Karel Teige’s “Constructivism and the Liquidation of ‘Art’” (1925)

Translated from the Czech by Alexandra Buchler.  From Between Two Worlds:

A Sourcebook of Central European Avant-Gardes, 1910-1930.

(The MIT Press.  Cambridge, MA: 2002).

• • •

Constructivism should not mean a transitory aesthetic and artistic fashion, but instead an important present-day phase in the development of human thought and work, a name given to this moment in history, the most recent variation of art in Europe.  It is not a narrow artistic ‘ism’, which from time to time ruffles the flat surface of artistic life.  It is an active and vital power, a powerful and penetrating movement, which with increasing intensity is gaining ground in all civilized countries, a movement which is general and totally international, a healthy guide for all productive work.  The triumph of its view and its methods — everywhere discernible — is an important and essential feature of our times.  Constructivism is the beginning and the signal of the new architecture, the start of a new epoch of culture and of civilization in general.

The term Constructivism almost interprets itself, so to speak, both philologically and etymologically.  It derives from the verb to construct. Hence the word Constructivist is simply synonymous with the word constructive.  Although this interpretation seems simplistic, it is in fact incomparably closer to the truth than the understanding of Constructivism as a new artistic ‘ism’, as the dernier cri of studios and exhibitions.  The term Constructivism does not allow one to think of art.  Although we consider Constructivism today’s style, the name of contemporary culture and civilization, it does not represent a new formalist system or an a priori aesthetic order; it abandons all traditional forms and betrays the nine Muses of classical Parnassus.  Constructivism is concerned not with forms but with functions.  The domain of all till now was formalism.  Constructivism proclaims the-exchange of formalism by functionalism.  It does not imply a new artistic formula, for the important reason that it is not concerned with art at all.

Liquidation of art.

With Constructivism we proceed

towards the all-out liquidation of art.

We proclaim the total collapse of all varieties of so-called art.  If we have been using, and will perhaps be using, the word ‘art’ as an auxiliary term, we must warn that we do not refer to sacred and sublime art with a capital A.  We do not allude to a beautiful academic art, ars academica, les beaux arts, which modernity dethrones.  For us, the word ‘umenf’ (art) derives from umet (be able to do something), and its product is the artifact.  Thus, a word signifies simply every perfect and skillful product.  In this sense, it is possible to speak of the art of building, the art of industry, theater, and film, just as of the art of cooking, poetry, photography, travel, and dance.  The Czech language allows one to speak of the art of medicine, accountancy, surveying; books and manuals exist on the art of paying one’s debts, the art of palmistry, of tying a cravat, the art of getting married.  Art is simply the manner of using specific means for specific functions, which are usually more or less changeable.  According to the Larousse, art is the application of knowledge towards the realization of a certain task.

It is thus clear that we do not assign to art any sacred and cult supremacy, we do not suffuse it with incense.  We renounce entirely all aesthetic fetishism.  Modern vitality considers so-called art an anachronistic aesthetic mentality; Futurists in Italy and Russia spit on the altar of art.  Rationalist and unprejudiced Constructivism states that all the problems of so-called art are no longer relevant, that art itself is worthless, that it approaches its end and therefore art and the artist simply lose all their raison detre. The degeneration of the former types of art, painting, sculpture, and theater is evident and cannot be concealed.

OUR CIVILIZATION IS NOT A CIVILIZATION OF ART AND CRAFT (l’epoque des arts et des metiers) BUT THE CIVILIZATION OF THE MACHINE (le siecle de la machine!).

[584]

When the Constructivists (using the words of Ilya Ehrenburg) proclaimed ‘new art stops being art’ they did not wish to pronounce a clever paradox or to commit an act of Futurist-like iconoclasm.  They wanted only to state a fact, to declare that there are no eternal values in art, and that today’s art faces its end.  If by art we understand products which meet precisely certain material or spiritual needs, which satisfy human beings in all their complexity, then art is in this sense eternal, no matter how much its forms and modes may change; this art lasts as long as mankind lasts…The human need for shelter and clothing is evidently almost everlasting, but it does not follow from this that decorative art is equally everlasting.  The human need for poetic pleasure, for spiritual diversion, the need of the senses to be stimulated through colors, forms, sounds, words, and odors, appears permanent, but it does not follow from this that there will always be a need for easel painting, symphonic orchestras, and literature.  All the more so, because modern man’s thirst for beauty is sooner quenched elsewhere, right in the middle of the drama of life, rather than by so-called art.  Modern man feels the inadequacy of contemporary art.

