FORM AND STRUCTURE
On the Cult of the “New” in Our Century
Futurism and Surrealism
The quest for the new as an artistic program appears consciously for the first time in the art of around 1894, with the architects and artists of the “Modern Style” movement.
This movement, which had its main origin in England, opposed the alignment on old formulas and the revivals of old styles. For the first time, it was recognized that each era had its own style, a style that it was necessary to seek, to find and to express.
The foundation of this new style had already been developed by sculptors and painters like Rodin, Gauguin, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec. Their work was explicitly and profoundly influenced by the ORIENT. This Modern Style program provoked an enthusiastic struggle throughout Europe, rapidly attaining a great popular success and creating the most astonishing innovations. The creators of this movement (including Van de Velde) were themselves swept along with the torrent of sensational innovations, which had been provoked by industrialization and fostered by popular curiosity. They found a refuge in Functionalism.
Within a short time rationalist Functionalism drove out all the Modern Style tendencies in France, Germany and northern Europe, tendencies that were linked to the evolution of Cubist and Abstract style. The most vivacious Modern Style elements reappeared in Italy and Russia under the name of Futurism, a holistic artistic movement with a universalist character.
What charactized this latter movement was its vitality and value in all domains: painting, sculpture, literature, architecture, music, etc. The quest for the new was an integral part of its dynamic and enthusiastic program.
The lack of social consciousness and the severity of the dialectical contrasts in Russia and Italy brought about the progressive weakening and disappearance of the innovative impulse of Futurism, which exhausted itself in an alienated conformism. Before its exhaustion, however, the vital core of Futurism had been picked up and transplanted by the Italo-Polish Apollinaire and the Russian Kandinsky. Kandinsky, who was appointed as a professor at the Bauhaus, wrote that “an unfamiliar object, seen for the first time, provokes in us a particular effect.” And Apollinaire declared: “What distinguishes the art of the 20th century from all earlier eras is the importance of the element of surprise” i.e. of the futurist element. In a sense, this theory of shock is the legacy of Apollinaire to Surrealism, for which he laid the foundation.
Surrealism and its brother virtually its twin Dadaism represented a retreat if one compares them to the futurist conceptions of Apollinaire. They lacked creative élan. Dadaist and surrealist shocks were not created by human inventions, but merely provoked by the unexpected juxtaposition of already known elements (something that was nevertheless of very great significance).
However, history prepared surprises of such gravity that, in comparison, surrealist shock seems like child’s play. War (yet another), concentration camps, the atomic bomb.*
*During World War II, the young surrealist Christian Dotremont had passed strange days in an empty tavern in the suburbs of Dunkerque, where he played solo billiards, alone under the bombardment of the British Army. A few years later he entered the room of the Surrealist Exposition in Paris and saw André Breton attempting to astonish the visitors to the exposition by playing alone on a billiard table. That was the end of Surrealism. [JORN’S FOOTNOTE]
Today the desire for novelty in art has accelerated and is proceeding at an inconceivably rapid pace.
Today we have come to recognize the importance of the necessity of the new in art, and at the same time the importance of its nonnecessity.
This conscious quest for novelty is what is called experimentation. The point is to determine the terrain for such experimentation. To this end the International of Experimental Artists (Cobra) was formed in 1948.
The New Eras
Le Corbusier had already been aware that the beginning of our century was the dawn of a new era, and he felt the need to establish, with his fellow architects, the doctrines of this new life. We have now arrived at a moment where the doctrines of the generations between the two World Wars have lost their currency and must be subjected to revision.
Shortly before his death, Einstein, a very typical intellectual mind of his time, confessed that if he were able to relive his life from the beginning, he would have preferred the career of an iron worker to that of a scientist.
His theories of absolute relativity in a world conceived as a strictly determined and limited entity had enabled man to penetrate the microcosmic secrets of the atom; all of which remained marvelous as long as it remained on the purely analytical level. The disaster began when man began using this new knowledge for interested or following our definition artistic purposes. When the first atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima (with the approval of the pacifist Einstein), the illusion of mechanistic determinism was no longer possible even for the blind. It had become evident that man was free to choose the road to life or to death. The young nuclear scientists introduced chance into their observations. This seems to reflect a moral failure of Einstein resulting from a false calculation in his scientific theories.
During the same period, an identical determinism reigned in the domain of architecture under the name of Functionalism, a theory developed in particular by the friends and protectors of the old Bauhaus. Among them was Einstein, and their failure was mutual.
