In 1919, Walter Gropius, putting on his best hierophant’s voice, declared that the goal of the Bauhaus was to help create a new unified art (reaching its apogee in Gropius’ own discipline, architecture) “which will rise one day towards heaven from the hands of a million workers like the crystal symbol of a new faith.” In the process, architecture and the ‘fine arts’ would be restored to a state of grace from which they had fallen. They would be “rescued” from their respective “isolation” in the Goshen of the “salon” and given back their “architectonic spirit.”
Although this proclamation, which was accompanied by Lyonel Feiniger’s woodcut, “Cathedral of Socialism,” was more headily messianic in its tone than was typical for Gropius, it was dealing with issues that had already concerned him before the German Revolution, before even the first world war, and which would continue to concern him all his life.
In “The Theory and Organization of the Bauhaus,” written four years after the “Proclamation,” Gropius once again returned to the subject, more systematically and at greater length. Here we learn that the “’academy’”
shut off the artist from the world of industry and handicraft, and thus brought about his complete isolation from the community. In vital epochs, on the other hand, the artist enriched all the arts and crafts of a community because he had a part in its vocational life…
With the development of the academies genuine folk art died away. What remained was a drawing room art detached from life.
Worse, the “lack of all vital connection with the life of the community led inevitably to barren aesthetic speculation” on the part of fine artists. For Gropius, art has suffered a “disastrous secession … from the workaday life of the people” so that our entire aesthetic life is impoverished.
In registering this impoverishment, Gropius was standing in an honourable and, by then, well established tradition stretching through the architect and designer, Henry van de Velde and going at least as far back as William Blake. Although the issue is rarely spoken of in the dire apocalyptic terms of a Blake or a Gropius, it is in fact an anxiety that continues to be felt to this day, and several attempts have been made to explain its existence which cut rather deeper than Gropius’.
Terry Eagleton suggests that the retreat of art from life into an autonomous existence is a kind of pressure release valve for humanity’s aesthetic impulses which are not easily accommodated by the narrow (and typically philistine) instrumentality of commodity production. For Eagleton, “Art comes to signify pure supplementarity, that marginal region of the affective/instinctual/non-instrumental which a reified rationality finds difficulty incorporating.” But this occurs precisely via art’s integration “into the capitalist mode of production” because when art becomes, in and of itself, a commodity, “it is released” from its older ties to the world.
Esther Leslie, channelling Walter Benjamin, suggests that the retreat of art into itself can be understood in terms of a “schism within the bourgeois class.” The isolated artist is here the figure of the “critical bourgeois bohemian” in “defiance against philistine segments of the class” who come to regard the producers of art as “redundant” and perhaps too devoted to ideals to be quite trustworthy.
Both authors equate this phenomenon with the “moment of modernity.”
It is clear that any systematic history of the divorce of art from life would have to take into account both these arguments, among others. Nevertheless, what both Leslie and Eagleton show is that the divorce of art from life is a structural tendency for our aesthetic life under capitalism, although one which unfolds unevenly and over time. To historicise this further, it is surely significant that even in Germany the two people generally credited with bringing attention to this divorce are English: John Ruskin and William Morris. England had had its bourgeois revolution long before Germany finally overthrew the Kaiser, and it was also in England that the Industrial Revolution began – it is hardly surprising, therefore, that England would also engender the first protests against that period’s effects upon the aesthetic life of its people (although it is true that Morris would only gain the theoretical framework with which he thought through this protest via his engagement with the ideas of a German revolutionary: Karl Marx).
And it is in Morris’ life, work and writing that Gropius, as well as the rest of the staff and students at the Bauhaus, would have had the first model for the “reunion between creative artists and the industrial world” which was so sought after. Morris gives three closely interrelated reasons for what he regarded as the degraded state of the so-called “decorative arts,” the first is capitalist alienation which makes labour into a drudge and so obviates the very possibility of art in its products (Morris, after Ruskin, defines art as “man’s expression of his joy in labour.”). According to Morris, the “modern state of society,” is therefore “founded on the art-lacking or unhappy labour of the greater part of men.”
