A Modern Perspective

James Trilling

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  • Published: 2002
  • Subject Listing: Design
  • Bibliographic information: 288 pp., 92 illus., 10 in color, 7 x 10 in.
  • Series: Samuel and Althea Stroum Books
  • Contents

Ornament - "the art we add to art," as James Trilling defines it - makes people happy; it stands for everything that makes life worth living. But ornament was effectively banned from our world almost a century ago, with modernism's doctrine that ornament was a betrayal of the beauty of function. Devotion to modernism stripped away our historical awareness of ornament and broke the tradition of craft that once kept ornament alive. Now that modernism is itself receding into history, ornament is again acceptable, but moving forward seems to mean reinventing the wheel. "Not since the artists and connoisseurs of fifteenth-century Italy set out to rediscover classical antiquity has a culture been so completely on its own in relation to the past," Trilling writes.

This engaging, generously illustrated book - part visual guide, part cultural history - is a wide-ranging consideration of the cultural and symbolic significance of ornament, its rejection by modernism, and its subsequent reinvention. Trilling explains how ornament works, why it has to be explained, and why it matters. His discussion of ornament - in textiles, ceramics, metalwork, architecture, manuscripts and books - is enhanced by insights drawn from religion, science, ancient and modern literature, political history, and moral philosophy. The result is a resoundingly original, highly readable contribution to art history and, more broadly, to cultural and social history.
James Trilling is a writer, art historian, and author of The Language of Ornament. He is former associate curator of Old World textiles at the Textile Museum, Washington, D.C., and has taught at the Rhode Island School of Design. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island.

"Ornament: A Modern Perspective is a lucid account of the development, dynamics, and interpretation of ornament together with a compelling critique of the modernist indictment of ornament and its profound practical, conceptual, and perceptual consequences for 20th-century visual culture in the West. More than a primer of ornament, Trilling's book constantly provokes re-looking and re-thinking of assumptions about the visual world."
-Maggie Bickford, Brown University

"Trilling carries the reader through a series of extraordinarily wide-ranging examples from antiquity to contemporary Europe and including examples from China, the Middle East, and America. The result is a sense of the manner in which ornament is perceived and historically manipulated. And who else could have brought together so effortlessly Ruskin, Marx, and the Neogothic? This book will delight the student of culture as well as the college student simply trying to understand what ornament is all about."
-Deborah Klimburg-Salter, Institute of Art History, University of Vienna

How Ornament Works
How Ornament Evolves
From Function to Meaning: In Search of Universals
Ornament, Meaning, Symbol: In Search of Specifics
Preface to Part Two
The Revolution that Never Happened
The Flight from Enchantment: Moral and Religious Objections to Ornament
Anxieties of Industry: Social and Economic Objections to Ornament
Modernism and the Rebirth of Ornament
Bibliography of Ornament

"Independent scholar Trilling offers a multifaceted view of ornament and its values in the time after modernism with its denigration of ornament and obeisance to function."
-Library Journal

"Ranging widely across cultures, time periods, disciplines, and topics, Ornament is a densely layered book of formidable learning, imagination, and complexity."
-Technology and Culture