There are two kinds of beauty, free beauty (pulchritudo vaga) and merely accessory beauty (pulchritudo adhaerens). Free beauty does not presuppose a concept of what the object is [meant] to be. Accessory beauty does presuppose such a concept, as well as the object’s perfection in terms of that concept…

Flowers are free natural beauties. Hardly anyone apart from the botanist knows what sort of thing a flower is [meant] to be… Hence the judgment is based on no perfection of any kind, no intrinsic purposiveness to which the combination of the manifold might refer. Many birds (the parrot, the humming-bird, the bird of paradise) and a lot of crustaceans in the sea are [free] beauties themselves [and] belong to no object determined by concepts as to its purpose, but we like them freely and on their own account. Thus designs à la grecque, the foliage on borders or on wallpaper, etc., mean nothing on their own: they represent nothing, no object under a determinate concept, and are free beauties. What we call fantasias in music (namely, music without a topic [Thema]), indeed all music not set to words, may also be included in the same class.

—Immanuel Kant, from Chapter 16 of the Critique of Judgment, “A Judgment of Taste by Which We Declare and Object Beautiful under the Condition of a Determinate Concept is Not Pure,” trans. Werner S. Pluhar, 76-77.


At a recent talk, Cabinet magazine editor-at-large and Princeton professor Jeff Dolven recalled the above passage from Kant’s third critique when he referred to the aesthetic treatise as “the wallpaper critique.” Wallpaper, for Kant, is a thing of beauty. As Kant indicates, an attractive wallpapering may possess even the highest form of beauty: “free beauty,” which is to be found equally in the decorative arts and in arts approaching “pure form,” like music without a thema, or, after Kant’s time, in abstract art. (I’m thinking particularly of the “non-objective” abstractions of tachisme, abstract expressionism, color field painting, and so on).

Too-familiar are the formalist maxims of High Modernism that entail the rejection of decoration: for example, Ezra Pound’s dictum to “Use either no ornament or good ornament” in poetry, or Le Corbusier’s disparagement of “mere decoration” and his call for economy and austerity in architecture.[1] From a contemporary standpoint, what is curious then in Kant’s critique is that arts typically associated with “pure form” occupy a parallel position to Louis XVI furnishings (which is to say, the decorative arts) when it comes to aesthetic judgment. This seems remarkable because, as noted above, at key points in the history of modernism, formalist abstraction came to be associated with simplicity and spareness and, thus, to be counterposed to all that was weighted down by excessive physical encumbrance. In short, the decorative arts were understood as diametrically opposed to the fine arts and, with the advancement of postindustrial mass consumer production in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, ornament became the symbol of a lower-middle-class or “petite bourgeois” lack of refinement.

In 1908, Adolf Loos diagnosed a passion for ornament as “criminal” and “degenerate,” infantile and pre-civilized (read: non-western), arguing that “The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from objects of daily use.”[2] Fifteen years later, Le Corbusier pronounced a similar verdict: “The peasant loves ornament and decorates his walls. The civilized man wears a well-cut suit and is the owner of easel pictures and books. Decoration is the essential overplus, the quantum of the peasant; and proportion is the essential overplus, the quantum of the cultivated man.”[3]

Bedroom of Marie Antoinette in the Fontainebleau Palace. As Kant translator Wener Pluhar notes, "designs à la grecque" referred to the neoclassical style of decoration fashionable during the reign of Louis XVI. Marie Anroinette's bedroom offers an example of this style in decor. Note the posh wallpaper.

Bedroom of Marie Antoinette in the Fontainebleau Palace. As Kant translator Werner Pluhar explains, “designs à la grecque” denotes the neoclassical style of decoration fashionable during the reign of Louis XVI. Marie Antoinette’s bedroom offers an example of this style. Note the posh wallpaper.

It’s amusing to read Kant idealizing the beauty of wallpaper and neoclassical furnishings—along with crustaceans and birds of paradise—on similar grounds to those that were later marshaled in celebration and defense of high modernist abstraction. As Kant argues, decorative art objects belong to the class of beautiful things that “mean nothing on their own,” that “represent nothing,” that presuppose no concept and refer to “no object under a determinate concept”—in short, things are “free beauties.” Of course, Kant’s reasoning is less than crystal clear, and one should probably begin to question his theory when he aligns the “free beauty” of wallpaper motifs with that of certain flowers, crustaceans and birds, on the grounds that they all “represent nothing” or “mean nothing on their own.” For, what can it mean to assert that a certain living creature “represents nothing,” as if there were other classes of beings (say, daffodils versus tulips) that do possess, de facto, a representational function? This is, in effect, what Hannah Ginsborg suggests in her article on “Kant’s Aesthetics and Teleology,” when she asserts that the “unfree” or “merely accessory beauty” against which Kant contrasts “free beauty” is marked by “a certain concept’s applying to the object, so that the object is judged, not as beautiful tout court, but as beautiful qua belonging to this or that kind.”[4] It could be supposed that even natural beings—certain animals or flowers—could be so tied to a use-value that, even if one were to judge them “beautiful,” they would still be yoked to the utilitarian concepts by which a person typically apprehends them, and thus, they could only be said to possess “accessory beauty”: to be a “beautiful specimen,” as we sometimes commonly say. In keeping with this interpretation, we notice that Kant’s examples of “free beauty” are culled from the non-utilitarian, foreign and exotic: a hummingbird rather than a sparrow, a parrot rather than a rooster. In other words, we see that what Kant proposes as criteria for universal judgments are manifestly culturally-specific.

