Hey, that’s me

Hal Foster

  • Life Style by Bruce Mau
    Phaidon, 626 pp, £39.95, November 2000, ISBN 0 7148 3827 6

The turn of one century calls up others, and 2000 was no exception. Museum shows devoted to Style 1900 or Art Nouveau were on view in London, Paris, New York and other cities. It all looked long ago and far away, this pan-European movement pledged to a Gesamtkunstwerk of arts and crafts, in which everything from architecture to ashtrays was subject to florid design, in which the designer struggled to impress his subjectivity on all sorts of object through an idiom of vitalism – as if to inhabit the thing in this crafted way was to resist the advance of industrial reification. As the aesthetics of the machine became dominant in the 1920s, Art Nouveau was no longer nouveau; in the next decades it slowly passed from an outmoded style to a campy one, and has lingered in this limbo ever since. Yet what struck me about this recent parade of Art Nouveau exhibitions was its strong echo in the present: an intuition that we live in another era of blurred disciplines, of objects treated as mini-subjects, of total design, of a ‘Style 2000’.

Adolf Loos, the Viennese architect of austere façades, was the great critic of the aesthetic hybridity of Art Nouveau. He was to architecture what Schoenberg was to music, Wittgenstein to philosophy or Karl Kraus to journalism – a scourge of the impure and the superfluous. In ‘Ornament and Crime’ (1908), his fiercest polemic, he associates the Art Nouveau designer with a child smearing walls and a ‘Papuan’ tattooing skin. For Loos the ornate design of Art Nouveau is erotic and degenerate, a reversal of the proper aim of civilisation to sublimate, to distinguish and to purify: hence his notorious formula – ‘the evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from utilitarian objects’ – and his infamous association of ornament and crime. This anti-decorative dictate is a Modernist mantra if ever there was one, and it is for such puritanical propriety that Post-Modernists have, in turn, condemned Modernists like Loos. But maybe times have changed again; maybe we are in a moment when distinctions between practices might be reclaimed or remade – without the ideological baggage of purity and propriety attached.

Loos began his battle with Art Nouveau a decade before ‘Ornament and Crime’. He made a pointed attack in 1900, in the form of an allegorical skit about ‘a poor little rich man’ who commissions an Art Nouveau designer to put ‘Art in each and every thing’:

Each room formed a symphony of colours, complete in itself. Walls, wall coverings, furniture and materials were made to harmonise in the most artful ways. Each household item had its own specific place and was integrated with the others in the most wonderful combinations. The architect has forgotten nothing, absolutely nothing. Cigar ashtrays, cutlery, light switches – everything, everything was made by him.

This Gesamtkunstwerk does more than combine architecture, art and craft: it mingles subject and object – ‘the individuality of the owner was expressed in every ornament, every form, every nail.’ For the Art Nouveau designer this is perfection: ‘You are complete!’ he tells the owner. But the owner is not so sure. Rather than a sanctuary from modern stress, his Art Nouveau interior is another expression of it: ‘The happy man suddenly felt deeply, deeply unhappy . . . He was precluded from all future living and striving, developing and desiring. He thought, this is what it means to learn to go about life with one’s own corpse. Yes indeed. He is finished. He is complete!’ For the Art Nouveau designer this completion reunites art and life: for Loos it is a catastrophic loss of the objective constraints required to define any ‘future living and striving, developing and desiring’. Far from a transcendence of death, this loss of finitude is a death-in-life, it is living ‘with one’s own corpse’.

Such is the malaise of ‘the poor little rich man’: rather than a man of qualities, he is a man without them (Musil was another Viennese scourge). What he lacks, in his very completion, is difference or distinction. In a typically pithy statement of 1912, Kraus would call this lack of distinction, which precludes ‘all future living and striving’, a lack of ‘running-room’:

Adolf Loos and I – he literally and I linguistically – have done nothing more than show that there is a distinction between an urn and a chamber pot and that it is this distinction above all that provides culture with running-room. The others, the positive ones [i.e. those who fail to make this distinction], are divided into those who use the urn as a chamber pot and those who use the chamber pot as an urn.

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