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November 28, 2006

Them and Me

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Here's an interesting one to suck on: a review of an expansion at the Museum of Modern Art.

What do you make of it? I find it interesting in only one way: the writer's total willingness to accept 1) that modernism is / was not just an art development but a genuine religion-replacement wannabe, and 2) that the International Style in architecture isn't just an attempt at a complete architectural language, but a potentially still-valid one.

I find myself speechless in the face of this kind of thing. How can you accept these notions without digging into some other questions too? For example: Was it smart and / or productive for modernism to try to function as a replacement religion, and for people to look to it as such? For another: How about a simple acknowledgment that the International Style was the most destructive movement in all of architectural history?

Me, I'd finally try to say something more or less along the lines of, "Well, if you're curious about this modern-art-as-religion thing, and if you want to see and experience yet another talented guy attempt the impossible, namely to redeem the International Style, you might consider visiting MOMA, the monomaniacally rectilinear, white-and-light high church of modernism. What a curious historical phenomenon, eh? And patooie on it."

But that's the diff between me and a real art-world pro, I guess. They look at at modern-art-as-religion and think, "Gosh, what a great idea! I still share the dream ... " I look at it and think, "Well, I'm sure glad we've awakened from that particular self-delusion. Maybe, despite all the inevitable flow back and forth between them, it makes more sense to think of art and religion as separate if related things. And maybe it would be wise to remind ourselves that it's usually a mistake to displace our religious yearnings onto art and culture."

The artworld pros look at the International Style and think, "Wow, abstract geometricism was so beautiful that it's worth sacrificing ever more humanity in order to make it work." I look at the International Sytle and think, "Lordy, what a misguided and disastrous experiment that was. Best to set it aside, and maybe even to put it under lock and key. The time's long overdue for us to get back to going about our building-and-culture schemes in far more modest and time-tested ways."



posted by Michael at November 28, 2006


Maybe I misread seems like he's saying "it isn't as bad as everyone is now saying it is." Which seems odd, given that he also implies he was one of the ones who originally said it was awful. In which case, what was the point of the whole article? It's like he's just a moderate contrarian. He does say the architect got "whatever life there is left to get" out of the International Style, which doesn't seem like a ringing endorsement...does it? What am I missing?

Y'know, your take on modernism as a substitute-for-religion is interesting, because if it is, it's like people who believe this also want it to be some very fringe, unusual, bohemian religion that not everybody is "evolved" enought to participate in. They certainly did not want it to be "mainstream"---see his criticisms of MoMA as being to traditional and institutional and not "rebellious" enough, too far from its roots. It was a like a "religion" that you had to be in the cool clique to take part in. Which means...lots of us just didn't get to participate in that old-style religion, or what? It's sort of like the Church of the Too Good For the Rest of You...or something. Which also implies that the founders were simply disaffected, and desperate for a group to belong to in which they were important, which is the most basic of human desires, which makes them not "different" but "just like everybody else." What a terrible comedown for those modernists!!

Posted by: annette on November 28, 2006 1:32 PM

Annette -- I'm reacting more to his assumptions than to what he's overtly saying, which may be unfair. But still! I dunno, to me, anyone cutting the International Style any slack whatsoever, even a little, is like cutting Communism slack. It was horrifyingly wrong, it was beyond-destructive, and can we please now move on and try to get back on a more humane track? Why do the artsworldies have such trouble admitting their mistakes? I mean, cities were really destroyed and lives were really ruined by the dreams and schemes of certain artists (and their p-r people). I love your idea of modernism as the "Church of the Too Good For the Rest of You." That says a lot more than many volumes of furrowed-brow artsthink! Plus it's catchy!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 28, 2006 1:48 PM

Michael...I agree with you about the International Style in architecture. But modernism in the visual arts (painting and sculpture) from about 1900 to the 1930s was surely a very great artistic flowering. Have you ever spent a day checking out the permanent collection at MOMA? It is magnificent.

Posted by: MQ on November 28, 2006 2:15 PM

I get what you mean---there are certain ideas that are simply beyond defense. Communism, the International Style, David Caruso leaving "NYPD Blue", All Mean Are Rapists Feminism, It's A Good Thing To Give Every Child A Ribbon Even If All They Did Was Throw Up On Their Shoes Childrearing...why take up space still trying to "explain" them or explain what people were thinking when they adopted them? Let's just take it as a lesson and grow.

