Modernisms in Store

According to Andy Warhol all department stores will become museums and all museums will become department stores – Jonathan Harris goes shopping

My own experience of visiting the V&A’s exhibition ‘Modernism: Designing a New World’ was much more like a trip to my local IKEA in Warrington than to Habitat (the show’s sponsors) in Chester. The museum’s cramped rooms competently imitated both the crush and motion of bodies in IKEA and the off the shelf shopping pleasures and pains of our own mass-market Modernism. The show’s narrative has a late sequence devoted to this zone of 30s emerging consumer capitalism, a bit like IKEA’s own section of bargain basement bits and bobs: for cheap glasses, cutlery, and rugs see the V&A’s radios, films, fabrics, pots and pans. Modernism, then – in its many different forms and feelings – is still with us. The puzzle is to see the connections and dislocations posed by these three institutional representations of different Modernisms at the V&A, Hayward Gallery and Tate Modern, though the Hayward exhibition is really a show centred on Georges Bataille’s own avant-garde – for which read ‘diversely warped’ – tastes and titillations. Habitat does not appear to have wanted to see the V&A curators construct the kind of plausible ‘environments of use’ for historical modernist artefacts that its high street stores habitually rely on for their sales: the living rooms of contiguous sofas and kitchens decked out in stainless steel, stylish glasses, and cappuccino machines. It is these ‘ideal’ depictions of bourgeois consumption and lifestyle, however, that really put me off – I always end up buying nothing in Habitat because I know I simply cannot afford to live up to these images, that is, to imagine my home looking anything like these latter day ‘machines for living’. IKEA, on the other hand – out by the ring road, on the retail park, handily next to Burger King – is our true mass modernity: where we occasionally go to purchase the hand-me-down, pastiched designer items that fit, more or less, into the congealed congestions and anachronisms of our actual homes.

Both the V&A’s show and Tate Modern’s ‘Albers and Moholy-Nagy: From the Bauhaus to the New World’ unsurprisingly reprise stock modernist exhibition conventions in their respective presentations of Modernism: movements and individual career lines remain standard museological variants of giving the customer what they want – as at my local Tesco, where, although they move the veg around every few weeks, the general management strategy is that the punters will reassuringly find what they want reasonably quickly with only minor irritation and might buy something new that they come across where the carrots usually are. Though the V&A’s narrative journey stops in 1939, and its coverage of modernist painting is very scant – the Hayward show, also dealing with the 20s and 30s, handily fills in some of the gaps – it does a fair job of showing that modern art and design were part of a world, not apart from the world. Although historical Modernism covers a multitude of producers, products, places, and processes of production, only a small fraction of these were ever wedded to a strong notion of autonomy or art for art’s sake – either in terms of the aims and hopes of practitioners included in these shows, such as Naum Gabo, Frank Lloyd Wright, Hans Arp, or Piet Mondrian or the accounts of wildly differing visionary modernist critics such as Clive Bell, Hilla Rebay, Carl Einstein or Clement Greenberg. Arguably, it is only since the 80s – in Britain anyway – partly through the drip drip influence of the Open University’s ‘Modern Art and Modernism: From Manet to Pollock’ course, that the so-called autonomy thesis retrospectively became the dominant ideology of Modernism understood putatively as a unitary entity. ‘Undercover Surrealism’ eschews any discussion of Bataille or of Surrealist art as modernist or anti-modernist in any theoretically coherent sense. Oddly it fails to acknowledge Bataille’s egregious exoticisations of colonial peoples, or the dominance of his journal Documents by male authors, which mirrored official Surrealism’s patriarchy, and depicts its avant-garde authors and artists as mired (more than a tad obsessively) in the material world, not attempting to transcend it.