“A NEW ERA HAS BEGUN, AN ERA OF SOLIDARITY,” said Le Corbusier at the very moment when German Nazism was already preparing for World War II with its concentration camps and gas chambers. A few years earlier, the architect Henry Van de Velde, the creator of the New Style, declared: “We have recognized this truth: the present generations are more disposed to allow themselves to be convinced by reason and by good reasons than to let themselves be moved and driven by the heart.” The historical reality of this era is too glaring to provoke the least smile regarding these frivolous declarations. We must, however, take them seriously if we don’t want to lose everything and end up in despair; we need to figure out in what ways their authors were right and in what ways they were profoundly mistaken. Their mistake lies precisely in those deterministic ideas, ideas that were so characteristic of their era and that were concretized so brilliantly by the theories of Einstein.
We are still at the beginning of a new era, the era of industry and machines, but we have to recognize that the essential structures of this era have not yet been clearly delineated. Thus, all the theories implying determined doctrines associated with the very structures of our era must be subjected to an unceasing critique. The topic that we have chosen is that of the useful and useless arts.
The Utopian Origin of Our Ideas on Architecture
“For me, stones have always been bread.” (Ruskin)
Why are we free artists so interested in the doctrines of modern architecture? Because we are excluded from them and because within the present society they deprive us of our raison d’être.
An old occupation that has been outdated and superseded by others will obviously end up being erased from human activity; but we specifically want to show the danger, for cultural evolution, of spreading doctrines that do nothing but repeat the antipoetic viewpoints of the old Platonism.
The doctrines of modern architecture have not yet succeeded in getting beyond the utopianism of their origin so as to arrive at a scientifically acceptable and verifiable level. In this regard they are linked with Platonism in particular and Hellenistic idealism in general.
The origin of these modern ideas on architecture and industrial forms can be found in the dreams and utopian experiments of the two Englishmen Ruskin and Morris in the second half of the 19th century.
Around 1894, the words of Ruskin found their echo among the young architects and artists. “We all shared a feeling of revolt,” said Henry Van de Velde, one of the pioneers of the New Style. Their enthusiasm was not without a critical element: “Tradition is sterile when it is not fed by new elements, and the coldness that disdains any renewals announces the inevitable approach of death. Everything that Morris conceived and created was perfect. And yet his creations leave us perfectly cold. We would have been better served and better guided by a single work executed with less perfection but animated with the spark that suddenly bursts forth when our sensibility feels the contact of life: the life of the moment the present moment this moment distinct from all those that will follow it” (1917).
All Evolution Is an Offense
Henry Van de Velde clearly summed up the activity of Ruskin and Morris in saying that they protested violently against the offense done to nature and to the human dignity of the worker and the craftsman by the colossal and grotesque invasion of the new and experimental industry. They took their stand with those who wanted to destroy the machines that were capable of copying everything but to the detriment of real qualities. The factories ended up winning the battle, and the efforts of Ruskin were drowned in the immense and constantly increasing flood of products created by the machines.
Van de Velde was the first founder of the old Bauhaus in Germany. Before discussing the “ossified” doctrines of the architect Gropius, who was chosen by Van de Velde as his successor to the leadership of the Bauhaus, we think it will be useful to sum up the most striking ideas of Van de Velde, as expressed in his book PAGES DE DOCTRINE (1942 edition). Apart from a few false conclusions, these pages contain a series of extremely intelligent observations. We can now say of him what he said of Ruskin and Morris: “We share a feeling of revolt.”
Being unaware that the cult of the new is always an offense to nature and to human dignity, Van de Velde took refuge in rationalism under the hygienic banner of “Functionalism” at the moment when he perceived the uncontrollable consequences of the forces liberated by the New Style movement.
[TRANSLATORS NOTE: In the following passages, Jorn quotes from Van de Velde’s book Pages de doctrine (1942) (more specifically, from a text included in that book: “Le nouveau: pourquoi toujours du nouveau?” which was originally published in 1929) and then comments on those passages. The typography follows Jorn’s original edition, with the Van de Velde excerpts being indicated by italics rather than quotation marks. Roman type within the italic passages indicates emphasis, but it is not always clear whether such emphasis is Jorn’s or Van de Velde’s.]
