Search the whole artnet database
Subscribe to our RSS feed:

RSS Feed Button

by Donald Kuspit
I suppose when the Bauhaus first appeared it looked like a breath of fresh artistic air, but in retrospect it looks like something more perverse: a purveyor of urban anonymity and more insidiously, a milestone on the way to the mechanization -- denaturalization -- of life, bringing with it the robotization of human beings, and with that their dehumanization, that is, the loss of the feeling of being human, bringing in its wake depression and barbarism. Paradoxically the pursuit of hyper-efficiency in all areas of life -- domestic as well as public (Bauhaus furniture and teapots as well as buildings) -- results in defective human beings and a defective society -- peculiarly unfit human beings and a peculiarly unfit-for-organically-alive-human-beings environment.

No doubt every society has its defects -- often conspicuous -- but the defects of a Bauhaus-designed society are more subtle. The precision-obsessed Bauhaus attempted to plan the lifeworld rather than take it on its own imprecise organic terms: the planned community -- an invented community, whose artificiality makes it somewhat less than cozily communal -- is the Bauhaus utopia. It is the ironical realization of the Bauhaus dream of a rational, well-regulated, hyper-orderly (Germanic?) society, in which everyone fits in -- a stifling conformist society in which even the self-expressive, uninhibited nonconformist has his or her built-in, foreordained place (that of a clown?).

The planned community is a failed attempt to straddle the difference between traditional community and modern society. As the sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies says, in the former people have an organic intimacy (even if they openly dislike each other), in the latter people have contractual relations (even if they pretend to like each other); in the planned community people have contractual intimacy, and neither like nor dislike each other, but "get along." The paradox of the ideal -- that is, ostensibly well-designed (every detail, no matter how trivial, is authoritarianly attended to) -- Bauhaus lifeworld is that it is lifeless.

(A planned community is a pseudo-community, a nominally social space in which everyone is an obedient, well-oiled robot, a nominal human being programmed by instrumental reason. At least in public; in private the robot may come apart -- regress to a shabby humanity -- although the Bauhaus, like the feminists whose motto is "the private is the political," wanted to collapse the difference -- erase the boundary -- between the public and the private. This is partly why today the private eagerly becomes public, and why they are readily confused, as "reality television" and so-called social networking -- much of it seems anti-social -- show. They standardize the psychosocial just as the Bauhaus standardized art, each reducing content, be it human or esthetic, to a pro forma ritual.)

Ludwig von Bertalanffy, the developer of General System Theory, argued that the modern "crisis" was caused by the conflict between an open system organic model of human behavior and a closed system robot model of human behavior -- and by implication the lifeworld -- and in the Bauhaus the robot system has won the battle, at least on the battlefield of art. But technology was well on its way to conquering the lifeworld before it conquered art, suggesting that the Bauhaus was fitting art into technology rather than using technology to make art. The Bauhaus described itself as a "unity" of "art and technology," but I would say it confirmed technologyís triumph over art rather than artís triumphant appropriation of technology. The Bauhaus endorsed and adapted to technology, not vice versa.

And a not very sophisticated -- indeed, a rather skin-deep -- technology at that: the Bauhaus copied -- mimicked -- the streamlined, simplifying look associated with technological efficiency, stripping art down to its objective, "pure" essentials -- geometry and material taking pride of place among them -- thus desubjectifying it. They wanted the modernizing look of technology, not its substance, which is more complicated than they could imagine. Their esthetic fundamentalism can hardly be called technologically ingenious, unless one is ignorant enough to misconstrue their "de-regularizing" arrangements of the modules of the grid as brilliant engineering. It adds an air of quasi-flexibility and pseudo-intricacy to the otherwise rigid grid, deceiving us into believing that freedom, change and unlimited movement are possible within its unchanging structure, emblematic of inflexible authoritarian society ("friendly fascism?"). The gridís modules are like cells in a prison, and while the prisoners are allowed to exercise -- flex their muscles and move about restlessly, as though expressing themselves spontaneously †-- in the prisonís yard, they remain confined within its claustrophobic boundaries and depressing sameness. The module is a cog in the grid machine, and the cog canít escape its "system."

This desubjectification of art -- correlate with its over-objectification -- is exactly where the Bauhaus and the Nazis make common cause. Both regarded Expressionism and Surrealism as "degenerate." Both sought to exterminate "low," "fuzzy," "surreal" subjective expression and replace it with "high-minded," "crisp," "real" objective art (pure, self-sufficient form not obscured by evocative decorative ornament for the Bauhaus) -- self-righteously "perfect" art bespeaking an industrial idealism. Both wanted to create ideal societies. Both were ruthlessly utopian and inbred -- the Bauhaus wanted an inbred art, the Nazis wanted an inbred society -- forms and Aryans incestuously breeding in eugenic pursuit of an imagined pure, perfectly formed breed of art and human being. Both expected technology to do the eugenic work, as though technology would guarantee the ideal and absolutely pure and was ideal and pure in itself. The Bauhaus ideal of pure, well-managed art and the Nazi ideal of pure, well-managed Aryan society were curiously correlate however ostensibly at odds. After all, the Nazis were great advocates of industrialism, and also had a totalitarian ideology. Just as the Bauhaus wanted a one-dimensional art -- totalized and stereotyped art as exclusively geometrical, with whatever pseudo-expressive variations bringing the geometry to quasi-life, like a robot going through the motions of dancing -- so the Nazis wanted a one-dimensional society, that is, a society in which there was only one kind of "authentic" human being.

