“KINGDOM OF NOT (5.26): This is not about a kingdom which is in the past, but it is about a kingdom called Not, which although it is not, yet is.” — Sun Ra, rec.1956, released as Saturn 204; rereleased as Super-Sonic Sounds, abc/impulse, 1974
“Modernism’s dirty secret: avant-garde work requires the survival of the order it first flared against, or its full radicalism no longer properly registers.” —Epiphanies: Cecil Taylor, er Mark Sinker, The Wire Dec-Jan 1999.
i went round the V&A show Modernism: Designing a New World a few months back, in the excellent company of mr worrell and dr skronkio — there’d been a few sniffy reports, but i had an AGENDA (in ref.art, technology, techics and the lure of the machine), which gave me plenty to see and respond to and think about… my early plan wz to pick on just three hemhem little hemhem deconstructive moments, tho time and belatedness and stupidly unexpected scale and complexity of subject have repeatedly intervened. So repeat after me: TOPICALITY IS AN ARTEFECT OF PSEUDO-LIFE IN THE COMMODITY NEXUS, and so is the WELL-CONSTRUCTED FULLY FORMED REVIEW (mmmph good save eh?) and then READ BOLDLY ON:
i. Duchamp’s ‘In Advance of the Broken Arm’ (1915) is the snowshovel which debuted the concept of the “readymade”. The V&A’s label said, “By consecrating the mass-produced shovel as a work of art, he undermined the function of the object and the rationality of manufacture.” OK, this claim is COMPLETELY goofy — it’s not what Duchamp intended (as the link shows, there was no one single uncontradictory intention anyway), and it’s certainly not what he “did”, bcz it’s IMPOSSIBLE. To undermine the function of an everyday object with an artwork, you’d have to place doubt in the minds of its many users as to its everyday efficacy — well, Duchamp’s work notwithstanding, NOT ONE SNOW-SHOVELLER, CYCLIST or MALE PISSER has wavered in their in-the-moment confidence in the well-made mass manufactured objects they happen to need to be employing at that moment. Arguably (maybe) he somewhat undermined the idea that for something to be art, there requires to be a “consecration”. And like, WHO GETS TO CONSECRATE, MATE?
ii. The ‘Frankfurt Kitchen’ (1926-27), designed by Grete Lihotsky for Ernst May’s Municipal Building Department in Frankfurt: in terms of instrumental accessibility and organisation, this much-imitated little room — rebuilt full-size in the show — does what it says on the tin, in ref. the “‘scientific’ professionalisation of the domestic workspace” (quote from catalogue, p.180). But hang on: as it says further down the page (and also said on the labelling in the exhibition), “The small size of the kitchen reflected a pursuit of efficiency, the belief that eating in the kitchen was unhygienic, and a desire to save space for the living areas of the flat.” How is eating in the kitchen unhygienic? How is cooking not part of living? What’s actually going on here is a bonkers rationalisation of established social separation (food-prep as a servant-class activity; cookery as an auteured craft, to present to the waiting eaters as a fait accompli) as a design-outcome to be desired.
iii. The ‘Modernism and Health’ room: half the devices in this suggestive space — slimming machines that looked like Heath-Robinson torture gadgets– make me think Ballard. TRUTH IN MATERIALS (the watchword Modernism inherited from the Arts and Crafts movement) allows us to be willing the WORST of the material content just as much as the best. JGB the Modernist, after plunging the content into the cool aspic of confrontational nostalgia (yay “Memories of the Space Age”) is a gleeful poet-dissector: his obsession the psychopathology lurking behind these drives to health, cleanliness, better, bevelled bodies to fit such high-end precision-tooled enviroscapes. It isn’t CARS that swarm across his sexy utopia, it’s CAR-CRASHES. (Ballard’s work is itself a wreckage: the sexy ruin of Modernism; the whole as the trolling hogboblin of itself.)
Which is another way to say that (like all Surrealists) he’s a COUNTER-MODERNIST — bcz he has NO trust that a surface ultra-rationalisation will shortly cascade cleansing reason down into the roots of our damaged physical being… so that the instant impulse thought I had in the zone called ‘Modernism and Health’ was, “Oh yes, the 30s obsession with the cleanliness and vigour of the mass buff body — today widely and derisively palmed off of silly Fascist Spectacle (the thought-error of Modernism’s self-declared foe, history’s greatest monster-qua-loser) — was shared full across the political spectrum. Old right, new right, left, centre — political enemies, yes, but united by a kind of pervasive hygiene panic, invisible because everywhere then; startling and ludicrous now.” (OK, I didn’t have the thought in that exact phrasing…)
Anyway, that’s the three “deconstructive moments” — now for the um “summary”.