WHY ALWAYS NEW
(Excerpts from Henry Van de Velde’s Pages de Doctrine, 1929)
Never, at any time, under the reign of any style, has public taste been as debased as it was in the last half of the 19th century. This ugliness was the result of the constant and increasingly imperfect repetition of old stylistic models, and of the total lack of control of the relations of the form of those models to the practical aims for which they were intended and of the purpose of the ornaments with which they were smothered.
The action undertaken on the other side of the English Channel by the great apostles, Ruskin and William Morris, had collapsed, or more precisely, fizzled out. Their efforts remained without any results except for the echo of the ardent words of the former and the widespread respect which we continue to share today for the exceptional perfection of the works of the latter.
It could not have been otherwise. Ruskin’s dazzling diatribes against the invasion of ugliness and Morris’s admirable creations in all the branches of artistic crafts were equally anachronistic.
The Return to the Gothic
Imagine trying to revive the Gothic style on the eve of the 20th century! Today we are astonished to realize that two men of such exceptional intelligence were able to succumb to such an illusion, and to convince so many disciples to share it.
But this illusion was understandable. The revelation that the Gothic style was one of the most sublime peaks of architecture and that the cathedral was one of the boldest and most radical conceptions of architecture that revelation was still recent when Ruskin published The Stones of Venice, with its famous chapter on the Gothic style, of which Morris said that “the day my friends and I read it marked for us a new perspective on the world.” To imagine that a “new” orientation of thought on the eve of the 20th century could be directed toward the past, they had to have remained oblivious to the high-tension forces that were on the verge of provoking an unprecedented revolution in all the domains of human activity.
The attitude of Ruskin and Morris would be incomprehensible if we lost sight of what I have just said about the revelation of the Gothic and if we failed to bear in mind the moral support that such a revelation brought to the “conservatism” of Ruskin and to the socialism of Morris.
The New Orientation Toward a New Style
It was on the Continent in Belgium that the movement that had begun in England was oriented to the future and toward a bolder and more adventurous goal: a new style. This was not accomplished without a decisive intervention.
A group of English innovators, none of whom had particularly outstanding talents, had accomplished a miracle.
It seems that none of the artists or craftsmen of this new “Arts and Crafts” grouping had shared the illusion of Ruskin and Morris about a return to the Gothic style. They came together around a more modest program: the creation of architecture, furniture and very simple objects, soundly conceived without any stylistic imitation. The repercussion from the efforts of this little group was considerable.
Without any great gestures or exclamations, around 1894 this “Arts and Crafts” group burst open the gates through which as soon as the creations of the English group became known on the Continent a flood of individualists were swept along by the frenzy of regained freedom, by the joy of having shaken off the nightmare of stylistic imitation. For a certain period these individualists no longer paid the slightest attention to any sort of discipline or moderation, or to anything else that might seem to restrain this freedom.
What we experienced around 1890 can only be compared with what we feel at the first signs of spring. Spring is always surprising. Each time it appears we feel the relief at having overcome a dismal apathy, of having been delivered from the burden that each winter imposes on us.
After all, we could have limited ourselves to those simple, soundly conceived, charming objects; but that would have been a constraint. Too many forces of latent creation were trying to express themselves. And in most countries artists were arising to demand the right to create the new, i.e. to create forms and ornaments freed from any imitation of any style. At the end of the last century there was a legion of pioneers of free exploration for a new style and all of them were despised and opposed in their respective countries. A few, including myself, were forced by circumstances and destiny to abandon their own country in order to be the apostle of a new idea.
I am grateful that my life has been so closely associated with this moral and aesthetic rectification that since 1894 was based on the “new.” Born with the conviction that it was an end in itself, this newness was at first very pretentious and self-satisfied. This inevitably led to exaggerated declarations which today, at a distance of more than thirty years, have the air of a carnival or orgy of individualism.
But in such situations some people come back down to earth sooner than others. It eventually became evident that the movement for a new style had a flag but no precise program. While boldly carrying that flag, we end up marching to the music of the manufacturers and the merchants.
Novelty and Newness
There was, in this pernicious enthusiasm, something to make us all lose our heads, something to demolish the tenacious effort of certain of us who were ceaselessly pursuing the discovery of the formula that would give our movement its real meaning and its program. As long as we failed to dissipate the misunderstanding that existed between us and the manufacturers, the merchants and the public, we felt threatened. We foresaw the risk of seeing our efforts produce results that were the opposite of what we wanted.
It was necessary to clarify our position as soon as possible; to disabuse those who saw in us only some “bringers of novelty”; to rid them of the illusion that after this novelty we were going to bring them yet another one.
