Our modernism is so last century
By Blake Gopnik
By Blake Gopnik
The iPod is the latest symbol of everything that's up to date. But its best-selling, sleek design is built around ideas that have been with us for decades and decades.
A bakelite radio from the 1930s exploits the same principles of crisp forms, smooth surfaces and clean concentric circles as Apple's music player.
Same goes for all the chrome-and-leather furniture and cubic shelving that sells to our most fashion-forward loft dwellers: It was all dreamed up in the 1920s or before.
Almost every recent building that gets any kind of praise — say, Frank Gehry's famous Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao — is also deeply retrospective. The same is true for much of the current art they house.
You see that we haven't come very far as soon as you get a good look back at where we've come from — such as the view provided by "Modernism: Designing a New World, 1914-1939," a massive survey exhibition now on view at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It claims to be the first show to explore the modern movement in all its forms, from radio design to innovative furniture and clothes to architecture and fine art.
People are always talking about today's surge in design: They cite the way Gehry's splashy building turned a Spanish backwater into a profitable tourist destination, and how Apple's success depends on its investment in the innovative look and feel of its products.
This design "boom," and the way it's changing homes and offices, has even made it to the cover of Time magazine. But what they're really talking about isn't design in general, but specifically modern styling. What's being hailed is the final victory of modernism as the model for the way good objects should be made.
So this review exhibit of modernism seems absolutely timely. It displays the long-ago birth and halting development of the bent-chrome cantilever chair, now so popular. Or how about the first glass-walled, knife-edged skyscrapers? A concept for the form was explored in a huge drawing that Mies van der Rohe made in 1921 — and that could absolutely pass as the latest flashy downtown office-block proposal.
After a full century, modern design and art now look set to have the ongoing, long-term influence that only a very few other artistic movements have ever had. Modernism stands almost alone alongside Greek and Roman sculpture and architecture, and Renaissance painting as the kind of force that compels every later artist to come to grips with it.
Like many of the greatest movements and figures in art, what may be most impressive about modernism is how fertile and wide-ranging it is. Like the buildings of ancient Greece and Rome, or the pictures of Michelangelo and Titian, modernism doesn't so much provide powerfully final answers as offer an almost unending set of new questions and propositions. The London exhibition doesn't just confirm how glorious good modern objects look, it shows us that their slick, attractive surfaces have always triggered original and even subversive ideas.
Like classicism, modernism's few, potent visual ideas could always be read and used in wildly different ways.
The left could adopt them as design principles that would at last transfer a modicum of power and pleasure to the masses. One of the first built-in apartment kitchens was commissioned by Frankfurt's leftist leaders of the later 1920s, and installed by the thousands in their huge new public housing projects. It was conceived to relieve women of the burdens of the inefficient, old-fashioned interiors in which their grandmothers lived. As presented in period promotional footage, the modern kitchen provided workstations with window views, unornamented surfaces that cleaned up with a wipe and built-in everything.
The Nazis and Fascists could buy into modernism, too, as representing the bright future that a race of supermen could bring. Germany's so-called Aryan leaders could happily promote a purely modernist car design called Strength Through Joy — now better known as the Volkswagen. (The first models were in fact toys of the Nazi elite. During the war, the Strength Through Joy was assembled by slave labor.)
SHAPING A VIEWPOINT
Each group of movers and makers and thinkers picked up on modernism's novel style, then loudly justified it as the look that best reflected the world as they saw it, or as they hoped it would become. Modernism simply signified a new and forceful point of view — on whatever side of whatever argument.
Over its 100-year history, the movement's relatively modest repertoire of forms has pleased the righteous and comforted monsters; it has represented inspired chaos and oppressive order; it has harassed workers in its factories — think of Chaplin's view of things in "Modern Times" — and charmed them in their homes; been promoted by Lenin, then reviled by Stalin.
Now it may even be doing something it has never done before. Where once it inevitably signified the new and daring, of whatever stripe, modernism now can represent the comfort of an old-time vision of the future that we know and love.
Could it be that modern design helps sell the iPod not by promoting novelty, but by putting it in a "futuristic" package that is familiar and reassuring to us? Modernism no longer trumpets the truly and profoundly new, with all the dislocations that implies; it stands for an image of a future that was once on its way, and that we know panned out more or less all right — because we're living it today.