TRUTH IN MATERIALS vs FORM FOLLOWS FUNCTION: but they overlap, of course. Materiell — meaning, oh, the content, the subject matter, the constituent material and technique combined — collapses into a single move: how you make the new object and what you make it out of and why you’re making it; with the non-functional, the mannerist ornament, rigorously excised in the name of energy — the darting spectre of future invoked to shame the bloated useless past. Except there’s already a deficit here, which the Surrealist Wing of Modernism will instantly spot, but the Futurist (or let’s say “Hygienist”) wing will mainly miss. Bataille — supreme anti-rationalist hoarder over at Documents mag — called this element “formlessness” (only in French)… and no doubt there’s fancy Marxo-Freudian tags for this same phenom also, but as I wkinda ant to sidestep the safety nets and careful prestressed hierarchies of theory for a moment. So yes, if we’re talking CATHEDRALS OF LIGHT, we’re also talking CATHEDRALS WITHOUT GARGOYLES. And hiding behind this blatantly invisible lack, a complex little evasion connecting auteur theory and the suppression of audience noise: the idea that the artwork operates all in one direction…
As a substantial, reality-based legacy of different kinds of practical projects, some arty, some social, some fully realised, many more begun and abandoned, or deflected, Modernism is a haunted terrain of physical and psychical monuments and ruins, for the flows to run round and between. And of course it was always bigger than just a street gang or a rockband or a film crew or a message board — it was always already international and dispersed in time and in space; and this dispersal makers it less a GANG (cf Dada, which was possibly the first art movement which could consciously a THING of its internationalism) and more a GENRE (like, ooh, GOTH, say) with pioneers and followers, early fans and late fans and ex fans and, probably most important of all, people moving up out of the audience onto the stage to challenge and transform the THING being thrown at them. The sheer space-time scope of the dreaming in Aelita and Things to Come — our current dramas are relevant on Mars! And Millennia from now! — is testament to a sense of the sedimented, submerged, unrealised, unmaterialised force (and belief-content) compacted into practice BEFORE modernism and practice AT-and-AFTER modernism.
Only “practice” implicates two other rather large bunches of foax beyond the Accredited Vanguard Artist-Architect-Auteur-Poobah: two rather large bunches of foax that the Taylorisation of the Intellect — the division of labour into “planning” vs “carrying out”; into sensual interraction vs measured interpretation; into plumber vs professor; into general vs particular) — causes to vanish, except sometimes as little sketched auto-people dotting the blueprint. We’re talking a. ALL THE ARTISANS, and b. ALL THE USERS.
In Gothic times, gargoyles blossomed when the man heading the project did NOT treat his team of unmemorialised artisans as mere automaton cogs in his machine; bcz they could do stuff he couldn’t, and their reward was this vivid, half-dark half-cheeky lovingly unnecessary overdressing, the visible trace of the collectivity of the project; of their humanity.
The assertion “reason is by definition democratic” sounds more like a paradox than a fact; “reason is by definition collective” doesn’t sound much better. So — to avoid getting caught up in parochial or distorted definitions of democracy AND collectivity — let’s just say REASON IS BY DEFINITION PUBLIC. The tendency, as we move from the 30s towards the present, towards MODERNISM WITHOUT GARGOYLES, the Ayn-Randianisation of the Avant-Garde — all intimation of the rub-along chattering public collectivity of all and any art-authorship as ruthlessly excised as actual unconvinced bolshy dissent on the part of the not-so-passive crowd — is a shift AWAY from reaso, into a kind of architect-as-sole-god madness-in-plain-sight. Beyond high-art one-vision gallery perspective, we suddenly encountered high-spirited chattering crowd culture (good AND bad — do i need so say that?): until the crowd is made to fall silent, there is no future without gargoyles. A SOLITARY DALEK made of LIGHT and tumbling FOREVER through EVERY DIMENSION: it is a single upside-down robotised killing machine; it is a vast bright imagined city humming with ordinary lovely post-revolutionary life.
