PRINT February 1975

Embalmed Objects: Design at the Modern

How can we bear to use, how can we enjoy some- thing which has been a pain and a grief for the maker to make?
—William Morris

We . . . have fewer servants. . . .
—Arthur Drexler

WHEN THE MUSEUM OF Modern Art was founded in 1929 Alfred Barr suggested that there be a ranking department of architecture and design. The intent was “that standards be defined and history written for architecture and design just as for painting and sculpture.”1 The collection devoted to design was conceived as consisting mainly of actual “mass-produced useful objects made to serve a specific purpose,” and accessions were to be passed by a trustee committee, as with painting and sculpture. These acquisitions were expected to meet twin criteria of “quality2 and historical significance.” From the start the Museum, and later its curator Arthur Drexler, played an active and responsible role in encouraging “good design,” whatever for the moment that might mean.

The 1940 “Organic Design” competition resulted directly in the production and distribution of winning chair designs by Eames and Saarinen, and later the “Good Design” program of Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., had a practical influence upon department-store buyers.’ However, now that an item is advertised on the radio as being in the Modern’s collection, and now that an exhibition of reconstructions of Mackintosh chairs coincides with their marketing by an Italian firm, we are led to reconsider what such encouragement implies.

No one would deny that the vast design collection, most of whose objects are never displayed, has been one of the most original and effective divisions of The Museum of Modern Art, museologically speaking. But there are indications that the presumptions it has made, and even the nature of its successes, are no longer defensible or desirable. If A. Conger Goodyear could cheerfully describe the “Useful Objects” exhibition of 1938 as "a delight to shoppers,”4 Russell Lynes has long since compared the inclusion of objects in this collection, and the imprimatur that follows from inclusion, with the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approvals More generally, however, the collection rests on premises involving theoretical contradictions and requiring historical falsification to be sustained.

The Museum of Modern Art came to maturity alongside the art of the New York School. It stood in a partly complementary, partly paradoxical relation to Abstract Expressionism in painting. Generally its taste in architecture and design was anti-expressionist and more Constructivistic than in painting and sculpture. The design collection had the didactic intent, in a prosperously optimistic ’50s sense, to counter antimodernist reaction. If you couldn’t understand a Mondrian,you could still appreciate a Braun toaster.

Pure “design” in the abstract was, of course, a definite no-no for the Abstract Expressionists in painting. Gottlieb and Rothko’s manifesto in the Times in 1943 said, “Our work . . . must insult anyone who is spiritually attuned to interior decoration.” That had to do with a stress on the viscerally “deep” and a disavowal of traditional pictorial composition. But the terms nevertheless retain a certain cutting edge, as they also do in Newman’s attack, in his 1947 Ideographic Picture catalogue essay, on “the meaningless materialism of design.” Thus, almost as soon as it emerged from the 1930s—when design and architecture showed, if anything, more visible vitality than painting and sculpture—the design collection could only indirectly complement the loftier but antithetical modernity of contemporary painting and sculpture.

Sometime between the coming into favor of the New York School, on the one hand, and the emergence of the Modern as the ideal place for a businessman’s lunch on the other, the design collection began to lose its enticingly didactic value. Cracks began to appear in its operational philosophy—some of them on the order of internal contradictions. The collection emphasized a timeless perfection of form yet desired to embalm its choice objects as if in a time capsule. Considering itself liberal-democratic and popularizing, the department trounced on anything that appealed to common affections—particularly “the pseudo-traditional pastiche, admired for its ‘warmth’ and ‘charm’.” Art Deco, for its part, was judged “sincere but unfortunate” and unworthy of support. More seriously, the design crusade claimed a missionary enthusiasm, consciously moral in tone and devoted to a detached ideal of beauty, while all the while affirming a bourgeois-materialist paradise of washer-dryer salesmanship. The pose of classlessly pure taste and hipness has emerged, after all, as little more than public relations for automated waste, vanity, and ennui.

More and more it began to appear that once we all got a Braun toaster, a Thonet rocker, and an Olivetti typewriter (on which I confess I am writing, although the design has deteriorated from the high classic phase of 1949), we could make sophisticated use of leisure—a promise now fulfilled in overdoses by unemployment—by frequenting fine arts collections. The implications of that attitude for painting and sculpture appear increasingly dated and insulting, even if the notion of fine art as usefully restful after other work does carry a distinguished pedigree (see Appendix). Though the pitch is at different levels, a MoMA-certified chair beckons purchase from the middle-class viewers just as a MoMA-type painting tempts the purse of a plutocrat. The one artifact confers high social status; the other, transcendent vision on its owner.

