Winter 2001–2002

The Persistence of Goodness

Morality and form

Sven-Olov Wallenstein

Traditional aesthetics has always proposed that there is a necessary link between form and morality: The perfect form, the work of art that is able to hold all of its moments together, is somehow also a precursor of a better moral order; it gives us a non-conceptual pre­figuring of a togetherness, a social and emotional cohesion to come, for which the artwork, in our present time (always defined as lacking, wanting, etc), acts as stand-in. This theme extends all the way back to Antiquity, and at the outset of modernity it can be followed from Kant through Romanticism, leading straight into a strong and pervasive tendency in modernist art. Beautiful form, as Kant claims in Critique of Judgement (§ 59), is a “symbol of morality”; it predisposes us for an openness towards moral and supersensuous ideas, and this is the function of art within the economy and architectonic of Reason.[1]

A strong case for this is put forth just after the turn of the nineteenth century in the doctrine of “significant form,” formulated by the English critics Clive Bell (who coined the expression), and Roger Fry, most eloquently in his “An Essay in Aesthetics” (1909). For Fry, the predominant issue is to get away from the literary element in painting, and to determine the status of a clear visual truth, a pure optical domain, that the painting has to present. This truth to optics notwithstanding, the image is something fundamentally different than everyday perception—art is not a representation of nature, but an equivalent to it, and only in this sense can it be said to have a profound autonomy (a theory that only here, more than a hundred years after Kant’s initial formulations, achieves perfection). We have to contemplate the picture as a “unity,” Fry says, “since if it lacks unity we cannot contemplate it in its entirety, but we shall pass outside it to other things necessary to complete its unity.”[2]

What is central for Fry and Bell is the possibility of developing a new critical vocabulary, where concepts such as rhythm, mass, volume, color, light, shade, etc., have to be rethought as autonomous descriptive concepts, no longer tied to modes of representation. Paradoxically enough, it is the anti-linguistic quality of the image, its resistance to verbal gloss and verbal transcription, that induces a new type of linguistic creativity in the critic: Since we cannot talk directly about the image, we need to invent verbal analogies that are sometimes capable of being precisely defined, but just as often become vague poetic formulas and synaesthesias.

For Fry and Bell, these significant forms are necessarily universal—they occasion a feeling of harmony independent of any preceding cultural coding—and in this we may recognize a strictly Kantian theme. This universal harmony, which is rooted in the formal structures of perception (although not everyday perception, as noted, but an aesthetically enhanced counterpart), will then found the subtle authority henceforth ascribed to abstract art by most formalist critics. Even though there undoubtedly is just as much significant form in representational and figurative art as in abstract compositions, and none of them can be put over and above the other on purely formal grounds, nevertheless the abstract image expresses the significant form in a free state, as it were, and now, when its possibility (and existence) has been demonstrated, we may look back on the history of figurative painting and understand what was the real basis for the aesthetic appreciation we have bestowed upon it. Modernist abstraction gives us a retroactive key to art history, and even though it was not the norm that guided history, it will have become this norm once we enter the terrain of modernist art proper.

From our point of view, it is interesting to note the moral and political agenda which underlies formalism at this early stage: The aesthetic enjoyment produced by significant form is, precisely because of its freedom and universality, also the bearer of an idea of humanity. If everyone could see properly, without prejudices, form would give us a sense of community, a shared experience that would be able to bridge all barriers of class, language, ethnicity, culture, etc. Naive as this may be, it is noteworthy that formalism for Fry and Bell by no means implies a mere withdrawal into the ivory tower of pure art. Their utopian—or “Fabian”—socialism has a strong aesthetic basis, which is why they put such emphasis on education, pedagogy, and on how to teach the common man to really see. In its strange mixture of elitism and universality, the purity of the act of vision, giving us access to “design” (Vision and Design, of course, being the title of Fry’s main work), in this sense also provides a strong moral lesson, at least for its early advocates.

