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Ananda K. Coomaraswamy

As remarked by Clement of Alexandria, the scriptural style is parabolic, but it is not for the sake of elegance of diction that prophecy makes use of figures of speech. On the other hand, “The sensible forms [of artifacts], in which there was at first a polar balance of physical and metaphysical, have been more and more voided of content on their way down to us: so we say, ‘This is an ornament’ ‘art form’... [Is the symbol] therefore dead, because its living meaning had been lost, because it was denied that it was the image of a spiritual truth? I think not” (Andrae, Die ionische Säule, Bauform oder Symbol, 1933, Schlusswort). And as I have so often said myself, a divorce of utility and meaning, concepts which are united in the one Sanskrit word artha, would have been inconceivable to early man or in any traditional culture.

In the present article we are not concerned with beauty, which is traditionally proportionate to the perfection of the artifact itself, and is the attractive power of this perfection, and being thus objective is dependent upon truth and not upon opinion: our concern is rather with the aesthetic view of art, and the decorative values of art, which depend on taste and liking rather than on judgment. We should distinguish accordingly between the beautiful on the one hand and the lovely, i.e., loveable or likeable, on the other,1 bearing in mind that “the beautiful is not just what we like, for there are some who like deformities” (St. Augustine, De Musica, VI, 38). What we have in view is to support by the analysis of certain familiar terms and categories the proposition that our modern preoccupation with the “decorative” and “aesthetic” aspects of art represents an aberration that has little or nothing to do with the original purposes of art; to demonstrate from the side of semantics the position that has been stated by Maes with special reference to Negro art that “Vouloir séparer l’objet de sa signification sociale, son rôle ethnique, pour n’y voir, n’y admirer et n’y chercher que le côté esthétique, c’est enlever à ces souvenirs de l'art nègre leur sens, leur significance et leur raison-d'être! Ne cherchons point à effacer l’idée que l’indigène a incrustée dans l'ensemble comme dans chacun des détails d’execution de l’objet sans significance, raison-d’être, ou vie. Efforçons nous au contraire de comprendre la psychologie de l’art nègre et nous finirons par en pénétrer toute la beauté et toute la vie" (IPEK, 1926, p. 283), and that, as remarked by Karsten, “the ornaments of savage peoples can only be properly studied in connection with a study of their magical and religious beliefs" (ib., p. 164); emphasizing, however, that the application of these considerations is not merely to negro, “savage,” and folk art but to all traditional arts, those for example of the Middle Ages and of India.2

Page 376 Let us consider now the history of various words that have been used to express the notion of an ornamentation or decoration and which in modern usage for the most part import an aesthetic value added to things of which the said “decoration” is not an essential or necessary part. It will be found that most of these words which imply for us the notion of something adventitious and luxurious, added to utilities but not essential to their efficacy, originally implied a completion or fulfilment of the artifact or other object in question; that to “decorate” an object or person originally meant to endow the object or person with its or his “necessary accidents,” with a view to “proper” operation; and that the aesthetic senses of the words are secondary to their practical connotation; whatever was originally necessary to the completion of anything, and thus proper to it, naturally giving pleasure to the user; until still later what had once been essential to the nature of the object came to be regarded as an “ornament” that could be added to it or omitted at will; until, in other words, the art by which the thing itself had been made whole began to mean only a sort of millinery or upholstery that covered over a body that had not been made by “art” but rather by “labor” – a point of view bound up with our peculiar distinction of a fine or useless from an applied or useful art, and of the artist from the workman, and with our substitution of ceremonies for rites.

A related example of a degeneration of meaning can be cited in our words “artifice,” meaning “trick,” but originally artificium, “thing made by art,” “work of art,” and our “artificial,” meaning “false,” but originally artificialis, “of or for work.”