Today it seems to us that too many great values were abandoned on the field of battle when people turned their back on the New Style by creating static doctrines that offered only an illusory chance of renewal. Today we are proposing this critique by creating the “International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus.” In Image and Form we quoted a letter from Max Bill in which he wrote: “Bauhaus is not the name of an artistic inspiration; it signifies a movement that represents a well-defined doctrine.”
It has already been over a century since this new development began, if we ignore the Classicism of the Empire engendered by the great French Revolution (that Classicism being an important factor in provoking the Gothicism reaction of Ruskin). In a long perspective of this sort, doctrines lose their own value. Modern science has come to recognize that phenomena composed of a rather large number of unique phenomena acting without causality nevertheless strictly obey the law of causality in their ensemble. Thanks to this distance, we can see this whole phenomenon from the viewpoint of necessity, despite its seemingly incoherent and contradictory details. We are able to apply to this phenomenon our laws on the conservatism and radicalism of forms: the necessity and at the same time the insufficiency of Ruskin’s Naturalism, of Van de Velde’s Inventive Ideation, and of Gropius’s Rationalism are integral parts of an inevitable dialectic of movement. This new holistic perspective leads us to awareness of a new dynamic method in formal and artistic creation. But it also shows us that we have to plunge into the confusion and act directly on contradictions by creating other contradictions if we want to fertilize our development.
Against the Imagination and for the Neutral Aspect
The moral value of forms conceived according to their strict raison d’être no longer preoccupied anyone. That which Ruskin and Morris had condemned in the name of Beauty I will not cease to denounce in the name of morality. (p. 88)
There should have been no danger or risk in denouncing ugliness nor in seeking its causes, since ugliness is an evil and a sin. Let there be no mistake: in the final analysis the recourse to fantasy signifies an indigence of the creative faculty and a cowardice. People resort to fantasy when normal and rational conceptions fail to satisfy their aesthetic longings. Fantasy is a prostitute who strokes the brow of the artist in pain and makes him believe that he is a creator because he feels inspired! (p. 34)
The silliness of certain forms resulting from fantasy knows no limits; it would be both amusing and illuminating to bring them together and parade them before those whom one seeks to edify about the disastrous consequences of disturbed conceptions.
It is in the objects systematically stripped of particularities that one finds the ideal of what we can now attain. For we are evolving in a favorable direction: we are now asking less about the Beauty of an object than about its practical qualities. This priority of the practical over Beauty has engendered numerous things of a totally neutral aspect. (p. 90)
A new discipline applied like a law of hygiene in my view, that is the program that could vanquish ugliness and wipe out evil, all the evil engendered by the intervention of fantasy. (p. 32)
They realize, consequently, that neutral state to which we appeal in the struggle against the invasion of ugliness and of the depravity of taste. (p. 39)
Fanatically devoted to the principle of rational conception and moved by the idea of the necessity of the true and moral aspect of all things, we pitilessly revised all of our opinions on styles, forms and ornaments. (p. 54)
Depending on the choices we make regarding the framework of our existence, we will create appropriate or pernicious centers for our thoughts and actions.
To live in a society with fraudulent objects is no less dangerous than to live in a society of corrupted persons, and indulgence is no longer excusable once the fraudulence has been clearly exposed. We have sought to refute by every means the notion of the “innocent lie.” (p. 88)
Ugliness and its baneful consequences are manifested only once things are presented to our eyes other than they should be to respond strictly to their most intimate meaning and purpose. (p. 106)
Against Beauty and Against the Autonomy of Aesthetics
Beauty has been able to override intelligence in human imagination, although the existence of beauty depends on intelligence. This great misunderstanding has marked the destiny of beauty. Beauty believed that it could claim its own independent existence. This mistake was the cause of the greatest disasters in the domain of architecture. (p. 122)
For more than four centuries, i.e. since the Gothic style began irremediably preparing its decline and precipitating its fall by yielding to the advances of the worst suggestions of Fantasy, Beauty has triumphed over Reason. (p. 105)
Should we one day abjure the cult of Beauty and accept a new faith? The collapse of Beauty seems imminent, but it is not yet declared. There is perhaps still time for it to avoid disaster. May it renounce its erring ways and repudiate all the styles with which it has lived a life of lies and frivolity, from the splendid hysterical explosion of the Middle Ages to the styles of curled wigs and ceremonious bows, and on to the style in which we are smothered under a mountain of senile insanities and pretentious vanities.