The Constructivists do not propose a new art form but a plan for a New World and a program for a new life.  They do not apply some kind of aesthetic theory; they create a new world.  They simply come and offer a design for a new globe.  They intend to reconstruct the world on a new foundation, which is oriented to a more just social equilibrium.

They reject en bloc all Classicism and Romanticism, all ‘-isms’ and aestheticism, a deed that requires both a strong will and a clear and far-sighted intelligence.  They abandon stuffy museums and cemeteries of thought and they shake the dust off their shoes.  As the past is dead and history has stopped being a teacher, it is not necessary to refer to the past, to tradition and to history…We may reduce all history to statistics: it tells us more and is less deceptive.

All modern art ‘-isms,’ even the most oppositional, looked for their analogies in the past in order to prove their legitimacy.  With a little good will, this could always succeed.  Everything can be found in history, everything legitimated with examples amassed from history.  If you like, you can find Cubism, Orphism, Futurism, and Impressionism in the great masters of the past.  In history, however, against every argument pro, you may find an argument contra, and so on ad infinitum…Therefore, we have decided to desist from confirming modern principles by references to arguments culled from the history of art, simply because we are convinced that these are no arguments at all and we know that the modern epoch is essentially incomparable with any epoch in the past.

The twilight of artistic archetypes has arrived. Eyes that can see, intelligence that comprehends, sensibility that feels, know that in the field of so-called art the part of models is larger than that of true values.  Precisely because the so-called eternal values turned into archetypes, they have in fact been dead long since.

The unbelieving and skeptical modern mind never lets itself be deceived by the superstition of eternal values.  Our stoical time knows that every human action is provisional, that there are no definite states, that nothing lasts except that which is no longer alive.  Eternity belongs to cosmic powers, and we need not and cannot worry about them.  There is no truth but the occasional and the ephemeral.  The basic trait of the modern mind is skepticism about all dogma, all absolute validity, and all eternal, immortal values…Constructivism knows what the world looks like without any absolute values.

The rational mind of Constructivism is necessarily relativist.  It has a rather ironic conception of eternity and the absolute.  It knows that the Heavens, considered indestructible, do not record anything but the constant transition of all (A. France).  Modern philosophy, which examines every fact and analyzes all its essential elements regardless of the external marks (e.g., ‘art’) under which it might appear, which explores its [585] immanent possibilities and conditions, must first ask what was that which is.  Therefore, criticism should be the science of the development of art.  And here we recognize that there is no absolute truth even in art, for its spirit regenerates uninterruptedly; the notion of truth is refuted by the notion of evolution.  And if the world develops so does man, who is in no way a finite being but one who evolves incessantly towards the perfect type, a continuous attempt to become a new man.  A man of one generation never demands and never creates the same poetry as a man of an earlier generation.  There is no eternal duration; there is only everlasting change and renewal.  ~ new, active, and dynamic notion of eternity, in which there is no room for static everlasting values and truth.  An absolute and normative aesthetic is impossible and is nonsense.  The ideal erotic type changes fundamentally both in space and time and the ideal of beauty, on which it depends directly and indirectly, changes even more.  For a Negress, the idea of beauty lies in thick lips, for the sportsman in Fairbanks, for Plato in ephebes, for the Tunisian Jew in a corpulent bride, and for today’s girl in herself.

We cannot rely on the principles of traditional and classical aesthetics.  Classical aesthetics is inadequate for all the manifestation of contemporary productions and cannot serve as basis for modern criticism…Every work of art has its own time-bound system, its principle, and therefore its aesthetics…A theory in itself is worthless and meaningless; it has value only if it relates to a certain work, direction, and movement.

Historical or traditional ideals and norms of aesthetic do not exist; there are no inherited laws.  Modern culture and civilization are a fact and they carry their own laws and conditions.  If a work of art proves viable even though it contradicts dominant views it would be foolish to condemn it.  If the new phenomena of technological civilization prove that their poetic intensity is an excellent substitute for the dying types of art we will welcome it wholeheartedly.  We do not wish to crush a view that may probably propose the needed solution.  Ancient beauty and medieval beauty are incomparable with today’s beauty and we shall not refer to them.  Men often stress the so-called eternal rule of art.  But this allegedly eternal rule, which is, incidentally, deduced from works of art ex post, should logically exist a priori.  But works of art are not principles; they are results and consequences that grow out of multiple experiences.  When new facts of life and culture emerge, philosophy, ethics, morality, aesthetics, and criticism automatically need new criteria and new yardsticks.  According to contemporary relativism and pragmatism both truth and beauty are qualities of a kind, that is, they are not autonomous categories, which might to some extent be considered correct.  It is therefore a question of utility which ethos is production.  Incidentally, in this utility we do not include only material utilitarism.