Along with the curators of ‘Albers and Moholy-Nagy’, however, the organisers of ‘Modernism: Designing a New World’ end up falling back – disappointingly, because there is quite a lot to admire about the interpretative materials presented in these shows and their accompanying books and catalogues – on two or three theoretically disabling conventions that characterise run-of-the-mill modernist art writing. For example, they continually assert on wall panel explanations and in the pamphlet guides to the exhibits that Modernism was a ‘language’ or a ‘rigorous language’. At one level, this is nothing more than a museological form of phatic speech – an unconscious checking that a code for presumed normal communication is open: a kind of ‘ahem ...’ or clearing of the institutional-pedagogic throat. It is intended, beyond that reflex, to have a becalming effect on the audience: ‘get hold of this [as] “language”’, the proposition goes, ‘and all this confusing, disparate stuff on display here will make some sense for you’ – something like that, anyway. Beyond that – and here’s where the ideology of art and design ‘as language’ truly kicks in – the preferred account or, rather, mere assumption of language is proposed as the still-secure interpretative trope because it means that Modernism and visual abstraction (the latter is always identified as a ‘rigorous language’ in these kinds of shows) are intelligible or translatable; relate to or comprise a knowable community or culture, and are coherent and whole, and yet at the same time manage to be self-sufficient and constitutive in themselves – rather than, say, simply contingent or determined finally by other, non-modernist, forces. ‘Language’ understood to mean these comforting things is far away, then, from what the interwar Russian Marxist VN Volosinov once called the sign, ‘a site of class struggle’ and socio-cultural antagonism. But precisely the question that both these two exhibitions really fail to ask plainly (never mind answer) is: what were the social-historical forces and processes – not themselves part of Modernism – that sponsored modernist art, design, and its critical discourses?

Bearing in mind Habitat’s in-store ‘as if’ environments that are constructed so that a chair or food mixer can be seen as elements in some kind of (perhaps only cutaneously) plausible world of social uses and identities, what attempts – if any – are made by these museum curators to show their chosen Modernisms in terms of the social and historical worlds that made them possible? How comfortable, that is, are contemporary modernist historians, critics, and curators with the task of explaining processes, forces, and motivations that are not, in the main, actually or solely visible? If the V&A and Tate Modern shows have been brought to us courtesy of those kind sponsors from Habitat and BMW (Tate Modern’s tale, centrally concerned with Albers’ and Moholy-Nagy’s time at the Bauhaus, is BMW’s perfectly benign Germanic-gemeinschaft vehicle), then who or what brought us these interwar dreams of ‘Rational Utopia’, ‘Social Utopia’, and ‘National Modernisms’ corresponding with the titles for each section in the V&A show? The broad answer is that Modernism – in all of its visual cultural forms – was the product of social and historical processes of modernisation. These two exhibitions indicate that the 1910s, 20s and early 30s were periods of intense experimentation, and that artists and designers of many different kinds planned and thought optimistically and expansively about the future of human society and its perfectability. Good examples of this are Moholy-Nagy’s architectonic ‘Telephone Pictures’ from the early 20s or Le Corbusier’s 1929 blueprints for developing Rio de Janeiro. However, the actual social conditions and relations of capitalist development in western Europe and the USA, and ‘primitive accumulation’ in Russia after the 1917 revolution, generated highly variable, unstable and finally unsustainable circumstances within which Modernism’s cultural and ideological forms had to gestate and operate. Well might Tate Modern curators aver in its wall panel and accompanying exhibition pamphlet that Moholy-Nagy’s paintings Nuclear I, CH and Nuclear II, from 1945 and 1946, indicated that the artist was ‘deeply troubled by the first atomic explosion over Hiroshima’.

To its credit, however, the V&A’s section on the ‘national Modernisms’ developed in Italy, Germany, Britain, the Soviet Union, and Sweden in the 30s importantly demonstrates that any essentialist explanation – such as the utopian-humanist and formalist interpretations that fundamentally shape Tate Modern’s account of Albers and Moholy-Nagy – is ahistorical and delusional. Early 20th-century capitalist and state-socialist modernisation processes – dense but territorially highly variable composites of bureaucratic, statist, military, industrial, technological, and emergent mass-cultural elements and forces (the latter a welcome focus in the Hayward show) – produced the conditions, both for diverse historical modernisms and for the eventual demise of its ideological-utopian ‘best face’ as what Jean-François Lyotard famously called a ‘meta-narrative’ of progress in the period after the Second World War. Bataille’s interest in the modern abattoir – in the industrialisation of killing in both food production and mechanised war, and his judgement that intellectual despair ‘results in violence’ – prefigured the Holocaust and the nuclear age.

