Those who dabble in decorative fine arts often take offense to the notion that their endeavor is less important than the “fine arts.” With the fine arts, they say, there is at least some purpose behind it, unlike the fine arts (namely, painting, drawing, photography, and large-scale sculpture), which only function is to be looked at.
In the traditional sense, the decorative arts refer to arts and crafts that have ornamental and functional purposes and include a wide range of materials, including ceramic, wood, glass, metal, and textiles. The fields that encompass the decorative arts include ceramics and pottery, glassware, furniture, hardstone carving, metalworks, jewelry, textiles, some mosaics, wallpaper, and interior design.
These days, the term “decorative arts” isn’t used to describe contemporary works. Instead, the accepted term is “design.” Art historians also don’t like the term, but use “minor arts.” This demonstrates the disdain often felt in the art world towards this arts. Some make a distinction between decorative arts and fine arts based upon this distinction. (Other distinctions are functionality, intended purpose, importance, status as a unique creation, and single-artist production).
This is really a shame, for there are some beautiful artworks that have been created throughout history. The distinction between fine arts and decorative arts is largely a Western one, arising from its post-Renaissance art. It’s not as meaningful when applied to other cultures and periods. Islamic art, for example, consists almost entirely of the decorative arts.
Actually, this type of arts give us a close insight into non-Western cultures and the cultures of the past. They allow us to see how people decorated their homes and places of worship. Ecclesiastical objects of the Middle Ages, for example, gives us insight into the ways that their creators and users honored their religious rituals and practices. They include European furniture, tapestries, and ceramics from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. They include eighteenth-century French furniture and Chinese porcelains from the Qing dynasty of the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries.
Tapestry weaving was held in high esteem, which came to be centered in Brussels, in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, and can be considered decorative arts. Tapestry production during this time was big business, and its creation was complicated and very involved. The production of tin-glazed earthenware (called “maiolica”) was also a very lively industry during the Renaissance and produced great masterpieces. Eighteenth-century French furniture, in both the popular rorocco and neoclassical styles of the day, is exquisite pieces of decorative art.
Another important art is the use of mosaics, which is the art of creating images by assembling small pieces of colored glass, stone, or other materials, to decorate walls. Mosaics usually have some sort of spiritual significance, and are most often used to decorate churches and cathedrals.
It is a mistake to think that the arts aren’t as “fine” as other types of art, just because people actually used the objects that constitute such art. Their creators had to have just as much skill and ingenuity as other kind of artists, and their objects were as highly prized as other types of art. In some ways, due to their practical natures, perhaps they were even more highly prized.