Unlike [many] contemporary critics and scholars . . . , Ayn Rand insisted on an essential distinction between art [in the sense of the major arts] and the utilitarian objects that she termed "decorative arts.". . .  Though she commented only briefly on the decorative arts in [her essay] "Art and Cognition," the relevant principles can be fleshed out from her larger theory of art and are applicable to craft and design as well. According to Rand's analysis, the utilitarian objects of decorative art differ fundamentally from works of art, not simply in having a primarily physical function, but also in their lower level of cognitive integration and in their distinctive relationship to the hierarchy of human values. In her view, the ornamentation of such objects "is a valuable task, [one] often performed by talented artists, but it is not an art in the esthetic-philosophical meaning of the term" because, in contrast with painting and sculpture, it is not essentially conceptual in its focus but is primarily sensory and perceptual. For Rand, "an art in the esthetic-philosophical meaning of the term" re-creates reality in a manner that concretizes the artist's fundamental values or sense of life. Thus a work of visual art always implies a meaning broader than the particular image represented, whereas an object of decorative art need not have any significance beyond the object itself. Rand was not the first to suggest such a distinction, of course. Many writers have noted that meaningful content is essential to art [i.e., to the major arts]. Yet her analysis of the cognitive role of art in integrating and concretizing human experience lends heightened significance to the traditional distinction between "decorative" and "fine" art.- - - - - - - - - - - -
1. The term "decorative art," which Rand employed, is now in such disrepute among art scholars that the purportedly comprehensive Dictionary of Art (1996) altogether omits an entry on it, offering in its place only a passing mention, under "Classification of the Arts."
2. In the same vein as Rand, Steven Blake Shubert argues (in an award-winning article for the journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America) that, at root, the term decorative pertains to "the embellishment or ornamentation of an object in order to evoke visual satisfaction or delight, without any pretense of expressing meaning or emotion." "The Decorative Arts: A Problem of Classification," Art Documentation, Summer 1993, 78, emphasis added.
What Art Is Online is a supplement to What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand by Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi (2000). The above excerpt is from Chapter 11: "Decorative Art and Craft." Copyright is held by the authors.