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Product Placement

Christopher Townsend on the link between Modernism and postmodernity in design

Even the most futile of objects can turn out to be surprisingly utilitarian, even the most utopian in conception may be wholly pragmatic in practice. One aspect of Modernism, as Frederic Jameson points out in The Modernist Papers, is its quest for the ultimate mirage of the identity of form and content, the ideal moment in which the latter merges with the former. Being a mirage, that union relentlessly retreated from the grasp of artists, while forever remaining at the periphery of their vision. Indeed, one persistent strain of Modernism might be taken as the zenith of art’s capacity for periphrasis, complaining in the longest way possible – Remembrance of Things Past, Berlin Alexanderplatz, Ulysses, The Cantos, Zorn’s Lemma, the oeuvre of Mark Rothko – that you can’t ever get what you want.

It is precisely in that failure to attain its goal, however, that the use value of art may be realised, perhaps in ways that its progenitors never intended. What I am thinking of here is not the way that, for example, a readymade can always be put back to work in the real world – one could plumb in Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, put his In Advance of the Broken Arm to work clearing snow. Rather, I am concerned with those projects explicitly conceived to unify form and content, let’s say Modernism at work in the domain of design, accidentally or inadvertently achieving utilitarian ends without the mirage ever becoming a real, historical moment.

If this accident, which I see ultimately as the product of a mismatch between modernist art’s historical critique, or lack thereof, and the reality of any given moment, characterises the art of the past – our classical ruins, as TJ Clark characterises Modernism – then how does it relate to such projects in the present? We are, in ‘postmodernity’, almost overrun by the design projects of contemporary artists. Their productions swing from fashion – handbags by Tracey Emin (Longchamp) or Morimura (Louis Vuitton) – through furniture (the estate of Donald Judd) to cutlery and fabric. We have witnessed the costumes of performance art turned into fashion, almost off the back of the artist, in the 1990s work of Elisa Jimenez, and the production of fashion as gallery or street performance, staged by artists whose very positioning blurs the cultural boundary between the two modalities – in the 1990s work of Karen Kimmel or more recently of Lucy Orta. Jimenez’s project oddly, and according to the artist inadvertently, witnesses symbolic content becoming pure form. As postmodern art practice, and in Jimenez’s subsequent transformation into fashion designer, it also mirrors Modernism. In particular it shadows the trajectory of Sonia Delaunay, whose ‘simultaneous dress’ of 1914 is, in one sense, painting come to life. The same abstraction of space, colour and time that characterises Delaunay’s canvases of the Bul Bullier bar in Montparnasse is transferred to cotton, silk and wool in a union of form and content upon the body which is ultimately, and pragmatically, reified first within the fashion store Casa Sonia and in the 1920s by the atelier Maison Delaunay. We have, then, in both Modernism and contemporary art’s engagement with design, the same confusion of intents, between the utopian and the cynical, between critical and detached aesthetics, which we might call strands of the dialectic; we have similarly inadvertent outcomes, though none yet are perhaps as useful as those stumbled upon within Modernism. Is there, then, any difference between modernist and postmodern art when it comes to the union of aesthetics and utility? Do both simply end up selling their ideas to entertain bemused bankers with no taste of their own?

Clearly we are haunted by Modernism’s failure in a way that Modernism itself could not be. All except the most transcendently under-educated of contemporary practitioners know that the mirage was and, if it still persists, remains a mirage. We mostly know that Modernism did not work out, and mostly the modernists thought it would; they hoped for something better, even though one glance at the dystopia of Manet’s oeuvre should have told them that hopes invested in history are rarely profitable. What we largely misunderstand, in this retrospective superiority, is that Modernism’s failure, willed – as it may have been in the very different oeuvres of Maurice Blanchot, Samuel Beckett and Gordon Matta-Clark, for example – or accidental, leaves a bequest to history that, properly absorbed, poisons the very structures that would readily assimilate its works as static, canonical culture. What’s at stake here is something different, and something more than the assumption of much post-structuralist philosophy that it is only failure that makes human experience possible. Rather, with modernist culture there is a fundamental incapacity, a set of integral flaws, which is overlooked in the process of reification and which – as Jameson also observes – problematises the work of their subsequent analysis. Postmodern art, by contrast, is produced under the implicit assumption that art is always already reified. Art comes flat-packed, machine-cut and drilled, awaiting assembly. That assumption of reification is not always explicitly worked through in the ideas of contemporary artists, nor is it necessarily true. However, I would argue that it is a general, if not absolute, condition of art since the Pictures Generation, which effectively marked the point at which the history of art became irrelevant to the making of contemporary art and the history of advertising took over in another attempt at the unification of form and content – one undertaken, as Hal Foster has pointed out in Design and Crime, from the side of capital, and with a striking degree of success.

