abstract art, a systems view

Industrialism and the Genesis of Modern Architecture (via The Charnel-House)

with 3 comments

Another brilliant post from Ross Wolfe and a continuation of the guest blog post at my site a week or so ago. Here he emphasises the link between modernism and industrialisation, and especially the influence of the machine and the techniques of Taylorism.

Industrialism and the Genesis of Modern Architecture MODERNIST ARCHITECTURE — POSITIVE BASES (CONTINUED) The spatiotemporal properties of architecture that were developed by experiments in abstract art reached their highest expression in the work of Lissitzky and Moholy-Nagy.  Stepping back from our analysis of this development, however, we may witness a crucial conjuncture between the realm of abstract art and the other major positive basis for the existence of modernist architecture — industriali … Read More

via The Charnel-House

…much of which seems to confirm the Ellulian stance I blogged about a short while ago: according to Jacques Ellul, modernist art is either an imitation of technology or a compensation for technology.

Whilst Kandinsky’s treatise Concerning the Spiritual in Art could be seen as a compensation for technology (along with the appreciation of the Theosophy of both Kandinsky and Mondrian), the paintings often turn out to be an imitation of technology.

Ellul suggested that Kandinsky painted like a computer. I think that was unfair, but it is also a point that is difficult to argue against! I think that the same criticism (it was meant as a criticism) could be levelled at a lot of the painters I admire, and the practice I have adopted.

3 Responses

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  1. Thanks so much for the plug, and I’m really glad you enjoyed my entry. I posted a rather long summary of my take on Ellul and the question of technophilia in modernist art, architecture, and political economy:

    I appreciate many of Ellul’s thoughts and ideas, although they originate from the odd world of Christian anarchism. Between his work, Lewis Mumford’s on Technics and Civilization, and the Frankfurt School’s (Adorno, Horkheimer, and Marcuse’s) critique of technology and instrumental reason, there is a great wealth of sources grounding a critical theory of the various fetish forms of technology and their instrumentalization by administrative societies of control and Fordist fantasies of “rational planning.” I find their work infinitely more helpful, and less problematically romantic, than Heidegger’s work on “The Question Concerning Technology” and all the continental thinkers who took inspiration from it. Though technology is not a wholly neutral phenomenon, that can be put to either “bad” or “good” use through social organization, I believe that the true perversity of modern technophilia is its continuation in a society based on the supervaluation of value, or capital. The wondrous machines we have invented could easily provide us with the basis to feed and clothe all of society, to make all of society in fact live comfortably while producing more and working less. But this cannot be under the system of capitalism.

    Therefore, the high modernist fascination with machinery, gadgetry, automobiles, airplanes, and skyscrapers, which once was linked to a social program based on a systematic restructuring of society. This is what Le Corbusier called “the machine age,” and what Fernand Leger dubbed “the machine aesthetic.” The fetishization of the machine as such occurred only after it was decoupled from its social mission to remake the world, both in terms of the way people thought and lived (providing workers’ housing, working on agitprop, advertisement, etc.). Modernist technophilia became problematic as soon as its social mission was abandoned. And I would further argue that this was partially the result of the 1917 Revolution’s inability to spread to all of Europe (although it came very close in many parts), and even more specifically a result of the Stalinist betrayal and endorsement of stultifying neoclassicism over the numerous modernists who had placed their faith in the Soviet experiment. Since then, modern art has largely become reduced to the commodity-form and integrated harmlessly into the totality of modern bourgeois society. Since modernism’s rather inglorious death in the mid-to-late-1960s, it has only become more debased, masturbatory, and meaningless in postmodernism. Its gestures at the political are theatrical gestures betraying only their own impotence.

    I do find Ellul’s choice of Kandinsky as an illustration of machinist tendencies in modern art rather strange, however, considering how intuitive and immediate most of Kandinsky’s compositions feel. Fernand Léger, the Cubist (later Purist) artist, would seem the obvious choice. A number of the Futurists’ works would seem to qualify as well, especially the work of Gino Severini. But the artist-Constructivists (to be distinguished from Constructivist architects) clearly emulated the machine as well. Tatlin, Rodchenko, Stepanova — all of them produced works valorizing industrial machinery.

    Anyway, a very relevant connection you’ve made here. Thanks again for the compliment.

    Ross Wolfe

    September 22, 2011 at 8:35 pm

  2. Odd world indeed Ross, many years ago I used to live there myself, the Christians didn’t like us and the Anarchists didn’t like us either!

    Andy Parkinson

    September 23, 2011 at 4:33 pm

    • Because of my cultural/ethnic background, I was briefly enchanted by the “Jewish-mystical” side of Walter Benjamin’s writings, as emphasized by Gershom Scholem and so on (a fascinating figure, and an atheist to be sure). I’ve since come to believe that the Kabbalistic references made in Benjamin are really only conceptual frameworks, and that his perspective was actually quite solidly Marxist after 1928.

      Anyway, I am really glad you liked my bit on industrialism and modern architecture. I am curious to see what you make of my most recent installment, on the social mission of the avant-garde.

      Ross Wolfe

      September 24, 2011 at 4:00 am

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