The functionality of art (by no means a certain form, a certain content, and a certain tendency — the erroneous German aesthetics of content) constitutes the first and most important criterion.  In future, we will not waste useless, abstract words on form and content and their relationship, for correctly stated questions relate to function.  The Constructivist era replaces formalism with functionalism. It is no longer a question of form, but of maximal functionality.  And in this point we part for good from traditional aesthetics and so-called art.

After we have left the tabernacle of art, we find ourselves immersed in the center of real life.  Modern life is devoid of creed; this is the creed of modern man.  It created its products not according to the dictates of aesthetic and ethic theories but in the measure of man.  Against all stylistic and aesthetics criteria, Constructivism postulates the human measure. ‘What man has become, a being in itself, contradicts nature.  Herein lies his greatness and beauty.  Human beauty is artificial and only this suits him and is natural for him; it is an invention, which is gradually perfected, one of his greatest works and the arch-creation of his intelligence: For the Constructivists, man is the [586] measure of all things. Architecture, cities, machines, sports, all are after the measure of man.  Man is the measure for all tailors. He, then, is the stylistic principle that underlies all architecture, for aren’t our apartments essentially an extension of our clothes? And is it not necessary for our apartments to fit us as constructively as our clothes? Must they not be as purposeful, as hygienic, as discreet, and as elegant? Modern style and modern culture do not have a uniform canon of form; they are functional.  Nor do they have uniform constructive principles like Classic and Gothic architecture used to have.  The common denominator for everything is man

Man clothes and arms himself by means of civilization.  The form of civilization results from his struggle with nature and its exploitation and it changes from one generation to the next.  Nanuk, a primitive man, has a biomechanical civilization.  His primitive tools complement his muscular skill.  Modern man has a machine civilization; the complex organization of his tools and production is guided by his even more complex mental powers.  We have left the caves and have turned into inhabitants of big cities, and although all passéists call for a return to nature, for the ‘abandonment of cities’ (Taut), we cannot renounce that which made us truly cultured: men of cities.  The intervention of the machine made possible the essential metamorphosis of culture and civilization and stimulated the liquidation of art.  For at bottom machine civilization is at variance with the civilization of arts and crafts. This antagonism cannot be eliminated by the rejection of the motorcar, the gramophone, cinema, and linotype.  Aesthetes often have a funny image of life.  Since we live in houses constructed with concrete, since we wear clothes, use plumbing and electric light, since we travel by train and read newspapers, we are-not naked in the paradisiacal primeval forest.  The machine has sealed the fate of craft.  All attempts to revive the crafts have proved not only futile but undesirable.

The machine liquidates arts and crafts.  At first it imitated manual labor, imitated it poorly; this was probably why the opposition to machine production could rise, such as was proclaimed by Ruskin.  Ruskin resembled the Don Quixote of Marx’s aphorism:

Don Quixote suffered for the wrong assumption that a migrant chivalry could be likened to all the forms of civilization.  We adapt with certain difficulty to the requirements of contemporary mechanical civilization, yet our historical education prefers to confine itself to the profound study of periods when technology made no progress.  H.G. Wells observed that in Europe historical knowledge started when the Greeks traveled the world on horseback, in sailing boats, and galleys until the time when Napoleon, Wellington, and Nelson traveled using virtually the same kind of vehicles or ships.  The discovery of steamship and of electricity — at this point history turns up its nose, sneers, and closes its eyes.  And thus a certain period of incubation was necessary until modern production thought was able to absorb the machine.  Then all of a sudden the machine created new social, intellectual, and moral relationships and conditions; it changed the environment and finally became an instructor of modern aesthetics and a means for the liquidation of art.  It became a part of man.  It is clear that its appearance either kills art or takes possession of it.  That is what Eli Faure says.  To put it more precisely, the machine replaces art.