It is thus not surprising that this motif was translated into a whole series of movements, both political and aesthetic, in the first decades of the twentieth century. Getting to know form, design, and art, was understood as a task that could bring about a healing of the rifts in society. Early modern architecture and design were in fact permeated by this motif, and should not be seen as “merely” formalist exercises—such an interpretation in fact became predominant only after World War II, when the European avant-garde was translated into an American context, and its political (read: Socialist) dimensions had to be downplayed. The first instance of this re-reading is of course the famous “International Style” exhibition at MoMA in 1932, which thoroughly eradicated most traces of the political and social consciousness of early modernism.

In the Scandinavian context, the link between morality and form became particularly strong. Drawing on a whole cultural atmosphere—which included theories of significant form, remnants of the Arts and Crafts tradition with its insistence on a humanist tradition opposed to the embryonic commodification of mass culture, as well as the first outlines of a theory of social engineering that would later constitute the driving force behind Swedish modernization—form and design were perceived as the perfect tool for the production of a healthy, well-behaved, and politically sound working class. From interior decorating, furniture, and home utensils to art and architecture, modernity was understood as the bearer of a new message: If we only could find the new style, the new spirit in form, social divisions would be overcome.

Now, this is, of course, nothing specific to the Scandinavian context. The same rhetoric can be found in Le Corbusier’s writings from the 1920s: the new Architect, who integrates the older roles of the (traditionally artistic) architect and the (merely technological) engineer, is able to restructure life on the basis of a knowledge of that unique form which is truth, beauty, and architecture as such. The title of Corbusier’s first programmatic treatise, Vers une architecture (1923), was in fact mistranslated into English as Towards a New Architecture (1927). The point was not that it’s new, but that it is an architecture, adequate to its age, and thus the only one worthy of bearing that name. For Corbusier, this in fact connects the grain silo, the airplane, and the flying machine to ancient Greek concepts of beauty: Greek beauty was the harmonious unity of form and function, and in our present age this synthesis may come about once more. (In fact it has, albeit only in the sphere of industrial products, of which his carefully constructed book gives us ample evidence. Architecture, however, has lagged behind because of its excessive dependence on an eighteenth-century historicist tradition that values the past for its own sake.) The question that permeated the nineteenth century, from Schinkel onwards—“In what style should we build?”—and whose impetus was provided by new construction technologies and materials, here found a clear answer: in the New Spirit, in l’ésprit nouveau.[3]

At roughly the same time, Russian Constructivism formulated a similar project. Abandoning the traditional forms of pure aesthetic art (painting, sculpture, the “laboratory phase” in their terminology), the Constructivists opted for a new program merging life and art on the basis of a moral and ascetic vision of the new Soviet man. When things and everyday objects become our “friends,” the theoretician Boris Arvatov claimed, they will act as prototypes for new social relations based on transparency and rationality, and even desire and fantasy will take on a new form no longer ruled by commodity fetishism and ideology. Rodchenko’s environments, stage designs, and design strategies developed at the VcHUTEMAS school in Moscow constitute paradigmatic cases of this project: Regardless of whether they actually became industrial prototypes or not, they functioned as “rhetorical” models for a new way of life, as a kind of propaganda tool.[4]

It is precisely this equation, linking material forms to a specific ethico-political agenda, that has become so difficult for us to uphold today. In fact, within “high” and “autonomous” art, it was always challenged by a counter-move, at least from the time of Rosenkrantz—whose Ästhetik des Hässlichen (Aesthetics of the Ugly) provided a strong counter-statement to Hegelian Idealism within that tradition’s own language—and of course Baudelaire, whose “flowers of evil” set modern poetry on a path which has relegated beauty and the triadic formula truth=goodness=beauty to the dustbins of Academicism.

