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Interview on the topic of skin with [Kon], November 2020 at

[k n]: What does skin mean to you?
SD: 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
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.
[k n]: 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
forms of adornment?
SD: 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
homes, cars, cell phones—serve
subsidiary adorning functions. But it
apparent that the book would
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.
[k n]: 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?
SD: 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
In terms of my account,
they are not adorned. They have 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
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
[k n]: While body paint is only temporary,
scarification results in permanent
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?
SD: 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
—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
[k n]: 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?
SD: 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..
[k n]: What is the relationship between
adornment practices of the skin and clothing?
SD: 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. ×
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.
Interview mit Stephen Davies Interview mit Stephen Davies

New Statesman column

December 23, 2019


Stephen Davies

During the holiday season, homes are festooned with all sorts of decorations. But if we look around when they come down, we’ll notice the more modest ways we gussy up our living spaces — pictures, flowers, fabrics. We also decorate our bodies with makeup, jewellery, clothes, and more. Doing this is so commonplace that we rarely pause to consider its importance and ubiquity. In fact, this obsession with embellishment occurs in all civilisations, societies, and periods. We are the species that puts flowers in its hair and paints itself.

Jewellery’s use is ancient. Perforated seashells, presumably worn as necklaces or bracelets, have been found in graves more than 130 000 years old. Gold and silver were widely sought and traded across much of the ancient world, along with jade, amber, coral, pearl, obsidian, and more besides. By 3 400 years ago, there was a huge commercial market in glass beads, which over the following millennia were exported over much of the world, including by the million to Africa.

The application of makeup and body paint also have a long history. Our ancestors collected bright red shades of ochre from more than 100 000 years ago. Meanwhile, trade in scents, lotions, and cosmetics across ancient Egypt and the Middle East was continued by the Greeks and Romans. The bathhouses of all these civilisations included cosmetic facilities. A similar interest in scents and makeup was apparent also in ancient India and Asia.

Instruments for tattooing date back 20 000 years. The mummified remains of Egyptian priestesses from about 4 000 years ago bear tattoos, and there is also a long tradition of tattooing in Asia and the Pacific.

The use of self-decoration is not only ancient but nearly universal. Hardly any individual shuns all contact with aesthetic embellishments, and we have shaped our self-presentation and social interactions around practices that enhance us with carefully chosen aesthetic supplements. Given that many people are immoralists, atheists, or Philistines, bodily adornment provides a signature for our species that is even stronger than those of morality, religion, and art.

Decoration involves making things aesthetically pleasing by augmenting their beauty or sublimity. Typically, decoration is intentional and aims at uptake. The audience is supposed to notice the beautifying intention, the effort expended, and the improvement achieved. Of course, adorning practices can become conventionalised and institutionalised, and in those cases the relevant intention and response is only implicit. A vase of flowers decorates a hotel’s front desk, even if it isn’t admired by those checking in.

Many decorations have no meaning. Their sole function is to add beauty. But others, especially those connected to the body, convey important social messages while retaining their underlying aesthetic purpose. They indicate age, sex, gender, class, wealth, social status, religion, and occupation. We use them to commemorate our achievements or memorialize our losses. Our decorations also mark special occasions, such as Christmas, and they can indicate our social affiliations. Religious groups, for example, often wear distinctive attire.

Adornments identify and situate the people who bear them and the things they care about. By their adornments, we can get a fair idea of who we are dealing with and what they value. Mutual recognition of these matters greatly facilitates our social interactions. But decorations can also be used to send deliberately misleading messages. Someone might wear clothes they can’t readily afford, thereby intimating status or wealth that they lack.

Since reproduction plays an important role in most people’s lives, decorations often send signals about our circumstances as possible mates. The idea is that each sex caters to the preferences of the other in the adornments it favours. According to evolutionary psychologists, men seek fertility in women and this correlates with youthfulness and signs of health, such as facial symmetry and bright eyes. Correspondingly, women might use makeup to remove blemishes, alter their facial architecture, and highlight their eyes. For their part, women are said to seek the benefits for their children that go with status or wealth in their male partner. So, men’s decorations can be expected to mark achievements or indicate class or wealth. These crude, gender-based generalisations can be applied with caution and are supported by what happens in many societies and periods.