The second has to do with the priorities of capitalist production – put briefly, profits. And the third is the net result of the development of the division of labour, aided by the particular form in which capitalism develops the forces of production (especially machinery). Morris predicted that the full development of this system would lead to production owned by a ruling class blind to ugliness and indifferent to beauty and managed by technicians directing a labour process so thoroughly routinised that no space could be required (or even desired) for the labourer’s skill and intelligence.
Morris’ solution to this was the famous workshops of the Firm of Morris & Co. in which the division of labour was reduced to a minimum and every worker trained to be skilled in as much of the production process as possible – that is to say, Morris’ solution was craft work. Although craft was also to play its role in the Bauhaus, the simple factor of time and development meant that handiwork could not possibly be imagined as a commercially viable basis on which to build a unification of art with life that would have any meaning for the aesthetic life of the German people. Morris’ model, which never produced affordable work in mass quantities, could not reasonably be transplanted into the Germany of the 20s.
Gropius created a school centred around craft workshops under the twin direction of a form master and a craft master, with the intention of allowing students to synthesise the abilities of both in their own practice. Gropious, who in the “Proclamation” wrote, “Architects, sculptors, painters, we must all turn to the crafts,” probably thought of this process in terms of art becoming productive – but in fact, it would be more accurate to say that it tried to make production into art. It is clear enough from the way the Bauhaus was run that Gropius regarded craft as being aesthetically empty. The purpose of the craft masters was to provide what was thought of as purely technical know-how for the workshops, they “were not included in the Masters’ Council; they had no votes, and were consulted only as occasional advisers.” Eva Forgacs even quotes Gropius as saying “the composition corresponds to the historical evolution of the Bauhaus, which owes its concept and inception not to craftsmen but to artists … And this is a spiritual, not a technical, concept.” The role of craft training is therefore merely to familiarise the students with the nature of materials and processes so that they would possess in themselves a total understanding of production – the better to design for production. For Gropius, the “craft workshops [should] develop into industrial laboratories: from their experimentation will evolve standards for industrial production.”
The obviousness of this solution prevents us from seeing its true audacity. Gropius was thoroughly aware of the anxieties regarding division of labour in the factory:
The principal difference between factory production and handicraft lies … in the fact that in the factory each operation involved in manufacturing a product is performed by a different man, whereas the craft product is made entirely by one person.
But if Morris believed that this division of labour was partly responsible for the sorry aesthetic quality of its products and therefore needed to be resisted, Gropius solution is to follow this division all the way through. He was essentially theorising a new branch of labour emerging at this time within the total social division of labour: aesthetic labour. Paradoxically, it is precisely by accepting the reifying logic of capitalist production which threatened to expunge art from everyday life that art’s place there could be guaranteed.
The formal implications of this strategy are perhaps best exemplified in the chairs of Marcel Breuer. His tubular chairs in particular (figure 1), which he began to develop in 1925, represent a high watermark for clean and efficient modernist design. They are constructed from extruded and bent metal tubes, making use of no more nor less material than was strictly required for comfort and stability, and stretched fabric made from steel-thread for the seat and back rest. The Bauhaus’ insistence on familiarity with materials and techniques is clearly on display in the soundness of its design and the innovative use of the chrome-plated tubes, while its pleasing and unassuming neatness display an elegance and facility with form that is still imitated today.
No doubt with such objects in mind, Forgacs claims that the “Bauhaus objects made” in this period are “flexible,” “graceful,” and possess an “aesthetic appeal” – she is wrong on two counts. The first is in her definition of ‘aesthetic appeal’ which here can only mean roughly ‘nice looking.’ She is thus operating under a fairly careless understanding of the aesthetic (which I have also had to make some use of in this essay), but if by ‘aesthetic appeal,’ we were to mean instead an appeal to the affective or the libidinal (which Eagleton suggests we should), then it would have to be pointed out that this is precisely what the designers of the Bauhaus had managed to expunge from their designs by the mid to late twenties.
