Georg Muche’s “Fine Art and Industrial Form” (1926)

Translated from the German by Charlotte Benton, Tim Benton, et al.

From Architecture and Design, 1890-1939: An International Anthology

of Original Articles.  (Whitney Library of Design.  New York, NY: 1975).

• • •

After an extraordinarily significant period of creative interchange between two fields that are intellectually at opposite poles, it appears that the close contact between modern art — especially painting — and the technological development of the twentieth century must lead inevitably and with surprising consequence to mutual rejection.  The illusion that fine art must be absorbed in the creative types of industrial design is destroyed as soon as it comes face to face with concrete reality.  Abstract painting, which has been led with convincingly unambiguous intentions from its artistic Utopia into the promising field of industrial design, seems quite suddenly to lose its predicted significance as a form-determining element, since the formal design of industrial products that are manufactured by mechanical means follows laws that cannot be derived from the fine arts.  It becomes evident that technological and industrial development is of a completely characteristic nature, even in regard to design.

The attempt to penetrate industrial production with the laws of design in accordance with the findings of abstract art has led to the creation of a new style that rejects ornamentation as an old-fashioned mode of expression of past craft cultures, but that nevertheless remains decorative.  But it was considered possible to avoid this merely decorative style, just because the characteristic way in which the fundamental laws of form had been creatively investigated by means of abstract painting appeared to have uncovered that these laws do not pertain just to the fine arts but are particularly significant in their general validity.

The enthusiasm for technology took on such proportions that the artist, with his epistemological arguments — often all too logical ones — disproved his own existence.  The square became the ultimate picture element for the superfluous — for the dying — field of painting.  It became an ingenious and effective document of faith in functional form in the sense of purely constructive design.  It became the evil eye against the ghosts of the past, who had enjoyed art for art’s sake.  The renunciation of art seemed to be the only way to protect oneself from the fate of being an artist in an age that needed nothing but engineers.  This led to a new aesthetic from which, in the ecstasy of enthusiasm for modern design, a broad theory was developed which is extraordinarily intolerant towards art.  This intolerance resulted from the need for the theory to set a concrete aim evoking the semblance of practical usefulness.  But it seems that art, even after it has been broken down into its actually quite art-free elements, cannot evolve where it is considered irresponsibly wasteful to violate the laws of utility by such an abundance of riches as art provides.  Such is the case in industry and technology.  As long as the engineer was bogged down in the style of past craft cultures, the industrial product remained of inferior quality with respect to its design.  The ornamental trimming by the handicrafts did nothing to improve this short-coming.  But also design in accordance with constructivist principles that were derived from abstract painting in such an extraordinarily imaginative and consistent manner, can rarely be justified except in cases where the process of production has not, or not completely, been modernized: in architecture and a few other peripheral areas.

Hence an architecture came about which used forms that looked surprisingly modern — despite the fact that its technology must remain old-fashioned as long as the engineer does not accept the entire problem of constructing dwellings as his own.  This architecture, which appears to be more than applied art, is actually nothing more than the expression of a new will-to-style [152] in the traditional sense of the fine arts.  Modern architecture is not yet part of the creativity of modern production which, already in its design theme, reflects the methods of industrialized production.  The straight line became the formal idiom of the modern architect — especially the straight line in its horizontal-vertical relationship and its versatility for static-dynamic applications in designs for spaces.  This highly intense contrast appeared to be at the same time both the expression of the new attitude towards style and the appropriate basic form for the mechanical process of production.  This was an error!

The forms of industrial products, in contrast to the forms of art, are super-individual in that they come about as a result of an objective investigation into a problem.  Functional considerations and those of technological, economic, and organizational feasibility, become the factors determining the forms of a concept of beauty that in this manner is unprecedented.  Inventive genius and the spirit of commercial competition become factors of creativity.  An age — the ‘age of the machine’ — wants to emerge.

The preceding interpenetration of art and technology represented a moment of great significance.  That moment freed technology from its last ties to an aesthetic that had become old-fashioned and in which art was taken to absurd lengths, and now it was able to go beyond this stage to find itself anew in the limitless sphere of its own reality.  Art cannot be tied to a purpose.  Art and technology are not a new unity; their creative values are different by nature.  The limits of technology are determined by reality, but art can only attain heights if it sets its aims in the realm of the ideal.  In that realm opposites coincide.  Art has no ties to technology; it comes about in the Utopia of its own reality.  The artistic element of form is a foreign body in an industrial product.  The restrictions of technology make art into a useless something — are, which alone can transform the limits of thought and give an idea of the immensity of creative freedom.

[From bauhaus (Dessau), Vol. I, No. 1, 1926]

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~ by Ross Wolfe on October 20, 2010.

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