That contemporary unity, which is largely achieved under the practice of ‘design’ even when we name it ‘art’, brings us face to face with the relation between Modernism’s various attempts to compel unity, for example in the design projects of the Wiener Werkstätte, the Maison Cubiste, the Omega Workshops, Maison Delaunay and, obviously, the Bauhaus. One might feel a little embarrassed at dealing with this unification project within the frivolous margins of fashion, furniture and curtain fabric, rather than in the grand schemes where Jameson and others have dealt with them so well. It is nonetheless within the register of art and design where Modernism’s grasping at the mirage is most obvious, where the unexpected pragmatic outcome occurs and, within contemporary culture, where the gap between modernist and postmodernist is least obvious and yet profoundly significant. If the modernist project contains overlooked elements that corrode its canonisation, that allow its de-reification, then we should be able to remove the apparatus that establishes its design projects as historical and, especially, as nostalgia. An unexpected use value emerges with this nakedness, a historical utility, that differentiates this attempt at the unity of form and design from that undertaken by late capitalism within the register of artists’ design. For extreme example, I want to undress Bloomsbury, remove the chintz from that most loathed modernist network of practice and friendship – among contemporary artists and editors at least – and most loved among the tea-sipping ladies of middle-class England. As it happens, I am rather fond of ‘the Charleston experience’, the cream teas, the actual or near-incest, the genteel, slightly bonkers, mildly neurasthenic ambience of bohemianism with servants with which Bloomsbury is now endowed – but strip it we must.

For all its fah-la-la, fretwork aestheticism, Roger Fry conceived the Omega Workshops with a practical ambition, to become for artists – his favoured artists, admittedly, working in a house style according to Fry’s theoretical rules – the source of an honest income. This was an original move in 1913. It presumed that artists might not have a sufficient living from other sources, either from the art market or from an independent income: the dividends on inherited investment in the labour of others that allowed the middleclass its poetic licence (so ruthlessly, and gently, exposed in EM Forster’s Bloomsbury novel Howard’s End, with its aspirant poet and forever ‘unlucky’ clerk Leonard Bast, a man with neither roots nor resources). Certainly the few patrons of contemporary art in England provided meagre pickings for modernists in the 1910s, whereas for some lucky painters in Paris, European collectors lent decent enough support. Fry’s project, then, offered the potential to expand not only the field of artistic endeavour but the field of endeavouring artists. This ideal might not have been so extreme as to really permit the Leonard Basts of the world the opportunity to shape culture rather than to spend a timorous lifetime behind the desks of unsound banks, but in its aspiration it comes rather closer to connection with the world than most of Bloomsbury’s ideas. Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, not your typical Bloomsbury dilettante, and an artist who conspicuously failed to satisfy the market, even after his death in the First World War, worked for the Omega for more than a year until he joined the French army in September 1914.

If there is a degree of utopianism about social mobility and the source of an artist’s living in some of the ideas behind the Omega, it contrasts markedly with contemporary art’s engagement with design and compares favourably with the current level of social mobility in British society, including its art. For the contemporary artist, ‘design’ is one more niche to be exploited through the marketing mix of appropriate products. This might be as simple a move as selling a not-necessarily-so-cheap limited edition of mainstream work through an exclusive fashion publication, as Tom Friedman and the brothers Chapman have recently done with AnOther Magazine. It might be a displacement that explores core issues of the oeuvre, such as Irish video artist John Gerrard’s silver cutlery, with its handles moulded from goat bones. Both Gerrard’s screen works and cutlery have indexicality as a central theme and develop his dialectical exchange between mortality (bone) and the redemptive properties of art, or, more worryingly, ‘beauty’ (silver); as the Financial Times put it back in May, just before Gerrard’s Collateral exhibition at the Venice Biennale, ‘the cutlery is signature Gerrard, but at $500 per five-piece set is more affordable than his usual output’. Indeed, even if you are laying the table for six it still comes in below the cost of the artist’s videos, though the multiplication of the objects into such absolute utility might rather detract from their status as artwork in the domain of design. Grayson Perry’s Walthamstow Tapestry, recently exhibited at Victoria Miro, explores ‘the emotional resonance of brand names in our lives and our quasi-religious relationship to consumerism’ with the names of ‘luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton and Tiffany’ coming under the artist’s ‘excoriating gaze’ (I quote the press release). Doubtless to aid a religious revival, Perry shut his eyes, and matched his elaborate and excoriating tapestry on the gallery wall with a limited-edition range of fabrics for the department store Liberty – a longtime purveyor of trembling curtains to the middle classes – launching it in the week of the Frieze Art Fair.

