August 14, 2003
Art Deco versus the Modern Movement

Yesterday Alice Bachini posted the following:

Write me some encouraging comments

I'm feeling all alone here. Help.

I commented thus:

I thought your previous posting about Beethoven's Fifth was so good I stole the whole thing for my culture blog.

Which you already knew. And then I commented as follows:

And ...

... provoked by something you said about Art Deco equals Capitalism (when was that?) I watched a TV show last night about Art Deco, and guess what they said: Art Deco equals Capitalism.

I now understand twentieth century design an order of magnitude better than I did two days ago. And I owe it all to you.

This may not be right, about Alice having blogged that I mean. After posting that comment, I spoke with another woman friend who said that she had said something like this to me, in conversation. Maybe that was what I was remembering.

Next comment by me:

And ..

... during the Art Deco TV show they made a point that I think you would like a lot, which is that the sort of capitalism Art Deco was was women, for the first time in the history of the world, being able to go shopping, and buy pretty things.

Art Deco equals Capitalism equals Women – Modernism equals Totalitariansim equals Men. That was the message.

Interesting, I think you will agree. I'd never thought it through in exactly that way, but doesn't it make a lot of sense to see early twentieth century political nastiness as a pathological male reaction to rampant girlieness?

I think this is a good answer to all those male idiots who have started to say, on Samizdata, Why all this architecture? – as if architecture, had nothing to do with anything IMPORTANT, it's just a matter of taste, and taste doesn't matter. Wrong. Ditto all your stuff about shoes, Oxfam caste-offs etc.

Now I will copy and paste all these clever comments onto my Culture Blog.

Thanks for making me do this.

I had more to say. Next comment:


Just to emphasise the point about Woman/Man, Art Deco/Modernism.

The big difference between Art Deco and Modernism is in that "Deco" bit. Decoration. The Modernists loathed decoration. They believed in buildings, and chairs, and everything, having a ruggedly masculine what-you-see-is-what-you-get look to it.

The Modernists loathed decoration, in the way that many men loathe female make-up. It is deceitful. It conceals the true nature of things.

For culture vultures, see the scene where Hamlet confronts his mother in her boudoir. Quote:

Sorry can't find it. I have every other play the Big S wrote but not that one.

It goes something like:

"You bloody women, you slap on piles of make-up and prettify everything and lie about everything and "nickname god's creatures" instead of just calling them dogs and horses and "you there", and generally the earth should open up and swallow the damn lot of you. Fie upon you, fie, fie I say. I'll have none on't." Or something. And I may be muddling this up with what he later says to Ophelia. "Get thee to a nunnery!" – where they don't allow make-up, and you aren't allowed to go on shopping expeditions.

Women as decorators and prettyfiers and deceivers. It's not a new idea. But the Art Deco v. Modernism things is a recent round in the eternal boxing match of the sexes. And in the twentieth century it all got deeply mixed into politics.

All right, that's enough commenting for now.

I wasn't the end of my commenting, but I went off at various tangents that have no place here, now. I've cleaned up a bit of the spelling, but otherwise that was how I wrote it. My thoughts on Art Deco and all that are now very half baked, so I see no sense in fully re-baking the prose into which these thoughts were stuffed so messily.

But what a thing for a pro-capitalist culture blogger to have to admit to! A huge blind spot about one the twentieth century's most obviously pro-capitalist cultural trends. And me Mr Expert on Modernism.

There are two reasons why I never got Art Deco properly before. Neither are especially honourable. But I can't help that. They happen to be the truth.

First: For most of my life I simply haven't liked it. This is because al lot of the dreariest aesthetic experiences of my youth consisted of seeing fifth-rate fifth-hand after-echoes of Art Deco, in the form of grotesquely ugly furniture (twice my size don't forget) in places like cheap boarding houses or the home of my spendthrift grandparents, and even in some examples in our own home. Art Deco equals veneer equals seventeen shades of shit coloured horribleness. That was the aesthetic world I grew up in. Plus veneer frays at the edges in an especially ugly way, and sometimes peals off in great strips, revealing cheap and ghastly wood or even chipboard underneath. Urrgh!! On the other hand, furniture that simply consisted of blocks of wood that looked like what they were, big blocks of wood, was much better.

