“The art of argumentation is not an easy skill to acquireâ€¦ It is easy to name call, easy to ignore the point of view or research of others, and extremely easy to accept one’s own opinion as gospel.”1
The 1908 essay Ornament and Crime by Adolf Loos is a collection of contradictory, hysterical, ill-conceived rants that were fomented by a sullen elitist. Loos implores the reader to cast off the wicked ways of the old and take up the fight for a new modern and more civilized era-an era that pictures the human race at its zenith with no ornamentation whatsoever. Although he was there to ride the wave of the Modernist Movement his essay decrying the ornament of the past can best be described as a reflection of a troubled man. Instead of putting forth new ideas he directs the reader to look with derision on other ones. Ornament and Crime has no continuity and is, in large part, simply opinions with little, no or bizarre base in facts.
Loose writes of a civilization where, “Men had gone far enough for ornament no longer to arouse feelings of pleasure in them,” of a place where “if there were no ornament at allâ€¦man would only have to work four hours instead of eight,” and of a place where people say, “‘Thank God,'” when there’s a fire, “‘now there will be work for people to do again.'” Loos could not have been more wrong about the future of art, architecture and human civilization. Ornamentation is not needless expression and is indeed an integral part of modern civilization that cannot be eliminated.
Ornament and Crime begins with Loos describing an overly simplistic and narrow view of humans’ early development that shows his relativistic and class-based thinking.
The human embryo goes through the whole history of animal evolution in its mother’s womb, and a newborn child has the sensory impressions of a puppy. His childhood takes him through the stages of human progress; at the age of two he is a Papuan savage, at four he has caught up with the Teutonic tribesman. At six he is level with Socrates, and at eight with Voltaire. For at this age he learns to distinguish violet, the colour that the eighteenth century first discovered – before that violets were blue and tyrian was red. Physicists can already point to colours they have named, but that only later generations will be able to distinguish.
Loose breaks no ground with his observation that the senses of newborns are feeble; this is the very definition of what it means to be newborn. But the comparison between humans and dogs is ludicrous; might one not also consider the inherit potential that lies inside a newborn dog on one hand, and a newborn human on the other?
At age two ‘human’ is like a Papuan, a dark-skinned person from what is now Papua New Guinea, an evolutionary link just above a dog. Just able to walk on two legs and form rudimentary words but apparently unable to achieve full human status. Although racism was and still is all too common, science had fully blossomed by 1908 and such concepts as the theory of evolution had already been around for over 50 years. When attempting to write a forward-thinking essay it is tragic that Loos found it necessary and thought it acceptable to use such backward examples as part of a logical argument. Papuans had developed agricultural based societies some 6,000 to 9,000 years ago. Given better resources with which to work with Papuans may have well have been the ones to put Europeans in zoos.2
At age four, Loos writes, people are like the barbarians from the north that ancient Rome fought nearly two millennia ago-heathen savages. Then, quite unexpectedly there is a great leap in learning; a six-year-old is able to philosophize on the level of Socrates. Loos then takes one of many fantastic swerves from logic and declares that at the ‘age of Voltaire’ a child is finally able to distinguish subtleties in the color wheel. It is unclear why Loos would choose Voltaire, a philosopher and writer, to use as an example of the developmental level when a person can distinguish a specific color, or its relevance.
It is amazing to think that Loos knew children of eight years of age that had the wit of someone as legendary as Voltaire, not to mention the six-year-old Socrates. Perhaps most amazing though, is Loos’ complete and total lack of evidence that any of what he writes in his opening paragraph can be substantiated.
His introductory observations continue and Mr. Loos writes of amoral children, murder, cannibalism, tattoos and morality. “When a tattooed man dies at liberty, it is only that he died a few years before he committed a murder.” This is his tie to the argument that ornament is a criminal act? This is why no school should have a statue at its front entry; no lapel should be adorned with a pin? Will these wanton decorations lead to mass murder?
According to a 2004 survey by the American Academy of Dermatology, 24% of the respondents had a tattoo.3 By Loos’ standard we are all in deep trouble. Is it possible that he overstates himself? Mariners commonly had tattoos during his time and while they might have been a rough bunch as a whole, to state that their death is the only thing preventing them from committing murder is truly odd to any steady thinker.
There is also no escaping the fact that the civilization that Loos felt was nearly at the point of building “Zion, the holy city, the capital of heaven,” was already in the midst of a period of slaughter and genocide such as the world had never seen. Not by savages and tattooed marauders but by politicians and titans of industry.4
After Loos interprets the amoral human embryo and the tattooed man, he launches into the origins of art and ornament. “All art is erotic.” Loos states. The “first artistic act” was performed to rid oneself of surplus energy. He compares the horizontal dash with a reclining woman and the vertical dash with a man penetrating her, concluding that the first ornament to be born was the cross, which was erotic in origin. Though ancient cross symbols have been seen as phallic symbols the fact that he sees only eroticism in the simple lines is bizarre in a truly Freudian way. Loos also neglects to elaborate on the other, probably older symbol, the circle. This reflects on his view of the profane, which is his main point, apparently, in the first section of the essay. He seems incapable of thinking that images of reproduction were not eroticism but ‘merely’ represented life.