As long as we have not obtained such a renunciation, and as long as we have not succeeded in turning Beauty back into a virgin, we will do well to ignore it. A new era would at the same time be an era without ugliness. The exclusive practice of the rational conception will bring us this compensation because ugliness cannot withstand rigorous hygienic measures. We must seek to replace as soon as possible that which a cruel analysis has made us lose, and in the place that it has occupied in our hearts we need to prepare room for a new goddess born in the land of healthy reason, far from miracles and mysteries, and above all far from the formulas that the philosophers and aestheticians have accumulated with ardor since Antiquity. (p. 103)
Against Talent and Genius; For Order and Discipline
Toward the end of the last century, the degradation and degeneration of taste attained a degree and scope never before seen in history. Until that time, thanks to the genius and talent of artists, one could say that corruption had had “great eras” and that even the ugliness that could not fail to follow this corruption had had its “great moments.” We must not be shocked by this association of genius, talent and ugliness. For genius and talent are not instinctively repelled by ugliness. On the contrary, they are frequently signaled by very ugly tasks in the domain of architecture and the industrial arts. And that has no importance: the presence of genius seems to excuse everything. Moreover, has not all our education been for centuries oriented in a way that enables us to recognize and appreciate genius and talent, whereas we have remained incapable of recognizing ugliness? (p. 79)
Against the New; For Eternal Form
Disdain? Inability to distinguish genius and talent? No. Were we incapable of recognizing them when we noted that the genius and talent of the artists of previous centuries (Van Gogh, Gauguin A.J.) had thrown into relief the ugliness of entire eras? The principles of the rational conception of beauty and of the rational conception of forms and of construction are as old as the world. It was thus nothing but an illusion or naïveté to believe that modern architecture, an architecture that was going to voluntarily accept the rigorous rules associated with those principles, was going to bring something new into the world.
The “New” that the architecture of our era is revealing to the world was discovered on the plane of eternity. (p. 114)
An old means like Reason cannot engender a new style. A truly “new” style can be nothing but an abomination, a new victory of ugliness, because all newness is inevitably the result of an abnormal conception, as opposed to a rational conception. (p. 84)
The menace of newness has remained constant. As long as it is not eliminated, it will not only indefinitely prolong the decadence of taste, it will demoralize all those who have any direct or indirect connection with creation. (p. 65)
What attracted the manufacturers was the “novelty” of forms and ornaments, the unprecedentedness of our inventions. Any creation with any novelty in the domains of architecture or industrial arts was publicized, heatedly discussed and extravagantly praised. (p. 51)
Here we touch the problem of instinctive obsessive fear and of the depravation of taste by ornamentation.
The appeal of variation cannot be exercised as easily today as its ravages on form.
The need for variety must seek assistance from ornamentation, which is more easily variable, more capable of seducing by its novelty. (p. 63)
In the entire course of human history, we can see that the curse that today weighs on the manufacturers is substantially the same as that which led the first traders on the shores of the Mediterranean to export to foreign lands to demand something “new” and “ever newer” from the craftsmen who traded their products. In this domain, nothing has changed: the Cretans of the Minoan Era and the Phoenicians contemporary with the destruction of Troy are not very different from the modern manufacturers who are condemned to present new models each year at the international trade fairs. (The principle of newness is thus as old as the world. A.J.)
As distressing as the prospect of a general demoralization may be, it alone will be capable of converting the public, of provoking it to renounce novelty and all those ornamental motifs that have procured it such a thoughtless satisfaction for centuries.
The fact that feminine grooming has been liberated during the last few seasons (1929) from the caprices of Fashion and has sought a purer line, could provoke transformations whose importance will escape no one. We consider that henceforth abstention from decorative elements is as possible and probable in feminine grooming as in architecture. (p. 63)
We rose bluntly against novelty and against those who, at any price and whatever the cost, demanded newness. (p. 54)
In so doing, we were sweeping aside all recent and old novelties and reconnecting with tradition: the primordial tradition of conception, the conception of adequate form, pure and eternal, the conception of the inevitable determination of form by its function! Have we ever wondered about what was “new” or about the law that creates it and the principle that justifies it? (p. 55) (Apparently not. A.J.)