Secondly, she is making a category error. To understand this, and in order, furthermore, to understand the transformation that art underwent in its attachment to industrial design at the Bauhaus, it is useless to look at a single chair: Breuer’s chairs do not have a singular existence; we need to view them en masse (figure 2). In their multiplied, reiterated, existence, the chairs become abstractions of themselves. The objects, as it were, are not the real thing. Breuer’s ‘chair’ would not be diminished by the destruction of a single unit, nor by any number of units, nor by every last tubular chair in existence. Breuer’s chair is not in the objectly chair, but in its design, which has acquired a Platonic, metaphysical existence that makes the actual chairs the equivalent of so many (exactly identical) flickering shadows on the walls of a cave. Whatever charms it may possess belong properly to this essence, the concrete objects are rather the medium by which we access these charms.
The technical requirements of elevating the idea of an object into its unalterable code that must be transcribed without error or mutation by material production, means that as a technical practice, the development of design itself comes to mirror the development of machinery under capitalism already touched on in the discussion of Morris’ production philosophy. As Harvey Braverman points out, under the rule of capital,
Machinery comes into the world not as the servant of “humanity,” but as the instrument of those to whom the accumulation of capital gives the ownership of the machines. The capacity of humans to control the labour process through machinery is seized upon by management from the beginning of capitalism as the prime means whereby production may be controlled not by the direct producer but by the owners and representatives of capital.
Thus, the unifying feature of mechanisation in the factory is
the progressive elimination of the control function of the worker, insofar as possible, and their transfer to a device which is controlled, again insofar as possible, by management from outside the direct process.
For Braverman, therefore, (as for Morris) the development of mechanisation in the factory exacerbates the reification of labour precisely because machinery takes the form of capital – by definition, an instrument for the domination of labour.
Gropius and the Bauhaus designers turned this into a virtue. As Marcel Fransiscono observes,
for Gropius the advantage of [mechanisation] lies just in its assurance that the designer’s intentions will be carried out to the last detail and not left to the mercies of incompetent or indifferently minded artisans.
Breuer’s tubular chairs, built from homogenised materials along a regular and machine formed geometry, are designed precisely to allow and to demand exact repetition at every step of the production process. And although this is in one sense an understandable desire on the part of an artist eager to preserve the integrity of his work – we should remember that the choice to accept the role of ‘aesthetic labourer’ as separate from material production was a deliberate one on the part of the Bauhaus. Furthermore, although this choice was more or less inevitable given their goal to bring art into industry, this goal itself was not entirely innocent. It was in fact part of a liberal nationalism which wanted “quality work,” at least in part because this was “necessary in order to compete in foreign markets.”
It seems, therefore, that the betrothal of art to industry effected by the Bauhaus came at a heavy price – and this has to do, in part, with the inability of its theoreticians to see the possibilities of craft as a distinct aesthetic practice and strategy. The progression of Bauhaus chairs once again offers a demonstration of this. In 1926, Breuer prepared a tongue-in-cheek film strip which he titled “A Bauhaus Movie lasting five years,” and listed the author as “life demanding its rights;” a different chair is in each frame of the strip and every chair is attached to a year (figure 3). The first is his oppressively solid “African chair” of 1921; this is followed by the much more pleasant and comfortable looking “chair with coloured wool straps,” which he made with Gunta Stolzl dated 1921 ½; followed by one of Breuer’s “easy chairs,” 1924; then by Erich Dickmann’s “kitchen chair,” which shares the year 1925 with the chair that follows it; one of Breuer’s early “Wassily chairs;” and the final frame is an image of a woman sitting cross legged, suspended in the air, given the date 19??.
Two parallel, and I believe intertwined, progressions are apparent in the film strip. The first is the increasing de-materialisation of the chairs, culminating in the image of a woman sitting on nothing at all. The second is the movement from craft to industrial design. This begins with the African chair, folky, mawkish, ostentatiously a craft object (if not a very good one) is followed by the three lighter constructions (or perhaps, deconstructions) more and more borrowing the spare, geometric vocabulary of modernist design but still produced by the artists themselves, and finally ends with the industrially manufactured Wassily chair.
The link between these two progressions is provided by Breuer himself, who wrote:
A piece of furniture is … in itself impersonal, it takes on meaning only from the way it is used or as part of a complete scheme.
