Anyone who knows me will confirm that I, rather oddly, find department stores therapeutic. I'm not there to shop (not really, unless there's a sale, at which point...) merely to wander round and only look at all the pretty things.
Today I went to Selfridges. It was glorious.
I didn't look at the shoes. I looked at the teacups. Dear reader Wedgewood is wonderful, Spode is splendid and Minton is marvellous. Now this strange little habit of mine can probably be laid at the door of a beloved auntie, but nonetheless I do adore a good teacup. This made me think -an altogether rare event in itself and probably worthy of its own post- when do everyday items become art?
These items were made not with a purely aesthetic purpose but to have some function also and yet here I was admiring them. Now the V & A is one of my favourite places on this earth, so I really do appreciate what is traditionally referred to as decorative art as well as fine art, but I cannot help but discern a difference in the mass produced wares that the majority of us eat from and those within its collections. Is the lack of artistic merit in my dinner plates due to our very modernity, our habit of producing absolutely everything extensible the same?
The British Museum is home to one of the worlds finest collections of Chinese Ceramics, The Sir David Percival Collection and the Sir Joseph Hotung. Now obviously the pieces within the aforementioned collections are there because of the level of craftsmanship involved, their beauty and their rarity. Is that all that sets them apart from my Ikea mug? Will my assam tinged cup one day be going for umpteens at an auction, if the rest of its thousands of sibling ceramics all meet their sad demise and go to pottery heaven? It is arguably well designed, and not entirely unpleasing to look at. I think it is unlikely to make fifty pence. To someone once, some of the notable works in museums and galleries across the world, must have appeared as everyday items, not purely as pieces of art as we view them from behind glass panes. When does a piece stop being just a thing that happens to be beautiful but useful, to a thing of only aesthetic value? Does it rely on the object's merit being largely functional and not artistic to its creators and its earlier owners?
Perhaps, I can say it is because my mug was designed purely for functionality (albeit designed well). Whereas a tea cup used in tea ceremonies would have been highly valued for its beauty as well as for its functional purpose. I am inclined to think that it is scarcity in other examples of similar works, which greatly adds to the scholarly merit of an item.
The teacups really were terrific you know.