Friday, January 6, 2017

Book Review: Ornament and Crime


Ornament and Crime
I should start by saying that Ornament and Crime was first presented as the title of a lecture in 1910 by the Viennese interior designer, architect and most notably, critic Adolph Loos. The lecture subsequently was published as a stand alone essay. Nevertheless, easily recognisable as a consistent theme in Loos' writing, Ornament and Crime by extension refers to a collection of his essays spanning a period of over 30 years.

Loos' writings are clearly polemical, positively hyperbolic in their criticisms, particularly of architecture, the decorative and applied arts. As an early member of the "Vienna Secession", a group of artists and architects who broke away from the established and conservative Vienna Künstlerhaus, his affiliation was not to endure long. Adolf seceded from the secession, pursuing an initially very individual course in search of the "Modern" aesthetic. The impact of his writings can not be understated. At a time of utter confusion in the arts in the face of industrial ascendance, entropy of culture and loss of traditions, Loos was articulating a crystal clear message, what at the time must have seemed to some as a potential way out if not a way forward.

Despite the fact that I disagree entirely with many of his conclusions, I find myself obligated to concur with many of his observations. Adolf Loos was not a ninny. If one cares to understand how and why the state of art and architecture are as they are today, being so distinctly different from what came before, why traditional craft lies in such a impoverished condition, then I might suggest reading his essays as a point of departure.

Advocacy for the Handwerker, 
Criticism for the Architect

It comes as a surprise to many that Adolf Loos apprenticed in the family business as a stone mason and carver. Although he began studies both in engineering and architecture he never completed them, opting instead to travel abroad to America where he supported himself, among other things as a brick mason for which he received a certificate. His support for the independence of the handicraftsman, particularly from the academies of art and architecture, is a central theme in his writings, a position that never wavered.

Medieval Griechengasse Straße, Vienna
Adolph notes that a century earlier to his time Vienna and Austria had a style, both organic and traditional. One bought shoes from the cobbler, trousers from the tailor, rooms from the cabinet maker. No one was telling the varied craftsmen what to do, yet everything was well made and matched just fine. Nevertheless, over the course of the 19th century "profound minds immersed themselves in another age and found happiness as an ancient Greek, a medieval symbolist, or a renaissance man." The craftsman was pressed into service, forced to abandon his long cultivated traditions to adopt all at once the pinnacles of artistic achievements of Classical Greece and Rome, Romanesque and Gothic, Moorish and the Baroque, in fact "everything that had been made throughout history in all nations and produce new inventions as well." The traditional craftsman lacked the scholarly proficiency of an aesthetic polyglot, the academic archeologist who exposed him as naive, provincial and stupid.

So everything of value save his back was wrested from the materialistic craftsman now placed under the alien authority of the man of ideas, forms, books and drawing, the architect who"has learned draftsmanship, and since that is all he has learnt, he is good at it. The craftsman is not...The architect has reduced the noble art of building to a graphic art. The one who receives the most commissions is not the one who can build best but the one whose work looks best on paper. There is a world of difference between the two."

Majolica House, Vienna
Interestingly, he took specific aim at Otto Wagner, the most accomplished architect of Vienna, who fit this description to a tee. He accused Wagner of designing every minute detail of his projects, leaving no contribution for the craftsman., even whilst confessing that due to Wagner's virtuoso ability he manages to pull it off. Genius acknowledged, Loos made his stand against architecture that draws attention to itself as a testament of singular, artistic ability. Loos was less impressed by the aesthetic accomplishment of Wagner's work as much as he was disconcerted by the trend he represented: the approach to architecture as a fine art, especially considering Otto Wagner's position as Professor of Architecture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna.

Loos called for an end to the academic abomination, for revolution:

“It is high time our craftworkers tried to throw off this uncalled for tutelage and started to rely on their own good sense.  Anyone who wants to  collaborate is welcome. All credit to anyone who is willing to don an apron and take his place at the humming potter's wheel, or strip to the waist and  help at the furnace. But those dilettantes who want to dictate their designs to the creative artist from the comfort of their studios should stick to their own  field, namely graphic art...if you want craftsmen in touch with the style of the times, poison the architects.”

Hmm...I've yet to try that last suggestion.

The Pogrom against Ornament

The multi-pronged attacks on ornament lack the coherence of some of his other arguments but were the ones to be most revered by the coming Modernist movement. He repeatedly makes a point that is largely verifiable: there was far more ornament applied to everyday items and architecture in the 19th century than at any previous point in Viennese and European culture more generally. 1800's Europe was dripping ears to arse in ornament, much of it shoddily conceived, near all of it culturally foreign.

Some of the appetite for ornament he attributes to the presentation of archeological discoveries as well as artefacts of the aristocracy to the public, particularly under interpretive curation at museums. Out of the tremendous cache collected, what was selected for display was typically the most enriched, bejeweled of items. Loos attributes their survival to being preserved as art objects, ceremonial showcases of ostentation and power. Utilising them as models for practical use therefore would be to miss the original intention completely. Unless of course the intention was to emulate the aristocracy or nobility of former times, an envious pathology that seemed to have infected the upwardly mobile bourgeoisie. He thus describes a life lived amongst hallowed relics:

"The lives we lead are at variance with the objects with which we surround ourselves. We forget we need a living room as well as a throne room, and we are quite happy to let ourselves be physically abused by these pieces of furniture in antique styles. We bash our knees, and etch complete ornaments into our backs...our bowls, jugs, and vases has given us in turn renaissance, baroque, and rococo calluses on our hands."