The Sanskrit word alaṁkāra3 is usually rendered by “ornament,” with reference either to the rhetorical use of “ornaments” (figures of speech, assonances, kennings, etc.), or to jewelry or trappings. The Indian category of alaṁkāra-śāstra, the “Science of Poetic Ornament,” corresponds, however, to the medieval category of Rhetoric or Art of Oratory, in which eloquence is thought of not as an end in itself or art for art's sake, or to display the artist’s skill, but as the art of effective communication. There exists, indeed, a mass of medieval Indian poetry that is “sophistic” in Augustine's sense (“A speech seeking verbal ornament beyond the bounds of responsibility to its burden (gravitas) is called ‘sophistic’,” De doc. christ., II, 31). At a time when "poetry" (kāvya)4 had to some extent become an end in itself, a discussion arose as to whether or not “ornaments” (alaṁkāra) represent the essence of poetry; the consensus being that, so far from this, poetry is distinguishable from prose (i.e., the poetic from the prosaic, not verse from prose) by its “sapidity” or “flavor” (rasa vyañjana, corresponding to the sap- in Lat. sapientia, wisdom, “scientia cum sapore”). Sound and meaning are thought of as indissolubly wedded; just as in all the other arts of whatever kind there was originally a radical and natural connection between form and significance, without divorce of function and meaning.

If we analyse now the word alaṁkāra and consider the many other than merely aesthetic senses in which the verb alaṁ-kṛ is employed, we shall find that the word is composed of alam, “sufficient,” or “enough,” and kṛ to “make.” It must be mentioned for the sake of what follows that Sanskrit l and r are often interchangeable, and that alam is represented Page 377 by aram in the older literature. Analogous to the transitive araṁ-kṛ are the intransitive araṁbhū, to become able, fit for and araṁ-gam, to serve or suffice for. The root of aram may be the same as that of Greek ὰραρίσκω, to fit together, equip or furnish. Aram with kṛ or bhū occurs in Vedic texts in phrases meaning preparedness, ability, suitability, fitness, hence also that of “satisfying” (a word that renders alaṁ- kṛ very literally, satis corresponding to aram and facere to kṛ), as in RV, VII, 29, 3 “What satisfaction (araṁ- kṛ ti) is there for thee, Indra, by means of our hymns?” Alaṁ -kṛ in the Atharva Veda (XVIII, 2) and in the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa is employed with reference to the due ordering of the sacrifice, rather than to its adornment, the sacrifice indeed being much less a ceremony than a rite; but already in the Rāmāyaṇa, a "poetical" work, the word has usually the meaning to "adorn."

Without going into further detail, it can easily be seen what was once the meaning of an “adornment,” viz., the furnishing of anything essential to the validity of whatever is “adorned,” or enhances its effect, empowering it.

In just the same way bhūṣaṇa and bhū, words that mean in Classical Sanskrit “ornament,” respectively as noun and as verb, do not have this value in Vedic Sanskrit, where (like alaṁkāra etc.) they refer to the provision of whatever properties or means increase the efficacy of the thing or person with reference to which or whom they are employed:5 the hymns, for example, with which the deity is said to be “adorned,” are an affirmation of and therefore a confirmation and magnification of the divine power to act on the singers’ behalf. Whatever is in this sense “ornamented” is thereby made the more in act, and more in being. That this should be so corresponds to the root meaning of the verb, which is an extension of bhū, to “become,” but with a causative nuance, so that, as pointed out by Gonda, bhūṣati dyūn in RV, X, II, 7 does not mean “ornaments his days,” but “lengthens his life,” “makes more his life,” cf. Skr. bhūyas, “becoming in a greater degree” (Pāṇini), “abundantly furnished with,” and “more.” Bhūṣ has thus the value of vṛdh, to increase (trans.), Macdonell rendering the gerundives ābhūṣenya and vāvṛdhenya both alike by “to be glorified” (Vedic Grammar, 580): an identical connection of ideas survives in English, where to “glorify” is also to “magnify” the Lord, and certain chants are “Magnificats.” Vedic bhūṣ in the sense “increase” or “strengthen,” and synonymous with vṛdh, corresponds to the later causative bhāv (from bhū), as can be clearly seen if we compare RV, IX, 104, I, where Soma is to be “adorned,” or rather “magnified” (pari bhūṣata) by sacrifices,” as it were a child” (śiśtuṁ na) with Ait. Ār., II, 5, where the mother “nourishes” (bhāvayati) the unborn child, and the father is said to “support” (bhāvayati) it both before and after birth; bearing also in mind that in RV, IX, 103, I the hymns addressed to Soma are actually compared to "food" (bhṛti) from bhṛ, to “bear,” “bring,” “support,” and that in the Ait. Ār. context the mother “nourishes... and bears the child" (bhāvayati...garbham bibharti). And insofar as ābharaṇa and bhūṣaṇa in other contexts are often “jewelry” or other decoration of the person or thing referred to, it may be observed that the values of jewelry were not originally those of “vain adornment” in any culture, but rather metaphysical or “magical.”6 To some extent this can be recognized even at the present day: if, for example, the judge is only a judge in act when wearing his robes, if the mayor Page 378 is empowered by his chain, and the king by his crown, if the pope is only infallible and verily pontiff when he speaks ex cathedra, “from the throne,” none of these things are mere ornaments; but much rather an equipment by which the man himself is “mored” (bhūyas-kṛta), just as in AV, X, 6, 6 Bṛhaspati wears a jewel, or let us say a talisman, “in order to power” (ojase). Even today the conferring of an order is a “decoration” in the same sense: and it is only to the extent that we have learned to think of knighthood, for example, as an “empty honor” that the “decoration” takes on the purely aesthetic values that we nowadays asociate with the word.