Our time is one of science and technology.  First, they showed religion, rather irreverently, out of the workroom door.  Consistently and sincerely, they renounced all mysticism.  With idealistic exaltation, they proclaimed themselves materialistic up to the ultimate consequences.  Joyfully, they hoisted the flag of positivism.  They experimented.  When religion lost its credibility science found it.  Scientists believed that their work could install heaven on earth.  This heaven is called technical civilization.  In the seclusion of laboratories, scientists discovered radium, x-rays, and serum.  As a result of the specific discoveries of pure science, which are made under the microscope, gigantic and far-reaching changes are made in manufacture and industry; technology, which applies these discoveries, arrives at ever newer inventions.  These in turn modify opinions, [587] correct medical and hygiene practices, and reform legislation and morality.  The driving force behind this progress is the machine. The machine shortens working hours to their maximum efficiency.  Its law is minimum effort for maximum effect. This is the law of economy. The law of economy is the law of all work.  And work is the only law of the world, its ordering force, which leads organized matter to an unknown destination.  Industry produces in one year more products than manual work produced in a century.  Machine civilization gave modern man ‘the song of iron, the buzzing song of electric sparks…and they understood that this was the song of their time, they hear its merciless cadences in the blast of trains, which run above their heads,’ says Kellerman in his Der Tunnel.

The machine is no picturesque subject, but the form and development of a certain amount of energy organized in a certain manner.  It is not a theme for art, but an instruction for the mind.  It is a model of modern aesthetics, almost a symbol of modern beauty…

‘Les belles formes sont les plans droits avec les rondeurs,’ said Jean August Dominique Ingres.  And with this quotation, one can verify the beauty of mechanical product, if one wants to.

Are not ball bearings, for instance, a joy to look at? The brilliance of magnificent modern materials, the precision of geometric forms — the circle and the sphere are forms that flatter most our sight — they suggest directly the perfection of their function.  This beauty matches precisely the character of our times, which are industrious and sober, matter-of-fact and hard working.

When we discuss machine aesthetics, we have to point out that we do not intend to preach the deification and worship of the machine.  The sentimentalists could not help condemning the machine and the Futurists glorified it; but it is necessary to consider it rationally and bear in mind in what respect the machine constitutes a source of instruction and how it directs us to a new sensibility.  We live in an era of steel, and polished steel fascinates us; if mechanical beauty is not the work of so-called practical common sense, it is simply the work of modern man, it is the fixed point of contemporary culture.  The machine is an interfering element in modern culture.  So far, modern artists have accepted the machine in a rather incomplete and mainly artistic manner.

And in essence, naturalistically, the majestic beauty of the machine should not be crowned with ornaments or panegyric poetry.  Marinetti’s poetry and Leger’s paintings of machines have not augmented the beauty of the machine and the limousine.  It is better to leave machines where they are; they belong to the factory and not in paintings, works of sculpture or poetry.

The instruction offered us by the machine is roughly as follows:

We see that wherever the engineer worked conscientiously with disregard to aesthetics and without any artist interfering with his work, he achieved a pure and complete modern beauty, using new materials.  The machine was not created for exhibitions but for use, although the sight of a factory at work is a dazzling modern theater. Clean profiles, clear outlines, precise and categorical motions of the machine prompt us to develop the logical and creative faculties of the mind; they liberate feelings, which were perverted by earlier art, which being supernatural was a hand-made drill in metaphysics.  To dress up mechanical forms, whose beauty rests in precision and function, with external decoration and to relocate them on a canvas or on a building, as was done in Jugendstil and is done even now, is tantamount to false and unenlightened machine romanticism and is a fundamental error.  The Greeks of antiquity would have surely never applied the curves of their ship to their architecture, while the Romantics of the machine calmly apply the forms obtained through aerodynamic calculations to furniture and buildings, that is, to static objects.  (Mendelsohn’s Einstein Tower in Potsdam.)

[588]

What lesson does the machine teach us? Artists through handicraft have not invented the mechanical principles of today’s aesthetics; modern constructors have, who have never thought of art.  They aimed at the complete fulfillment of a concrete task.  And we declare that when one seeks solutions to a concrete task and a concrete problem with utmost economy and precision, one achieves the purest modern beauty without superfluous aesthetic considerations.  It is impossible to say that this beauty begins where the completely fulfilled utility ends, it is simply not possible to distinguish the beauty from the utility of a form.  It is not possible to argue that architecture starts where the construction ends.  It is impossible to say so, because the moment we achieve all-round, goal-oriented perfection, we automatically achieve beauty.  It is impossible to precisely determine at which point this beauty starts, just as we do not know where the curve changes its route, or when an object that answers practical needs appeals to our aesthetic perception.  We do know that form in itself is unimportant and that it impresses our sensibility and interests our vitality only when it is associated with some function.  At this point we declare that all beauty probably begins where the indifference to utility ends.  Powerful modern beauty exists in every object which is made for a precise and definite purpose and which fulfills exactly the end for which it is intended.