There are two critical problems here, the first being the relation of the “fine” to the “useful” arts. There is, as I can only sketch out in the Appendix, a tradition hold-ing that the making or viewing of fine art involves rest from the “real” work of everyday life. Yet, by the same token, the fine arts thus seem to provide a useful service, and the painter or sculptor becomes, like every entertainer, a worker whose job it is to restore the spirits of others. The fact that this makes the art-worker like other workers in one way and totally unlike other workers in another, is a recurrent problem. But that is not as important as the overarching usefulness of art as a paradigm of nonalienated work. In that sense the differentiation between “fine” and “useful” arts on the basis of categorical “media” alone, distracts from a more fundamental distinction between arts in which there is no systematic division of labor, versus arts in which conception is insulated from execution. In many different ways the Modern can be found conferring on works of the second type—manufactured objects—the aura of the first type, or, at least obscuring the play and range of labor in an object.

The other critical problem raised by the elevation of objects that are, in fact, simple commercial commodities to the status of artworks of transcendent value, is that commodities themselves seem already to possess such a feature (so that a painting is not an exception, a special, ideal kind of extra-, or even super-commodity, but may actually instead be an ultra-commodity).

Marx discussed the curious transcendental aspect of commodities in the section of Capital called “The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof,” separating in a commodity its use-value and its exchange-value. We might expect—as when The Museum of Modern Art was exhibiting “Useful Objects,” in the heyday of corporate functionalism—that the use-value part of a commodity is its more “real” value component. Actually, Marx says,

Could commodities themselves speak, they would say: Our use-value may be a thing that interests men. It is no part of us as objects. What, however, does belong to us as objects, is our value. Our natural intercourse as commodities proves it. In the eyes of each other we are nothing but exchange values.6

Except for some recent ventures into rich eccentricity (mostly stimulated by the chic Milan-Turin industrialist set), the taste of our design collection has always had the character of a luxury spin-off of Bauhaus and other international Constructivist ideas (minus their intended social relations). As such, the body of material amounts to promotion for the takeover of modernism in architecture in the 1940s and ’50s by a highly corporate conventionalization of the International Style, just as the same movement managed to strip Le Corbusier of social revisionism by setting him up as a tastemaker with a “look.” Actually the Modern’s 1938–39 Bauhaus show was a critical flop, but in terms of the corporate style there is obvious significance in the sequential titling of two other architectural exhibitions: “Architecture in Government Housing,” 1936, and “Buildings for Business and Government,” 1957.

The shift in favor of corporate identity was already pointed out by Thurman Arnold in The Folklore of Capitalism (1937): " . . . The religion of the essential dignity of an individual’s accumulating wealth by trading . . . later became the mystical philosophy that put the corporate organization ahead of the governmental organization in prestige and power, by identifying it with the individual.”7 The new corporate International Style, whose own golden age and twilight are now seen to mark the waxing and waning of U. S. corporate capital in the West after World War II, looked on most other architecture of the immediate past and present as a more or less muddled groping toward the true path. Because its presumptuous dogmatism has failed even its former advocates,8 the style’s own bankruptcy now removes that much more conviction from the design collection which helped to back it up, and with it that much more of the detached educational mission of The Museum of Modern Art.

(By 1962 George Kubler, in The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things, had already challenged the obliviousness to history in the modern design movement: “men like Walter Gropius sought to invent everything they touched all over again in austere forms which seemed to owe nothing to past traditions. This task is always an unsurmountable one By rejecting history, the purist denies the fullness of things.”)