Joiri Minaya’s “Redecode” wallpaper in MoCADA’s Fieldnotes: Extracts exhibition (June 18 – September 27, 2015) had me thinking about this limited viewpoint in Kant’s critique and the relationship of aesthetic judgment to histories of colonialism. As Minaya writes of the artwork:

Redecode: a tropical theme is a great way to create a fresh, peaceful, relaxing atmosphere is derived from two wallpapers designed in the 40’s for sumptuous redecorations in luxurious hotels in the U.S… [T]he original patterns belong to a style popularized in the 40’s and 50’s, a time when American imperialist insertion and presence in Latin American and the Caribbean was at its peak.

From this cultural exchange one can distill some of the ideas of fantasy, exoticness, pleasure, domestication, and consumerism around the tropical landscape and subjects that still prevail today.[5]

Installed in the corner near the entrance of MoCADA’s gallery space, “Redecode” appeared as an enlarged and pixelated photographic reproduction of tropical foliage in deep blue-greens, broken up by gray and white patches resembling the “information loss” of digital image files—perhaps with a gesture towards the “lossy” histories produced by colonialism and the ongoing process of decolonization in the global south.


Joiri Minaya, “Redecode: a tropical theme is a great way to create a fresh, peaceful, relaxing atmosphere,” 2015, Wallpaper, 18 x 9.25 ft. Photo credit Roy Rochlin. From the artist’s website.

Minaya’s critical quotation of colonial “taste” certainly sets her wallpaper at odds with the “free beauty” of Kant’s ideal wallpaper, which has “no intrinsic purposiveness,” and so, by definition, could have no critical edge. “Redecode” thus locates itself amongst other politically-conscious artworks in the medium of wallpaper, such as Donald Moffett’s “He Kills Me,” 1987, or Robert Gober’s “Male and Female Genital Wallpaper,” 1989 and “Untitled (Hanging Man/Sleeping Man),” 1989.

moffett he kills me

Donald Moffett, He Kills Me, 1987, Offset lithograph wallpaper. Installed in the new Whitney Museum’s 2015 opening exhibition, “America Is Hard to See.” Barbara Kruger’s print, “Untitled (We Don’t Need Another Hero),” 1987, hangs in front.

gober genetalia wallpaper

Robert Gober, “Male and Female Genital Wallpaper,” 1989.

Gober Untitled Hanging Man Sleeping Man

Robert Gober, Untitled (Hanging Man/Sleeping Man), 1989.

But, in addition to its political valence—a feature it shares in common with the wallpapers by Gober and Moffett above—there is another aspect of “Redecode” that makes it a poor example (in the best sense) of Kant’s ideally decorative, nonreferential, non-purposive wallpaper: embedded at apparently random intervals in the wallpaper’s design are (Quick Response) QR codes of varying sizes, all of which link to “tropical”-themed products and images found on the internet.


Detail of a QR code embedded in “Redecode.”

[I’ve circled some of the QR codes in red in the image below.]


Installation view of “Redecode” with some of the QR codes circled by me in red. Some of the sites the QR codes link to: “Totally tropical“; “Redecode” collage; “So chic“; “Banana Republic“; “Redecode” altered photo; Gauguin collage.

In Kant’s critique, the “free beauty” of a wallpaper design depends on the autonomy and immanence of beauty, its independence from “meaning” or “intrinsic purposiveness,” and its refusal to point to other contexts or concepts: we must “like [it] freely and on [its] own account.” In contravention of these standards of beauty, the QR codes in Minaya’s wallpaper stand out as emphatically referential  signs—what are known in linguistics as “indexical” or “deictic” signs, from the Greek deiktikos, meaning “demonstrative.”

If Minaya’s wallpaper “points” beyond itself to the digital, networked cultures of consumption that continue to trade in colonial fantasies and to “exploit [the] signifiers” of an “exotic” nature and cultures,[6] it would seem that the deictic gesture of Minaya’s wallpaper also taps into (while subtly torquing) a quality that is perhaps latent in all wallpaper: that of “pointing” to something elsewhere, hidden, and beyond its decorative surface. This is a quality that Kant, having neither Freud nor the Surrealists to aid him, misses entirely; but John Ashbery, in a September 1980 review of the “Wallpaper” exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York, calls it forcibly to mind. 

