ORNAMENT: TO BE A CRIME OR NOT TO BE A CRIME
Adolf Loos, the prominent modernist architect of early twentieth century, composed his essay "Ornament and Crime" in 1908 to fight with "the aesthetic imperialism" (in Walter Benjamin's words, the philosopher and art critic) of the past century that was concerned with love of decorative accessories, and with the architecture characterized by historicism and eclecticism. In modern psychoanalysis established by Freud, the connection between the conscious and the unconscious was metaphorically interpreted same as the structure of imperialism and colonialism. The latter (the unconscious) should be under the control of the former (the conscious or ego). In parallel, in the era of modernism, the position of modern art should be as such that it should control, suppress and even destroy the ornaments as a lowly, harmful and corrupt old art.
In the above mentioned manifesto, Loos thus encourages simplicity of things and rejects ornament by saying that "the evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornamentation from the objects of everyday use". In another section of this essay, Loos emphasizes that "ornament is no longer a natural product of our culture, but a symptom of backwardness or degeneracy". In this connection, he lauds the United States and England for their civilization, cultural development and their few cultural laggards, and places them against Austria and Germany with their support of useless decoration and not having many modern people. He also brings in the example of a Papuan, who is considered as amoral like a child. Tattooing his skin and all his belongings, the primitive is in fact doing something which is natural for him, but a sign of degeneracy in modern adult. Therefore, the use of ornament is considered as a crime.
Elaborating his standpoint against ornament, Loos's definition of a human child's stages in the development of humanity and his understanding of the world is as such that he identifies a two year old child with a Papuan, and a four year old with a Germanic tribesman. It is at the age of six and eight that a human child is granted the high positions that Socrates and Voltaire enjoyed. Loos also mentions clearly that the style and ornament are the same, which could change from one epoch to another. By labeling ornament as primitive, old and a treat to the modern culture, he likewise "implies' that ornament is feminine, particularly when he emphasizes that the modern art should be seen through the lens of masculinity, which is thus linked to the logic of the conscious against the emotionality of the unconscious as feminine.
Loos's above statements are related to the prevailing philosophy of modernism in the early twentieth century. The main points, in connection with the subject of discussion in the present article, could be presented as follows: 1- Separation of the fields of art, and each field's faithfulness to its own material, media and domain of activity (for example, photography should not enter into the field of painting, and painting should not do the same job of poetry; otherwise, they will turn into the kitsch art and rejected as worthless. Therefore, ornaments are likewise something redundant to enter into a certain art field and should not get mingled with that domain); 2- Observation of hierarchy for arts and their division into the categories of fine arts, decorative arts, applied arts and mechanical arts (for example, supremacy of fine arts as a high and masculine art over decorative arts as a feminine and lowly art. Therefore, architecture as a masculine and applied art could be devoid of ornaments which belong to the feminine and low decorative art); 3- Artist's concern with the form and shape rather than the content and meaning, leading to the creation of 'formalism' as the international modernist style (Therefore, ornaments imposed on the shape distract the attention from the original form of an object) ; 4- Loneliness of modern man as the outcome of industrialization trend has increased to the level of one's disconnection with other people and with the past, has led the individual to plunge into one's own internal word and love of self, and caused the replacement of emotion and feelings by logic and intellect (So, ornaments as a past heritage and a means of connection with the surrounding world through taking up natural and geometric images were likewise rejected).
However, the first question that could come to the mind is what definitions Loos considers for the notions such as "culture", "morality", "degeneracy" and "sickness" - notions open for interpretation in many ways, like many other abstract concepts he uses in his writing - in order to claim for an American and English model as the best for modern cultural development, and to "dictate" it to the world as "an aristocratic ideal" route to be taken by all nations. But, in the real world, we see that the cultures develop in different ways, and do not have the same targets and ideals. Loos's outlook is as if the whole world has always been standing on the "zero line" of cultural and economical evolution until the twentieth century, and then suddenly with the start of modernism the human beings experienced a positive mutation in their traveling the route of civilization and a huge cultural leap forward, by putting aside the "unhealthy nature" of modern ornaments. Therefore, it is not surprising that he also looks down on a Papuan and excludes him from his modernist utopia by pinning the label of cultural laggard he on to him, because he uses tattoos as decoration and practices cannibalism, and he is thus a criminal and has remained at the intellectual of a two year old child. However, Loos is actually ignoring the different and various functions and practical uses those tattoos could serve for the primitive people, according to their own culture and mythical beliefs. Examples could be drawn from primitive people's cults, some of which are as follows: using tattoos of different patterns taken from nature for paying respect to their gods, indicating the spiritual devotion as well as the spiritual or social rank of each individual (same as the function performed by modern human's specific clothes, like those of a priest, of a military and of a civil man), representing the natural forms of the "mother earth" in two dimensions as a symbol of artistic drive for the creation of rhythm and symmetry and restlessness for action (pointing to the themes of generation, liveliness, freshness and re-birth in seasonal ceremonies, and the primitive's contribution in the natural processes of nature through speeding up its phenomena such as blossoming of flowers and growth of vegetation), initiation to different stages of a human's life, and also for symbolic significance in the motifs made of vegetal ornaments. It is in fact much later and in other cultures like those of Europe (not that of the Papuan), that the designs, patterns and motifs of ancient civilizations like Egyptian and Roman were adopted and imitated, without considering their spiritual meaning, and thus became purely decorative.
Ornaments in their past functions demand attention to the implied content and stand against the purely formalist outlook to the work of art. Ornament is not accepted formalism, as it directs the audience's attention from the form to the meaning, and formalism says that a work of art should not be a means to serve a certain function (for example, to teach morality, to serve the religion, society and economy), and it should not thus make itself devalued like decorative applied arts. Art for art is the motto of modernism in this light, and thus condemns ornaments for wasting the material and the labor, by its economical and historical justifications.