Against Romanticism: For a Classical Architecture
In architecture, from the cromlechs and dolmens to the Doric temple that appears to us as the culmination of primitive architecture, we can see the perpetuation of logical form, of the perfect harmony between the form and its purpose. Since prehistory invented the wall, the roof, the pillar, the architrave, the corbelment and the arch, one can count on the fingers of one hand the manifestations of “newness” in architecture. (p. 58)
We are already seeing a clear desire manifesting itself to surround ourselves with pure forms and with objects devoid of ornamentation. More and more people are aspiring to live only in interiors whose atmosphere is freed from any problematic or sentimental suggestions. (p. 115)
Incontestably, intelligence has today triumphed over feeling. Those who persist in desiring the predominance of the latter over the former are out of luck.
Feeling has found itself wedged between an unlimited will to discovery and the power of reasoning that pushes toward an eternal inevitability of logical deductions. Caught between these two pincers, sentiment and sentimentality will be smothered. (p. 60)
Who would be able to resist the emotion that I have experienced viewing that polished granite ax in the Copenhagen Museum of Prehistory, or a long, trim, impeccably formed green onyx dagger blade, dating from Egyptian prehistory, which is conserved in a glass case in the Berlin Museum, etc. (p. 97)
Of all the buildings in the world, the Parthenon is the most powerful. A superhuman emotion makes one clench one’s fists and jump as if one were in the presence of the very god of life, in the presence of Dionysus, the god of Passion, the god of Ecstasies and of Mysteries. (p. 98)
It is not beauty that we find on the Acropolis, but the divine radiance of intelligence. (p. 99)
Stripped of everything that the imagination of the Greeks of the Age of Pericles had imagined to embellish it (sculpture and colors), it appears, like a metal bridge, in a state of grace.
Thus, it was necessary that the Greek temple be divested of everything that the imagination had come up with to embellish it in order for it to be brought to the state of grace and to recover its original splendor. (p. 100)
This rapprochement tended only to recognize, in principle, the order and discipline that we oppose to the irregularity that, since Romanticism, has triumphed over Classicism.
Critique of the Doctrines of the Architect Henry Van de Velde
The theories propagated by Van de Velde and his collaborators had their period of “strict puritanism.” Architecture became strictly functional, Van de Velde considering that that was a necessary cure for its ailments. This viewpoint has engendered numerous biases that have become intolerable for us now that we have begun to feel “the frigidity of desolate regions.” Utilitarian rationalism can no longer avoid a critical confrontation with “the formulas that the philosophers and aestheticians have accumulated since Antiquity.”
Architecture and industrial forms condition the environment and life of humanity. Architecture has been called the mother of the arts. But when a mother begins to systematically kill her children, she is no longer a mother, but a monster. Present-day architecture is a monster.
We are obliged to revise the doctrines of modern architecture in order to retain those elements that are adaptable to art, to common thought, to modern philosophy and to the scientific spirit. Most of Van de Velde’s observations are both valid and valuable, but his conclusions are false because they were guided by a nonobjective mind toward an a priori position of honesty, morality, sanity and reason. In taking a stand solely in favor of everything good, he adopted an attitude that was unjust, idealistic, and unrealistic.
Evolution Is a Perpetual Profanation of Eternal Form
Van de Velde declares: “The Greek temple had magnified the elements and instruments that man had ingeniously invented since prehistory: the wall and the roof, the pillar and the architrave. The Greek temple had magnified these elements in the most perfect accordance with their form and their action.
“When official Roman architecture was born, it robbed the Greek Doric temple of its elements in order to range them among its own ornaments. The triumphal arch is the classic example, which should repel all those who have recognized in it the apotheosis of a heap of elements none of which has any true function and none of which serves what needs to be served. Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo largely contributed to augmenting the collection of ornamentalist-decorators.
“The profanation attacked the most secret essence of construction and of those elements without which such construction could not exist.
“The example of the architects of the Italian Renaissance is striking from this point of view. Did they not sanction the most fundamental error: the inversion of the elements of function and the elements of decoration?”
New Forms Precede New Creations
We will now draw our own conclusions from Van de Velde’s observations.
His declarations are quite typical and at the same time bizarre. It is necessary to grant the existence of structural functions as well as decorative functions, without which his explanation of inversion becomes absurd. This is precisely what Van de Velde denies, because he does not show how decorative elements become constructive elements, which is one of the most important phenomena in the development of forms.
We note that Van de Velde, like all modern architects (except Erik Lundberg: see his Architecture’s Language of Form), understands absolutely nothing of the dialectic of evolution in Italo-Roman architecture.