Modernism’s journey proposed and mapped in the V&A and Tate exhibitions – broadly covering the same historical period, although the career of Albers is followed through into the late 50s – is also, therefore, a story inevitably about the varying and changing conditions provided by modernisation, though these shows really say little about these and neither begin to attempt to explain Modernism as a product of modernisation. That would be, I should imagine, thought of by the curators as explaining Modernism away. For active ideologies of Modernism (including these shows as ideological representations themselves) miss and/or reject the local, the particular, the contingent, whereas empirical accounts of modernisation call attention precisely to the inherent variabilities in actual social development under capitalism. Given that Modernism’s tales in terms of movements and individual careers have been told over and over since the later 60s there is an inevitably deeply retrospective and teleological character to their telling here in these shows – we know too well that it is all going to end badly, one way or another, for this historical ‘movement’. Nearly all of its agents are now dead (Moholy-Nagy by 1946 and Albers in 1976), but modernisation is still very much with us. So is Modernism in so many curated and endlessly recommodified forms – minus the now painfully absurd utopianism. Giacomo Balla’s Futurist Suit, c1921, shown at the V&A, for example, came back to me as the prototype for the stage costumes worn by my favourite group in the late 70s, Split Enz – another case of art students-turned-musicians adapting modernist design and re-presenting it in pop cultural form.

I also mapped Modernism’s travels traced in these shows on to my own journey between South Kensington and Bankside: Tate Modern’s giant escalators reminded me of Moholy-Nagy’s 1937 posters for the London Underground celebrating their new moving, ascending, and descending walkways. The Jubilee line that took me there has its own polemical, highly self-conscious if not actually parodic Modernism too – great modernist girders, pipes and walls in tasteful minimal grey, a bit like a Léger painting. But our ongoing dismal modernisation says that this Modernism as one available style is really a kind of sick joke pastiche, and that its forms, however seductive, cannot sublimate the realities of late capitalism and military neoliberalism: modernisation understood as the ‘military-industrial-entertainment complex’, as the authors of Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War (Iain Boal, TJ Clark, Joseph Matthews and Michael Watts) have it.

Disappointingly, the V&A show has nothing on the rise of museums of modern art in the 1920s and 1930s like MoMA and the Guggenheim in New York – either as signal modernist buildings in themselves or as sites for breeding core institutional discourse on Modernism. There is a way, I suppose, in which Modernism (like Freud’s analysand) can never come to self-understanding historically or pathologically – that is a job necessarily left to others, and to those who come after. And our modernity and its processes of modernisation, for the foreseeable future anyway, seem bound to include more re-presentations of the historical Modernisms in the received interpretative and ideological forms. I caught a glimpse of how this reproduction works – in the museum and its mediations – at the Hayward press view. A BBC television crew and presenter were doing a piece on the room devoted to Documents’ special 1930 edition on Picasso, the only artist to get a whole number of the journal on his work. Picasso, the presenter said to camera (over and over again, trying to get it right) was ‘quite simply their superstar’. Yet the wall panel opposite where the presenter stood included a statement in large type declaring that although Picasso was highly rated by Bataille and his collaborators the magazine included reviews that were by no means simply hagiographic. Bataille himself – ‘base materialist’ that André Breton thought he was – is quoted in the panel saying that he challenged ‘any collector to love a painting as a shoe fetishist loves a shoe’.

Modernism: Designing a New World 1914-1939 is at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London until July 23 2006; Albers and Moholy-Nagy: From the Bauhaus to the New World is at Tate Modern, London until June 4 2006; Undercover Surrealism: Picasso, Miró, Masson and the Vision of Georges Bataille is at the Hayward Gallery, London until July 30 2006.

Jonathan Harris is professor of art history at the University of Liverpool. His Art History: The Key Concepts is forthcoming from Routledge.

First published in Art Monthly 297: June 2006.

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