Aesthetica Preprint, 47 (August 1996)

Massimo Carboni: Aesthetics of the Ornament

The present essay, which is part of a broader work on the same topic, examines the aesthetic and philosophical valences of the Ornament, an issue that only from a reductionist perspective can be considered as "marginal" as tradition, almost by definition, would have it. One could argue, on the contrary, that the heterogeneous notion of the Ornament (its practice, its ontological status, its aesthetic definability) may unexpectedly prove to be a means to deconstruct some central aspects of our centuries-old tenets regarding artistic forms and the theory of art: e. g., the relationship between subject and object in the process of making the work of art, the relation between what is "decorative" and what is "functional", the notion of "artistic will", the opposition supplement vs. foundation, and also ethnic art. The Ornament has always been considered a gregarious and additional element (the "parergon" of the "ergon", of the work of art); but is it possible that such traditional and persistent conviction should conceal, paradoxically, the opposite assumption? May the "marginality" of the Ornament reveal, unexpectedly, its very centrality? These are some of the questions that will be addressed in the present essay.
The first section examines how the aesthetics of the Ornament constitutes a critical aspect of and possibly a key to reformulate the classical opposition subject vs. object on the basis of the issue of intentionality which in the present essay we have reread and deconstructed in light of Husserl's work. In the "Intermezzo", we advance a reinterpretation of Riegl's notion of "Kunstwollen" (the most enlightening and exemplary paradigm of which is the ornamental practice) from a structural-immanent point of view, that is as the "Possible" that informs the single, concrete work of art. We will, therefore, depart from the deductive-transcendental and neo-Kantian readings advanced by Panofsky and Sedlmayr. In the second section, we will attempt to deconstruct the other classical opposition (supplement vs. foundation) that has traditionally informed the interpretation of the Ornament. Through a rereading of those parts of the Critique of Judgement that betray a certain" unmanageability" of the issue in question, we will show how Kant wavered between an "ornamentalistic" conception of the Ornament as a mere "sensible attraction" that does not partake of Beauty, and an appreciation of its "foundational" role in the perception of pure Beauty. After a close examination of various interpretations of the Ornament (from Hegel's, Ruskin's, and Simmel's to Loos', Le Corbusier's, and Gadamer's), the author will locate in Levi-Strauss's reading of ethnic art the possibility to deploy the afore-mentioned traditional oppositions not in order to go beyond them at an abstract level, but, rather, in order to displace their coercive and constrictive potential, thereby succeeding in reconciling the Ornament with modern and contemporary art.