The mention of bhṛ, above, leads us to consider also the word ābharaṇa, in which the root is combined with a self-referent ā, “towards.” Ābharaṇa is generally rendered by “ornament,” but is more literally “assumption” or “attribute.” In this sense the characteristic weapons or other objects held by a deity, or worn, are his proper attributes, ābharaṇam, by which his mode of operation is denoted iconographically. In what sense a bracelet of conch (saṅkha),7 worn for long life, etc., is an “ābharaṇam” can be seen in AV, IV, 10, where the “sea-born” shell is “fetched (ābhṛtaḥ) from the waters.” In the same way āhārya, from hṛ, to “bring,” with ā as before, means in the first place that which is “to be eaten,” i.e., “nourishment,” and secondly the costume and jewels of an actor, regarded as one of the four factors of dramatic expression; in the latter sense the sun and moon are called the āhārya of Śiva when he manifests himself on the world stage (Abhinaya Darpaṇa, invocatory introduction).

Returning now to alaṁkāra as “rhetorical ornament,” Gonda very properly asks, “Have they always been nothing but embellishments?,” pointing out that very many of these so-called embellishments appear already in the Vedic texts, which, for all that, are not included in the category of poetry (kāvya), i.e., are not regarded as belonging to “belles lettres.” Yāska, for example, discusses upamā, “simile” or “parable” in Vedic contexts, and we may remark that such similes or parables are repeatedly employed in the Pali Buddhist canon, which is by no means sympathetic to any kind of artistry that can be thought of as an ornamentation for the sake of ornamentation. Gonda goes on to point out, and it is incontrovertibly true, that what we should now call ornaments (when we study “the Bible as literature”) are stylistic phenomena in the sense that "the scriptural style is parabolic” by an inherent necessity, the burden of scripture being one that can be expressed only by analogies: so this style had another function in the Vedic contexts "than to be nothing but ornaments. Here, as in the literature of several other peoples, we have a sacred or ritual ‘Sondersprache'’...different from the colloquial speech.” At the same time, “These peculiarities of the sacral language may also have an aesthetic side ... Then they become figures of speech and when applied in excess they become ‘Spielerei’.” Alaṁkṛta, in other words, having meant originally "made adequate," came finally to mean “embellished.”

In the case of another Sanskrit word śubha, of which the later meaning is “lovely,” there may be cited the expression śubhaṁ śilpin from the Rāmāyaṇa, where the reference is certainly not to a craftsman personally “handsome,” but to a “fine craftsman,” and likewise the well-known benediction śubham astu, “May it be well,” where śubham is rather the “good” then the beautiful as such. In RV we have such expressions as “I furnish (śumbhāmi) Agni with prayers” (VIII, 24, 26), where for śumbhāmi might just as well have been said alaṁkaromi (not “I adorn him,” but “I fit him out”); and śumbhanto (I, 130, 6), Page 379 not “adorning” but “harnessing” a horse; in J.V, 129 alaṁkata is “fully equipped” (in coat of mail and turban, and with bow and arrows and sword). In I, 130, 6, it is Indra that is "harnessed" like a steed that is to race and win a prize, and it is obvious that in such a case the aptitude rather than the beauty of the gear must have been the primary consideration, and that although the charioteer must have enjoyed at the same time the “pleasure that perfects the operation,” this pleasure must have been rather in the thing well made for its purpose, than in its mere appearance; it would be only under the more unreal conditions of a parade that the mere appearance might become an end in itself, and it is thus, in fact, that over-ornamented things are made only for show. This is a development that we are very familiar with in the history of armor (another sort of “harness”), of which the original life-saving purpose was pre-eminently practical, however elegant the resultant forms may have been in fact, but which in the end served no other purpose than that of display.