The rationalists seek an absolute symmetry between form, structure and function, whereas evolution takes place precisely by an increasingly great dissymmetry between these three elements. This multidirectional movement provokes a qualitative transformation that pushes it toward a new synthesis, toward a new symmetry. These is no such thing as innocent virgin evolution. Birth entails violence. The rationalists think that it is the aims that engender new forms. This is the case only within particular frameworks. New aims that revolutionize our lives are unforeseen and are provoked by the introduction of forms that are useless or whose use is imaginary and decorative. Long periods may pass between the creation of a new form and its practical use.
Man used clay for statues thousands of years before using it for pottery. Metal was used for jewelry long before it was used to make tools. In Mexico, as well as in Europe, the wheel was originally used only for magical and sacred purposes, never practical ones. The explosive powder discovered by the Chinese was used by them solely for fireworks. One never knows the ultimate use of a new form.
Italian Architecture and the Law of the Conservativism of Forms
There is a distinction between function (i.e. formal purpose) and structural purpose. This distinction appears clearly when we find ourselves confronted with a new structure. We have already given this definition: When a new type is invented in order to fulfill some function, its form will be influenced by the type that it is replacing or by other known or familiar forms. The known form creates the decor of the unknown object. The old structure is reduced to an element of superficial appearance.
The vault of the triumphal arch was the triumph of Roman architecture over Greek architecture. Its possibilities were experimented with in the following era, and they were superseded by the end of the Gothic. The necessity for a new architectural structure was imperative for the architects of the Renaissance. The development of modern structures was beginning. Once again the Italian architects triumphed. Thanks to their new experiments during the Baroque, Rococo, Classical and New Style periods, we have arrived at a new architectural structure that was hidden behind Greek and Gothic façades.
The total disconnect between the unreal and the real (theatrical decor versus pure decor) as well as between the great abstract structures and the pure and realist structures (the Roman Code or the Catholic Church as contrasted with the banking system) this is the force of the Italians, their essential contribution to European culture, their secret and their weakness.
An Era Without Ugliness Would Be an Era Without Progress
What is the position of “newness” in art? Its effect is well known by people of our time, which is one superficial effect of modernism. In fact, present-day life has a cult of the sensational in the press, literature, cinema, advertising, sports, etc. These manifestations, which are presented in a chaotic form and with the most vulgar, cruel and abnormal images, are condemned by religion, by morality and by reason. We, on the contrary, do not condemn them a priori, but we seek to understand them out of simple curiosity; a curiosity that is lacking among those who are partial to those sensational emotions. We are discussing this desire for sensations in terms of pure knowledge, without making any moral judgment.
The sensational and unexpected effect of surprise, which is called shock, can be provoked in an extremely primitive manner by a little violence and by inhabitual impressions of lights, colors or sounds. It has long been known that such effects can serve as treatments for certain psychological states. Normal people have just as much need for these violent blows in order to awaken their vitality. The importance of the shock effect in the arts has already been made evident by the Surrealists. (In their case it’s a matter of provoking abnormal states, of more complex phenomena provoked by extraordinary and aggressive situations.) We find ourselves in the presence of a very important phenomenon in the arts, one that classic studies ignored. This explains the widespread popularity of all the manifestations of fantasy in modern popular art, but above all it enables us to establish a new objective systematization of aesthetics that surpasses the classic quest for harmony and beauty. The conclusion of this point is that the ugly (i.e. that which is striking) is at the foundation of our actual aesthetic. When one goes beyond the state of unconsciousness and total ignorance, one enters into the field of partial knowledge of things: and this is precisely the vast field of artistic activity.
The feeling of stupor and surprise in the face of novelty is, in the presence of things whose representation is partially known, transformed into a superficial feeling of admiration or disdain, a sentiment that may be tragic or comic but that is always distinct between the spectator and the creative artistic activity; this distinction is gradually reduced insofar as the art becomes continually more evident. One thus arrives at the poetic summit, the moment where the work of art blends with popular sentiment, the drama of the emotion thus being transformed into poetry.
Feeling cannot find itself wedged between “the unlimited will to discovery and the power of reasoning” because feeling is the will to discovery. Discoveries and inventions do not owe their existence to some logical reasoning, because the sole basis of logical reasoning is existing reality. Evolution is based on desires, imaginary goals, dreams, cravings, powerful emotions and sensations: “New and ever newer” is the form that propels evolution.