Posted by: annette on November 28, 2006 3:04 PM

MQ -- I like a lot of modernist art too. I just don't have a lot to add the usual "is it good / is it bad" discussion. Faulkner -- I like him! Middle-period Braque -- thumbs up! So what?

So my quarrel isn't with any painting or poem -- they're nothing but paintings and poems, and the painters and poets are just hoping you enjoy 'em after all, and what's the harm in that? (Unless it's architecture or urbanism, when people are physically imposed upon and then stuck with it.) My quarrel's with the way modernism is discussed.

Two things, mainly.

1) It hasn't often been as freely admitted as it ought to be that modernism was a weirdo (if, for a brief while, productive) attempt to turn art into a religion. It's known, of course, but not well known, and it isn't widely-advertised either. How seriously would most people take the modernist project if they knew that it was, philosophically, about as substantial as Scientology? Given that the modernist view of art history still prevails, why not make the occasional attempt to help break that charm?

2) I dislike the exclusiveness of the modernism-centric version of art and culture history, the way all art supposedly moved towards modernism and all art since has descended from it. Baloney. Art has always been much more rich and various than that, thank heavens. So with some of my postings I try to highlight non-modernist but interesting and fun and substantial art, just to open the discussion up a bit. Commercial art ... New Classicism in architecture ... Narrative fiction ... I like Raymond Queneau, for instance. But I also like Donald Westlake and I think Westlake's just as brilliant a fiction writer as (if obviously very different than) Queneau.

Modernism was really a rather small part of the culture-thing generally. Why have we let its apparent importance loom so large? IMHO, we're still under a bit of a spell, and it wouldn't be a bad thing to shake it more thoroughly off.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 28, 2006 4:07 PM

"Religious life consists of the belief that there is an unseen order and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto." (William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, 53, 1902)

QED. The International style was a religion.

Posted by: Omri on November 28, 2006 4:32 PM

Michael, Annette and the others make a lot of interesting points.

While I acknowledge that a lot of art groupies treat their preferred art with a degree of near-religious gush and veneration that puts me off, I think Modernism in its various guises might be more political than religious. The Bauhaus and the International Style in general were supposed to be transformative in a material rather than a spiritual sense. For instance, the "change the environment, change the behavior" concept of 1930s public housing -- the housing that deserves to be demolished.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on November 28, 2006 7:00 PM

Donald, but this concept "change the environment, change the behavior" - is what Michael subscribes to, too, just from an opposite (neo-urbanism) religious point of view. Remember after the muslim Paris pogroms there was an absurd article blaming architects of the public housing for the riots? I recall MB considered it in all seriousness.

Bauhaus pronciples WERE revolutionary. Mies WAS a genius. Mainly because architectural thought was able to rearrange priorities in design: utility (function) - first, ornament(form) - second. Another principle, making construction and design affordable for more people due to mass-production was a good thing, too. Too bad the politics interfered, and what should have been private-enterprise-friendly development became stained with socialist reputation.

It is not the Bauhaus' fault that after them there were not much qualitative developement. Would you blame Renaissance painters if all figurative painters for generations afterwards were stuck at the one-point perspective and chiaroscuro?

Posted by: Tat on November 28, 2006 7:49 PM

Tat has some good points.

Michael says above:

"It hasn't often been as freely admitted as it ought to be that modernism was a weirdo (if, for a brief while, productive) attempt to turn art into a religion."

But Romanticism also sought to turn art into a secular religion, going back to the beginning of the 19th century! This is especially evident in poetry and music, but I would argue secularized religious impulses are also present in Romantic landscape portrait, including things like the Hudson River School.

All of Western high art, going back thousands of years, has deep connections to religious or spiritual impulses. Not only that, religion is deeply connected with art in numerous other cultures as well. Granted, there are purely secular artistic currents like decorative portraiture of the wealthy, but many of the most profound forms of art have always been linked with religion. So it was entirely natural that as society became more secularized, people would continue to use art as a form of spiritual expression. If you have a beef with the connection between religion and art, you have a problem with the entire concept of high art or greatness in art that runs much deeper than a quarrel with modernism. Which I think you do, but I don't think you've fully faced up to the implications of your views.

