OUR COLUMNIST (AND MODERNIST) BAMBALL DISCARDS POSTMODERNISM AND ASKS THE RIGHT QUESTION:
‘Here’s my dilemma, as I think about the 20th century past and the path forward. I’m an architect, so I feel more comfortable grounding myself within the frame of architectural history. The “Heroic Period” of modern architecture, was the first generation of modernist thinking from the late 1890s to the beginning of WWII, where new technologies, zeitgeist inspiration and new spatial thinking from the world of the new Art transformed the world of architecture. A new young generation of architects and designers sought to formulate new methods and thinking AS AS REACTION TO the Beaux Arts academic eclectic formalism of their forebearers, both in outward aesthetic expression (formally) and in the new emerging building technologies (conceptually). A new architecture for a new age, they said, as they sought to optimistically solve the world’s problems with new solutions. They were a new generation, rebelling against their teachers, formulating new ideas, new aesthetics and new means of expression.
In 1919, Mies Van der Rohe sketched light and airy glass box office towers envisioned for Friedrichstasse, Berlin, set against the darkly massed context of the historic Berlin urban fabric. But almost 100 years laters, every thing in the city is now glass box office towers. In order to achieve the same dialectical contrast, what do contemporary architects (and thus, artists) now need to sketch against the never ending (and derivatively boring) Miesian skyline, while still maintaining a strong sense of “modern” aesthetic sensibilities which they continue to profess? Even the horrifying forays into post-modernist architecture starting in the 70s weren’t good reactions, they were merely inauthentic attempts at creating a new post-modern “look” pasted on to a tired modernist armature. Post-modernism was not the same forceful reaction as Modernism was against Beaux Arts Formalism. Even the post-Gehry geometries and neo-expressionistic building forms we see currently are rehashed leaning towers of modernism, skin deep. How do we stand here at the beginning of 2014, and be truly authentic to our work, our time and our place, now that we live in a world full of derivative meaningless modernism that gives homage to the Heroic Period works, while at the same time every new building called “modern” inherently debases the memory of those early masterpieces? How can we create “distinction”, when absolutely everything is “distinct”?
“Fountain”, in 1917, was an authentic device to make an authentic point about the inauthenticity of a world full of academic Beaux Arts hubris and blandness, and now, almost 100 years later, we are tripping left and right over neo-replicas of Fountain, the only difference now is the new Fountains come with long treatises and explanations. So now, in place of Beaux Arts academism, we now stand against a new academic tradition–still called Modernism, but no longer having any authenticity of its own, as decorative, academic and bloated as the Beaux Arts that preceded it. We only now act like our new art is reacting to the past, talking up the conceptual basis of reaction, while pocketing the cash. To bring this back to the world of architecture, what good is a New Architecture, if everything in the neighborhood around the New Architecture ends up being exactly like the New Architecture? If the whole neighborhood is as avant-garde as my avant-garde house, then my house loses the value of being called “avant-garde”, cause it’s just like everything else. So what do I do to maintain my house’s sense of differentness, my edge in the real estate market? I “market” my house, using real estate marketing slogans and sales pitches, to try to create an aura that my architecture is better than yours, and thus, worth more. I talk up the “concept” of the building process, better lumber, better paint, better plumbers and electricians, to somehow make my house seem better to potential buyers, even though despite concepts and processes, the outside of all the houses all look the same–all at the same level of avant-gardedness. Suddenly, it’s a cacophony of real estate agents all trying to one-up each other, each one trying to sell their house by making it more than it is. The art gallery world in a nutshell.
Mid century, I think the works called Conceptualist were truly conceptualist, and often great, reacting to a formalism that lost its way through the preceding couple of decades. What once was avant garde new ideas became pastiche fashion. But what exactly is “conceptualist” now? I’ve seen some great contemporary conceptual works, but those usually stand out without having to read the long multi-syllabic wall plaques. The marketing banter is not needed because they are inherently authentic, in a silent sort of way. No verbal explanation needed. Instead of reacting and creating new visions for art, everything now seems to have the prefix “Neo-” attached to it, trying to carry forward past authentic aesthetic visions, but replacing the truth and authenticities inherent in the original ideas with fashionable labels and cash value.
So, the question for me becomes how do we, in 2014, read the visionary manifestos of the Heroic modernists and answer, authentically, 100 years later, their calls to action, to “break with” and “react to” our past, just like they had to break with their past, and look forward to creating a new aesthetic world?–
Erich Mendelsohn, 1919:
“Naturally, this [new] era will not be brought into being by social classes in the grip of tradition…Only a new will has the future in its favour in the unconsciousness of its chaotic impetus, in the pristine vigour with which it embraces the universal.”
A great epoch has begun. There exists a new spirit. Industry, overwhelming us like a flood which rolls on towards its destined ends, has furnished us with new tools adapted to this new epoch, animated by the new spirit…In every field of industry, new problems have presented themselves and new tools have been created capable of resolving them. If this new fact be set against the past, then you have revolution.”
“Life must be purified of the clutter of the past, of parasitical eclecticism, so that it can be brought to its normal evolution. Victory of today over fond habits presupposes dismissal of yesterday, the clearing of consciousness from rubbish…Everything that still belongs to yesterday is eclectic: the cart, the primitive plough, the horse, cottage industries, landscape painting, staues of liberty, triumphal arches, factory meals and –above all–buildings in the classical style.”
So if nowadays, the new version of Malevich’s “classical style” is tired old eclectic Modernism, manifested both formally and conceptually, than what comes next?
Maybe we need some sort of “cleansing” nihilistic aesthetic anarchic movement for the beginning of the 21st century, like Dada was for the 20th century’.