Even when the theories behind the design collection ran most smoothly there was theoretical fudging, glossed over by an ostensibly liberal willingness to overlook history. The origins of the modern design movement can be traced back to William Morris, who drew on Pugin—and beyond him, Blake.9 All its basic motivations were grounded in the problem of the alienation of the workman under capitalism, and they suggest that what capitalist culture needs most is not a new “look,” but something more on the order of demolition and rebuilding. Making “arts-and-crafts” objects one-by-one, by hand, was, meanwhile, a stop-gap measure to compensate in some degree for the dehumanization of capitalist production. Morris, of course, could always be put in his place as a harmlessly idealistic handicraftsman; and naturally The Museum of Modern Art, given its ownership, is not going to put up a fight about something like that: for Drexler “ . . . The shapes that most readily suggest the twentieth century are usually geometric, precisely finished, smooth, and without the elaboration and variety of detail we associate with the craftsman’s handiwork.” Often such talk drifts to the political right (although a Communist like Leger shared in it). Compare T. E. Hulme:

In the new art . . . there is . . . a desire to avoid those lines and surfaces which look pleasing and organic, and to use lines which are clean, clear-cut and mechanical. . . . You will find a sculptor disliking the pleasing kind of patina that comes in time on an old bronze and expressing admiration for the hard clean surface of a piston rod).10

Perhaps even the politics of such taste, at its most exaggerated, is affected by psychological alienation, as with the puritanism of T. E. Lawrence.

The issue here is not that The Museum of Modern Art can be accused of telling a wrong story of modernism in design, but that it does, in its own class interest, tell next to no story at all, even though it had set out to be as historically concerned with design as with painting and sculpture. The truncated historical impression that one gets of the Bauhaus as a liberal, modernist institution, closed down by totalitarian interference is an example. The details, as related by Walter Dexel, a contemporary critic and the author of a book that distinguishes an ornate design tradition associated with the aristocracy from a simple one belonging to the people,11 are worth recounting.

Gropius resigned in 1928 because the rich only wanted to make use of the Bauhaus for their own stylistic purposes and refused capital for cheap housing designed at the school. Gropius (who with Mrs. Gropius edited the catalogue of the Modern’s unsuccessful 1938-39 Bauhaus show) was replaced as head by a Swiss disciple of his, Hannes Meyer. This activist had a sense of the school based ultimately on William Morris’s tie-up between socialism and design (later he installed the same Bauhaus show at the Modern). Meyer encouraged the architecture department to work on large-scale social projects and brought in specialists in “biotechnics,” sociology, and psychology. After doubling the output of the Bauhaus workshops in two years “by making good use of the building initiative of the trade unions and the cooperative movement,” Meyer was fired for his leftist politics. The Nazis did not so much destroy the “modernistic” Bauhaus esthetic (after all, they liked severity too), as dismantle its activism, preferring idealist notions, supposedly above ideology, of “‘purely spiritual values’”—a position associated with followers of Mies.12 It says something about the appeal and audience of The Museum of Modern Art, that a Bauhaus show mounted by Meyer and Mr. and Mrs. Gropius in 1938–39 should make less impact than any of a number of such idealist dilutions over the next 20 years.13

Rockefeller’s museum has always preferred to publish only picture books on the subject of design history. Arthur Drexler noticed in a preface to one such book that the school did produce preciously handmade objects designed to look machine-made, and that, when these designs were tooled for mass production, the necessary adjustments ironically “usually deprived a design of just that kind of detail that had given the hand-made prototype its machine-made look.” But even Drexler, on the same occasion, failed to consider that the capitalist market produced luxury objects that looked perversely machine-made, for luxury purposes. Nor did Drexler realize the conditioning of his taste in describing a machine-made look. From another viewpoint, the production of handmade items with machined perfection is nothing more than an inverted continuation of the separation between design and execution under capitalism—and the consequent auteuristic glorification of the industrial designer as an artist of academic rank (the workman is reduced to a heartless mechanism).

In art-historical terms, consider the handling of five cups and saucers illustrated in the Museum picture book The Design Collection: Selected Objects (1970): one designed and produced by Josiah Wedgwood in 1768, another by Albers and produced at the Bauhaus (1925), still a third by Trude Petri-Raben produced by the Royal Berlin Porcelain Factory (1927–33), the fourth handmade by Fausto Melotti about 1947,14 and the last designed by Nick Roericht produced by the Rosenthal China Corporation (1963). Although the Wedgwood and Albers/Bauhaus cups are juxtaposed to make an antihistorical and functionalist point, all the pictures in this book are chronologically jumbled. Line them up in sequence, however, and you discover a nice set of artifacts of the Industrial Revolution, from the logical clarity and progressivism of its opening phase in England; through the puritanical appropriation of the Bauhaus look by the haute bourgeoisie; to the perverse need of the rich for overly conspicuous handmade uniqueness, once cups of “good design” became commonly available; and finally, to a tough, stackable cup that needs no defense.

