At first, the differences between fine and decorative arts might seem to be obvious. Fine art is something with no function other than to be admired as an object, such as paintings, sculptures, and video-installations. Decorative art is something that may be beautiful but which also serves a purpose, such as carpets, chairs, vases.
However, what does this say about the work of Marc Camille Chaimowicz, who creates installations (i.e. fine art) from pieces of artist-designed furniture, textiles, and wallpapers (i.e. decorative art)? And what does this say about Britain’s Grayson Perry, who is a fine artist who works mostly in decorative arts, creating ceramics and tapestries? Although these objects technically have a function, they are displayed as fine art objects, on walls and on top of that defining symbol of fine art—the white plinth.
The differences can break down in even more absurd ways. Say I take a painting off the wall and use it as a coaster. Does it become decorative art? This is of course a ridiculous example, but it highlights some of the problems encountered when trying to find the differences between fine and decorative arts.
Despite this blurring of boundaries, which is a very postmodern problem, the solution comes straight out of the medieval era. The difference has to include a little magic on the part of the artist. Just as Marcel Duchamp turned a urinal into a fountain by calling it such, the artist can turn something that is traditionally from the decorative arts into fine art simply by naming it so.
For those unwilling to assign mystical powers to artists, it is a question of context. If an object falls into the traditional categories of decorative art—that is, it serves a purpose—and it is in a location where it serves that purpose, or could do so imminently, then it is decorative art. If that object has been removed from that context, put in an artist’s installation or a gallery, then it becomes fine art.
This will do for a start, but this definition has its own problems. For example, what about decorative art objects that have been put into a museum dedicated to the decorative arts, like London’s Victoria and Albert or Vienna’s Museum of Applied Arts? Consequently, you also have to consider intent. If the craftsperson was creating a vase to be used as a vase—sold as a vessel to contain flowers—then they are creating a piece of decorative art. If, however, an identical vase is being made for an Ai Weiwei installation, then it is fine art. A Han dynasty potter creates an urn meant for use within an Imperial Palace—decorative art. Ai Weiwei takes that urn, writes ‘Coca-Cola’ on it and displays it in a gallery—fine art.