Beauty Exists Only as a Function of Ugliness
The truly “new” is abominable because it is abnormal and irrational. Ugliness is no less rare than beauty. The truly “new” is the unknown, the unknowable, chaos, ugliness. Ugliness diminishes or disappears insofar as our knowledge increases; and it’s the same with beauty. Nothing is perfect except at first sight. Aesthetics concerns the ugliness/beauty opposition. The contrary of aesthetics is the boring. Attractive and positive tension implies a complementary repulsive and negative tension. If one wants to get rid of ugliness, it is also necessary to get rid of beauty; so that nothing remains but the neutral state, the boring and nonaesthetic state. An autonomous aesthetic cannot arise out of the study of beauty alone, but only out of the study of the ugliness/beauty opposition. The architects wish to totally eliminate the aesthetic aspect of our problem in order to base themselves exclusively on morality, but morality exists solely as a function of the aesthetic.
An autonomous ethics cannot be developed solely through the study of the good. It must be based on a study of the good/evil opposition. Ugliness is an evil, but sovereign beauty is also an evil. Any aesthetic activity, i.e. any striving for renewal, must be considered a perpetual sin from the moral point of view. If one does not accept this intrinsic opposition of ethics, there will be neither good nor evil, but only the neutral state.
Aesthetics Precedes Ethics
“In the beginning was the act,” said Goethe. Evil, the nonsensible act, the pure act, is older than the sensible and rational act, the good. Thus, evil precedes good. Where ethics begins, there also begins its opposite, aesthetics.
Thus, evolution is a perpetual anomaly. That which already exists and continues to exist represents what man calls the normal, the rational and the necessary. That which has never existed can obviously not be considered normal and necessary. All renewal takes place from the particular to the general, i.e. to what is shared by everyone. The “new” is necessarily something rare and strange, an anomaly, a particularity.
To avoid the abnormal, to destroy the particular, amounts to bringing evolution to a halt, since evolution represents a perpetual break with ethics. It is variety that creates the theme. It is the exception that makes the new rule.
Only feelings make one think. It is by animation, emotion, passion and ecstasy that even Van de Velde expresses the first judgment of a cultural and artistic value, and not by neutrality.
To live in a society that excluded the fantasies that dominate certain of our activities would be an ossified and mechanistic victory. It is our desires and fantasies, our dreams, that make us lie. Lies are truths about the future possibilities of humanity.
A lie is an expression in contradiction with existing reality. Everything new is at first considered to be a lie, a deception, and is distinguished from other deceptions only by subsequent experiences that indicate its probability and that ultimately transform it into a real truth. Evolution is a drama, a never-ending struggle, and misfortunes are the price of progress.
Evolution Is Sensational, Not Rational
The force of the sensational is the force of fermentation, the seemingly imaginary forces that act like yeast in bread, adding nothing except a little bit of the superficial, but transforming the compact mass into innumerable surfaces: the distinctive, radiating force of existence. The distraction created by sensational tensions transforms the thing that provokes our sensations into a phenomenon at once monstrous and marvelous, enormous and diffuse, real in the most acute sense of the word and at the same time fantastic and unreal.
The sensational or modernism is not a superficial and insignificant phenomenon distinct from profound, authentic culture. It is the very process of cultural creation, whose results, once they have settled out, belong to us definitively. Our era does not lack the sensational, but people are no longer capable of using the sensational process as a cultural method; or else they oppose it in the name of objectivity; or else they use it to take the most immediate advantages of the public’s attention. Culture in general is no longer a sensational field. Culture is no longer in a real-life situation, because one can speak of a situation only where there is an event, and an act does not become an event until it is capable of triggering a sensation.
Only the fantastic can animate reasonings. A completely rationalized and ordered life puts intelligence to sleep, replacing it with the automatic and humdrum reflexes of a sleepwalker. Intelligence and creative thought illuminate each other in the process of encountering the unknown, the accidental, disorder, the absurd and the impossible. Intelligence means making the impossible possible, making the unknown known.
This text was originally written in Italian and published in Alba, Italy (Forma e struttura, 1956), then translated into French and included in Pour la Forme: ébauche d’une méthodologie des arts, a large collection of Jorns writings published by the Situationist International (Paris, June 1958; reprinted by Éditions Allia, 2001). Translated from the French by Ken Knabb. This translation has been included in a large anthology edited by Ruth Baumeister: Fraternité Avant Tout: Asger Jorns Writings on Art and Architecture, 1938-1958 (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 2011).