Whitewash

In David Batchelor's 'Chromophobia' there's a great quotation from Le Corbusier's ‘The Decorative Art of Today’:

“What shimmering silks, what fancy, glittering marbles, what opulent bronzes and golds! What fashionable blacks, what striking vermilions, what silver lam├ęs from Byzantium and the Orient! Enough. Such stuff founders in a narcotic haze. Let's have done with it... It's time to crusade for whitewash and Diogenes.”

Le Corbusier’s position is shared with Adolf Loos, who writes, in ‘Ornament and Crime’:
 
“I have therefore evolved the following maxim, and pronounce it to the world: the evolution of culture marches with the elimination of ornament from useful objects.”

These two bombastic quotes made me think about my position on novelty and newness - on design that tries to stay ahead of the game by adopting the latest trends, a tactic that could be seen as a form of decoration. Thinking of how graphic design styles are ‘recycled’ and how Modernism has been re-appraised in recent graphic design practice, I wondered if Modernism itself had become decorative - another style to be used at whim?

In the first volume of ‘Looking Closer: Critical Writings on Graphic Design’, edited by Michael Bierut, William Drenttel, Steven Heller and DK Holland, there is a chapter titled ‘Modernism and its Malcontents’. In an essay called ‘Good History/Bad History’, the joint authors, Tibor Kalman, J. Abbott Miller and Karrie Jacobs introduce the phrase ‘Jive Modernism’:

“There’s a lot of confusion about Modernism these days, mostly engendered by the use and abuse of the term ‘Post-modernism’. Jive Modernism is not Post-modernism. In a way, it’s the opposite. In architecture, Post-modernism has come to mean the habit of affixing pre-modernist stuff - classical ornament - to the facades of otherwise modernist buildings. In graphics, the term has been used to mean just about anything, at least anything that departs form the most austere, Swiss-born, corporate-bred Modernism.”

“And in reviving Modernism, jive modernism is a denial of the essential  point of Modernism, its faith in the power of the present, and the potential of the future.”

“Jive modernism has invoked Modernism as nostalgia.”

Adopting styles from previous eras has always been a part of graphic design practice. In the 1980s, appropriation (to adopt, borrow, recycle or sample aspects (or the entire form) of man-made visual culture) could be found everywhere - in art, in music and, in particular, in graphic design. In an article called ‘The Age of Plunder’ published in ‘The Face’ in January 1983, journalist Jon Savage looks at the phenomena of appropriation as a form of “rampant nostalgia that acts as a major piece of weaponry for the militant New Right”. He continues:

“It is a characteristic of our age that there is very little sense of community, of any real sense of history, as THE PRESENT is all that matters.”

“The Past is then turned into the most disposable of consumer commodities, and is thus dismissable: the lessons which it can teach us are thought trivial, are ignored amongst a pile of garbage.”

If Modernism is not to become another style adopted meaninglessly and as decoration then we need  to understand the original ideas that shaped it. Massimo Vignelli, in an essay called ‘Long Live Modernism!’, published in ‘Looking Closer: Critical Writings on Graphic Design’, writes:

“Modernism was never a style, but an attitude. This is often misunderstood by those designers who dwell on the form rather than on the content of Modernism. From the beginning, Modernism had the urgency of utopianism: to make the world better by design.”

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