Violated by the Ghost of Adolf Loos | Henrik Brunink
In 1908, Austrian architect Adolf Loos published his infamous essay “Ornament and Crime” in which he calls for a total banishment of any form of ornamentation on utilitarian objects. Soon, however, it becomes clear that all objects are utilitarian to Loos. Nor does he merely mean ornament, but rather all beauty. His opinion is that modern western man has progressed beyond the need to ornament both himself and his surroundings. According to him, when a Papuan paints his face, he is normal; when a European tattoos himself, he is a degenerate and a criminal (here he escapes the obvious paradox by claiming that every tattooed European who hasn’t committed a crime by the time he dies would eventually have done so had he lived longer, the same trick the Ku Klux Klan uses to explain how it is the majority of black people haven’t committed any crimes despite them having the “crime gene.”). With use of a crafty analogy, Loos explains the core of his argument in one sentence : ‘[a] country’s culture can be assessed by the extent to which its lavatory walls are smeared.’ He then moves on to refine that phrase into a viable thesis statement: ‘[t]he evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from utilitarian objects.’
Now I must clarify, I am not knowledgeable on architecture in the slightest, nor is this essay about architecture (and neither is Loos’). I know about as much of the subject as the average person, if not even less. What I do have an abundance of knowledge on, however, is very bad ideas. Being a person who has had some truly awful ones myself, I suppose I could say a thing or two about them. I have a couple of king-size bones to pick with Mr. Loos, as the ideas he propagates in his essay are in many ways both emblematic and prophetic for the debacle we call modernity. Themes of European self-erasure and a disdain for tradition obviously originated long before Loos entered the scene, but his essay provides a clear and striking case-study of the effects of fin de siècle degeneracy.
Loos is a proponent of the modernist school, meaning liberation from traditional structures of being and thinking. He is of the opinion that modern Western man has progressed beyond the need for anything that came from the past and needs to free himself of all shackles to start anew. He subsequently immediately contradicts himself by saying modern people feel ashamed that they cannot replicate the fabulous ornament of eras past. A statement I would heartily agree with. What I do not agree with is the follow up Loos gives on that sentence: ‘therein lies the greatness of our age, that it is incapable of producing new ornament.’ Replace “ornament” with “culture” in general and in the eternal reboots and nostalgia of contemporary cinema we see that Loos was indeed right in the second part of his sentence. On the first part, all I have to say is that when I watch the newest Star Wars movie, blatantly ripped off from the original one, I hardly see greatness.
Every age had its ornament, Loos writes, but by some magical reason, our age is different. Modern man, unlike all previous peoples from all of human history, does not need ornament. This attitude is visible all around us today. The modern world is characterized by a striking lack of beauty. The Loosian idea that utility is all that matters, drives the soul-sucking endeavor that is modernity. For the sense that we appreciate beautiful things not for their utility only, but also for what they are in themselves is no place anymore.
Already, a clear Whig interpretation of history becomes apparent in Loos’ worldview. He believes time to be a constant march of progress toward some distant utopian goal. This perception of history is frankly ahistorical and blatantly untrue. Yet our entire modern understanding of the past is built upon it, hence the contemporary emphasis on viewing history as a series of continual rights battles in the fight for greater and greater liberation. I reject this view of history. Rather than a constantly increasing line, I see time as a perfectly horizontal one, with no added value judgements whatsoever.