Le Sacre de Napoléon, Jacques-Louis David 1808

Basically, the argument was that the bourgeoisie was not attracted to ornamentation because of their  cultivated taste nor because it gave them any pleasure whatsoever, rather it was that they thought by having it others would think they had taste. Being a purely instrumental, shallow desire there was no qualms about selecting a cheap fake which only served to degrade craft further. By contrast Loos advocates for domestic architecture that the rooms of a house should have the mark of the owner and be comfortable for the family, also cultivating and reflecting their true tastes for good or ill. The one concession he makes to the aforementioned approach is perhaps for the parlour or a similar room for receiving guests where a specific outward presentation might be desired upon which he cautions, "rest assured that everyone will find the designer he deserves."

Courtesy of The Original Morris and Co.
Having fully imbibed the Hegelian nectar of the inexorable progress of civilisation, Loos strikes out into far more questionable territory claiming that "the less advanced a nation, the more extravagant its ornament." He offers no justification for his argument instead providing the highly ornamented Paupans and the highly ornamenting Red Indians as examples of the primitive and culturally poor contrasted with the pragmatic, restrained, eminently civilised English, the culturally rich who are lavishly praised as guardians of the true Germanic spirit. Although quite natural for the primitive Paupan or Indian to tattoo themselves or adorn their canoes he argues that, "a person of our times who gives way to the urge to daub the walls with erotic symbols is a criminal or degenerate." He urges the Viennese to thus overcome the "Red Indian" within themselves and emulate the English. Racism aside, I have to question whether or not Adolf was simply completely unaware of what William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement was really up to in England?

This line of argument equating appreciation of ornament with ignorance and dirtiness, unfit for the clean modern man has stuck. It has been very damaging to architecture, culture and inadvertently yet undeniably damaging to traditional  handcraft. Although there is some recovery, the aesthetic cleansing sprung from his polemic has yet a long way from being fully extricated. Not to end on a sour note I have to say there is much more to recommend of Adolf Loos' essays than that last bit of nonsense above such as his genuine concern for the physical and psychological working conditions of craftsmen and advocacy for the respect as well as equal treatment and rights for women. Finally, his additional essay simply entitled "Architektur" is one of the best expositions I've read on how architecture ought to relate to the landscape (natural and urban) and how architecture is not an art. In the spirit of keeping your friends close and your enemies even closer, I recommend Adolf Loos' collected essays Ornament and Crime as an important reading for the contemporary craftsman.


Contributed by Patrick Webb




3 comments:

  1. Patrick- I have continually re-read the central "Ornament is Crime" essay and some of the related essays fairly regularly over the years. As with my reading of the essays of Frankfurt-School figures like Theodore Adorno and Walter Benjamin, I seem to sense an underlying wistfulness for the integrity of traditional arts and crafts and music lurking behind the blustery polemics and revolutionary politics. It seems almost like nostalgia-- for a lost, more democratic understanding of art, irredeemably obliterated by the bourgeois crassness of modern society. When Loos says "As ornament is no longer organically linked with our culture, it is also no longer an expression of our culture," he regrets the loss of an almost mythical folk past, similar to that associated with the "aura" of pre-modern art in Benjamin's "Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." In spite of their destructive reputations, I feel a kinship with these guys every time I read them. They are understandably struggling from within modernity against the unbearable changes represented by modernity. Both are repelled by the coarseness of 19th-century bourgeois appetites accompanied by the loss of a collective sense of propriety in the domestic arts. "Ornament as created today has no connection with us. . . . The artist always used to stand at the forefront of humanity, . . .[but} the modem ornamentalist is a straggler, or a pathological case. . . . Modern ornament has no forbears and no descendants, no past and no future. It is joyfully welcomed by uncultivated people, to whom the true greatness of our time is a closed book, and after a short period is rejected."

    Loos is as baffled by the new art-history paradigm he has imbibed, a way of thinking that separates the forms and decorative details of buildings and cities, integral to the builders and architects of the Renaissance, into discrete style categories firmly bound to certain historical periods. The new art history model of periods and styles created the feverish and shifting archeological revivals that so contradicted his tastes. His Empire and his era had defiled the traditional arts and crafts by overwhelming tradition with tawdry and superfluous decorative schemes. Like everyone else, he found it impossible to step outside of the historicist way of looking at the world. He called its worst excesses immoral even as he pursued more refined ornamental tastes that might transcend it.

    Loos choose, for rhetorical effect, to brand all ornament as criminal, but he really meant "modern ornament," adding to the confusion that continues to bedevil our understanding of the important roles that ornament and decoration bring to the beauty of buildings and cities. Perhaps we classicists aren't very far from Loos after all- we just choose to affirm tradition in the face of modernity, where Loos contorted his artistic impulses in his struggles to escape from the seeming determinism of the history of art.

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  2. Excellent piece, Patrick... thanks! I finally dug my Modernist Manifestos book out of storage recently, and am anxious to re-read the central essay. I concur with Gibson's take in his last paragraph... the real target was modern ornament. In particular, re-read the passage on his cobbler, where he said that to NOT let that man exercise his craft in producing shoes that were ornamental, THAT would be a crime as well... if I recall correctly. In any case, thanks again for this.

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