Constructing Critiques of Ornament: What can we know?

A.-Chr. Engels-Schwarzpaul

Associate Professor, Spatial Design.
School of Art & Design. AUT University.
Auckland, New Zealand


Using the example of discussions of ornament and ornamentation, this paper sketches out scenarios in which “minor knowledges” (Foucault) and practices fail to be recognised in mainstream discourses of academics or professionals. The suppression of ornament, as is well known, went hand-in-hand with the putting down of an irrationality and excessiveness ascribed to women, the working class and savages. The latters’ relative rise in power, and resulting perspectival changes manifest in, for instance, postmodernism, have freed ornament of some of the stigmata previously attached to it. However, the mechanisms involved in its suppression are still at work, and current frameworks are still based on countless unexamined assumptions. These effectively continue to re-enforce power/knowledge relationships and to marginalise non-fitting outlooks and practices.

The paper sets out to discuss and critique some key aspects of knowledge production and the limits of our ability to know. I suggest that some conditions that applied to the discussions of ornamental practices are likely to apply similarly to dilemmas with which designers are confronted today, when they deal with something which is not acceptable or doesn’t even feature in the canons into which claims to knowledge solidify. The paper argues for courage on the part of design theorists, professionals and educators to accept uncertainty and to exercise epistemological modesty. A crossover and mutual transformation of different ways of understanding is required if we are to unfold new knowledge and to look at the familiar with new eyes.