Loos openly scoffs at the “underdeveloped”, both within and outside of the West. With paternalistic fervor he treats the people like infants, just because they value something he is too stuck up to allow himself to enjoy. This stupid modernist idea that to put value in these things is savage or primitive and that modern man doesn’t need them is moronic. Modern man does need them, as modern man is no different from “savage” or “primitive” man. There is knowledge in the past, knowledge that has become lost. Knowledge that we would do good to regain. The view of everyone who came before us as being stupid or ignorant, just because they didn’t have iPhones and weren’t up to date on the latest transgender nomenclature is, to once again use my favorite term, moronic. Just because the people in the past thought disease was spread by bad smelling air or caused by an imbalance in the four humors, or engaged in the practice of slavery doesn’t mean you stand nothing to gain from them. The irony in ridiculing medieval peasants for bringing their seizing son to the priest, thinking him to be possessed, when you think having a penis and Y chromosomes does not disqualify a person from being a woman is striking. Don’t act like people in the past were stupid. I have utter contempt for people who smugly consider themselves more “educated” than Aristotle, just because they’ve read Robin DiAngelo and watch CNN. To act like the people of the past have spent their moral currency and have therefore nothing else to add to your life ignores the fact that a hundred years from now, people will say the exact same thing about you. Moral grandstanding should be considered the eighth cardinal sin. The Dutch baby boomers thought their parent’s generation had wasted their opportunity to tell them anything at all, just because they had let World War II happen. There is a reason I am no fan of boomers. Modernist art (and anything else) needs to be shocking and able to break taboos, not beautiful. And if you dislike that, then you just don’t get it, man. We are all stuck in a perpetual teenage phase of someone who just discovered Nietzsche and thinks he is some sort of cool and edgy nihilist, thereby too ignorant to realize he is not an Übermensch, but yet another member of the monochrome herd. The arrogance to regard yourself as superior to the giants on whose shoulders you stand is emblematic of the narcissism of modernity.
On the one hand modern progressives have rejected the differences in societal evolution between groups. Modernization theory has rightfully been thrown out the window. The Papuan has now been elevated to the same height as the European. His expression of culture is not allowed to be classified as lower or inferior. Yet whenever someone perceived to belong to the “European” group adopts the Papuan stance regarding ornament (or beauty in general) he is mocked, put down and regarded as underdeveloped. It seems once again that where all other groups have been labeled off limits, it is open season on the non-conforming white man.
Loos says the modern man is too complicated to express his individuality through ornamentation of himself. By his logic the prevalence among Homo tiktokus of showing your “difference” with regards to sexuality or gender-conformity through exotic and abnormal physical changes such as odd hair colors or alternative clothing must be regarded as underdeveloped and behind on the evolutionary ladder; and they can therefore be labeled as premodern (which in a certain sense is true). The focus on individual self-expression, not channeled through tradition, but liberated from it into a vacuum (which is impossible) exposes, if we embrace Loosian logic, a growing number of people who are simply not interesting enough to do anything else. At last something Mr. loos and me can agree on. Then again, this is not self-expression. This is narcissism.
Loos fully participates in this narcissism continuing his manifesto. ‘Ornament does not heighten my joy in life or the joy in life of any cultivated person.’ Thank you for deciding that for all of us, Mr. Loos. Here again becomes apparent that for a “cultivated” person (and don’t we all strive to be cultivated persons?) to enjoy beauty for its own sake is somehow not allowed. It is a tie to tradition, and all tradition needs to be abolished. Modern man must liberate himself from everything that came before him, as these structures are indiscriminately oppressive. As political philosopher Patrick Deneen so perfectly phrases it: this attitude is a constant march towards anticulture. Loos’ ideal of standardized aesthetic – of a city of white walls that ‘will glisten (…) like Zion.’ – for the atomized and isolated individual seeks to destroy all “accidents of birth”, namely inherited culture and tradition. Furthermore, it is yet another example of the modern progressive’s attitude that if they don’t like it, no one is allowed to like it.
Making things beautiful within a cultural framework ‘protects them from careless disregard and emotional erosion.’ But what if the culture itself has become centered around careless disregard, and its only driving force is erosion or all kinds? Every year, millions of tourists from all over the world flock to Europe, not to see soulless uniform skyscrapers of glass and steel, but all tastes of traditional European architecture. The medieval city center of York, the canals of Amsterdam, the quaint Bavarian villages, the grand Hausmann project named Paris or the maze of 15th century Florentine streets. Not giant reflecting towers that look identical to ones in San Francisco, Sao Paolo or Shanghai. But what could one expect from cities designed by men without chests. Furthermore, Europeans, or any “whites” for that matter, aren’t allowed to be proud of anything that is their own anymore. Celebrating European architecture is not quite yet being equated to celebrating the holocaust, but it would not surprise me if such statements pop up in the near future. European architecture presupposes the existence of a European identity, after all, and the only aspect of Europeanness is their capacity for oppression … sigh …, but that is a topic for another time. Traditional architecture, rooted in your own culture also provides pride. The pride to look around you and see your culture, your identity, your heritage. That pride is afforded to every culture, except the European. We are taking away from ourselves the ability to firmly root yourself in something greater, older and stronger than ourselves. Because, of course, we must be liberated from the horrible oppression of living with any memory that goes back further than our own lifetime (except the bad ones). Symbolism defines civilization, and any society that no longer externally symbolizes its own culture is a society hell bent for the gutter. An emphasis on boring, bland and rootless architecture is a product of a dying civilization. A perfect example of this is the overturning by the Biden administration of a Trump-era executive order, proclaiming all new government buildings had to be built in the neoclassical style. The heritage of Classical Rome, purposefully harkened back to by the Founders, must be wiped from existence, or at least from memory. The systematic erasure of our heritage hurts my Burkean heart, and should hurt anyone’s heart, Burkean or otherwise.