History can never be shaved off objects entirely. Take the bentwood furniture of Thonet. Here the Modern is obviously interested in a “timeless” perfection of form. It is guardedly historical enough to use Thonet’s chairs as an implied link between the curvilinear forms of Art Nouveau and the simplicity of later orthodox International Style design. It even goes so far as to juxtapose on the same page of The Design Collection a Thonet rocker of c. 1860 with Mies van der Rohe’s tubular armchair of 1926, from which we might feel encouraged to infer a historical line determined by bentwood as a technical precedent for bent metal tubing. But this comparison carefully avoids encouraging historical inquiry, and it happens that the history here is pretty interesting.

Michael Thonet, who was influenced by Morrisonian ideas of manufacture and distribution, was patronized by Metternich, who got him to settle in Vienna at a time, after 1848, when state-supported industry was booming in Austria. The Gebrüder Thonet factory became a model of advanced techniques of mass production.15 Furthermore, within the history of chairs alone, the links between Thonet and Mies are far less elusive than a simple juxtaposition based on the “surprising” modernity of Thonet might suggest. One of the most important links is a steel and plush rocker designed about 1855 by Peter Cooper, and preserved only two miles north of the Modern at the still unopened Cooper-Hewitt Museum of Design. A second and more well-known link is a rocker of strap brass, otherwise almost identical with Cooper’s, made in Birmingham, England, by R. W. Winfield in 1862 (example in Victoria and Albert Museum). Somehow, to leave out any consideration of strap-metalrockers from the comparison of Thonet’s and Mies’s examples resembles the attempt to keep both Thonet and Mies under ideological bell jars. Even Mies’s celebrated Barcelona Chair, of 1929, should probably be seen in the context of the Empire revival of the Roman sella curulis, a magistrate’s stool with joined upward and downward curving arcs for legs.

I trust it is obvious that I do not expect the Museum to collect all relevant historical examples, but that I am disappointed not to find the serious historical scholarship that we were long ago promised. For the Museum to claim, at this point, that it never sought to collect everything, would be like suggesting that its superlative record in the scholarship of painting and sculpture depended on its owning all the objects discussed.

The irresponsible play of taste over the design collection is even more serious than the naive-to-cagey avoidance of history. What, after all, is the ultimate human difference between Charles Eames’s classic plywood and leather lounge chair and ottoman, c. 1957 (whose date should have been verifiable), and a boxy, upholstered BarcaLounger from Macy’s “traditional” department? I have a training in the detached analysis of form, but in this case I see no more fundamental difference between the two chairs than social class. Both have about them an air of male menopause. Of course, part of the pleasure of sitting back—if it’s in the Eames lounger—is in knowing that you are well above a Barca. The leather matters too, for its increasing scarcity and cargo-cult value as much as for its “masculinity” or because it efficiently “breathes” (cloth breathes too). As pure form, the Eames lounger is more appealing than Barker’s (?) (who designed the BarcaLounger? which may ultimately derive from the [William] Morris Chair).

However, the impulse to invest formal value in a chair reflects provocatively on the fine arts. Matisse compared the satisfaction of painting with “un bon fauteuil” (“a good armchair”) in the “Notes of a Painter” (see Appendix) but we have here the banal reverse of the metaphor (the chair becomes conducive to the enjoyment of painting). In any case, much of the throne-like, authoritative presence of the Eames lounger can be located in its two-piece back, reminiscent of board members’ high-backed desk chairs—which may also be why, if a workingman honestly disliked the Eames lounger, he might well say that it looked too much like office furniture. The Eames piece is the kind of chair in which a liberal Republican or a Democrat of the professional class sits and waves “Hiya, fella” to a man in a BarcaLounger. Instead of being sensitive to the social ideology of these artifacts, the Modern alienates them as homeless configurations.

After drawing the previous comparison between Eames’s lounge chair and the BarcaLounger, my attention was called to an article, illustrated by a remarkable chart and published in Horizon, January 1960, in which the Eames chair and ottoman (called Executive Chair) were compared with the BarcaLounger.16 Eric Larrabee—writing, needless to say, on the verge of the Pop explosion—divided the American cultural audience into four categories of sophistication, with parallel objects of equivalent taste, from novels to “television personalities,” for each level. For chairs, Larrabee’s first tier, “Strictly for the Mass,” has the BarcaLounger; tier 2, “Pretensions to Class,” has the Eames chair and ottoman; tier 3, “Up From the Mass,” has an ice-cream parlor chair; tier 4, “Genuine Class” (“proving the far-flung response to real quality”) shows the “Sling or Butterfly Chair.”

