I filled in the survey a while back, but this week I finally read an Art Documentation article that someone (I think Kathy Woodrell or it might have been Beth Goodrich) referred to me at least a year ago. It is from the Summer 1993 issue: “The Decorative Arts: A Problem in Classification,” by Steven Blake Shubert. I had put off looking at it as, although I am very interested in L.C. subject headings, I am less interested in L.C. classification as it seems so hopeless. A long time ago I resigned myself to thinking that L.C. numbers are simply addresses—like street addresses—they carry about as much content. Having a chunk of time yesterday, I turned to Shubert’s article and was surprised to find that three-fifths of the five-page essay is a very cogent history of the concept (in Western art) of “decorative arts,” beginning with the 17th century in Europe.
The term decorative art is derived from the Latin roots decorare, meaning to adorn or beautify, and ars, meaning skill, craft, or knowledge. Its use is connected with the organization of knowledge as it evolved in the Western world. (p.77)
I’m not going to give you an overview of the article here as I think it is worth the hour or so it will take you to read it. I will tell you that Shubert does not have a solution for the problem of the SIG name. But he encapsulates very well the history of the problem and that—for me at least—helped to clarify that we are correct to look for a SIG name change at this time.
Here is Shubert’s final paragraph, which I think is helpful:
The usefulness of the category decorative arts is unquestioned. The challenge is how to interpret the concept in a culturally unbiased manner and yet focus on a discrete set of objects. If the decorative art concept continues to be interpr4eted in looser and broader ways, then decorative arts will become merely an art historian’s term for material culture, referring to every and any sort of artifact. Yet if the traditional narrow interpretation of the decorative arts is accepted’ the judgment of artistic quality and suitability of material and technique is rooted in an elitist Eurocentric world view, which is no longer in keeping with the times. Until this issue is resolved, the decorative arts as a category will continue to include any combination of media and techniques its users desire. The term decorative arts will be valued for its flexibility and adaptability to different circumstances, but its content will remain ambiguous.
Shubert’s words from almost 30 years ago (!) hold up well I think. I was fairly sure that “decorative arts” should be stricken from our name; but after reading Shubert’s article I now think the term should be included, though moved to a less prominent place, thus:
CRAFT, DESIGN, AND DECORATIVE ARTS SIG. CDDA SIG—I think it trips lightly on the tongue.
–Joan M. Benedetti