Article by Sheldon Posen

I
n his classes at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1970s, anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell sometimes brought in objects to prompt discussion. One day he placed on our seminar table two duck decoys: one was essentially two pieces of log joined by a dowel to form a roughly duckshaped object, painted flat black; the other was one of the most beautifully carved sculptures of a duck I had ever seen, every feather delineated, amber glass eyes in symmetrically placed recesses in the head, gracefully curving neck and tail, full colour paint. “These two decoys,” he said, “both work. Why do these get made” (pointing to the second duck) “when these” (indicating the first) “can be crafted in a hundredth of the time with none of the skill?”


This is a question I have found myself asking countless times, in one way or another, working in the collections of the Canadian Museum of Civilization (CMC). Why get fancy with a utilitarian object? What’s the point of decoration, elaboration, adornment, enhancement? I had long ago put away the notion that ornamentation was gratuitous–laid on because the maker had time on his/ her hands. Nor was it useful to think of aesthetic embellishment as (merely) driven by a basic human tendency to make things beautiful (though dozens of cave paintings and Neolithic carvings might attest to this). No, ornamentation had to be there for a reason, and my job was to delve into what that might have been. I suppose part of what ornament does is express a kind of crafter’s boast (I adorn because I can), or a sense of play (Hey, wouldn’t this look cool!) But surely something else is at work. What is the nature of the additional information brought by decoration? Is it, in all cases, additional? Does ornament reflect context, or does it bring its own context with it? Or is it the context? Is all ornament of the same order?

Image: The Quebec
CMC no. 82-297
Photography: Canadian Museum of Civilization