Art as rhetoric

Boris Groys
Particular Cases

In light of recent discussions about art as knowledge production and the ways art should or could be taught, it seems fitting to look back at the early days of modernism. Avant-garde art was not yet taken for granted then, having instead to be legitimized, interpreted, and taught. One influential example of such a strategy of legitimization is Wassily Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911). The book posits an equivalence between art production, art theory, and art teaching, in order to render art rational and scientific, with the aim of establishing it as an academic discipline. Over the course of his artistic career, Kandinsky made various attempts to give an institutional form to his ideas. Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) both the group and the almanac of the same name — can be seen as the first such attempt. Following his return to Russia from Munich at the outbreak of World War I, and especially throughout the postrevolution years, Kandinsky engaged in extensive institutional activity, teaching as a professor at Vkhutemas (Higher Art and Technical Studios, from 1918), as well as founding and directing the Moscow Institute of Artistic Culture (InKhuK, 1920-1921) and GAKhN (State Academy for the Scientific Study of Art, 1921). During his time at the Bauhaus, from his appointment in 1922 until its closure in 1933, he pursued his analysis of art as a science and academic discipline, as reflected in Point and Line to Plane, a theoretical treatise published by the Bauhaus in 1926.

The rigor and determination with which Kandinsky pursued the academicization of art has often been overlooked due to misunderstandings caused by his choice of words. His use of “the spiritual” is a prominent example, since it implies certain religious themes and attitudes that he did not necessarily share. Rather than “the spiritual,” it would be better to speak here of “the affective.” Kandinsky’s book begins with a distinction between art as the representation of eternal reality and art as a means of conveying emotions and moods. Right at the beginning of the book, Kandinsky claims that the representation of external reality leaves us cold as viewers. He describes a typical exhibition of the time:

Animals in sunlight or shadow, drinking, standing in water, lying on the grass; near to, a Crucifixion by a painter who does not believe in Christ; flowers; human figures sitting, standing, walking; often they are naked; many naked women, seen foreshortened from behind; apples and silver dishes. […] The vulgar herd stroll through the rooms and pronounce the pictures “nice” or “splendid.” Those who could speak have said nothing, those who could hear have heard nothing. This condition of art is called “art for art’s sake.”1

This description clearly shows that what Kandinsky found irritating about naturalist painting was its formalism. When the motif is dictated from outside, all that matters is how it is executed — the formal skill of the artist. Kandinsky opposes this formalist vision of art: only when one has defined what art is can one inquire into the how. Continue reading

The skyscraper in the Old World

Manfredo Tafuri
The Sphere and the

Perhaps no better way exists of grasping what the American skyscraper is not than by studying how European culture has attempted to assimilate and translate into its own terms, especially in the years immediately following the First World War, that paradox of the Metropolitan Age. The skyscraper as a “typology of the exception”: the first elevator buildings in Manhattan — from the Equitable Life Insurance Building of Gilman & Kendall and George B. Post (1868-70) to Post’s mature works [1] — are real live “bombs” with chain effects, destined to explode the entire real estate market. The systematic introduction of the mechanical elevator, equalizing the price of rents at various floors of commercial buildings, levels in a single blow the existing economic values and creates new and exceptional forms of revenue. Immediately, the “control” of such an explosive object presents itself as an urgent problem — even if there ensues, just as immediately, a clear renunciation of any regulation of the economic effects. The entire typological elaboration that, first in New York and then in Chicago, lies at the heart of the structural inventions of architects like Post, Le Baron Jenney, John Wellborn Root, Holabird & Roche explicitly tends toward a visual control of all that which now appears as “anarchic individuality,” a mirror of the “heroic” phase of the entrepreneurship of the Age of Laissez-Faire.[2]