Another important question which could arise from Loos's undermining statements about ornament is what has caused the ornamentation to have such a lowly position and be regarded as harmful to humanity in Loos's viewpoint, to the extent that he puts it along with other culturally retarded acts such as cannibalism of the primitive. To be able to answer this, we should analyze Loos's definition of ornament. He indicates that ornaments usually represent the inclination to impose decorative elements on objects and everyday surrounding, which do not add anything to the practical or symbolic application of them and only increase aesthetic pleasure in people. Similarly, August Perret as a modernist artist contends that ornaments always cover and hide a structural defect, so if an object is without any defect and is complete in structure, it does not need any decoration. Therefore, in their modernist hierarchic outlook towards the world and the art, ornament is in fact a secondary object forcefully placed on the primary object (as the dominant and main existence). As a result, the existence and presence of ornament is regarded as redundant, and are only defined and confirmed by the presence of the main object, and without it, decoration has no value. Moreover, with his holistic view, Loos lumps all modern ornaments in one group and does not consider any distinction between them. However, each ornament might take a separate or different historical route of development since the advent of them, passing through various phases of evolution, so finally it might change from a meaningful and functional practice to a purely decorative function, or take on a new function different from the past function in order to adapt itself to the needs of people in each era and location.
Another problem occurs with Loos's saying that "style" and "ornament" are same. If, as Loos indicates, the style changes from one epoch to the other rapidly and it is identical to ornament, then what about styles without any ornament of any kind which come into fashion from time to time, like women or men's clothes made of plain colored textiles, without even bearing any pattern? Moreover, this claim of Loos that ornament is against modern culture - where the dominant outlook is that of patriarchy (men's supremacy over women) - implies the femininity of ornaments, as indicated earlier in this article. From the standpoint of "feminist cultural theory", this statement arises from the prevailing discourse of men's dominant culture which devalues the role of women and grants them a secondary position in the society. Woman is an individual – an object in fact - who is not self-sufficient and his existence is merely defined by her attachment to a male figure. This is why that even in the advanced countries married women are introduced by the family name of their husbands in most social settings. Similarly, ornament is a feminine existence which does not enjoy an independent entity, and finds its articulation and value only in its link to a main object.
Loos's drawing on the comparison between a two year old child and a Papuan's ways of understanding the world could also be problematic and criticized by "feminist and post-structuralist psychoanalytic theory". From Lacan's viewpoint, a newborn up to three years of age experiences the 'imaginary order' in the process of subjectivity construction of the self. Nancy Chodorow (a prominent feminist psychoanalyst) sees this stage as also important for the emergence of interpersonal relations, which is at first centered on pre-oedipal relationship between child and mother (a misrecognized unity with the mother), and then followed by 'mirror state' when the child experiences his imaginary identification with the image in mirror and takes it as a unified and independent self. Papuan's tattoos with the images taken from nature could be interpreted as the sign of their identification and unification with, and dependence on the mother earth, not wishing to separate from it, even if it is a misrecognized or imaginary. It is to the extent that by nakedness or having a little body coverage, the primitive intends to experience simplicity and unity with nature, and sees himself a part of it. The tattoos could likewise serve as an archetype to establish a chain of connection between various signifiers and signifieds. Consequently, we see tattoos in this light as functional.
Likewise, Loos's own unconscious drawing on the physical and biological images for making his point about ornamentation (comparing a Papuan with a two year old child and his depiction of the scene of Papuan's slaughtering and devouring his enemies) could be interpreted in the light of "feminist biological theory" and "feminist psychoanalytic theory". Clinging to images taken from the physical, natural and material worlds – against the use of images arisen from intellect and abstraction which are considered masculine - are a sign for the presence feminine traits in one's personality which reveal themselves at the level of consciousness through slips of tongue. Therefore, Loos himself enjoys a double personality: an androgynous self. That is, as Freud also contends that everybody begins their life as a bisexual being, and Carl Gustav Jung also considers "Anima" (the feminine nature) in the male and "Animus" (the masculine nature) in the female, Loos – as a human being- is not an exception to these outlooks. The revelation of bisexuality could be detected in Loos's concern with the application of similes and metaphors drawn from the tangible biological world, and it is noteworthy particularly in view of the permanent presence of pressures from the patriarchal norms prescribing the suppression of the internal unconscious and desires for the sake of adaptation with the external reality of the masculine world.
In conclusion, considering the above explanation, instead of condemning and omitting the ornament itself, a link should be established between the functions of the ornaments and the cultural context of each time period and geographical location. Therefore, the main concern is not to approve or disapprove that ornament is or is not a crime, or if it should be disappeared or no - on the grounds of Loos's ideas that it is old, feminine, degenerate and harmful to the modern civilization and art. We should rather see if the ornament's function matches the economical and cultural conditions of a certain period of time and a certain location or not. Moreover, Loos's undermining opinion about ornaments could be interpreted as a sexually biased and racial discriminative approach, ignoring the extensive role of women throughout the history in the creation of ornaments bearing different functional applications and overlooking the role of primitive natives in the preservation of spiritual and natural values of the world where we live in. And finally, ornaments could be destructive and harmful when they are ignored and not used in harmony with a certain cultural context, same as Jung's idea which emphasizes that the unconscious desires and wishes could be detrimental when they are suppressed and ignored.
Mitchell, Michael, tr. Adolf Loos, Ornament and Crime, Selected Essays, California: Adriane Press, 1998.
McBride, Patrizia C. "In Praise of the Present": Adolf Loos on Style and Fashion". US: The John Hopkins University Press, 2004