There certainly is a prevailing taste operating in the design collection, inclusively as well as exclusively. The collection acts as though good design were not only apolitical, but even of universal human appeal and application, which is no more than a travesty of older humanistic notions of a benevolent elite. Some of these standards of taste may appear more or less self-evidently reliable. Thus the Museum does not want anything to look bakockt with ornamentation, although preferences here were for so long dogmatic as to discourage the development of any flexible ornamental sense in design. Normally an object has entered the collection only if it looks inorganic and not substantially affected—certainly not affected in a formal way—by the workmen who made it. The object is seen merely as the obedient execution of a pure concept conceived by a “professional.” Furthermore, its chances of admission are increased if the object could in any sense be considered as up-tight Protestant. Its unspoken desirability rests on these standards, to which the rest of us, in our ignoble trappings, are permitted humble access. In the interests of our own enlightenment, we are encouraged to accept the same values, even to treat them as if they were above the tastes and values that make other, less dignified people look so odd and heterogeneous. More, we are encouraged to work hard and earn this sterile majesty for ourselves, or at least to get as far as to bask in its glow. Like executive trainees, we wi II learn to escape ethnicity and bad taste and to blend in socially with the owners and their toadies. The lucite and stainless steel of our new honky universalism will raise us above a scatological and superstitious past, permitting us to become domesticated and “nice”—genteel in the most contemporary sort of way.

The Museum of Modern Art might say in effect that Long Island Italians act in bad taste when they put curlicues on their aluminum storm doors, but it wouldn’t conceivably dare to suggest that blacks have a penchant for garish patterns; on the contrary, a show like “African Textiles and Decorative Arts” (1972) encourages us to see the elegance behind garishness, at least when it’s in Africa. Actually, that other Rockefeller museum, the Museum of Primitive Art (soon to be incorporated into the Metropolitan), functions in these terms as a different kind of shrine, one to primitive potency. Pure essence of blackness, bottled and imported directly from Africa, comes to be celebrated as almost blue-blood in comparison with the distasteful ethnicity of American working people, white or black. If we set side by side, bowls from the design collection and the African collection, an implication might well arise that practically anything is better than (may I?) a Bohemian-American bowl, or a bowl that looks too Yiddish.

Good taste here has the pretense of a moral virtue. That is thoroughly Protestant, as much in its mercantile secularism as in its intolerance of spontaneity and vitality, its distrust of pleasure and its distaste for the body; as much in its attempt to invest commodities with ethical value as in its appeal to vanity and pride and its view of prosperity as a sign of salvation. The whole thing is enough to send one back to Veblen, Tawney, Weber, even H. L. Mencken, and it’s a wonder that this wasn’t utterly transparent to the generation of the Partisan Review, unless they were too busy saving up for their own Eames lounger. The people who are most at home with the design collection have always been types who think Bernini was vulgar and “untrue to materials.” They offer us tutoring which, like an Ivy education plus some luck, will allow us to leap a step or two in status (if not class) by ritually accepting the values of the Protestant establishment, an establishment—irony of ironies—that from a really Henry Jamesean New York viewpoint is hardly more than TRADE.

This bias, which cannot be compensated for by occasional examples of jaded Milan-Turin corporate eccentricity, imposes drastically uncritical limits on what gets exhibited in the design collection, and guarantees its ultimate irrelevancy. In terms of functionalism and progress, as well as simple design cleverness, it is doubtful whether Thonet’s admittedly lovely chair contributed as much to human felicity as Crapper’s flush toilet of roughly the same time. But even 60 years after Duchamp supposedly bravely revealed the ironical, unnoticed voluptuousness of a simple urinal, such matters must be proscribed in the interests of mere niceness.