81 calandra 02

Winston Weisman has quite correctly emphasized the central role played by Post in the formation of the typology of the nineteenth-century skyscraper.[3] In many ways the work of Post takes an opposite path from that of Sullivan; nevertheless, Sullivan owes a great deal to the until now undervalued New York architect. In Post’s U-, “tree-,” and tower-shaped structures, there already emerges quite clearly that aspect of the skyscraper phenomenon that the European interpretations tend to overlook: namely, that it is exactly by embodying the laws of the concurrent economy and, afterwards, of the corporate system, that the skyscraper becomes an instrument — and no longer an “expression” — of economic policy, finding in this identity with economic policy its own true “value.” Only after the typological and technological experiments of the last decades of the nineteenth century have exhausted their provisional tasks, setting into position repeatable structures, will the attribution of the “surplus value” of language to these structures manifest itself — correctly — as pure ornament. But it will do so with a precise function: to emit well-known or immediately assimilable messages, to soothe the “distracted perception” of the metropolitan public subjected to the bombardment of multiple shocks, both visual and economic, provoked by the new giganti della montagna [mountain giants] in the downtowns.

It is just this phenomenon that European culture could not or would not grasp. What in the United States was produced by a complex but straightforward process was experienced in Europe as a trauma. The skyscraper, which Henry Huxley could call in 1875 the “center of intelligence,”[4] was seen, especially by German culture after 1910, as a symbol and threat of total reification, as a painful nightmare produced by the drowsiness of a metropolis on the verge of losing itself as a subject. In such a frame, optimism and pessimism wind up coinciding. In 1913 Karl Schaffler points out the possibility of a new “Spirit of Synthesis” in American territorial organization: the metropolis will be recuperated here as a conscious subject dominating the complementariness of City and Suburb — and here he reproposes a municipal administration retaining ownership of the terrain — but also reestablishing the equilibrium between the individual and the totality.[5] Reification can be overcome only by considering it a “bridge” that permits the crossing of the Grand Canyon of the anguish of the masses. A “bridge”: but precisely by going beyond the experience of the Brücke, Kandinsky, in presenting his own theatrical piece Der Gelbe Klang [The Yellow Tone] in Der Blaue Reiter Almanac (1912) , puts forward in metaphoric form a completely opposite interpretation of the same phenomenon. In Kandinsky’s unique text, as is well known, five yellow giants undulate, grow disproportionately or shrink, contort their bodies, emit guttural sounds, under a flickering light that accentuates their oneiric aspects.

File-Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky, published by R. Piper & Co. - Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) kandinsky.comp-4

The previous allusion to Pirandello’s giganti della montagna was not accidental. For both Kandinsky and Pirandello, the theme is that of individuals who are “all too human,” and therefore on the verge of becoming pure signs, dumbfounded testimonies of an existence whose faculties of communication have been blocked. The whispering of the yellow giants and their “difficult” movements are the last, clumsy attempts at expression by beings who, having seen the truth, feel condemned to drown in it:

at the very instant in which the con fusion in the orchestra, in the movements, and in the lighting reaches the high point, all at once, darkness and silence fall on the scene. Alone at the back of the stage, the yellow giants remain visible and are then slowly swallowed up by the darkness. It appears as if the giants are extinguished like lamps; or rather, before complete darkness sets in, one perceives some flash of light.

The finale of Der Gelbe Klang represents, in tragic form, the annihilation of value in the flux of monetary currents — which the people of Manhattan could register, non dramatically, using such real giants as the Woolworth or the Equitable Life Insurance buildings. Moreover, such giants, in reality, despite their linguistic clothing that is just as paradoxical as the yellow color with which Kandinsky clothes his “new angels,” also give off a flash of light. Continue reading

Lev Rudnev’s “City of the Future” (1925), before his turn to Stalinist neo-Classicism

Modernist architecture archive

IMAGE: Lev Rudnev’s City of the future (1925),
before his turn to Stalinist neoclassicism


An update on the Modernist Architecture Archive/Database I discussed a couple posts ago.  I’ve begun work on it, and have uploaded almost half of the documents I intend to include.  Only a few of the Russian ones are up yet, but I’m hoping to post them over the next couple days.  There are many more on the way.

Anyway, anyone interested in taking a look at this archive (arranged as a continuous text) can access it here.

However, this might not be the most convenient way to browse through it all.  For a more manageable overall view of each of the individual articles (detailing the author, title, and year of publication), click here.