Ever since those experiences I have been a devotee, as far as interior decor and furniture is concerned, of the what-you-see-is-what-you-get school of aesthetics. My pathologically gigantic CD collection, for instance, is accommodated in shelving made of untreated timber. Modernist architects of my youthful acquaintance would use bricks of various kinds to support their shelves. My habit of propping up shelves with things like coffee jars or soup tins is a post-Warhol adaptation of the same as-it-comes aesthetic.

The problem with architectural modernism of the Modern Movement variety, i.e. the people that Art Deco was up against, is that this Modernist attitude (they insisted that it was not s style, because no surface covering was added) doesn't work out of doors. What can work beautifully for furniture does not work for buildings, and especially for buildings not basking in a warm Mediterranean climate.

In damp old Britain, you must think of the surface of a building as a distinct design problem from its structure. A building must have a "skin". You must separate the technology of architectural surfaces from all the other technologies that goes into a building; The emerging triumph of the refurbished modernist aesthetic represented by the likes of Foster and Rogers, who proclaim structure, but make sure that it looks the part, is based on accepting some of the tenets of the Modern Movement, such as the idea that buildings ought to look modern, but on rejecting many others, such as, most fundamentally, that beauty itself is suspect. (Shades of Hamlet, above.)

Second - and this is a notion I don't have either the time or the space to do justice to here, but I'll try to sketch the picture quickly: the ideological camp followers and fellow travellers of The Modern Movement managed, I believe, to misrepresent the basic conflict between the Art Deco attitude and the Modernist attitude as not a conflict at all, but as a first-one-then-the-other process. And if that reminds you of the way lefties have written about "late capitalism", well, it is intended to. I think these bastards pulled this trick on me. They didn't spell it out like that, or not so as I remember. They just bent the facts that way by nudging X into the foreground with big pictures, and shoving Y into the background with a few dismissive comments.

I have hardly done more than suspect what the trick was, so I can't give you names and dates, but I think they did this by emphasising the Art Nouveau antecedents of the Art Deco style, and calling that a rejection of High Victorian neo-classicism, and then down playing the Art Deco continuation and popularisation (which is surely what it was) of Art Nouveau. Art Nouveau was treated as "half way to Modernism" and given half a pat on the back, for getting a bit of the way towards the Modernist U- as they saw it –topia. Thus Charles Rennie Mackintosh gets huge attention, while the guys made much of in that TV show I saw the other night get no mention at all.

Again, this is exactly the kind of trick that Marxists used to damn the bits of capitalist progress which they couldn't ignore with faint praise, because of what they patronisingly claimed that it was blindly groping towards.

But Art Deco was not a step towards Modernism. It was a quite deliberate rejection of it. And the Modernists, at the time, knew this, and hated Art Deco, and said so. Or so I now believe and expect to discover for sure.

I have lots more reading and discussing and learning to do. A trip to the V&A Art Deco exhibition (damn – missed it) would be an obvious first step in the right direction. Because all the vibes I'm getting from that show are to the effect that this is all explained, rather than brushed under the Modernist carpet. It couldn't really be otherwise, really, could it? The very decision to hold the exhibition and make it work and make it successful and make it fun, was a decision to push Modernism aside and enjoy the contemporary alternative and opposition to it.

It took a slump and a war to unleash the temporary triumph of the Modern Movement. But now, we have just about shaken it off, taken the best bits of it, and generally learned to live with it.

I could go on, about the relentlessly dishonest manner in which anti-capitalist ideologues rage at all forms of truly popular popular culture while it is happening, but then, when it has proved its enduring validity beyond any doubt and despite all the muck they could chuck at it, have then turned around and claimed it as their own, twenty years later, while simultaneously entirely misrepresenting its true nature. And I guess I just did. But for now, I'll leave this at that.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:17 PM
Category: ArchitectureDesign