Saturday, May 02, 2009

From 2004. Published elsewhere:

No one is impressed now by the Eiffel Tower or the first Macintosh in the way people were when either first appeared; history describes the past, it doesn't relive it. The Eiffel Tower is impressive to us as a piece of engineering and as representative of a sort of 19th Century imagination. The first Mac is still impressive to computer techs and software designers but it's a charming relic to the rest of us: what was once a fascinating little box has become quaint.

Things age well that are semiotically complex, both flexible and resilient, they both change their shape- their meaning- and refuse to. I'll ignore for the moment those things that become complex by accident. The cast iron tower that rises above Paris, rather than merely exhibiting or documenting a kind of imagination, succeeds in describing it in a way that someone who is not an engineer or a student of 19th century social history may find fascinating. It's still beautiful and therefore contemporary, a thing too complex to be called either a relic or a symptom of its time.

One of the many mistakes of the 20th century was to imagine it might be possible to know without doubt which of our creations would avoid obsolescence. An art or society of ideas, a dream of scientific socialism, or of the morality of technological progress, all are predicated on the same assumption that modernity could mean infallibility, as if a cursory reading of Freud could render one immune to the effects of the unconscious. Such confidence doesn't work now any more than it did 80 years ago. It doesn't work for Donald Rumsfeld or Steve Jobs any more than it did for Lenin or Le Corbusier. Apple only makes a single button mouse, even though the software supports two, for reasons that a salesman admitted to me were 'basically ideological.' Why not have a pinhole release for the data drive? Because in theory, if not in fact, CDs never get stuck. Conceptual idealism is still popular, in art and politics, and absurdly so in architecture, which unlike the others is and needs to be an optimistic occupation. But what about the supposed opposite of an art of ideas? What is Taste?

August Sander, ThreeYoung Farmers 
on Their Way to a Dance, 1914
Walking through the Neue Galerie, New York's new temple of Viennese culture at the turn of the 20th century, I'm struck as always by a sense of thinness, of attenuation; the designs have that as their subject as much as or more than skill, and everything in the place is marvellously crafted. But one form of decadence is defined by the sense that articulation and detail no longer heighten awareness, but numb it. The theme here is not so much emptiness but inadequacy: the inadequacy of the beautiful in the face of the intelligent. The works in the Neue Galerie displays therefore take the form of the self-consciously gratuitous and minor.

The first time I was in Barcelona I was amazed at the the rigor and precision of Gaudi's Catalan Modernism. I had expected simple decadence, but the buildings, tubs of melting ice cream, are neither decadent nor lazy but curious and open. And in a strange and beautiful way they aren't mannered at all.

Yohji Yamamoto, in Wim Wenders' Notebook on Cities and Clothes is seen poring over a book of August Sander photographs, describing his envy of the subjects and their clothes, of the way each uniform -and every character wears a uniform, even if it's only the tilt of his hat- describes the person, and how the person describes the suit. Yamamoto the fashion designer is envious of purpose, of the space for expression it allows, of the weight of information carried by the fabrics and cuts, a weight that has accumulated over time by a commingling of tastes, free invention and necessity. It's hard to predict which of our constructions will be remembered in this way, but there's a lot to be said for at least understanding what has succeeded in the past, and why. That's an uncommon sentiment these days.

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