»­Adornment. What Self-Decoration Tells Us About Who We Are« 


Interview mit Stephen Davies

Stephen Davies ist Professor für Philosophie an der University of Auckland. Anfang 2020 erschien sein Buch ­Adornment. What Self-Decoration Tells Us About Who We Are (Verlag Bloomsbury). Das Gespräch führte Adela Sophia Sabban.

[kɔn]: What does skin mean to you?
S.D.: We are embodied creatures and our skin provides one of the interfaces be­tween ourselves and the world. It is ­where we literally touch the world. Vision and hearing allow us to observe the world at a distance. Smell depends usually on ­close proximity to the odour’s source and on sensors in the skin. In the latter respect, it is more like touch and taste than vision and hearing. Touch and taste require direct contact, however.

Sometimes, as a consequence of this direct contact, the skin can be marked. We become bruised or scratched, say. If these impacts cause more serious injuries, they can leave permanent marks in the form of scars.

As well, the skin can display evidence of our internal condition. For instance, wom­en tend to have paler skin than men and this is a function of hormonal differences between the sexes. A clear complexion can signal health.

The shade of the skin is responsive to exposure to the sun. Where poor people work outdoors more often than the wealthy, skin tone can indicate a person’s wealth or social status. But the import of skin tone can be reversed: where most people work indoors, tanning indicates a person with prolonged leisure time.

The skin is a primary site for adornments. These can take the form of cosmetics, body paint, tattoos, and scars. All these prac­tices are very old. If the application of ­ochre to the body is a kind of adornment, then adornment goes back not only to the dawn of our species (Homo sapiens) but also to the lives of our cousins, the Neanderthals, and back further again to some earlier species of hominins. Adorning practices are not only ancient, they are universal, being found in all known cultures.

[kɔn]: In your book Adornment you show that adornment—the decoration of our bodies, the embellishment of our possessions and the beautification of our environment—is a human behav­i­our that can be found in all cultures and through all times. The focus of your book, however, is on the adornment of our bodies, which includes body paint­ing, makeup, scarifica­tion, tattoos, ­piercings, plugs and jewellery. What are the particular qualities of ­bodily adornment? What distinguishes them from oth­er forms of adornment?
S.D.: Here is the general account I offer of adornment: to adorn something is

(1) (a) to intend to make it aesthetically special (b) by making it (more) beautiful or sublime, (c) to succeed in this to some degree, and (d) to receive audience uptake of the attempt and of the success OR is

(2) (e) to follow a conventionalized, ­socially accepted practice (f) that originated in ­(1)-type adornment.

Though the practice has an aesthetic core, the aesthetic function can be subservient to more practical ones. The royal crown has the primary function of denoting the monarch, though it is awesome or beautiful as well.

It might be doubted that bodily scars and facial tattoos can be intended to be beautiful, from which it would follow that they are not adornments. But there is considera­ble cultural relativity in these judgments of beauty. And it is usually quite clear where such forms of adornment are adopted that they are regarded as aesthetic enhancements. People who believe we are made in God’s image might regard facial scars as disfiguring, but others, who think of people as raw and unformed unless they are so marked, can have a very different view.

Initially, I had planned to take the dis­cussion of adornment beyond the body, to include possessions and material culture more generally. Many of our personal items­—homes, cars, cell phones—serve subsidiary adorning functions. But it ­became apparent that the book would ­become too long and repetitive if I in­cluded them, so I focussed on bodily adornment, including clothing and clothing accessories.

The general account that is schema­tized above applies equally to the decoration of vases and of human bodies. So, how do bodily adornments differ from ­other forms of adornment? Plainly, bod­ily adornments are the most personal and intimate of our decorations and they tend to play key ­roles in defining our individuality, as well as signifying socially important matters such as gender, age, class, religion, eth­nicity, wealth, profession, and marital status. As well, if they are of a permanent form, they are always with us; we are never without them or the socially important messages they send. By contrast, other forms of adornment might not be about us at all—we spruce up the fence by putting ribbons on it. And, while some non-bodily adornments can convey ­important ­information, many are ­meaningless ­aesthetic supplements.

[kɔn]: While body paint is only temporary, scarification results in permanent ­markings. Both practices can sometimes be found in the same ethnic groups, for example in the Nuba peoples in Sudan (some of their practices have today been altered or abandoned). Is there a difference between the functions of permanent and impermanent markings? If so, how can the difference be explained?

S.D.: We have to be careful with generalizations in this area, because many excep­tions can be found. But with that qualification in mind, we can say this: where what is socially signified by a decoration is an attribute that might be lost—reputation or wealth, for example—that decoration is likely to be impermanent. Permanent adornments are more likely to signify past stages or achievements­—for example, that one led a successful whale hunt.

