A “house for building” is what Walter Gropius called the new school he founded in Germany in 1919. But the Bauhaus was much more than its modest name implies: it was a force that changed the shape of the modern world. During the fourteen years of its existence, first in Weimar, then in Dessau, it created the patterns and set the standards of present day industrial design; it altered the look of everything from the chair you are sitting in to the screen you are reading now.
It was a motley crowd, unkempt and unruly that flocked in the spring of 1919 to the town of Weimar.All of them were poor; the hunger and the half hearted revolution of Germany’s last, bitter WWI winter still lingered on. And all of them were attracted by a new school, a new training laboratory of art, architecture and design, to be established at Weimar. Gropius’s intention was ” to break down the arrogant barrier between craftsman and artist,” and to achieve a new unity of art and technology, and “to conceive and create the new building of the future.” It came at a time when most old values and tastes, and hierarchic pretensions were in disarray, and when a voice calling for a fresh marriage of art and daily life sounded like the voice of the prophet. There is no underestimating how Bauhaus altered our concepts of design. It did break down the division and developed the new profession of industrial designer; it did achieve a synthesis of art and technology, creating a new kind of everyday beauty.
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.Read More:http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/features/kuspit/bauhaus-war-machine12-2-09.asp
…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?). ( ibid.)
Gropius’s reputation is that of launching the twentieth-century architectural revolution based on his factory design for the Fagus works in 1911, the first major building in history to be completely sheathed by a smooth skin of glass made possible by an interior steel framework which relieved the walls of the need to carry and support the structure, thus permitting them to be of hitherto unknown lightness and transparency. Yet, building alone did not satisfy him. He felt the architect must lead his fellow artists in a collaborative effort to shape everything that goes into man-made physical environment, from coffins, to trains to houses to ultimately the human being, technology permitting.
Although people were already talking about taking revenge and sowing the seeds of reaction and counter-revolution, there was a certain glow of high hope as wedged between the Kaiser’s fall and Hitler was a remarkable burst of German creativity: Thomas Mann, Werfel, Schoenberg, Kokoschka,Kurt Weill,Ernst Lubitsch, etc. all inspired by constructive ideas not yet subjected to the blight of frustration and convention. Among the first art instructors whom Gropius brought in were Lyonel Feininger, Paul Klee in 1921 and then Kandinsky the following year.
…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.) Read More:http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/features/kuspit/bauhaus-war-machine12-2-09.asp a
Shivering in overcoats in the winter, the Bauhaus students had to design everything they produced. Feininger taught in the printing shop. Kandinsky took over stained glass from Klee, who moved onto the weaving workshop and later switched to metalwork, where he apparently “turned out spiritual samovars and intellectual door knobs.” Kandinsky’s first abstract painting, done in 1911, caused a sensation among the painters of Europe and was instrumental in changing the whole direction of twentieth-century art. But even today, when artists like Klee and Kandinsky are more widely accepted than then, even celebrities, it may have seemed like lunacy to hire them as government employees in a provincial town.
But, from the beginning, there was violent opposition, some coherent some less intellectually based. Part of this was abetted by the conservative academy professors who Gropius replaced as soon as possible. There were posters and public demonstrations to “save our famous old art school” from these wild, untamed Bauhaus bohemians and their capers.Radically new ideas in art and art education, however, were no laughing matter for Germany’s reactionaries. Gropius was continually forced to defend his school against innuendoes of moral turpitude and political subversion. But how does one squelch the charge of “cultural bolshevism”?
…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 technology’s triumph over art rather than art’s 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 grid’s 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 prison’s yard, they remain confined within its claustrophobic boundaries and depressing sameness. The module is a cog in the grid machine, and the cog can’t escape its “system.”…
At an early date Gropius had banned political activity within the school, and though there were some students who marched in political parades, most of them held with Kandinsky who, much attacked in the right wing press for compunding the offense of being Russian with the sin of painting abstractions, protested that he had not even read the newspapers. But a few Bauhaus people did wear a uniform at the time, a strange costume of their own design. This improvement over conventional menswear consisted of a kind of corduroy cossack blouse and funnel-shaped trousers, wide at the hips and tight at the ankles, and came in a wide assortment of colors. The rotund teacher Itten and the tall painter Georg Muche, a Laurel and Hardy type combo, once ventured to Berlin in this costume to call on a government agency. Itten was dressed all in purple like a higher cleric, while his friend was clad in silvery gray and resembled a giant carp. They never reached their destination. Their appearance caused such a ruckus on the Berlin streets that they were forced to take flight in a taxi.
…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.Read More:http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/features/kuspit/bauhaus-war-machine12-2-09.asp
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 Übermenschen, that is, machine-perfected human beings (look at the half-abstract, half-human figures in Oskar Schlemmer’s 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 Greenberg’s 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 art’s 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.)Read More:http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/features/kuspit/bauhaus-war-machine12-2-09.asp