Friday, July 17, 2009

Vienna 1900

These quotations were chosen by more erudite writers, first Stefan Zweig, from his autobiography:

"Everyone knew just what he possessed and what he would inherit, what was allowed and what was forbidden. Everything had its norm, its specific mass and gravity. The man of means could calculate exactly ho much interest per annum his fortune would bring him, the civil servant or officer with equal exactitude the year in which he woud gain promotion and the year in which he would retire ... everything in this great realm had its fixed, immovable place; and in the highest place of all the aged Emperor; but should he die, one knew (or thought one knew) that another would take his place, and nothing would change in all this carefully planned order..."

and from a visitor to the Paris World Exhibition of 1900:

"The Austrian section possesses this great interest - that it represents not only the individual efforts of artists and craftsmen, but also the "official" decorative art movement of the State schools. Viewed from this last standpoint there is nothing in the entire Exhibition more admirable, more thoroughly commendable, than the display in question. Is it not wonderful indeed that a Government should have entrusted to those, and those alone, capable of acquitting themselves with credit, the task of decorating and arranging its Exhibition? And is it not still more astonishing that, instead of contenting itself, as most other nations have done, with the reconstruction of ancient styles, more or less national in character, a country should have displayed so much independence, so keen an appreciation of freshness and modernity?"

I intend to look at the problems of the Viennese Secession style as problems of functionalism.

Functionalism, where it is applied to social formations, can be a productive method for analysing societies that are complex and decentred, where rationalistic logic is difficult or impossible to apply. Hence its use develops alongside the development of capitalism, where capitalist development is attended by increased social compexity and the crumbling of central authority.

In American society, and in the Americanised popular culture predominant in Western society, functionalism tends to validate the actions of the popular classes. This could be called "democratic functionalism". It's expressed almost everywhere, but can be seen very clearly in things like The Economist's fetishisation of McDonalds. It has the advantage of fostering a democratic culture, but has the weakness of tending to discount the undemocratic aspects of modern society: centralisation of corporate power, corporate bureaucracy, waste.

A democratic culture develops alongside the development of capitalism in the US, France, China, even in Britain, a sort of monarchy, where a sort of "high" culture is willed into existance, but nevertheless remains stilted, amateurish, out of place in a resolutely modern society*. In France and the US the idea of excellence also becomes mixed up with the idea of democracy, complicating things further.

In Kandinsky's monograph a different kind of fuctionalism is outlined, in which precisely those aspects of the social system relegated to the subjective by "democratic functionalism", are conversely presented as the truly functional aspects of society.

Looking at it today, Kandinsky's monograph might be seen as indirectly describing the apparent logic of one section of contemporary society: that part of the culture industry that doesn't deal with kitsch. But it's surely intended as an explicit description of the society in which he lived: Imperial Germany at the turn of the Twentieth Century. The composite system of capitalism, government bureaucracy and monarchy that existed in Germany also pertained in Austria-Hungary and the principle cities in Russia, though not Russia as a whole.

I think it might be interesting to look at Viennese culture in the early Twentieth Century as if it was informed by the "cultural functionalism" exemplified by Kandinsky. This is to arbitrarily apply a rather incomplete hypothesis, it is not to establish a historical fact.

Things like last year's banking sector bailout point in the direction of the consolidation of an almost feudal degree of class power. Under these circumstances Americanised democratic culture can only be put under further strain. This raises the question as to whether in looking at Vienna at the turn of the Twentieth Century, we aren't looking at the future, with the possibility of understanding that future, and understanding how it is historical.

*I quite like the idea of just writing "notes" about things, and so displaying the fragments of a polemic outside of their functional order, like pictures of antique rifles in an encyclopedia of weaponry. I could have gone on:

"in this respect Coleridge's epic poem can be seen to metaphorise the threadbare hobby humanism of the useless classes, set adrift on a sea of democratic absolutism."

What a thing to say!

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