac­teristic for the United States in the late 19th century. Under these new conditions, ornamenting meant useless waste of material and human resources: “Ornament means wasted labor and therefore wasted health.” 11

With this criticism of ornament, he advocated exactly that economic and social order against which an enemy phalanx of art historians and art critics had formed, who, in the name of ornament were up in arms against the experience of alienation and uprooting caused by the surge in modernization. Rightly, Michael Müller notes in his study on the repression of ornament that “the discrimination of ornaments goes on in a time in which ornamentation begins to question the instrumental rationality of bourgeois behaviour”.12 In this context, ornament served as an idealized counterimage of the industrially determined economic system and way of life, but it also profited from its opposition: “At the same instant when the ornament, due to its frequent formal aesthetic mechanical reproduction was deprived of its original representative contents, it was discovered – in its now liberated form – as an excellent means of representation of individual fantasies, mythologies, daydreams and uncoded sensuality.” 13 In this way, ornament, which was, on the one hand, morally dismantled, its instinctual nature being reproached, was, on the other hand, seen in a positive way, regarded as “symbol of an individuality, threatened in its instinctual urges and dangerously disciplined.” 14

This strand of the history of ornament was mainly woven by art historians oriented towards a psychology of style, among whom Alois Riegl and Wilhelm Worringer were the most prominent proponents. In 1893, Riegl published a landmark book entitled “Problems of Style: Foundations for a History of Ornament” 15 whose purpose it was to present the history of vegetal ornament from the Egyptian to the Byzantine and early Saracen as a consistent development following an inevitable historical logic. Thereby it opposed the then dominant understanding of the development of art as derived directly from its technical material conditions as popularised in the entourage of Gottfried Semper which, according to Riegl, involved “the misconceptions (…) (of) the allegedly ahistorical nature” 16 of styles. In order to fight this materialism and reveal the interconnection of historical and artistic development, works of art and the development of ornament were seen as results of a “particular artistic impulse”. “The impetus did not arise from the technique but, on the contrary, from the particular artistic impulse (…).” 17 “The human artistic impulse has always aimed unswervingly at transcending technical limitations.” 18 In ornament, Riegl saw the guiding principles at work in the purest and most immediate form because he considered ornament to be “without content” and therefore untouched by the artists’ subjective whims. His notion of history was, however, indebted to a development of styles which replaced a determinism that blindly trusted technology by a psychologizing teleology. It is part of the irreconcilable contradictions of his thinking that the “imperturbable necessity” 19 destroys “free and creative artistic impulse” 20 “more thoroughly than any derivation from technique, material and purpose”. 21

Only within the scope of formal aesthetics denying the artistic value of content was it possible for ornament, which had been stylised as a selfsatisfied form, to gain such importance as the central indicator of the history of styles. Because for Riegl “the iconographic content is indeed entirely different from the artistic one; the function (directed toward certain notions) which serves the first is external like the utilitarian function (…), while the actual artistic function is directed only to represent the objects in outline and color on the plane or in space in such a manner that they evoke the redeeming appreciation of the beholder.” 22 Riegl ignored the obvious contradiction that precisely the iconologically screened off ornament is mostly found where the practical purpose and the socio-cultural components of art are most important. His argument that “all (…) nonartistic fields of culture constantly play a part in art history” 23 and that “it is true that plastic arts are not determined by the ideologies of the time, but simply evolve parallel to them” 24 meant at least the theoretical acknowledgement of the fact that social history influenced artistic creation and ornament as part of an overall cultural and ideological “impulse”.

