Fashioning Vienna: Adolf Looss Cultural Criticism

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  2. Ornament – on the content of loss of content - Maria Hahnenkamp
  3. Fashioning Vienna: Adolf Loos's Cultural Criticism
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Adolf Loos was the figurehead of this way of thinking and his criticism of ornament also included a polarizing view of the old and new world, of female and male identity. Tattooed men who are not imprisoned are either latent criminals or degenerate aristocrats. If a tattooed man dies free, this is because he has died prematurely, before committing his murder. These two aspects demonstrate how much women have lagged behind the advances made in recent centuries.

The ornament being created now bears no relationship to us, nor to any human being, or to the system governing the world today. With this criticism of ornament, he advocated exactly that economic and social order against which an enemy phalanx of art historians and art critics had formed, who, in the name of ornament were up in arms against the experience of alienation and uprooting caused by the surge in modernization.

This strand of the history of ornament was mainly woven by art historians oriented towards a psychology of style, among whom Alois Riegl and Wilhelm Worringer were the most prominent proponents. His notion of history was, however, indebted to a development of styles which replaced a determinism that blindly trusted technology by a psychologizing teleology.

Only within the scope of formal aesthetics denying the artistic value of content was it possible for ornament, which had been stylised as a selfsatisfied form, to gain such importance as the central indicator of the history of styles. He begins with the rigid line, which is essentially abstract ….

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He seeks further geometrical possibilities of line, creates triangles, squares, circles, places similarities together, discovers the advantages of regularity, in short, creates a primitive ornament which provides him not only with a mere delight in decoration and play, but with a table of symbolic absolute values, and therefore with the appeasement of his condition of deep spiritual distress … and first and foremost seeks to make his person taboo by ornamental tatooing. Worringer reduced the human need for adornment to a pure need for protection.

This was a manifestation of the widespread cultural pessimism of that time and the feeling of uncertainty and alienation that was its characteristic feature, caused by industrialization and technologization. The glorification of savage and primitive peoples was an attempt to respond to this. In it, the social mass appeared as a capitalist collective detecting and analysing the form of the ornament as an individual body in the social body and in the structural orientation of its representatives.

It began with the Tiller Girls. These products of American distraction industry are no longer individual girls, but indivisible girl complexes whose movements are mathematical demonstrations.

Trabalho THAU II FAU INTA Adolf Loos

The most perfidious type of selfstylization manifested itself in the bodies that were denounced as foreign to the species. In other words, the problem with the quest for style, whether it revives the glorious styles of the past or imagines the visionary style of the future, lies in its sacrificing function in a way that renders homes unfriendly and everyday life cumbersome.

The function of everyday culture, as carried by the objects that surround us, is to help people live in the present in the best possible way, Loos admonishes his contem- poraries. Everyday objects should help create the best fit between the individual and the world; that is, they should help make individuals feel at home in the contemporary world in the most concrete of senses.

Hence the contemporary style is that which fosters contemporaneity in a literal sense; it does not suggest the possibility of living in another, better world, whether past or future, but seeks to draw out the beauty and pleasures of the present one in order to make it a friendly, hospitable place. To do so, it acknowledges the modern cacophony of languages and needs and mutates to reflect their evolving interplay.

This is not a dubiously affirmative endeavor, one that seduces individuals into complying with their subjugation by the dark forces of modernity, as Adorno suggested in his reading of Loos. Yet it certainly lacks the subversive power Loos attributes to art, for it seeks to improve life based on an evolutionary understand- ing of everyday culture that is at odds with the revolutionary function Loos assigned to art.

If nihilism is customarily asso- ciated with insight into the loss of metaphysical certainties and the disintegration of a Rather, the nihilist is the individual who rejects the present because of its metaphysical homelessness and lack of coherence25—or, as Loos would argue, who seeks to impose onto the present a stylistic unity the present can no longer tolerate.

Accordingly, Simmel lo- cates the function of culture in its ability to project the unity or totality of modern existence, which underlies the superficial reality of differentiation and specialization, as an inner unity of the individual. When this fit is missing, the result is alienation, like the alienation the individual experiences in the metropolis.

Ornament – on the content of loss of content - Maria Hahnenkamp

This debt would place Loos in close proximity to the contempo- rary proponents of a unity of style and culture he so cheerfully attacked. This has often been interpreted as pointing to an insufferable discrepancy between some ideal core of individual and collective identity, on the one hand, and the outer circumstances of modern life, on the other. The inauthenticity fostered by the ornament rather entails for Loos a much plainer type of deception.