Or take Levis, which no one, least of all the Modern, has been prepared to treat with historical seriousness. Levis actually belong to the earliest category of readymade“ clothing, ”slops," which were standardized clothes for sailors and slaves. It has been observed that once the top hat passed down from Gladstone to the chimney-sweep, while now dungarees have passed up from the ranch hand to the Kennedys. Yet the Kennedys themselves first came up from the city streets, into a world where the Harvard rich were themselves just acquiring the affectation of dressing down. You can find evidence of Levis in places like the Museum of Contemporary Crafts, but only the artiest, most effete variants, not the truly classic dungarees themselves—which are quite as interesting as, say, the workers’ clothing designed by Rodchenko in 1920. While social developments have thus radically impinged upon design, The Museum of Modern Art has dug in its heels and collected what it seems to think is the 20th-century equivalent of Meissen and Boulle: the next supremely lovely mix-master or the coffee table of tomorrow.

What, to appropriate a question of Tolstoy’s and Lenin’s, is to be done? Have a sale? Something ought to be done, because the design collection has worked itself out to the point where it is, in its entirety, a period piece and, as such, an embarrassment to the other collections. If anybody wants to save it as a resource, the most important thing would be to restore its contents to the flow of history, perhaps by integration with the Cooper-Hewitt Museum of Design. That would have its own problems, notably the vast scale of the Modern’s holdings: most of the objects in the “study collection,” held now in two warehouses, are never exhibited. But it could possibly remove the corporate overtone, even if the Smithsonian has its own social slant.

The design collection is already too specialized and exclusive in its taste to correct with tokenism what is wrong in the admission of new objects. Besides, in terms of functional criticism, Consumer Reports is a more instructive and comprehensive guide than the Museum, which is left behind giving academy awards for good looks and personality. It is too late to stage overcompensatory, inevitably campy, exhibitions such as, maybe, hand-striped cars, or all the objects selected by the Beames for Gracie Mansion. It is also too late to make the collection what Barr hoped it would become by doctoring it in any way. At a time when The Museum of Modern Art finds that even its painting and sculpture collections are "not infinitely expandable,18 it is all the more absurd for it to continue to collect toasters.

Finally, it would probably not be advisable to add substantially to this collection, at least in the current manner, even if it could be reintegrated into the wider history of design. It is that much the product of an outmoded and offensive world-view, that close to blatant marketing, and—despite its pretenses to contemporaneity—that removed from the social reality-principle which led William Morris (and, in one flash, Arthur Drexler19) to project that the only way to get good design is to change society.

Appendix: Art As Rest And Rehabilitation

Matisse’s “Notes Of A Painter” (1908), Contains The Following Passage:

What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of any troubling or depressing subject matter, and art which might be for every mental worker, be he businessman or writer, like an appeasing influence, like a mental soother, something like a good armchair in which to rest from physical fatigue.20

The attitude of this essay, including its famous remark, “The whole arrangement of my picture is expressive,” is unthinkable without Maurice Denis’s definition of a painting in 1890. But the “good armchair” (bon fauteuil) more than anything else seems to confine Matisse’s remarks to a conservative, even petit-bourgeois, interest in art as comfortable and decorative. However, Matisse’s thought has interesting origins.

The general idea that good art requires the leisure of prosperity, the prosperity at least of society as a whole, if not individual riches, goes back at least to Reynolds’s ninth Discourse (1780): “The estimation in which we stand in respect to our neighbours, will be in proportion to the degree in which we excel or are inferior to them in the acquisition of intellectual excellence, of which Trade and its consequential riches must be acknowledged to give the means.”21 That the individual artist or the individual spectator requires rest specifically from work, is a more special notion. Goethe, in his “On German Architecture” (1773) described the healthy young artist as one who comes “to feel the rapture which men know after work, fear and hope—the spirited cries of the laborer in the vineyard when the bounty f the harvest swells his vats, the lively dance of the reaper when he has hung his idle sickle high on the beam. . . .”22

Matisse’s specific reference to the “businessman” recalls the claim of Hume that the arts “draw off the mind from the hurry of business and interest.”23 Baudelaire, in a more sarcastic mood, addressed the following prefatory remarks “To the Bourgeois” in his Salon of 1846, using the very armchair image which is so vivid in the “Notes of a Painter”:

_Very well, you need art. . . . You understand its function, you gentlemen of the bourgeoisie—whether lawyers or businessmen—when the seventh or the eighth hour strikes and you bend your tired head towards the embers of your hearth or the cushions of your armchair. That is the time when a keener desire and a more active reverie would refresh you after your daily labours.24