"How seriously would most people take the modernist project if they knew that it was, philosophically, about as substantial as Scientology"

Scientology is a cult. The spiritual impulse runs deeper and is more "substantial" than mere cultism. Catholicism espouses some crazy beliefs if you are a non-Catholic, but it inspired Chartres. Are you going to tell me that non-Catholics cannot find Chartres inspiring? The whole place is a glorious temple to the cult of the virgin birth. I do not find the virgin birth a particularly plausible or substantial belief, but I think Chartres is one of the very greatest human physical creations.

Posted by: MQ on November 29, 2006 12:09 AM


I only think Mies was a genius if you consider rebellion a form or genius. I don't. To me, taking away all ornamentation is just as odd as ornamenting everything. Art is a balance of contrasts. And emotional, not utuilitarian.

As far as mass production and making things cheap for the masses, you could look at the mail-order victorian style houses that Sears Roebuck and Co. used to sell. Or a '57 Thunderbird. Or a Lamborghini. I'm not convinced by that argument either. Mass production and ornamentation aren't mutually exclusive.

To me, what is described is not religious at all, but it is an ideology, and a rigid and ugly one at that. All the asceticism and abstraction is just a form of rebellion--a rebellion by those who have nothing to add to the traditions of the past. Fine. Then just step away, and do your own thing. But they have to force "modernism" on everything, including art history. Also by de-accessioning traditional artworks in museums and filling it with modernist "masterworks". Ugh.

See, it is a revolution, and a rebellion--a destruction and displacement of the old, rather than creative and tolerant. And the force-feeding proves it.

Posted by: BIOH on November 29, 2006 12:50 AM

Art may be not utilitarian, but architecture is. Mies was not an artist, and thank god he turned Bauhaus away from artistic direction Kandinsky was steering it to.
It's a first order of business in architecture: to make a built environment physically convenient and suited for functions people perform within. Victorian homes are notorious of inefficient layouts, ergonomically straining proportions (f.ex., millwork and stairs - I can give you load of actual examples), and no amount of wonderful and whymsical decoration can make inconvenience disappear.
Bauhaus was not a rebellion, it was a qualitative step forward in historically documented, from McIntosh to Adolf Loos, logical movement for rediscovering utility underneath of piles of unreasonable ornament.

Nowhere I said ornamentation can not be mass-produced. It's an obvious thing that does not interest me in this discussion. Nor the endless blaming of people who worked thru 1920'to 40's for the sins of 2 following generations.
No need to repeat.

Posted by: Tat on November 29, 2006 11:09 AM

What a lot of interesting questions and points. Let's bring in the scholars! No, on second thought, let's not ...

Some random responses in my usual muddying-the-waters style ...

Omri -- Hear, hear.

Donald -- FWIW, my impression is that they're both true, and that part of what characterized a lot of those 20th century dreams was a tendency to mix up the political, the aesthetic, and the spiritual. A potent recipe!

Tat -- We see these things from a 180 degree different p-o-v! We agree though that the Bauhaus was revolutionary. My attitude is to wonder why any kind of revolution was needed. I'm surprised that, what with your background in the Soviet Union, you approve of such an attitude. Clarification?

MQ -- Art and religion have always closely co-existed, as you point out. The distinctive thing about modernism was its attempt to BE the religion. To my knowledge, 19th century style romanticism (and I agree that modernism can be usefully seen as a modern outbreak of the romantic impulse generally), while representing a re-awakening of the religious impulse, never attempted to replace the church. Modernism was explicitly an attempt to fill in what was felt to be a void -- conventional religion was felt to have failed, and art would take its place. Romanticism pointed towards the invisible world, while modernism attempted to be or embody the invisibile world. Which of course led to the belief that the artist was god and the critics were priests, and to much of the baloney we've been saddled with ever since. Incidentally, I don't begrudge people their zany beliefs. I just find it weird that modernism is treated as respectfully as it is, and that we're still sold its version of art history. I'd argue that modernism is/was a cult, come to think of it.

