I. Object of Ornamental Art. - The object or purpose of ornament, as in the other fine arts, is to please. In music and poetry this enjoyment is conveyed to the mind through the ear; in the decorative and pictorial arts, through the eye. Generally, the meaning that we find in such productions, the appeal that they make to the understanding or feelings, is as great a source of interest to us as their intrinsic beauty. Poetry and vocal music are greatly dependent for their effect upon the meaning they convey in words; painting and sculpture, upon the ideas or sentiments they suggest. In all four, however, and most decidedly in music unaccompanied by words, the appeal is frequently made almost exclusively to the aesthetic sense, the mind or intellect remaining almost dormant under the impression. Gems of rhythmical verse, such as Poe's "Bells," "The Raven," Whistler's "Symphonies in Color," nameless forms in statuary, expressionless save in the mere beauty of their proportions and curves, and, as has been stated, nearly the entire field of instrumental music, are cases in point. In the ornamental and decorative arts, as well as in architecture (from which they are indeed inseparable), beauty alone, in like manner, should be the principal aim and purpose.
In the former, of course, it is indispensable that such should be the case, as they are entirely subordinate and accessory in their nature, their only raison d'etre being to beautify or render more agreeable objects already created for some purpose.
It must not be imagined that such artistic impressions - viz., where the appeal is made almost solely to the aesthetic sense, regardless of the reason, judgment, or feelings - are necessarily of a lower order. Their effect is almost analogous to that which nature herself produces upon us - the starry heavens, the mighty ocean, the tender flower. The impression, whether the object belongs to the domain of nature or art, may be a merely sensuous one; and if it stops there, as it certainly does for the majority of people, it ranks without doubt far below productions where the aesthetic element is only used to stimulate and heighten the appeal to the mind or the feelings. But if it extend beyond, and makes the sensuous impression but the parting link to the contemplation of ideal, abstract beauty, without the intermediate aid of the heart or the reason, it is the shortest and quickest road toward the realization of the infinite, and makes us indeed feel that it is but a short step "from nature up to nature's God." Thus architecture, which embodies, more than any other of the space arts, principles of abstract beauty, has been with reason called the noblest of them all.
However, ornamental and architectural forms frequently do convey a meaning, which we term symbolism in art. If this symbolism does not detract from the first object of ornament - viz., to beautify - it is perfectly legitimate and proper. It is impossible to fully appreciate many phases of art, as, for instance, the Egyptian and the early Christian, if we leave out of sight the symbolism which pervades them.
While beauty, or capacity for pleasing the eye, may be very definitely said to be the aim of ornamental art, it is difficult to arrive at a universal standard as to what constitutes beauty. What pleases one person will not always please another. The child loves glittering objects and gaudy combinations, which the mature taste of the man declares extravagant and unharmonious. Savages decorate their weapons, utensils, and their own persons with ornaments that appear uncouth and barbarous to civilized people.
Besides these differences in taste, which are due to different degrees of mental development, and which can consequently be easily disposed of, we find among highly civilized and cultured nations, at different periods, a great diversity of tastes. These varying and sometimes apparently conflicting products of ornamental art we designate as styles, viz., Egyptian style, Greek style, Gothic style, etc. So marked are the differences between them that we can sometimes tell at a glance to what period and to what style a small fragment of decoration belongs.
Notwithstanding these differences, which at first may appear very great, a careful study of the best styles - those that achieved the greatest and most lasting popularity - will reveal the fact that they are all based upon certain fundamental laws and principles, and that all are good, bad, or indifferent according as they conform to or violate these principles. These essentials having been preserved, the opportunities for the exercise of individual or national taste are almost boundless.
II. Position of Ornament. - The position that ornament occupies is necessarily a secondary one, as it cannot exist independently, but is always applied to objects created for some purpose entirely independent of their capacity for pleasing. This gives us one of the great underlying principles that should characterize all ornament, viz., it must be subordinate to the object which it adorns, and must not detract from its use. We often see this rule violated in personal, household, and architectural decoration - windows so overloaded with projecting cornices and lattice work as to almost exclude light and air; knife handles carved so elaborately that it is impossible to grasp them firmly; styles of dress in form or color that impede the motions of the wearer, and make the clothes, rather than the personality of the wearer, the most noticeable feature. From this principle there is but a step to another: All ornament should be modest and moderate. It must not obtrude itself, and a great profusion and ostentation in its application is always a sign of degeneracy and bad taste. Of course some objects, from their nature, position, and use, will admit of greater and more elaborate ornament than others.
Ornament, being entirely subordinate, should not conceal the construction of the object. In architecture it should follow the leading lines of the building, and should emphasize, or at least suggest, the construction. If architectural in character, it should so enter into the construction of the building that it could not be taken away without injuring it.