While describing the main points of difference in the history of wallpaper—for example, the division of wallpaper into the two major groups of “illusionistic,” representational designs versus “strictly two-dimensional, geometric” motifs, or the craftsman-era preoccupation with disguising the “repeats” in the pattern, versus the contemporary predilection for showing them—Ashbery launches into a personal anecdote to illustrate his preference of representational-type wallpaper (what he refers to as “the illusionistic, break-through-the-wall kind”) over the purely geometric variety. “One of my earliest memories,” he relates, “is trying to peel off the wallpaper in my room, not out of animosity but because it seemed there must be something fascinating beyond the surface pattern of galleons, globes and telescopes.”[7] Ashbery’s story has an uncanny feeling about it: there’s no logical reason why these surface representations should give rise to the idea that something deeper lies hidden beneath them—as if the paper were covering over another world, rather than a wall—but somehow, this fantastic presumption makes a kind of intuitive sense.


Visible repeats on Andy Warhol’s cow wallpaper (1966) installed at MoMA’s 54th St. entrance.

Ashbery goes on, extending his reflection on wallpaper’s illusionism to the preponderance of “trompe-l’oeil papers” in the show. There are wallpapers “imitating marble, textiles, wood, tile, wicker—for at various times,” he concludes “wallpaper has imitated just about everything.”[8] To this catalogue, I would only add one “tongue-in-cheek” reference to wallpapers that “trick” the other senses:

‘trompe-la-langue’ wallpaper in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

Without meaning to digress too far into fictional wallpapers, I would just say a word or two on this remarkable scene from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. First, it feels utterly appropriate to have Gene Wilder close the scene with a distracted recitation of of Arthur O’Shaunessey’s “Ode” (1874), the first stanza of which follows:

We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers
And sitting by desolate streams;—
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.

Second, we might even conjecture that there is a certain gravity to wallpaper—some sanctity that is violated by Violet Beauregard’s petulant “Who ever heard of a snozzberry?,” which triggers, in turn, Mr. Wonka’s sharp rebuke and flight into melancholic verses on vanitas.

If this hypothesis seems a stretch, I am led to it not only by Willy Wonka but by something Ashbery writes at the end of his “Wallpaper” review: “even at its most inconsequential or officious, there is always something oddly fascinating about this exhibition and about wallpaper in general. The English art historian Brenda Greysmith has pinpointed it nicely… in stating that old wallpapers ‘give an insight, no matter how slight, into history.'”[9] In his poem “Coma Berenices” from Where Shall I Wander (Ecco Press, 2005), Ashbery consolidates Greysmith’s insight into a compact line: “Downstairs an old servant lurks, indifferent to minute changes in the wallpaper pattern, our unique heritage.”[10] Ashbery, I think, downplays his interest in wallpaper when he quotes Greysmith’s historicist remark; wallpaper fascinates not insofar as it gives an insight into history no matter how slight, but precisely because the insight it gives is slight—slight but definite, through a medium that is tenuous, “utilitarian and fragile,” as Ashbery puts it elsewhere. In the line from “Coma Berenices” the slightness of the insight wallpaper gives into history is mirrored in the “minute changes in the wallpaper pattern” itself; we could understand these “minute changes” in the pattern as spatial changes across the wallpaper in the room, or in a temporal sense, as changes in patterns over time, in accordance with shifts in popular “taste.”

When artists like Joiri Minaya, or Robert Gober or Donald Moffett make work in the medium of wallpaper, they tap into the passion Ashbery expresses for the suffusion of history in the appurtenances of the everyday. The work understands the connection of the “inconsequential,” the minor and the domestic to history, whose pith is its chaff. There is beauty in this work: neither “free” nor “merely accessory” beauty, but something more like an essentially accessory beauty, if such a category may be ventured.


[1] Ezra Pound, “A Few Don’ts from an Imagist” and Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, trans. Frederick Etchells (New York: Dover Publications, 1986). In the latter, for example, a photo caption for a picture of a ship interior reads: “An architecture pure, neat, clear, clean and healthy. Contrast with this our carpets, cushions, canopies, wall-papers, carved and gilt furniture, faded or arty’ colours: the dismalness of our Western bazaar” (100).

[2] Adolf Loos, “Ornament and Crime” in Crime and Ornament: The Arts and Popular Culture in the Shadow of Adolf Loos, eds. Bernie Miller and Melony Ward (Toronto: YYZ Books, 2002), 30.

[3] Le Corbusier, 143.

[4] Ginsborg, Hannah, “Kant’s Aesthetics and Teleology”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2014/entries/kant-aesthetics/&gt;.

[5] Joiri Minaya, “Redecode,” http://www.joiriminaya.com/filter/wallpaper/Redecode.

[6] Ibid.

[7] John Ashbery, “Wallpaper” in Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles 1957-1987, ed. David Bergman (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989), 383. I thank Karin Roffman for calling my attention to Ashbery’s review and to this particular anecdote within the review. Her blog post on the wallpaper in Ashbery’s Hudson house can be found here: http://blog.bestamericanpoetry.com/the_best_american_poetry/2010/04/hudson-housewallpap.html.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 385.

[10] John Ashbery, “Coma Berenices” in Where Shall I Wander (New York: Ecco Press, 2005), 10.


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