… It must be able to serve both those needs which remain constant and those which vary. This variation is possible only if the very simplest and most straightforward pieces are used…
For Breuer, therefore, furniture’s only goal is functionality. It accomplishes this goal, as we have seen, via the instrumentalised efficiency of its production, but also by being itself unobtrusive, invisible (and what better way to achieve this than by replacing the chair with air?).
The kind of relationship to the work required to produce such an aesthetic is, in my view, precisely one which already sees the work as essentially un-material. What is required is that such psychological investment as the artist makes is placed not in the executed objects but in their intellectual conception. Craft works very much in contradistinction to this.
Forgacs opines that “craftsmanship is not merely style and technique, but an approach as well, a worldview embraced by the traditional folk artist, and craft methods cannot create anything contrary to the craft worldview, or transcending it.” Apart from the lazy equation of craft with folk art, I am not really sure what any of that is supposed to mean. She seems, in effect, to be accusing craft of being ineluctably reactionary – but whatever the claim exactly is, any survey of contemporary studio crafts would probably convince her that it is less than accurate. What she gets right, however, is that there is an ethos indigenous to craft production and which is distinct from the ethos apparent in the kind of industrial design exemplified by Beuer.
The contrast between this design ethos and the one which Gropius himself attributes to craft production could not be more stark:
The craftsmen sit between the doors of their stalls and [their] work. When a stranger asks about the price of their wares, they answer in a sullen monotone; for they are in love with their work and will not be disturbed. They part only unwillingly even from their finished work.
Because craft lacks the division between the one who conceives and the one who executes the work, it is necessarily devoted to the material production of objects. Gropius’ craft worker, in fact, is so invested in the objects they produce (via their unalienated labour), and is apparently so little enamoured of functionality, that they are hardly willing to sell them at all: a step which would be necessary if the object’s potential to function is ever to be activated. Without taking the exaggerations of the fable too seriously, the point still stands: contrary to popular belief, craft, as an aesthetic practice, does not necessarily fetishise functionality. Function is not its goal, it is its idiom and the typical arena in which it does its aesthetic labour. It works precisely by what it does in excess of functionality.
In fact, with its obdurate refusal of industrial divisions of labour, craft processes are by definition obsolescent in relation to the average standards of capitalist productivity – it already requires an investment of labour greater than the average. More importantly, precisely because its aesthetic work exists in its objectly self and not in its design or conception, it cannot afford to be invisible. Craft objects must insist, as the ‘fine arts’ do, upon a response to them that is conscious and operates at the level of the “affective/instinctual/non-instrumental” which Eagleton insists belongs to a more fully developed aesthetic life – but which, unlike the operation of the ‘fine arts,’ is situated in the ‘workaday life’ of its users. That such a production practice would be absolutely incapable of penetrating widely into people’s general lives under capitalism may at this point be taken for granted.
It seems therefore that we are left with two alternatives to art’s divorce from everyday life. The first, is a design practice which rescues the aesthetic for life, but only at the expense of truncating it drastically – and which, moreover, is dependent (to varying degrees) upon capitalist reification. The second, is a studio craft practice which resists reification and attempts to prefigure in some dim way an aesthetic life unmarked by art’s retreat from the world but which is from the beginning incapable of actually producing that life at a general level.
Gropius banned politics at the Bauhaus, in so doing he cut the school off from participating in the only process that could have broken the Gordian Knot presented by these two alternatives. It is tempting and amusing to argue, in moralistic fashion, that the Bauhaus should have raised a slogan such as ‘Neither craft nor design, but social revolution,’ but the truth of the matter is that this would not have saved Germany from Fascism nor the bungling leadership provided by the revolutionary wing of the German working class (the various anarchists, left communists, and Spartacists) or the disastrous advice of the Comintern.
The most likely result of greater radicalism on the part of the Bauhaus staff is simply that they would have been shut down sooner. What we got instead was one of the most productive experiments in industrial design of the twentieth century – and the one which made all subsequent experiments possible. Whatever else one might think of the Bauhaus, its politics, its ethos, or even its products – that is no mean achievement.