Owen H, lambasting the V&A’s sourer reviews, and with them Always-Fit-to-be-Blasted England for encouraging same — wants to keep the idea of the bow-wave focused: “One scribbled comment in the book asks why the connection between modernism and Nazism wasn’t emphasised (well, that would be because there wasn’t one)…” But fear of the existence of the Fascist wing of Modernism is a bit of a hygiene panic also (as is, to be fair, the parish-pump kneejerk he’s attacking: this sceptred common-sense isle set in a sea of garlicky continental pseudo-thought and jargon, metaphysics, Orwelloid wagoncircling thereto…): well, as I said, it was a very broadly shared pathology, so broad it only became evident in the rearview mirror after WW2. Ezra Pound on the Jews you can screen of one idea of Modernism; Marinetti (and Musso) another. The Futurists, they were never Modernists; exemplary Modernist Lit is a world away from exemplary Modernist anything else. Result: safely sharp unbreachable lines between the “movement” and the world it engaged; and loss of purchase on the intricate energies of all the artisan-actions and user-histories and follower-fan input, cut off by pore-formed, unchallenged social heirarchy from the front-line, big-headline, early-doors roles — and thereby set up by everything else for the later, less rationalised role of humming the whole blip into life and consequence. Hygiene-panic as an elite nervousness at the manifestation as agent of the social of the whole man — where “whole” includes his/her weakness, conflicted prejudice, impulse to treachery — and above all fear of self when stupid.
See there’s music you APPECRECIATE STRENUOUSLY, as performed in the Hall of Higher Intellection — but there’s ALSO music you sing and frug along to drunkenly, in the Eating Area probably. (And which precisely is the Zone where you get to make jokes about the Zoning?)
Today we treat Modernism as one large, unified thing bcz it suits the sales purposes of the blockbuster museum spectacle. But even if we allow that it was once, somewhere, a unitary intervention in time, it would always have become — as its proponents aged, their millennium repeatedly postponed — a cluster of semi-related interventions in SPACE — no longer the future invoked to shame the past-fettered present, but this faction’s semi-sectarian line clashing with that faction’s. And that’s because, whatever arbitrary outset we give it, it was unavoidably already a vast conflow of desires, pressures, dreams, reactions and myths; an extremely extended group of people in a multiplicity of relationships to one another — with the so-what vagueness of that (true) description unable to generalise away the actual social facts and forces as they crash against one another; or the energies of the participants as they fite and fuck and fite and fuck; grow up, move on, settle in, fall apart, sell out, reconcile, betray, retrench, look back, and forget. The most best deepest idea in Lipstick Traces (= you’d THINK another shallow and obvious truism, until you spotted that so many commentators were running away from it) was NOT the claim that “oh oh the sex pistols are PITILESS ART REVOLUTIONARIES just like the situationists and dada who we all know all about” — it was the “oh oh dada and the situationists are just a SMALL GANG OF NIHILIST PRANKISH KIDS just like the sex pistols who we all know all about”…
Let’s bump a bit harder against our invisible gargoyles, unseen but naked in the midst of the concrete dramatisation of the rational-to-come: let’s bounce on from a 20s future-meets-present revolutionary soviet sci-fi melodrama like Aelita (on show in the V&A’s first room) to a 30s future-inflects-past end-to-war prophecy like Things to Come (ditto ditto: final room). Things to Come with its post-Burroughs neon-Pharaonic futurian-deco look, and its (to us queasy) sea of white white faces. Things to Come with its disorientating absence of bored teens mucking up the piazzas with their LOUD MUSIC-BLARING DEVICES…
Let’s make the last little jump against an absence: the artform most evidently NOT addressed in the show was music. Now in all fairness, there was a nifty little CD on sale intended to redress this; in unfairness, the line-up [see below]* was pure retrofit — the concept of Modernism being peddled didn’t emerge till (I somewhat suspect) the late 60s; it is certainly absolutely post-1945. The music that soundtracked modernism in real time — rendered inaudible by uneasy anti-pop backprojection — wasn’t Varèse or Ruggles or Webern, it was first-wave jazz. Which is to say, it absolutely fully WASN’T a music delimited by auteur theory and audience-noise suppression; precisely the opposite, in fact. It was the music that got played in the Eating Quarters; it WAS the Zone where you got to mock the Zoning system.
In wan conclusion — in the final oddly murky half-lit corridor, alongside a montage of mono-globalisation’s real actual Brilliant Cities (including fabulous Brasilia, Dr Skronkio’s birthplace ) — this show sadly (and convetionally) noted that Modernism’s unravelling derived from its refusal to mollify two things: ORNAMENT and HISTORY.
Which is right and wrong — Modernism did NOT refuse history, or ornament — because nothing can. It contained both, however much it claimed not to. So it can’t be this double absence that hollowed it out — more like the double presence, which hollows out everything. Unlike painting, architecture is NOT (despite decades of propaganda to the contrary) an ART OF UNITARY VISION: ORNAMENT — from the gargoyle to the jazz solo — is a manifestation of collectivity. Ornament because (for example) its predecessor (which is to say, its partial cause) the GOTHIC REVIVAL had made ornament its settlment within a specific condition of possibility [If Ballard is the poet of Modernism as Gargoyle, the totality of multi-headed POP -- what FUNCTION does a melody, a rhythm, a grabby noise serve? -- is that same Gargoyle Dancing at Architecture. Not any one-off auteured song -- the whole of the charts, the whole of all the many contradictory charts, official and private, as one vast collective improvisation...