His next argument for ornament as a crime is by using bathroom graffiti and the drawings of young children as examples of art. As to the former, “One can measure the culture of a country by the degree to which its lavatory walls are daubed.” To the latter, “[a child’s] first artistic expression is to scrawl on the walls erotic symbols.” Loos is quite obviously deeply haunted by perverse thoughts and was himself in need of an outlet for his own surplus energy. To claim that young children are scribbling erotica on the walls is troubling. In a modern setting if a child were to actually do this, an investigation into criminal acts of pedophilia would take place. Again, with nothing to back up his claim, no correlative story, one has to wonder how he came to these conclusions.
In order to bring any cohesion to Ornament and Crime and Loos thesis, “The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from utilitarian objects,” it is necessary to take a look at the experiences Loos had and the context in which he lived. Loos traveled to America in 1893. During that year he attended the World’s Fair in Chicago and was impressed by much of the current architecture, particularly of American architect Louis Sullivan. Sullivan is famous for his saying, “form ever follows function,” which would later be shortened to “form follows function.”5 Sullivan and fellow-minded American architect Frank Lloyd Wright had the idea that buildings themselves could become ornament. They should fit into their surroundings and become part of the landscape. They were not however, opponents of ornament. Towards the end of his career in fact, Sullivan designed a number of buildings that were highlighted by ornament and are called his “Jewel Boxes.”6 Frank Lloyd Wright, in addition to being an architect, was an art collector and dealer. He also designed the furniture for many of his buildings. Though the American architects had new visions for ornament it certainly was not left out of their design work.
Loos remained in America for three years and while there, he was forced to labor at menial jobs such as floor layer, brick layer and even dish washer until late in 1894 when he found a position as an architectural draftsman in New York. He returned to Vienna a changed man.
Back in Vienna, Loos was confronted with a floundering empire that dwelled on old architectural styles that promoted flourishes and grand façades. He responded by designing the Café Museum in 1899. It was well designed yet very simple. It had arched windows looking into an arched room. The light fixtures left the light bulbs exposed and he did a novel thing by making the electrical connections to the chandeliers out of brass strips banding the ceiling. Café Museum was stark for the time but by no means free of ornament-the ornament had just become more streamlined.
The response to this ‘functional’ design was not complimentary, Loos created this simple Viennese coffee house during the peak of the Art Nouveau period. The café was nicknamed “Café Nihilism”7 and Loos was incensed that the privileged classes of Austria weren’t as forward thinking as the people in America and Britain. He called his critics, “hob goblins” and blamed them for smothering a society he saw only evolving without ornament, “Humanity is still to groan under the slavery of ornament.”
Loos blames the stagnant attitudes, the “ornament disease” on the state, which was the centuries old Austro-Hungarian Empire. “Ornament does not heighten my joy in life or the joy in life of any cultivated person.” So on one hand Loos decries the fact that a carpenter’s bench wouldn’t be preserved for the ages as worthy of notice and on the other he preaches that the love of something unadorned is something only the “cultivated” can understand. He blames the slow speed of cultural-revolution on stragglers and gives as examples his neighbors that are stuck in the years 1900 or 1880, the “peasants of Kals (a secluded mountain town in Austria) are living in the twelfth century,” and “the man of the fifteenth century [who] won’t understand me.” These very people who are stuck in the past and are keeping society from moving forward also seem to be the focus of a contradiction Loos is unable to explain away, try as he might.
And somehow, through this narcissistic attitude of “preaching to the aristocrat”, Loos seems to have stumbled upon a rational argument and an undeveloped reasoning behind his thesis. Ornament is “a crime against the national economy that it should result in the waste of human labour, money and material.” Loos recognizes, however briefly, that people naturally tire of objects before their use is done, and if gone unchecked, the need to consume could become problematic. As an example of this wastefulness, Loos points to a man’s suite or a lady’s ball gown but he then irrationally compares them to a desk. “But woe if a desk has to be changed as quickly as a ball gown because the old form has become intolerable.”
Loos inability to give the credit of common sense to his audience is only exasperated by his next argument. “If all objects would last aesthetically as long as they do physically, the consumer could pay a price for them that would enable the worker to earn more money and work shorter hours.” Loos does however scrape the surface and begin to relate how craftspeople are paid poorly and how changing tastes are causing some items that are completely unadorned to be priced the same as items with a high degree of ornament. He points out that productivity can increase with an end to frills and filagree. What economic paradigm was he using that would allow greater compensation for more productivity in less time? I will grant that I have one hundred years of economic history to look on that Loos wasn’t privy to, but thinking that workers would benefit from working less defies logic.