Zola was blunter with “tired mental workers,” now scientists, in La Roman experimental, the treatise which he modeled on Claude Bernard’s Introduction à la médicine expérimentale: “After their accurate labours they seem to feel the need for a holiday of illusion (une récréation de mesonge). . . . They allow us to play them an air on the flute.”25 Even Van Gogh had a similar thought, in a letter to Théo in 1888: ". . . In a picture I want to say something comforting, as music is comforting.26

William Morris, for whom the architect Philip Webb designed the Morris Chair (a clumsy but upholstered armchair with adjustable back; probably the ancestor of the BarcaLounger), saw the wider implications of art for the leisure class, discussing them quite pointedly in his lecture “The Lesser Arts” (1877):

. . . Until the contrast is less disgraceful between the fields where beasts live and the streets where men live, I suppose that the practice of the arts must be mainly kept in the hands of a few highly cultivated men, who can go often to beautiful places, whose education enables them, in the contemplation of the past glories of the world, to shut out from their view the everyday squalors that the most of men live in.27

Only a year before Matisse’s essay appeared, a Russian critic, Alexander Blok, had published an essay “On the Lyric” (1907), against lyric poetry and, by implication, against all “lyrical” beauty. According to Blok, the people would beware the lyricist: “Your hands will leave off working . . . your mouth will no longer want to taste clear water but will demand heavy dark wine.”28

Werner Hofmann points out that Matisse’s esthetic of well-being and its image in the armchair were anticipated by Art Nouveau and were made explicit soon after in a statement by Henry van de Velde in 1912.29 Whether we live to see the truth of Matisse’s remark on the mental worker extend to the tired revolutionary remains to be seen.30 In 1919 Lenin came close to that transposition: “A theatre is necessary, not so much for propaganda, as to rest hard workers after their daily work. And it is still early to file away in the archives our heritage from bourgeois art.”31



1. From Arthur Drexler’s preface to his and Greta Daniel’s Introduction to Twentieth Century Design from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1959. All unascribed quotations below, not obviously from a different source, are from Drexler’s preface and introduction to this catalogue.

2. Italics in original. Cf.: “An object is chosen for its quality because it is thought to achieve, or to have originated, those formal ideals of beauty which have become the major stylistic concepts of our time.”

3. Somehow magazine advertisements for commercial textiles copied from examples in the Metropolitan Museum and the Smithsonian Institution seem more simply vulgar than exploitative.

4. Quoted in Russell Lynes, Good Old Modern: An Intimate Portrait of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1973, p. 180.

5. Ibid., p. 181.

6. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production, trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, ed. Friedrich Engels, London, 1902, Part I, Chap. IV, Sect. 4, pp. 41–55, esp. p. 55.

7. Thurman W. Arnold, The Folklore of Capitalism, New Haven and New London, 1937, p. 186.

8. See, most recently and candidly, Peter Blake, “The Folly of Modern Architecture,” The Atlantic Monthly, September, 1974, pp. 59–66.

9. William Blake, in “The Laocöon Group” (1820): “A Poet, a Painter, a Musician, an Architect: the Man or Woman who is not one of these is not a Christian.”

10. T. E. Hulme, “Modern Art and Its Philosophy,” in his Speculations: Essays on Humanism and the Philosophy of Art. 1st ed. 1924 ed. Herbert Read, 1925, p. 97. What could be called the politics of the machined cylinder is not an altogether simple matter. After all, it was Léger, on the far Left, who said: “What I experienced during the war was decisive . . . The open breech of a 75mm cannon in the bright sunlight taught me more than all the museums.” Blaise Cendrars’ poem “Construction” (February 1919) ends with the lines: “Life / The machine / The human soul / A 75mm. breech / My portrait.” Léger’s own essay “The Aesthetic of the Machine” (1924) contributes to the same esthetic, although it closes with a reservation that perfect functionalism does not necessarily produce perfect beauty—remarking, “Chance alone presides over the appearance of beauty in the manufactured object.” Nevertheless, the piston mystique had special appeal to Futurists, Vorticists, fascists, and others for whom anarchy was the foreplay of absolute order—which was not a kick for Léger.

11. Walter Dexel, Deutsches Handwerksgut: Eine Kultur-und Formgeschichte des Hausgeräts, Berlin, 1939; discussed in Herwin Schaefer, Nineteenth-Century Modern: The Functional Tradition in Victorian Design, New York and Washington, 1970, p. 2.