Based on Riegl’s term of “Kunstwollen (artistic impulse)” as an always positively directed activity excluding the idea of epochs of decline which still characterized Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s normative aesthetics, Wilhelm Worringer, in his publications “Abstraction and Empathy” (1908)25 and “Form in Gothic” (1910)26 , drew up an image of art history in which the geometric ornament served as a release from existential fear: “Confused by the arbitrariness and the incoherence of appearances, primitive man lives in a relationship of gloomy spiritual fear to the outer world, a relationship which is only slowly relaxed by progressive mental adjustment (…).” 27 “Artistic creation means for him the avoidance of life and its arbitrariness (…). He begins with the rigid line, which is essentially abstract (…). He seeks further geometrical possibilities of line, creates triangles, squares, circles, places similarities together, discovers the advantages of regularity, in short, creates a primitive ornament which provides him not only with a mere delight in decoration and play, but with a table of symbolic absolute values, and therefore with the appeasement of his condition of deep spiritual distress (…) and first and foremost seeks to make his person taboo by ornamental tatooing.” 28 With Worringer, ornament and abstraction gained existential dimensions in which the artistic impulse was intensified, becoming a compulsion to ornament. Thus, in order to preserve one’s existence and save one’s skin ornament occupied these very bodies in the form of tattooing. Worringer reduced the human need for adornment to a pure need for protection. The urge for abstraction as a compulsion “(to create) symbols of the absolute in geometric or stereometric forms” 29 and “the intuitive establishment of a stable world beyond the world of appearances, in which the arbitrariness and mutability of the latter have been overcome” 30, are less rooted in a primitive state of mind, which in its turn can also not be authentically reconstructed, but turned out to be notions derived from contemporary psychology and sociology which were projected towards the past.

This was a manifestation of the widespread cultural pessimism of that time and the feeling of uncertainty and alienation that was its characteristic feature, caused by industrialization and technologization. The glorification of savage and primitive peoples was an attempt to respond to this. The most pointed criticism of civilization, although in unsurpassed simplification, was formulated by Hermann Bahr: “Bourgeois reign has transformed us into savages (…) we all have to be barbarians in order to preserve the future of mankind from it. Just as primitive man goes into hiding for fear of nature, we flee from a ‘civilization’ which devours man’s soul.” 31

Besides the polarizing view of ornament as a devaluated relict of past times, on the one hand, and as a newly inspired life preserver from functionalist eradication on the other, Siegfried Kracauer put forward a further definition by coining the catchword of the “mass ornament”. In it, the social mass appeared as a capitalist collective detecting and analysing the form of the ornament as an individual body in the social body and in the structural orientation of its representatives. Kracauer was not interested in the ornament on the body, but in the body itself as an ornamental set piece which in itself mimicked social conformity enforced by new forms of work and thereby represented an “aesthetic reflex of the rationality sought by the ruling economic system”.32 Kracauer illustrated the fact that also this form of ornament was a masscultural phenomenon by means of the Tiller Girls dance troupe in whose ornamental uniform body movements he recognized an unveiled pictogram of the uniform and automated processes applied in production and rationalization. “In the field of body culture (…) a secret change of taste has taken place. It began with the Tiller Girls. These products of American distraction industry are no longer individual girls, but indivisible girl complexes whose movements are mathematical demonstrations.” 33 Consequently Kracauer saw the woman’s role in the wake of industrialization and its social corollaries not as antipodes of capitalist rationality and functionality as Loos did, but as their ornamental expression.

Those ornaments which were applied on mass products in order to conceal their anonymity are, like the anonymized mass ornament described by Kracauer, founded on “an industry determined by profit interests” 34, as Michael Müller remarks: “While the former form of ornament still tries to individualize the optical appearance of the merchandise connected with it and thereby play down the fact of the mass, the mass ornament appeals to an image of social totality that lets men appear as what they really are under the changed relations of production: ‘fragments of a figure’.” 35

Kracauer’s description of the situation was negatively reevaluated and escalated in the ornamental fascist mass spectacles, as if there were only one step between the ornamental instrumentalization of the masses and their totalitarian appropriation under the premises of the ideology of Volkstum and racism. In the absorption of the individual in the ornamental embrace of the swastika during the Nazi’s staged parades, the bodies disappeared not only in the ornament and under its patronage but implicitly also referred to the disappearance of the others, to the crimes against parts of society by genocide and physical eradication. The most perfidious type of selfstylization manifested itself in the bodies that were denounced as foreign to the species. The selfinscription in the bodies of the others as a technique of annihilation culminated in those tattoos with which the concentration camp prisoners were branded and literally labelled. In the concen­tration camps the tattoo, which for Worringer still was a sign of protection of primitive man against existential dangers and in which Loos still saw a selfdenigrating expression of degeneration and regression at work, became an unmistakable sign of defencelessness against a completely degenerate society fallen back even behind any primitivism.