Here is another rough generalization: females tend to be permanently marked more often, or to a greater degree, than males. (Westerners tend to associate tattoos with men, but in many non-Western cultures the women have more.) Perhaps females are so marked because their bod­ily adornments often indicate reproductive stages of life — puberty, marriage, childbirth, menopause — whereas those of men more often concern status, wealth, and reputation.

In the case of the Nuba, a female’s clan membership in the first instance derives from her father’s and, when she marries, changes to that of her husband. Clan membership is signalled by body paint. But her reproductive status was indicated by scarring, with new scars (peanut-sized keloids) being added to new areas of the body at each stage.

As I indicated, there are exceptions and these can be on a wide scale. In many societies of the Pacific and Southeast Asia, men typically carry a heavier tattoo load than women and the higher the man’s status, the more tattoos he might have.

[kɔn]: In addition to enhancing the body aesthetically, tattoos can have other functions. They can, for example, indicate belonging to an ethnic group, a clan or a social class. Some tattoos in the twenty-first century West resemble elaborate paintings of human or animal figures. Do these tattoos serve an aesthetic purpose only? Are they works of art?

S.D.: I distinguish adornments from works of art. Adornments are aesthetic supplements that enhance the bearer, but usually without transforming her physical identity. Putting on earrings does not change the wearer into a different person and it does not transform her into a work of art. By contrast, works of art derive their identity from their aesthetic features.

Now, there are ways in which a person’s body could become the canvas for a work of art. In the case I have in mind, the person disappears under the body paint (or whatever it is) that makes them un­recognizable. In terms of my account, they are not adorned. They have become the ­substrate for a living work of art. But there is an intermediate case. A picture is tattooed on a part of the person. He wears that picture; his body is its site. He does not become a work of art and it does not overwhelm his identity. If the picture is done with sufficient skill, taste, and beauty, is that tattoo a work of art? I would be happy to allow this. I have no interest in defending an elitist view of art.

I described cases in which a room might be decorated with a painting that was an artwork in its own right, or a town square could be decorated by an artwork sculpture. I regard this case as similar. A person could be decorated by an artwork

on part of their body, just as they could be deco­rated by a fancy hat on their head.

 Still, the possibility that a person’s ­tattoo might be a work of art raises some in­triguing questions. I assume that it is ­obvious that the artist in question is the tattooist, not the bearer of the tattoo. But who owns the artwork? It is not plain that, by paying for the tattoo, the bearer there­by acquires the artwork, especially if the majority of tattoos make no claim to arthood and the process and transaction of ­gaining the tattoo are of the ordinary kind. It may be that he offers his skin as a canvas without acquiring the artwork, or that he owns the tattoo but not the artwork that supervenes on it. If the owner is the artist, we might have to consider if she could insist that the artwork be on public display, or if she could sell it to a third party, or if she could require it to be destroyed at some later date. Alternatively, if the ­bearer is the owner, should he pay customs and ­excise on the artwork when­ever he ­crosses a border?

[kɔn]: On the other hand, some tattoos in the twenty-first century West consist only of written dates or names. In this case, is there any aesthetic purpose at all or is the tattoo a way of inscribing something into a permanent material that happens to be someone’s skin? Does this count as adornment?
S.D.: In my view, adornment requires either an aesthetic intention or a conventionalized practice with an aesthetic function. Tattoos of names and dates­—which might be done to memorialize a dead relative, for instance—are not adornments by my account, unless they adopt fancy fonts or calligraphy. In the past, it was not uncommon to brand slaves with their owner’s name or a number. In some societies, permanent marks were put on the faces of convicted criminals to identify them as such, or as punishments. In others, soldiers were tattooed with numbers to discourage them from deserting. Serial numbers were tattooed on Nazi concentration camp in­mates. In none of these cases would we assume an aesthetic intention and the marks are not decorative.
[kɔn]: What is the relationship between adornment practices of the skin and cloth­ing?
S.D.: Where clothing is chosen for its aes­thetic effects as well as its practicality—which is very often the case—it performs an adorning function. Clothing shows off the body—sometimes by revealing and highlighting, sometimes by shaping and remoulding, sometimes by managing to draw attention to what it at the same time conceals. As adornments, clothing also sends important social messages ­about the wearer. Sumptuary materials and excessive folds have aesthetic appeal, as well as being standard ways to indicate status and wealth.

In other words, clothing often stands to the body in much the way that skin markings or supplements like plugs and piercings do.

Clothing also brings further adornment opportunities. We can think of some bits of clothing as adornments of the garments themselves. Cuffs and collars, along with bows, frills, trains, and piping are all aes­thetic extras. And in addition, clothing supplies a substrate to which we can fix shells, feathers, beads, or jewellery. Rather than hanging items from the ears, lips, or hair, we can fix them to the clothes instead.

Headwear is not often worn exclusively for head safety or weather protection. It frequently performs an adorning function, even when (as was the case until the recent past in Western societies) the use of hats outdoors was de rigueur. Large and elaborate headwear is a marker of status and wealth everywhere.


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