All the confusion that besets contemporary visual artists derives first from a lack of clear aims and an imprecision concerning the use of the object.  By contrast, the products and constructions of modern industry give birth to new beauty.  New proportions, a game of volumes and materials, for which we cannot find examples in history, contain number, that is, order. These undeniably beautiful constructions evoke a virile atmosphere.  Their modern beauty is mathematical. It is the beauty of a perfect system.

It might be objected that many machines that serve their purpose in every respect may be unsightly and ugly.  This is not quite true.  If they are plain, it is mainly because they are perhaps not totally functional, because their perfection is only relative and they demand further perfection.  It would be possible to say that an ugly machine calls directly for further perfection, that its ugliness is a symptom of imperfection.  We affirm that the more a machine is perfect, the more beautiful it is. And it is perfect and consequently beautiful only when absolute functionalism, to the exclusion of beauty, was the only intention of its constructor.  When two machines that serve the same purpose stand next to one another, and both have been assessed as equally perfect in their utility, and one of them is more ugly, there cannot be any doubt that the more beautiful functions better.  Machines are born of calculation and calculation always leaves several possibilities, it always opens the way to a number of modes.  The choice of the best (implicitly the most beautiful) solution, is the work of mathematical intuition.

Mathematical intuition, which intervenes here, does not mean artistic intuition, aesthetic or formal: where well-disciplined and logical mathematics is involved, there is no room for feeling, fantasy, and taste.

The mathematical spirit of the machine explains everything.  It explains its regular perfection, and its latent and innate irrationality.  Where we speak of mathematical intuition, where we explain the beauty of the machine and the beauty of the machine is an irrational value of a rational product we realize that beyond the rational evaluation lurks the efficacy of irrationality.  Mathematics, or rather geometry, was defined as the art of thinking with precision about imprecise facts.  Indeed, mathematical thought operates with fictions, with knowingly incorrect conclusions, which are voluntarily accepted as correct…? is an irrational number, which can be rationalized to many decimals, but always only partly; irrationality cannot be eliminated.  Every machine with ball bearings, every cylinder contains a p, an irrational element.  The formula of the circle, a fundamental form, is irrational.  All the inexplicability of the [589] beauty of the machine probably lies in its irrationality.  And thus, the machine could be not only the model of modern mind and logical work, but also of modern sensitivity.

There is nothing more nervous than a running motor.

Intervention of irrationality signifies the intervention of mathematical intuition.  Instead of the advance of elementary and mechanical logic, we speak of the intervention of a biomechanical factor, of invention. The biomechanical power of human inventive faculty cannot be defined.  In a series, there is always room for sudden changes: invention is the only unpredictable and accidental element in industry and technology.  Invention precludes chance, and where chance prevailed (as was the case in so-called art) invention cannot come to its own.

Therefore, the aesthetics of the machine tells us: a product is beautiful when it has been created economically and precisely for maximum perfection and utility, and without any aesthetic considerations.  The machine is the work of specialists, of the engineer, never of the artist.  We need specialists.  An accomplished specialist produces a perfect object.  But this is not much.  The specialist can meet only existing needs; he cannot awaken new needs.  A specialist who is detached from the rest of life is an ‘acultural’ phenomenon, which is incapable of moving development forward.  The inventor is a specialist — he is a modern man.  The vital force rests in the biomechanical factor of inventive power.  We need inventors.

[‘Konstruktivism a likvidace urnenf,’ Disk, No. 2, 1925]

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~ by Ross Wolfe on October 20, 2010.

3 Responses to “Karel Teige’s “Constructivism and the Liquidation of ‘Art’” (1925)”

  1. […] Teige, Karel.  “Constructivism and the Liquidation of ‘Art.’”  Translated by Alexandra Büchler.   Between Two Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European […]

  2. […] Its law is minimum effort for maximum effect.  This is the law of economy.”  Teige, “Constructivism and the Liquidation of ‘Art.’”  Pgs. […]

  3. […] Teige, Karel.  “Constructivism and the Liquidation of ‘Art.’”  Translated by Alexandra Büchler.   Between Two Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European […]

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