But within the sphere of the more or less “applied” arts, design, and especially architecture, this formula still holds sway, if not among its more avant-garde practitioners, then at least among those who hold a more prominent and public position. The recent Swedish government proposal for architecture and design, issued in conjunction with the official “Year of Architecture,” still draws unhesitatingly on this tradition, and begins by quoting Plato on the essential link between beauty and function. The aim of the proposal, it claims, is to provide “good” (god) and “excellent” (utmärkt) design to the people, and the pedagogical emphasis is obvious. It is difficult to convey in English the unbelievable smugness of expressions such as god (with its strong moral connotations) and utmärkt (which sounds like a grade for good behavior given in school), but the overall sense should be clear: Art can be free to do whatever it wants, and in fact it ought to, whereas design and architecture need to be inscribed in a national-political proposal, where the Good and the Excellent are set up as standards, although, of course, without specifying any of the criteria for what is really Good and Excellent.

It would be hard to argue for something like Evil Architecture or Evil Design, although it is surely very tempting (and indeed much of what has been produced in Sweden may turn out to be really evil, although this is another story). What needs to be broken, however, is a certain mutual complicity with and tacit understanding of norms and values, which have given rise to so many “smug evasions,” as Manfredo Tafuri and Francesco Dal Co characterize the Scandinavian type of “empiricist” architecture that emphasizes blending in, compromising, and immersion in a kind of reflective equilibrium-aesthetic.[5] The belief in the truth and inherent ethical value of certain forms, and the unshaken conviction that form and function go hand in hand, may have been shattered in most architects’ practice, and on any kind of reasonable theoretical level it would be like flogging a dead horse to go on criticizing it. But the fact that it not just lives on as a kind of undercurrent, but is in fact forcefully resuscitated at the highest political levels is troubling, especially since there is a fantasy that architects have the task of bringing about the good (which they of course can’t, and here the lessons of Tafuri’s critique of the ideologies of modernism still haven’t been drawn, at least not in Sweden).[6]

The issue would perhaps not be to produce evil architecture and design—although, once more, the suggestion is tempting, even if I’m not really sure what it would mean. In fact, sometimes the mere reversal of accepted values can itself be liberating, especially when all the forces of Law and Order, State, Reason, and Consensus, are on the opposite side. At least such a reversal could give us a more perspectival and fluid appreciation of the “good” (which should remain in the lower case) and dispel some of the “smug evasions” of policymakers.

  1. Kant’s aesthetic is, of course, more complex than this: Beauty is related both to the true and the good due to its form, while the sublime is related only to the good because of its formlessness, or infinite, non-bounded character. Kant’s argument is at this point labyrinthine, and seems to pursue several goals at once in its attempt to functionalize the whole aesthetic sphere. For a good discussion of this, see Jay M. Bernstein, The Fate of Art (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992), chapter 1.
  2. Roger Fry, “An Essay in Aesthetics,” in Vision and Design [1920] (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 22. The incomplete form would in this sense open onto the problem of the ugly, as has been noted by Mark Cousins in “The Ugly,” Index (Stockholm), Winter 1996.
  3. For an overview of the nineteenth-century debate within the German context, see the documents assembled in Wolfgang Herrmann. ed., In What Style Should We Build?: The German Debate on Architectural Style (Santa Monica, CA: Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1992).
  4. For a discussion of the rhetorical dimension of Constructivist theory, see Victor Margolin, “Inventing the Artist-Constructor: Rodchenko, 1922–1927,” in The Struggle For Utopia: Rodchenko, Lissitzky, Moholy-Nagy, 1917–1946 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997). The psychoanalytic dimension is treated by Christina Kiaer, “Rodchenko in Paris,” October no. 75, 1996.
  5. See Manfredo Tafuri and Francesco Dal Co, Modern Architecture (New York: Rizzoli, 1986).
  6. For a succinct statement on this, see Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1976).

Sven-Olov Wallenstein is a philosopher and art critic. He teaches art theory at the University College of Arts, Crafts, and Design, and philosophy at the University College of Södertörn, both in Stockholm. He is a contributing editor to Cabinet.

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