And what about history? Once extended in time, Modernism (like everything else) must either acknowledge (and work with and thorugh and round) its OWN inner development -- currents, conflicts -- or devour itself generationally. But to accept flow and conflict within itself -- ESPECIALLY when encounter the brakes on concrete realisation of the NEW SOCIETY -- is either postpone all change until real actual revolution (maintain purity at expense of achievement) or embrace piecemeal reform and postpone revolution. Collapsed to any given situational content becomes (as the situation passes), the avant garde becomes mere mannerist revivalism -- Poundsbury Modernism, where the nostalgia for content tics new and daring in say 1925 is re-presented as an uncomplicated yearning for change (and all the while, the material-of-choice is changing anyway). But strip out any given content -- the particularity of the material of a given situation-- generalised, all that remains is a self-cannibalising, history-less Futurism. But of course if function includes “invoking the lost memory of the possiblity of revolution”, then form-content-material-materiell includes HISTORY-as-ORNAMENT.
See there’s Taylorism -- Life itself compartmentalised into the Machine for Living -- and then there's Cecil Tayorism: the “[refusal] to sidestep, to underrate or even to disrespect the tireless teasing perversity at the core of human behaviour… ”
Images in descending order =
1: Georgii Krutikov’s Apartment Complex Perspective, Flying City (1928)
2: AWESOME GLASS BUILDING BRICKS for KIDS — Dandanah, or Fairy Palace (1919) — designed by Bruno Taut, which came in an octagonal box and which
if you LOVE ME YOU WILL BUY ME you can stack up (esp.if you own a lightbox) into glorious barsoomian structures)…
3: Major Matt Mattel’s chum Callisto x 2
4: Frank Hampson’s Mekonta in plan
5: WE SHALL BUILD THE TREENIENDA! Mekonta realised
6: Scene from Aelita aka Red Mars — which
if you LOVE ME YOU WILL TRANSPORT ME TO
7: THINGS TO COME aka Whitey’s Over on the Moon :(
i: The Modernism in Music CD features the compositions of Antheil, Bartok, Berg, Cowell, Hindemith, Ives, Milhaud, Ruggles, Satie, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Varèse and Webern. I’d recommend it for every purpose except the name on the tin.
ii: Hurrah hurrah I have made this entire argument w/o recourse to the pernicious obfuscatory evasion-shtick of the word “postmodernism” — AND SO CAN YOU!! Think of it as the rolled-up trouser-leg of the secret society of pseudo-academic oddfellows: yes good works can arise from arcane jargon-companionship, but at WHAT COST?
STUPID FRAGMENTS i *couldn’t* weave in (or forgot what they meant)
(but you can if you like, if you understand em):
Like Ballard’s complete works, Adorno’s theory of Modernism in music is in itself a ruin. cf him esp. on JAZZ — at once perceptive and totally panicking…
T.J.Clark, one-time situ camp-follower (when or why excluded? don’t recall), and mentor to the GANG OF FOUR (should he choose to accept this role) = author of FAREWELL TO AN IDEA: Episodes in the History of Modernism Anyway: which dives into the stark gulfs between-within a quite narrow pioneering core, analysing — Malevich vs El Lissitzky, active day-to-day in the early Bolshevik project: “Which is the materialist and which is idealist?” asks Clark (a line i’m right now going to DROP bcz the book is big and dense and compact and FULL OF SHARP INTERVENTIONS which will confuse and lengthen my torrent of whatever — I recommend to anyone who wants to speedread it for me and TELL ME WHAT TO THINK ABOUT IT :(
For the lone auteur — working away free from the world at the blueprints on his drawing board — the cathedral CAN BE the gargoyle. Modernism has no way of growing old gracefully [is this what i want to say?] as long it splits itself off from the half of the world which wanders distractedly through it, dancing or laughing or muttering angrily in their heads. Interweave the KITCHEN issue? The PROBLEM OF IDEALISM?
auteurist recuperation: “what the artist is saying here is — if only his/her vision had been perfectly realised — if only the anonymous artisans had perfectly buried and dalekified themselves into ONE GREAT MAN’S VISION
FUTURISM: extends to the conversation — or argument or fight — it engenders: and is thus part of the argument it arose out of and reacted toto insist, rhetorically, on some rigid manifesto, is — of course — ALWAYS one of the possible tactics involved in the battle for values and visions, within an artwork or a movement; but it always also risks collappse into tolerance of mere marketing shibboleths — where clarity of intention elides with branding
form as function/ornament as uselessness/form versus formlessness
so who is the COG? the artist the or audience?