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the yoke of ornament

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From Adolf Loos, “Ornament and Crime” (1929)

Every epoch had its own style, and ours alone should be denied one!? By style, people meant ornamentation. But I said, “Do not weep. Do you not see the greatness of our age resides in our very inability to create new ornament? We have gone beyond ornament, we have achieved plain, undecorated simplicity. Behold, the time is at hand, fulfillment awaits us. Soon the streets of the cities will shine like white walls! Like Zion, the Holy City, Heaven’s capital. Then fulfillment will be ours.”

Interesting. It seems that Benjamin was a fan, which is doubly interesting. From the introduction to Ornament and Crime: Selected Essays:

The philosopher and art critic Walter Benjamin… rated this pamphlet [Ornament and Crime], with which Loos also used to harangue his audience in his notorious lectures, as the most important work “in combating the aesthetic imperialism of the last century, the ‘gold fever’ of those who proclaim the so-called eternal values of art.”

I’ll try to look up some of Benjamin’s references to Loos tomorrow and perhaps post them… But, for now, let me say that I’m interested in what Benjamin exactly means by “aesthetic imperialism.” Ambiguous. Does he mean the dominance of the category of the aesthetic in general or does he mean in particular the aesthetic of those who side with the “eternal values of art.” In other words, does Benjamin think of Loos’s essay as framing a critique of the aesthetic in general or the description of a new aesthetic, a counter aesthetic?

The category of the aesthetic – or even simply of taste – is difficult to distill from Loos’s essay. Take the following passage:

I do not accept the objection that ornament is a source of increased pleasure in life for cultured people, the objection expressed in the exclamation “But if the ornament is beautiful!” For me, and with me for all people of culture, ornament is not a source of increased pleasure in life. When I want to eat a piece of gingerbread, I choose a piece that is plain, not a piece shaped like a heart, or a baby, or a cavalryman, covered over and over with decoration. A fifteenth-century man would not have understood me, but all modern people will. The supporters of ornament think my hunger for simplicity is some kind of mortification of the flesh. No, my dear Professor of Applied Arts, I am not mortifying the flesh at all. I find the gingerbread tastes better like that.

OK, now wait, the last line is strange. The gingerbread most certainly doesn’t taste better when it’s “simple,” when it’s not shaped as a heart, or a baby, or whatever. It just tastes the same. This is more important than it perhaps looks, at first.

(I can’t decide whether or not to select “multinational capitalist chic” as one of the categories for the post. I will leave it provisionally untoggled.)

Written by adswithoutproducts

April 14, 2006 at 1:30 am

2 Responses

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  1. Did you find any of these references by Benjamin to Loos?


    July 7, 2006 at 1:24 pm

  2. Yes, I did. I’ll try to post them in the next day or two…


    July 7, 2006 at 1:56 pm

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