In addition, didn’t Loos argue that the birth of ornament sprang from mankind’s “surplus energy?” His point then becomes ridiculous-remove ornamentation from all utilitarian objects in order to save time and money thus providing mankind with the surplus energy necessary to ornament. This is where Loos argument completely falls apart.
It is ironic and a pity that what seems to keep Loos from realizing that he is against consumerism and greed and not necessarily ornamentation seems to be his own fear to take a stand for what he believes in instead of what he is against. But he then compares a Chinese carver working for sixteen hours to an American worker, a product of the Industrial Revolution, working just eight hours. Of course the workers will make more money due to increased productivity.
Yet, with this seemingly benevolent view of the working class he reminds us of his true thoughts, Loos touches on this when he recognizes that, “people on a lower footing [are] easier to rule.” Is it that the mason is too closely aligned with the working class and so is worthy of derision?
So even with a plausible argument, that wasteful design is criminal, Adolf Loos goes off track and gets wrapped up in outlandish statements like, “set fire to the empire and everyone will be swimming in money and prosperity” and “ornamented objects are tolerable only when they are of the most miserable quality.”
In his misdirected logic, Loos takes on some of the biggest names of the day, artist Otto Eckman and architect and designer Henry van de Velde, but he only weaves himself into further contradictions and confusion regarding ornament and crime. Loos claims that their works are not only a waste but that they fall out of fashion so quickly that furniture, clothing, entire households must be thrown out to make way for the new designs but he then goes on to say that the time is incapable of producing new ornament. You can’t have it both ways, incapable of producing and producing too much. His entire argument that mankind was beyond ornament disregards the vibrant atmosphere around him; Art Nouveau, Arts and Crafts, Deutscher Werkbund, The Secession even the advent of Modernism.
Although some of the buildings he designed had some redeeming points to them his obsession with a ‘purity’ of design resulted in his writings getting more attention than the buildings he designed. White and boxy with no aesthetic would be one way to describe the later Loos ‘style’. His low point probably came when he designed the Rufer House in 1922. Loos tried very hard to make a point but when his buildings are taken as point of reference I find it difficult to believe he made one.
In the end is Queen Capitalism to be our sovereign? Is the capitalist a more advanced human than the artisan? How dare an architect refuse to acknowledge the suffering of his companions, his peers. That one can draw an interesting collection of boxes and with the other can carve beautiful scrollwork into marble, are they both not working to create a more visually distinctive and enjoyable world? Indeed, Loos himself admits that ornaments produce joy-only not for him. When he concedes that he is not above wearing ornament for the sake of others he is truly exposed as a fraud.
As far as making a point in debate however, it is quite skillful of Loos to infer that any who oppose his view are simply lower forms of life, possibly even sub-human. If in discussion, someone dared disagree, Mr. Loos could simply fall back on the intellectually fraudulent, “You obviously don’t understand” or “Maybe the concept is beyond you”. These tactics are well known to debaters but they are hollow in that they accept a theorem without a firm foundation of facts, and Ornament and Crime is fraught with ideological foundation issues.
Had he said, “How can so much wealth and effort go into a theatre when people are starving?” That is an argument for ornament being a crime. Woman giving birth to children on the street and not being cared for at the expense of some filigree, that could be argued to be criminal. The people with plenty spend their time shirking their duty to their fellow human beings; that could be considered criminal.
It sounds like this son of a stonemason was trying too hard to impress his friends. In the end he has been remembered, not so much for his building designs but for this argument. Bringing aesthetic value to something is a gift, not a crime. To make an object that is already useful, graceful and a delight to the senses enhances the value of that object. The true crime is to deny or suppress the human desire to create, beautify, fashion into something that can only be seen in the mind.
Of the question Is Ornament a Crime? I will retort by asking my own questions. Is a flower ostentatious? Is the plant much more pleasing before it has bloomed? I would boldly state that flowering plants are indeed not cultivated for their leaves and stalks. Is a bird, bright with plumage, blight on the horizon? Does water flow in such an objectionable way as to create eddies and whirlpools to offend the senses? I must answer ‘no’ to these questions and simply say that ornamentation is the flower of humankind, a necessary expression for all civilizations that cannot and will not be eliminated while there is still a creative spark in us.
-A note about the lack of accompanied imagery-
There are a multitude of images that could be displayed as examples of ornament that could be viewed as good or bad. Humanity has created a myriad of expressions since self-realization happened. The expression itself is not the point, it could be any expression at any point in the history of mankind. The fact that humans should not be inhibited to create is what is at issue whether it be in architecture, dance, art, song; therefore I felt it would be superfluous to include snippets of creativity that could never encompass what all peoples have created in the last. 20,000 years.
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