Loos’ fetish for aesthetic purism seems to derive from a want for ever greater efficiency. Because, of course, that is what matters most to modern man: efficiency. What they don’t realize is that satisfaction and fulfilment is to be gained from beauty. Beautiful scenes implore us to act differently, to act in a way that is in accordance with that scenery. Beauty for beauty’s sake is not primitive. A truly cultured person shouldn’t have to be thought to understand the underlying meaning and, more importantly, social critique behind a frankly ugly building. They should be able to see beauty for what it is. If you walk a boulevard alternatingly lined with trees and wrought iron lanterns, surrounded by Georgian architecture; would that not bring about all kinds of different feelings of belonging and enchantment? It does for me. A beautiful environment has effects on people’s perception of themselves and their communities, and influences their actions. Moreover, it doesn’t have to be grand and bombastic either. The great late philosopher Sir Roger Scruton introduced the concept of “minimal beauty”. This is not the divine beauty of poets and philosophers, but a neatly made table or a clean room. These objects reflect to the outside world, as well as to ourselves, the values and meanings which have weight for us. Furthermore he says: ‘For most of us it is (…) important [that] the eyes, the ears and the sense of fittingness are not repeatedly offended.’ Offended they certainly are these days.
Our Austrian architect continues his ruthless rampage. ‘Since ornament is no longer organically linked with our culture’, he writes, ‘it is also no longer an expression of our culture.’ That says more about our culture than it does about ornament. Loos goes on to say that Beethoven could never have written his great symphonies if he had to worry about ornament, a strange zero-sum argument that makes no sense at all. Loos realizes that for ordinary people who are not, as he calls them “aristocrats”, ornament does indeed bring them joy, but his modernist mind places them lower on the evolutionary ladder because of that. He does not realize that ornament can inspire greatness. What does a lack of it inspire? Just take a look at Soviet Doomer Wave music on YouTube and you’ll see the answer.
What ornament is to architecture, stories are to life. The early 18th century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico postulates that history is cyclical and that every society begins and ends in barbarism. When a particular society stops telling stories and constructing myths, instead only focusing on science, statistics and efficiency, it will soon die. It devolves into the barbarism of reason. A world without stories, without ornament, is a dead world. The sociologist Max Weber stated that the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century was the beginning of the disenchantment of the world. Myth and magic was slowly peeled away in favor of science and reason. Of course, to an extent that is good. But take too much of any medicine and it becomes a poison. I implore you to re-enchant your life, if only a little. What is life without beauty, without magic, without superstition? Is that not why we read novels and watch movies? What is life without a little romanticism (in both senses of the word), deserved or not. We need these things to make sense of life and existence. There is a reason why every society in the history of mankind has had some form of religious belief. We will not be the first without it, they will merely take on new forms. I am not saying religion is necessarily the answer, not at all, only that it is – and should be – unavoidable.
So, what happened to Mr. Loos? He built his hideous Looshaus (admittedly one of his better works) opposite the imperial palace in Vienna. Kaiser Franz Joseph would keep his curtains shut to rid himself of the sight outside his window. I think we can all sympathize. The time for merely ignoring, however, is long past. Adolf Loos would eventually be found guilty of- and convicted for pedophilia in 1928, after having sexually abused young girls aged eight to ten years old he’d invited in his studio. Who could have seen that coming? The writing was already on the wall when he compared the Christian cross to a man and a woman in intercourse. This depraved mind ran amok and through his ideas he assaulted the whole world.
So, next time you walk in a modern city center and look around you at the depressing scenery, populated by depressing people, remember that in the modern age, we are all violated by the ghost of Adolf Loos.