To avoid confusion, it must be pointed out that what we have referred to as the “utility” of a harness, or any other artifact, had never been, traditionally, a matter of merely functional adaptation;8 on the contrary, in every work of traditional art we can recognize Andrae's “polar balance of physical and metaphysical,” the simultaneous satis-faction (alaṁ-karaṇa) of practical and spiritual requirements. So the harness is originally provided (rather than “decorated”) with solar symbols, as if to say that the racing steed is the Sun (-horse) in a likeness, and the race itself an imitation of “what was done by the Gods in the beginning.”

A good example of the use of an “ornament” not as “millinery” but for its significance can be cited in ŚB. III. 5. 1. 19-20 where, because in the primordial sacrifice the Aṅgirases had accepted from the Ādityas the Sun as their sacrificial fee, so now a white horse is the fee for the performance of the corresponding Sadyaḥkrī Soma-sacrifice. This white horse is made to wear “a gold-ornament (růkma), whereby it is made to be of the form of, or symbol (rūpam) of the Sun.” This ornament must have been like the golden disk with twenty-one points or rays which is also worn by the sacrificer himself and afterwards laid down on the altar to represent the Sun (ŚB. VI. 7. 1. 1-2, VII. 1. 2. 10, VII. 4. 1. 10). It is familiar that horses are even now sometimes “decorated” with ornaments of brass (a substitute for gold, the regular symbol of Truth, Sun, Light, Immortality, ŚB. VI. 7. 1. 2, etc.) of which, the significance is manifestly solar; it is precisely such forms as these solar symbols that, when the contexts of life have been secularised, and meaning has been forgotten, survive as “superstitions”9 and are regarded only as “art forms” or “ornaments,” to be judged as good or bad in accordance, not with their truth, but with our likes or dislikes. If children have always been apt to play with useful things or miniature copies of useful things for example carts, as toys, we ought perhaps to regard our own aestheticism as symptomatic of a second childhood; we do not grow up.

Page 380 Enough of Sanskrit. The Greek word κόσμος is primarily “order” (Skr. ṛta), whether with reference to the due order or arrangement of things, or to the world-order (“the most beautiful order given to things by God,” St. Thomas Aquinas, Sum. Theol., I, 25, 6 ad 3).; and secondarily “ornament,” whether of horses, women, men, or speech. The corresponding verb κοσμέω is to order or arrange, and secondarily to equip, adorn, or dress, or finally with reference to the embellishment of oratory. Κόσμημα is an ornament or decoration, usually of dress. Κοσμητικός is skilled in ordering, κοσμητική the art of dress and ornament, κοσμητικόν “cosmetic,”10 κοσμητήριον a dressing-room. Κοσμοποίησις architectural ornament; hence our designation of the Doric etc. “orders.” Again we see the connection between an original “order” and a later “ornament.” In connection with “cosmetic” it may be remarked that we cannot understand the original intention of bodily ornaments (unguents, tattooing, jewelry, etc.) from our modern and aesthetic point of view. The Hindu woman feels herself undressed and disorderly without her jewels which, however much she may be fond of them from other and “aesthetic” points of view, she regards as a necessary equipment, without which she cannot function as a woman (from Manu, III, 55 “it appears that there existed a connection between the proper adornment of women and the prosperity of their male relatives,” Gonda, Bhūṣati, p. 7).11 To be seen without her gear would be more than a mere absence of decoration, it would be inauspicious, indecorous, and disrespectful, as if one should be present at some function in “undress,” or have forgotten one's tie: it is only as a widow, and as such “inauspicious,” that the woman abandons her ornaments. In ancient India or Egypt, in the same way, the use of cosmetics was assuredly not a matter of mere vanity, but much rather one of propriety. We can see this more easily, perhaps, in connection with hair-dressing (κοσμόμης and also one of the senses of ornare); the putting of one's hair in order is primarily a matter of decorum, and therefore pleasing, not primarily or merely for the sake of pleasing Κοσμίξω. “clean" and κόσμητρον “broom” recall the semantics of Chinese shih (9907) primarily to wipe or clean or be suitably dressed (the ideogram is composed of signs for “man” and “clothes”), and more generally to be decorated; cf. hsiu (4661), a combination of shih with san = "paint-brush," and meaning to put in order, prepare, regulate and cultivate.