12. The preceding discussion is based on Edmund Goldzamt, William Morris a Geneza spoeczna Architektury nowoczesnej, Warsaw, 1967, English summary, esp. pp. 340–42.

13. Lynes, pp. 181–82 for the Bauhaus show.

14. Italian designers have a positive lust for expensively decadent post-functionalism: witness the surrealistically bent and impossibly antiutilitarian prongs. of the silver forks designed by Bruno Munari (1964) in the design collection, not to mention the high incidence of opulent camp in the 1972 show called “Italy: the New Domestic Landscape.”

15. From the introductory remarks of Karl Mang to the catalogue of the Bethnal Green Museum (London) exhibition “Bentwood Furniture: the Work of Michael Thonet” (An Exhibition Designed by the Architects Karl and Eva Mang Originally Shown at the Austrian Building Centre, Lichtenstein Palace, Vienna) London, 1968.

16. Eric Larrabee, “The Cultural Class War,” Horizon, January, 1960, pp. 4–11. I am grateful to Luc Sante, my student, for leading me to this article.

17. The original application of the term “readymade” was to off-the-rack clothing, although by the time of William lames (1890) it could describe an idea or character; see Joseph Masheck, ed., Marcel Duchamp in Perspective, Englewood Cliffs, 1975, Introduction, “Chance is zee Fool’s Name for Fait,” esp. pp. 10–16.

18. See “Talking with William Rubin: ’The Museum Concept is Not Infinitely Expandable,’” Artforum, October, 1974, pp. 51–57, where Rubin also maintains that “taste-making” is not one of the proper functions of the Museum.

19. Well, almost: (Drexler) “Technology often seems to be teaching us that the process by which things are made is more important than the things themselves.”

20. Herschel Chipp, et al., Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics, Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London, 1970, p. 135. Cf. Henri Matisse, Écrits et propos sur l’art, ed. Dominique Fourcade, Paris, 1972, p. 50, with extensive notes.

21. Joshua Reynolds, Discourses on Art, New York, 1961, p. 149.

22. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “On German Architecture,” in his Literary Essays, ed. J. E. Springarn, New York, 1921, p. 13. Goethe seems to allude to both the Parable of the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1–16) and the conspicuously unproductive Birds of the Air “who neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them” (Matthew 6:26). This seems a peculiarly German way to vindicate the apparent indolence of the artist’s life. For Carlyle, Ruskin, and Morris on work, see D. S. R. Welland, The Pre-Raphaelites in Literature and Art, London, 1953, pp. 23–24.

23. David Hume, “Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion,” in his Of the Standard of Taste and Other Essays, ed. John W. Lenz, Indianapolis, 1965, p. 27.

24. Charles Baudelaire, Art in Paris: Salons and Other Exhibitions, trans. and ed. Jonathan Mayne, New York, 1965, p. 41.

25. Quoted in Edgar Wind, Art and Anarchy: The Reith Lectures 1960, rev. ed., New York, 1969, p. 156, n. 105. Léger noted in his essay “Les Origines de la peinture et sa vateur représentative” (1913) that by then the bourgeoisie was not even bothering about the bad art they would once have supported: “The average bourgeois—the man with a small business who, fifty years ago, provided a living for all the minor masters of the suburbs and provinces—now manages very well without them”; quoted in Edward Fry, Cubism, London, 1966, p. 126.

26. Linda Nochlin, ed., Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, 1874–1904: Sources and Documents, Englewood Cliffs, 1966, p. 145.

27. William Morris, Stories in Prose, Stories in Verse, Shorter Poems, Lectures and Essays, ed. G. D. H. Cole, London and New York, 1948, p. 514.

\28. Quoted in Yuri Davydov, The October Revolution and the Arts; Artistic Quest of the 20th Century; Blok, Mayakovsky, Eisenstein, Moscow, 1967, p. 102. “To taste clear water” is vividly reminiscent of Winckelmann’s metaphors for the beauty of classical art.

29. Werner Hofmann, Turning Points in Twentieth-Century Art: 1890–1917, trans. Charles Kessler, New York, n.d., p. 28.

30. For Louis Aragon’s various reflections, as a Marxist, on the problem of luxury in the paintings of his friend, see his Henri Matisse: A Novel, trans. lames Stewart, I. New York, 1972, pp. 281–93.

31. Quoted in Max Eastman, Artists in Uniform: A Study of Literature and Bureaucratism, New York, 1934, p. 225.