In short, the Bauhaus pursuit of purity in art is peculiarly similar to the Nazi pursuit of purity in society. Both pursued technological purity for its own sake, imposing it on rather than integrating it into everyday life. For the Bauhaus, Expressionist and Surrealist art were the "impure" art of Untermenschen (social misfits, at the least, that is, those who "by nature" cannot fit into society, who are flaws in its imagined perfection). In contrast pure Bauhaus art was the art of robotic ‹bermenschen, that is, machine-perfected human beings (look at the half-abstract, half-human figures in Oskar Schlemmerís Triadic Ballet (ca. 1921-23) -- performing zombies? -- and his completely Abstract Figure (1923). Just as the Nazis believed they were a master race -- superior to other human beings and thus entitled to dominate and rule them -- so the Bauhaus artists thought they were a master race of artists, and as such superior to other artists, which gave them the right to rule art. Of course both wanted to rule in the service of society -- that is, to engineer it into mechanical perfection and exterminate the misfits and Untermenschen Expressionists and Surrealists, or at least keep them out of the mechanical paradise.

Clement Greenbergís Torquemada-like persecution and purge of the "literary," "representational" and "theatrical" in visual art -- his relentless effort to cleanse its temple of dross and re-consecrate it, to extract visual artís indispensable abstract essence from its disposable existential shell -- was preceded by and strangely parallels the Bauhaus attempt to purge them from art and the Nazi attempt to purge the Untermenschen from society. Representational art is impure Untermenschen art compared to pure abstract art; art is not supposed to tell stories but purely be; a painting is not a little theater but a pure presence. (God forbid it should be a picture of anything; the True Art God will strike it down, cast it into the graveyard of oblivion where all false idols are buried.)

The comparison may seem absurd and farfetched (not to say forced) but the fact is that Greenberg was a Jew -- an Untermensch from the Nazi point of view -- and wrote an essay on Jewish self-hatred. It is also worth noting that Torquemada was a converted Jew. Thus the phenomenon of what Anna Freud called identification with the aggressor. However unwittingly, Greenberg became a kind of art fascist, perversely fusing the Jewish rejection of graven images and idol worship (idols being "degenerate" or false gods) and the Nazi rejection of the Expressionistic and Surrealistic "representation" of subjectivity. (Greenberg dismissed both as false visual art -- literary "Novelty Art" -- art stunts, as it were.)

Bauhaus technology-idealizing art successfully made war against the handmade art of the past just as the Nazisí technological superiority gave them the advantage over the Allied forces with their technologically obsolete weapons, at least until they also realized that the war would be won by technologically sophisticated weapons, not human beings and their belief systems, however appealing the latter might be. The Nazi military was an efficient killing machine, and so was the Bauhaus -- it ruthlessly killed off its artistic enemies -- because it was technically superior to other art, however simple and routine its technology seems today. Just as the Bauhaus thought the history of art climaxed in and ended with their utopian mechanical art and abstract design credo, so the Nazis thought history would be over when they conquered Europe -- the world -- and imposed their utopia and purist ideology on it.†††† †

Letís be even more farfetched: I suggest that Bauhaus works of art have a drone-like quality, that is, they are oddly like the unmanned drones beginning to be widely used in contemporary warfare. They anticipate and prophesize the future, as art has been said to do, making them "futuristic" -- indeed, in Marinettiís sense, for they are the ultimate instruments of the war of the new against the old that he celebrated (along with war in general as a cleansing purge, which is what, it so happens, Marcel Duchamp thought Dadaism was; is there a Dadaist nihilistic undertone -- a purge of "ethnic" or "native" art -- in Bauhaus art?). Bauhaus drones are made in art factories -- havenít art schools become art factories these days, and also places where art is mass-produced, however "customized" to suit "individual" tastes -- and seem self-propelling. It is as though no artist made them, even if an artist "controls" them from an "abstract" distance.

Theyíre precise enough to hit a target audience and do physical and emotional damage in the lifeworld -- reduce it to its "bare" essentials, which turns it into an inhuman wasteland (look at the Bauhaus malls, industrial parks, rows of skyscrapers along Sixth Avenue, all barbarically anonymous). Deadpan Minimalism is its degraded ancestor -- even as boxy International Style skyscrapers, with their grid construction, signal the triumphant conventionalization of Bauhaus, and with that its trivialization into a formula -- and the sterile grid its tedious emblem. Rudolf Arnheim regarded the homogeneity of the grid -- a vacuous geometry constructed of uniform modules marching with dumb efficiency to purposeless infinity, droning away with military precision in a vacuum of meaning -- as the modern emblem of entropy. However superficially heterogenized, the Bauhaus grid remains entropically inert and boring. Bauhaus art is entropic, like war, and like war a calculated dead-end, but its destructive power -- the violence it does art -- is hidden by efficiency, while real war is openly violent and messy. The Bauhaus is the end of art as a humanizing activity, and the beginning of technology as entertainment. Max Ernstís monstrous Celebes (1921), a Surrealist war machine, speaks more directly to modern barbarism.

DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.


artnet—The Art World Online. ©2014 Artnet Worldwide Corporation. All rights reserved. artnet® is a registered trademark of Artnet Worldwide Corporation, New York, NY, USA.