But also the consideration of ornament as a means of liberation from social alienation and rationalization was not free from ideological selfenhancement and arrogant racist superiority. With Worringer already the Germanic became the foundation of a racistbased art theory praising “the infinite dynamism of Nordic decorative art” 36 and the formal dynamism of Gothic architecture as expression of one and the same Aryan “artistic impulse”. In this line of thought Worringer maintained that “Gothic only happens where Germanic blood mixes with the blood of other European races. The ancient Germanic peoples are therefore not the only representatives of the Gothic (…) but they are very well the sine qua non of the Gothic.” 37 This type of distortion of history was already very fashionable at the begin of the century, becoming more widespread in the course of World War I and the accompanying nationalist and chauvinist inflammatory propaganda against all that which was Romance and foreign until its culmination under the Nazis.

The inconsistent idea that the abstractness of ornaments corroborates their release from narrative tasks and concrete contents and for this very reason predestines them for motives of ideological and historical reference has determined the discourse on ornament since Riegl. Ornament’s “loss of content” which he had diagnosed found its continuation in Georg Lukács’ expression “loss of the world”: “Ornamentation lacks the world precisely because it deliberately ignores representationalism and the contexts of the real world, replacing them with abstract connections of a predominantly geometric nature.” 38 Due to this abstraction, Lukács denied ornament the “depth” 39 by which, according to him, a work of art’s capacity to explore real social tensions is measured. For him, geometric ornaments reflected reality in a stylised, idealized and consequently ornamental form and were “possible only with not fully developed social conditions” 40, i.e. with “primitive” peoples. Therefore, ornament, in spite of its abstract nature, conveyed social importance and thereby also had a content which Lukács distinguished, however, from “representational content”: “The fact that it (the ornament) has no concrete representational content, but mere an abstract one, produces only an extremely specialized character of content, but not its complete absence.” 41 With this type of splitting concepts, arising from a questionable materialist analogy of artistic form and social condition, Lukács cut the history of ornament didactically down to size. He did this also by idealizing primitives, additionally ascribing to them a “unity of human abilities” 42, which he obviously thought to have been lost in modern societies. With this, he marginalized ornament within developed societies because it did not fit into a materialist reflection theory of art focussed on the theatrical illustrative and because it was encumbered as an imprint and relic of feudal bourgeois culture. So what Lukács called the “loss of the world” of ornament concealed a most worldly interpretation scheme which, for reasons pertaining to its own history, wanted to have ornament as a subject of historical impact restricted to the prehistory of human civilization.

Ornament and the varying definitions of its concept were, as this short historical survey shows, the subject of a heated debate. This controversy has not come to an end in modern times, it continues, as mentioned at the beginning, under different social and conceptual premises in the genderrelated discourse on the relation between ornament and femininity, of fashion and gender identity. But the different conceptions also reflect the ambivalent significance of ornamental structures which combine conflicting elements. Because the apparently playful free forms of geometric or vegetalfloral ornament motifs are mostly standardized patterns which, while adorning bodies and objects, also represent restricting ideals and norms. As aestheticizing festive and ritual transformations of public relevance they also call for the disciplining and relativization of that which is individual and private, and as signs of distinction used by social groups and collectives for self-determination and limitation they continue to exclude others. In this way, both the use of the ornamental as well as the verbal argument of its interpreters on this subject show that there is a price to pay for beauty.