You may find these projects tasteless or tasteful, pointed or pointless as you wish – though Perry, holding a hand-written card saying ‘Help I am the prisoner of LIBERTY’ while performing his middle-aged dowd, was distasteful in ways that the shop’s PR people probably did not have the necessary creativity to imagine. (Clue: it concerns a well-known civil rights organisation with a similar appellation to your client.) However, what is true for all those projects cited, and probably for most such collaborations, is that the income from them is not necessary to support the artist. The intersection of art and design, the yoking of form and content, proceeds firstly from prior success in the art market, and secondly from the already successful unification of art and life within objects made for that market. Under these circumstances there is no imperative for the experimental extension of art into the register of design, either as utopian reconciliation of art and life, as also intended by Fry, or pragmatic topping up of the artist’s bank account. Rather, ‘design’ is simply another aspect of the market, just as ‘fashion’ has become; success in such fields is a supplement to the main thrust of the marketing enterprise.

There is, however, a striking contingency between one aspect of the way in which modernist and postmodernist art makes use of design. It allows the exploration of ideas, perhaps only loosely or half-held, not simply in the move from one aesthetic register to another – after all, as I have argued, these are in any case coeval within postmodernity – but rather in the use they make of the changed relation between the subject and the world that is characteristic of those registers. If art seemingly demands a detached spectator, design requires a body. Duncan Grant’s work with the Omega is undertaken at the same time as he is experimenting with modes of relation between embodied, participative subjects and the artwork within abstract art. In early 1914 he makes his Abstract Kinetic Colour Painting with Music, a long canvas scroll with repeated and progressively varying motifs intended to be wound past a viewing aperture in a case to the accompaniment of gramophone records. Although The Scroll, as it has become known, was made into a film by the Tate in the early 1970s, it is anything but cinematic; rather it is kinetic in that it reinforces a sense of embodied subjectivity that is the complete antithesis of cinematic spectatorship. Grant is concerned with the haptic experience of the world through the work of art, a governing principle of installation art. Even as he worked on The Scroll, Grant deployed some of its abstract motifs, with similar repetitions, in carpet designs for the Omega. Where, in The Scroll, the embodied sense derives from the act of physically moving motifs into and out of vision, here, in the finished object, it comes from the body moving across the motif.

What contemporary art, working in this register, may not allow is for the accident of history that produces ethics as art or action. Perry is an extreme example. In generalising here I am conscious of being unfair to some contemporary artists, perhaps those with less money and more wit. During the First World War the continuation of the Omega project under straitened circumstances led to precisely such unexpected outcomes. Fry was a committed pacifist, one of the few in European culture to protest seriously and actively against the global conflict from its outbreak. Vanessa Bell became secretary of the National Council for Civil Liberties, formed in 1916 to protect the rights of individuals against an ever more invasive state. The Omega gave work as business managers to at least two conscientious objectors, ordinary men – ‘Leonard Basts’ – keeping them out of prison, or worse, the army. As Grace Brockington observed in the catalogue for a recent Omega exhibition at the Courtauld Institute, the 1914-18 war transformed the workshop’s ‘civilising mission’ from establishing a sense of aesthetic harmony in the homes of the genteel and well heeled into the defence of culture and pacific values against rampant militarism and state power. The Omega became part of a wider subculture that survived against all odds in a state that by 1916 was increasingly organised around the concept of total war.

Perry’s performance suggests that the historical responsibility of some contemporary artists is limited to enriching themselves within the so-called creative economies of that state without thought for the insult carried in their actions. His plaintive sign might better read: ‘Help, I am the willing servant of the art market.’ For all the subsequent frippery with which we have encumbered Bloomsbury, the badly made pots and pochoir stencils of the Omega seem sincere by comparison.

Christopher Townsend is professor in the department of media arts, Royal Holloway, University of London.

First published in Art Monthly 332: Dec-Jan 09-10.

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