BIOH -- Ideology played a big role, especially in architecture! And you make another good point too. Industrial processes and materials had been used in many ways in building and culture more generally for a century before the Bauhaus. (Think of the Eiffel Tower.) Why all of a sudden was it necessary that everything be right-angled?

Tat -- Yet most people, given a choice, would prefer to live in a Victorian house than in the Villa Savoie! And cities that adopted the rigid-grid approach to design and building too enthusiastically lost large parts of their populations to the 'burbs! I'd actually argue that the Bauhaus/Corbu approach to housing and building is largely 1) ideological and 2) aesthetic. They had a political dream, and they liked right angles -- the look of efficiency more than efficiency itself. And how can anyone argue that a design is "functional" when most people don't like it and run from it whenever they can? Isn't it one of the functions of architecture and design to create places that people enjoy?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 29, 2006 11:25 AM

As somebody said, "The inverse of a metaphysical statement is also a metaphysical statement." Art created under the umbrella of spiritualism and Theosophical thought (i.e., an amazing amount of foundational "turn-of-the-century" Modern Art) is still religious art, just like art created under the umbrella of Buddhism or Catholicism is religious art. What's peculiar about Modern Art is that its religious roots are studiously ignored or downplayed. Likewise, I see very few studies of who are the believers in Modernism, which is by no means 100% of the population. Lastly, Modern Art--and especially Modern Architecture--is a jealous religion; it routinely insists that you shall have no other gods before it.

So what is this religion that Dares Not Discuss Its Origin or the Fact That It Is a Religion or Who Believes In It or Why?

I leave the problem for the reader to ponder.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 29, 2006 12:36 PM

On Tat's points: I do find the high bourgeois / Salon / late victorian decorative styles of the late 19th century to be often nauseatingly overdecorated and baroque. Did the modernist reaction go too far? In some ways I think yes. I see Art Deco and the work of Frank Lloyd Wright as examples of styles that were able to jettison a lot of late victorian decorativeness and break through to purer forms without the rigidity and coldness of modernist architecture.

Michael: I see your point, but I'm still unconvinced. Why should the individualist spiritual ambitions of the high priests of modernism form a barrier to acknowledging the greatness of their art? As I said, I find fault with some beliefs of the Catholic church, yet I find the art it inspired to be magnificent. After all, the dark side of Catholicism is the Inquisition, which is pretty damn dark. Perhaps modernism is so recent that you, having worked in the art world, have a personal relationship with some of the personality deformations created by the "cult of art", and you do not have sufficient distance to separate the art from that. I'm sure that had I personally been tortured by the Inquisition I would find the great medieval cathedrals to be less joyful and inspiring places.

Posted by: MQ on November 29, 2006 12:37 PM

P.S. on Tat's point, I realize that Frank Lloyd Wright's work has been attacked for being non-utilitarian in certain ways, but I don't think that's inherent to his style.

Posted by: MQ on November 29, 2006 12:38 PM

MB, please prove to me on concrete examples your "look of efficiency more than efficiency itself". And for comparison, show me same objects of popular design of the time, how efficient and convenient to use they were vs. Bauhaus-designed things. Like coffee tables, teapots, typical apartments, posters and textile designs. And don't forget to back yourself up with concrete production figures: which would be cheaper for an average manufacturer to produce Wagenfeld table lamp, or a typical 1920's lamp, be it in Tiffany style or post-Victorian imitation?

You seem to forget that Bauhaus was a SCHOOL. What was produced by students in its workshops was experimental. Via experimental process some things stay, some go - it's the nature of study. It is amazing how many useful and beautiful things they managed to create, despite ideology and lack of funds. And this is a similarity with early years of Soviet Russia (if you insist on revoking that beast). They worked, fueled by pure youthful enthusiasm, by idea of making people's life easier thru creating easy-to-use physical objects.
It's not their fault (how many times should I repeat this elementary thought that nobody seems to take in?) that their enthusiasm was appropriated by politicians of various colors, from brown to scarlet red. And it's not their fault that generations after generations after them, designers and architects preferred to get stuck on this experimental return to the source, basis of every design, rather than build on it?
And if you look at what Gropius, Mies and others designed for the masses in 1927 and what passes for modernist and efficient (and claims to continue their tradition) now, I'm sure you'd see the difference.
Like Weissenhof Estate and IKEA's monster. It's a slander.