  1. Llewellyn Negrin: Ornament and the Feminine, in: L. Negrin: Appearance and Identity.
    Fashioning the Body in Postmodernity, Palgrave Macmillan, New York 2008, p. 117–138
  2. Cf. Norma Broude: Miriam Schapiro and “Femmage”: Reflections on the Conflict Between Decoration and Abstraction in Twentieth Century Art, in: Feminism and Art History:
    Questioning the Litany, ed. Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, Harper & Row, New York
    1982, p. 315–329
  3. Llewellyn Negrin: Ornament and the Feminine, cf. note 1, p. 118
  4. Ibid., p. 136–137
  5. Sigmund Freud: The Future of an Illusion (1927), in: The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XXI (1927–1931). Translated by James Strachey, Hogarth Press, London 1958, p. 1–56, p. 10
  6. Adolf Loos: Ornament and Crime. Selected Essays. Selected and with an Introduction by
    Adolf Opel. Translated by Michael Mitchell. Ariadne Press, Riverside, California 1998.
    (Studies in Austrian Literature, Culture and Thought. Translation Series), p. 167–176, p. 167
    [translation completed]
  7. Adolf Loos: Ornament and Education. In: Ornament and Crime. Selected Essays. Selected and
    with an Introduction by Adolf Opel. Translated by Michael Mitchell. Ariadne Press,
    Riverside, California 1998. (Studies in Austrian Literature, Culture and Thought. Translation
    Series), p. 184–189, p. 187
  8. Otto Weininger: Geschlecht und Charakter. Eine principielle Untersuchung, Wilhelm
    Braumüller, Vienna and Leipzig 1903
  9. Adolf Loos: Ladies’ Fashion. In: Ornament and Crime. Selected Essays. Selected and with an
    Introduction by Adolf Opel. Translated by Michael Mitchell. Ariadne Press, Riverside,
    California 1998. (Studies in Austrian Literature, Culture and Thought. Translation Series), p.
    106–111, p. 109
  10. Adolf Loos: Ornament and Crime, cf. note 6, p. 171
  11. Ibid.
  12. Michael Müller: Die Verdrängung des Ornaments. Zum Verhältnis von Architektur und
    Lebenspraxis, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1977, p. 95
  13. Ibid., p. 19
  14. Ibid., p. 20
  15. Alois Riegl: Problems of style: Foundations for a history of ornament, Princeton University
    Press, Princeton, NJ 1992
  16. Ibid., Introduction, p. 6
  17. Ibid., p. 30
  18. Ibid., p. 37
  19. Ibid. [translation modified]
  20. Ibid., Introduction, p. 4
  21. Lorenz Dittmann: Stil, Symbol, Struktur. Studien zu Kategorien der Kunstgeschichte,
    Wilhelm Fink Verlag, Munich 1967, p. 22
  22. Alois Riegl: Late Roman Art Industry. Translated by Rolf Winkes, Giorgio Bretschneider,
    Rome 1985, p. 127 [translation modified]
  23. Alois Riegl: Gesammelte Aufsätze, Dr. Benno Filser Verlag, Augsburg/Wien 1929, p. 64
  24. Ibid., p. 63
  25. Wilhelm Worringer: Abstraction and Empathy. A Contribution to the Psychology of Style,
    Translation by Michael Bullock, Ivan R. Dee Publisher, Chicago 1997
  26. Wilhelm Worringer: Form in Gothic. Authorized Translation. Edited with an Introduction by
    Sir Herbert Read, Alec Tiranti, London 1957.
  27. Ibid., p. 16
  28. Ibid., p. 17
  29. Ibid.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Hermann Bahr: Expressionismus, Delphin Verlag, Munich 1916, p. 128
  32. Siegfried Kracauer: Das Ornament der Masse, in: S. Kracauer: Das Ornament der Masse.
    Essays, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1977, p. 50–63, S. 54
  33. Ibid., p. 50
  34. Michael Müller: Die Verdrängung des Ornaments. Zum Verhältnis von Architektur und Lebenspraxis, cf. note 12, p. 92
  35. Ibid., p. 22
  36. Wilhelm Worringer: Form in Gothic, cf. note 26, p. 37
  37. Ibid., p. 29
  38. Georg Lukács: Ästhetik, Teil 1: Die Eigenart des Ästhetischen, (Werke 11), Luchterhand,
    Neuwied/Berlin 1963, 1. Halbband S. 313
  39. Ibid., p. 336
  40. Ibid., 2. Halbband, p. 435
  41. Ibid., 1. Halbband, p. 332
  42. Ibid., p. 344

Published in: „Maria Hahnenkamp“, Salzburger Kunstverein (Hsg.), 2009, Schlebrügge Editor

Rainer FuchsStudied Art History, History and Philosophy in Graz and Vienna. Assistant Director and Exhibitions Director at MUMOK. Exhibitions include: Exhibition 1994, Self Construction 1996, Felix Gonzalez-Torres 1998, Lois Weinberger 1999, John Baldessari 2005, Dan Flavin 2012. Focal topics: History of concepts and reception of expressionism and classical modernism, linguistic-analytical and conceptual art movements since the 1960s, publications on modernism and contemporary art.