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This inauthenticity is a vice of a very specific social stratum in contemporary Austria, namely, of a bourgeoisie that is haunted by a longing to emulate the lifestyle of the aristocracy so as to appropriate its social status. Because the bourgeois is unable to afford the pomp he associates with the upper classes, he resorts to filling his home with things that feign preciosity and thus are never what they seem, for instance, tables made of fake mahogany or brass made to look like gold. Here Loos castigates the Austrian capital for proudly constructing a monumental boulevard, the Ringstrasse, that showcases residential buildings whose historicist facades are nothing but a plaster screen designed to hide modest bourgeois dwellings behind the display of aristocratic pomp.

Fashioning Vienna: Adolf Loos's Cultural Criticism

The bourgeoisie should take pride in its accomplishments rather than devaluing them by feigning a social status it does not possess. The issue is what kind of desirable identity and self-consciousness Loos opposes to the Ringstrasse parvenu. When reading his essays one is immediately struck by the pecu- liar depthlessness of the individual identity that should be reflected in a living space. Our home was never finished, it developed with us, and we with it. Loos presents in this passage the familiar argument that a place, a room, a house should reflect the taste of its inhabitants, lest they be tyrannized by the space in which they live.

Some of the objects assembled in the house have come to the family not by deliberate choice, but rather in a haphazard process of accumulation. This discourse revolves around the idea that modern clothing should serve as a mask that enables individuals to effectively impersonate a social role. Beatriz Colomina sees the trope of In raising the question of what it means to be dressed in a modern fashion, Loos argues that the answer consists in being dressed well or correctly. A red tail coat would attract attention in the ballroom, therefore a red tail coat is not the mod- ern style for the ballroom.

A top hat would attract attention when ice-skating, therefore a top hat is not the modern dress for ice-skating.

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Among the best people, to attract atten- tion to oneself is considered vulgar. OC, 40 As this passage suggests, clothing should make one fit for society. To fit into society means to blend in. It entails appropriating the outer appearance and manners suited to a specific circumstance, be it the ballroom or the ice-skating ring. In differentiated modernity individuals are defined by the class or professional sphere to which they belong. This exchange ensures the general progress and well-being of society, fostering the values of urbanity, simplicity, and efficiency that Loos saw at the heart of Western civilization.

Here Loos recounts his experience with two distant relatives, Uncle Ben and his wife, whom he met during a trip to the United States. Having had dinner with the couple on their farm near Philadelphia, Loos fails to rec- ognize them when he sees them again four weeks later at a funeral in the city. As he What impresses Loos is the ability of his American relatives to slip into the clothes and appropriate the manners of the city dweller when required by the circumstances.

They may well be farmers, but culturally they are not cut off from the life of the city and are aware of the roles one might play in environ- ments different from their own. It also betrays the unreflective elitism of the bourgeois intellectual who takes himself as the model for a desirable modernity.


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This suggests that social iden- tity can be appropriated, manipulated, and exchanged, provided one learns to play a part, to fit a role. In the contemporary world clothing is supposed to fulfill two functions, namely, to provide adequate protection from the weather and the environment and to allow one to play a social role.

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It does not lend itself to marking the individual as an individual, Loos believes, but rather provides an outer semblance, a mask, for an individuality that is too strong to be expressed through outer appearances. This is, regrettably, a common problem among the Germans: They [the Germans] can still express their individuality through curious styles and un- usual inventions in their wardrobe, through fantastic neckties. Inwardly, however, they are all the same. OC, —9 If Germans sport neckties that strike others as recklessly outlandish, this is because their misled quest for originality in clothing leads them to pursue some purportedly individual language of forms.

Yet forms have nothing to do with a quest for originality, but rather emerge from a collective endeavor to serve function in the best way. Hence the German who tries to express his individuality through individually chosen forms only ends up looking quirky36—which is to say, unnecessarily conspicuous. Yet, as Loos notes, the presumably individualistic German actu- ally displays a remarkable conformity in matters of inward life, which extends from his hybrid taste in theater to the jokes he is able to tell after a certain hour.

But even more interesting is the way in which the inward life of individuals is described. Significantly, both the deplored German and the admired En- glish seem to share a fairly shallow inner life. For the German going to a Wagner opera is placed on the same plane as drinking beer and smoking cigars. Anderson argues that for Kafka the ornamental quality of clothing lies in its forming an inessential and corrupting cocoon around the inner core of subjectivity.

Clothing must thus be shed in order for this inward space to be revealed in its essential purity. At closer in- Its complexity lies more in its disparateness and fortuitousness than in its depth and inner coherence. In exercising some healthy self-examination the person in question might discover, as the individualistic German should, that his or her cher- ished individuality is little more than a haphazard assemblage of habits and prefer- ences.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the crisis of German culture is widely perceived as having its roots, at least in part, in a final showdown between the sexes triggered by their irreducible, essential differences, which Bovenschen outlines by drawing on arguments articulated by Karl Scheffler, Georg Simmel, Max Scheler, and Ludwig Klages. Rather, it is the result of a discourse on sexuality concocted within an essentially male culture over centuries. How wrong can one be!