Posted by: Tat on November 29, 2006 12:40 PM

An afterthought: 180deg?
I guess I'm not totally lost yet: it's not a 360...

Posted by: Tat on November 29, 2006 12:43 PM

MQ -- Western architecture veered back and forth between cleanliness and excess for centuries without needing to completely reject the language of western architecture. In the normal course of things, Victorian-home excess would have been responded-to by a resurgence of who knows what -- the Italianate, or something. But something that was within the tradition, however tweaked. What was new (and awful, IMHO) about the Modernist response was that it was an attempt to throw the entire language and heritage of western architecture into the junkyard and replace it with something new and abstract. It was -- and it made no secret about being -- something akin to an attempt to ban English and impose Esperanto, or maybe COBOL. Thereby remaking mankind, of course. So maybe "going a little too far" might be an understatement? As for the greatness of some modernist art, I think we're talking at cross purposes. I like some of it too; the greatness/ranking thing will shake itself out over time (and then probably change). But I don't have a lot to add to that discussion and such questions aren't on my mind anyway, while questions about the cult-like quality of modernism are. But feel free to share your reactions to modernism! I'd love to know which modernist works you're especially fond of.

Tat -- 180? 360? One of those degree-things anyway. And sure, esthetic preference played a big role in modernist architecture and design. They liked those planes and angles, which sent them into Plantonic-geometrical-mathematical-essence raptures. No one that I'm aware of has ever made the case that Corbu's houses were especially efficient. In one of them, I forget which, he put the kitchen on the second floor. And his housing has been notorious for the way people who live in it find that they have to make it over. People living in Mies' Chicago apartment buildings find they have to keep huge curtains closed nearly all the time because the windows are too open to the sun, and the Farnsworth House made inhabitants unhappy right from the outset. And, despite the rhetoric about efficiency, none of these places were or have been cheap.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 29, 2006 1:21 PM

What's the point in discussing architecture with someone who has no appreciation of geometry and is proud of his ignorance?

Whatever, Michael.

Posted by: Tat on November 29, 2006 1:38 PM

Regarding the religious foundations of the Bauhaus and Modernist art and architecture generally:

As Rykwert observed in 1968, a strong current of occult and mystical thought, Gustav Pehnt’s “non-religious religiousness,”
permeated much of modernist discourse at the turn of the century. The Expressionists, with whom we generally associate such esoteric predelictions, produced works ranging from the crystalline utopias of Taut and Scheerbart, to the exotic practices of Johannes Itten in
theVorkurs of the Bauhaus, to dark, racial and nationalist theories reflected in the works of Bernhard Hoetger. Esotericism also formed a strain within the ranks of the avant garde. Malevich, Mondrian, van Doesburg, and El
Lissitzky were some of those who found the key to an alternative modernity in esoteric thought. Their manifestos and declarations, colored by the pursuit of the nonobjective world,proclaimed the arrival of Vorticism, Suprematism, Neo-Plasticism, Futurism and Elementarism in turn. In the ethereal abstractions of Proun, or the absolutism of De Stijl one discovers the search for nameless essences as much as the reflection of scientific truths. This strain reverberated throughout the modern period. In architecture, it was echoed in the mystique of geometry as espoused first by Berlage and Behrens, then by Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe as they sought to elevate their architectural philosophies beyond rank functionalism through the validating expository power of esoteric ideas.

This is taken from "Architecture and Theosophy: An Introduction" by Susan R. Henderson of Syracuse University. You can read the article at

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 29, 2006 1:50 PM

Sorry to keep harping on this, but a recent book I read on art education pointed out that the Bauhaus art education paradigm is still the one pursued in virtually every modern art school (excepting the still-not-mainstream neo-academic schools established in the past decade or so). I doubt many of the professors acquaint the students with the Theosophical underpinnings of the exercises they go through; one suspects it might possible put the young people off.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 29, 2006 5:14 PM

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