The words “decoration” and “ornament,” whether with reference to the embellishment of persons or of things, can be considered simultaneously in Latin and in English. Ornare is primarily to “fit out, furnish, provide with necessaries” (Harper) and only secondarily to “embellish,” e c. Ornamentum is primary “apparatus, accoutrement, equipment, trappings”12 and secondarily embellishment, jewel, trinket,13 etc., as well as rhetorical ornament (Skr. alaṁkāra); the word is used by Pliny to render κόσμος. “Ornament” is primarily “any adjunct or accessory (primarily for use... )” (Webster): so Cooper (sixteenth century) speaks of the “tackling or ornaments of a ship,” and Malory of the “ornementys of an Page 381 aulter.”14 Even now “The term ‘ornaments’ in Ecclesiastical law is not confined, as by modern usage, to articles of decoration or embellishment, but it is used in the larger sense of the word ‘ornamentum’” (Privy Council Decision, 1857). Adornment is used by Burke with reference to the furnishing of the mind. Decor, “what is seemly... ornament... personal comeliness” (Harper) is already “ornament” (i.e. embellishment) as well as “adaptation” in the Middle Ages. But observe that “decor” as “that which serves to decorate; ornamental disposition of accessories” (Webster) is the near relative of “decorous” or “decent,” meaning “suitable to a character or time, place and occasion” and to “decorum,” i.e. “what is befitting...propriety” (Webster), just as κόσμημα is of κοσμιότης.

The law of art in the matter of decoration could hardly have been better stated than by St. Augustine, who says that an ornamentation exceeding the bounds of responsibility to the content of the work is sophistry, i.e. an extravagance or superfluity. If this is an artistic sin, it is also a moral sin: “Even the shoemakers’ and clothiers’ arts stand in need of restraint, for they have lent their art to luxury, corrupting its necessity and artfully debasing art” (St. Chrysostom, Super Matth. hom. 50, a med.). Accordingly, “Since women may lawfully adorn themselves, whether to manifest what becomes (decentiam) their estate, or even by adding something thereto, in order to please their husbands, it follows that those who make such ornaments do not sin in the practice of their art, except in so far as they may perhaps contrive what is superfluous and fantastic” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Sum. Theol., II-II, 169, 2 ad 4). It need hardly be said that whatever applies to the ornamentation of persons also applies to the ornamentation of things, all of which are decorations, in the original sense of an equipment, of the person to whom they pertain. The condemnation is of an excess, and not of a richness of ornament. That “nothing can be useful unless it be honest” (Tully and Ambrose, endorsed by St. Thomas) rules out all pretentious art. The concurrence here of the laws of art with those of morals, despite their logical distinction, is remarkable.

We have said enough to suggest that it may be universally true that terms which now imply an ornamentation of persons or things for aesthetic reasons alone originally implied their proper equipment in the sense of a completion, without which satis-faction (alaṁkāraṇa) neither persons nor things could have been thought of as efficient or “simply and truly useful,” just as, apart from his attributes (ā-bharaṇa), Deity could not be thought of as functioning.15  To have thought of art as an essentially aesthetic value is a very modern development, and a provincial view of art, born of a confusion between the (objective) Page 382 beauty of order and the (subjectively) pleasant, and fathered by a preoccupation with pleasure. We certainly do not mean to say that man may not always have taken a sensitive pleasure in work and the products of work; so far from this, “pleasure perfects the operation.” We do mean to say that in asserting that “beauty has to do with cognition,” Scholastic philosophy is affirming what has always and everywhere been true, however we may have ignored or may wish to ignore the truth – we, who like other animals know what we like, rather than like what we know. We do say that to explain the nature of primitive or folk art, or, to speak more accurately, of any traditional art, by an assumption of “decorative instincts” or “aesthetic purposes” is a pathetic fallacy, a deceptive projection of our own mentality upon another ground; that the traditional artist no more regarded his work with our romantic eyes than he was "fond of nature" in our sentimental way. We say that we have divorced the "satis-faction" of the artifact from the artifact itself, and made it seem to be the whole of art; that we no longer respect or feel our responsibility towards the burden (gravitas) of the work, but prostitute its thesis to an aisthesis; and that this is the sin of luxury.16  We appeal to the historian of art, and especially to the historian of ornament and the teacher of the “appreciation of art,” to approach their material more objectively; and suggest to the “designer” that if all good ornament had in its beginning a necessary sense, it may be rather from a sense to be communicated than from an intention to please that he should proceed.
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