To the extent that wealth and reputation can be lost or gained, men’s decorations tend to be impermanent. Whereas those marking puberty, marriage, and childbirth in women can afford to be permanent. In many tribal and traditional societies, men’s decorations frequently take the form of body-paint or insignia, while women’s bodies are more often tattooed or scarred.

We can also predict that each sex will be inclined to distrust the reliability of the signals sent by the other’s adornments. This is particularly apparent in men’s ambivalence toward women’s decorations throughout history. Men are drawn to women who employ makeup, but are highly critical of what is regarded as its overuse. To mention just one case, an edict issued in England during the sixteenth-century observed that “any woman who through the use of false hair, Spanish hair pads, make-up, false hips, steel busks, panniers, high-heeled shoes or other devices, leads a subject of her majesty into marriage, shall be punished with the penalties of witchcraft.” And it isn’t as if the association of makeup with vanity, immodesty, and vice has been entirely left behind in modern times.

There are many exceptions to these observations. This is to be expected since decorations can be used to send many other kinds of messages, and we should also challenge the implicit gender-stereotyping such views assume. Reducing human beauty to youthful sexual attractiveness in females dismisses the many other human beauties that we value, such as those of graceful elegance or athletic prowess. Meanwhile, the ideas that the male parental role is that of provider and that mothers cannot possess status or wealth in their own right might be unfortunate consequences of socialised patriarchy rather than of biology. Besides, even if some decorative practices were once concerned primarily with mate attraction, they were long ago co-opted to broader social practises of self-presentation and social identity. It isn’t as if people give up their styles of ornamentation after mates have been found or children birthed.

It’s also important to notice the cultural relativity of many judgments both of beauty and of the effects produced by bodily decoration. Widespread indigenous adornment practices include tattooing, piercings, scarification, ear and lip plugs, neck coils, and labrets. (The latter are piercings, usually from the interior of the mouth, that support ornaments, such as veils of beads, that hang on the outside of the face.) While some of these occur also in Westernised societies, they have often been viewed negatively. Tattoos, for instance, have not always be employed as adornments, but instead were used to brand slaves and punish criminals.

Tattoos and scars, especially on the face, are sometimes repellent to people with cultural traditions deriving from religions in which people are said to be made in God’s image. But some other groups regard people as unfinished or uncivilised until their bodies have been marked. Many African peoples consider beauty to be an effect of scarification, not innate. Scars may serve as tribal insignia or as marks of achievements, but their beautifying function sits alongside these more practical ones. The same is true for tattoos. Some New Guineans regard a person as “raw” if they aren’t tattooed. Many peoples adopt tattoos for their beautifying effects. And when tattoos serve other purposes, aesthetic enhancement is a subsidiary function that is widely acknowledged.

This cultural relativity is apparent also in where people draw the line between bodily adornment and regular bodily maintenance. In one society, the removal of body hair might amount to regular bodily maintenance. In another, to body adornment where it is viewed as an aesthetic improvement. In a third, as so abnormal that it counts only as being weird.

In exceptional cases, decoration goes far beyond providing an aesthetic augmentation to its bearer. Indeed, it transfigures the bearer’s identity. Consider a jewel-encrusted sword with a gold blade. It can no longer function as a fighting weapon, though it might now become a ceremonial item. In a similar fashion, the body, rather than being highlighted via its adornments, can be demoted to the status of a canvas that supports them. The body’s owner disappears under the patina of decoration that is applied to them. Here, ornamentation aspires to the status of art – it, and not the bearer, is the intended focus.

Christmas lights can be so elaborate that they transform ordinary homes into kaleidoscopic castles. These can be compared to the bejewelled sword and might be viewed as examples of decorative art. But no matter how you dress-up your home this holiday season, the diverse ways we decorate ourselves and our surroundings make one thing clear: adornment is the mark of the human.

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland, Professor of Philosophy at the Higher School of Economics. He tweets @ajwendland.