ORNAMENT: CRIME OR NOT
Adolf Loos, the prominent modernist architect of early twentieth century, composed his essay "Ornament and Crime" in 1908 to fight, in Walter Benjamin's words, "the aesthetic imperialism of the past characterized by the love of decoration, and the architecture imbued with historicism and eclecticism. In modern Freudian psychoanalysis, the connection between the conscious and the unconscious was considered analogous to the structure of imperialism and colonialism, the latter (the unconscious) supposed to be dominated by the former (the conscious or ego). In the same manner, in the modernist era, the position of modern art should be as such that it controls, suppresses and even destroys the ornaments as a lowly, harmful and corrupt historical art form. Such hierarchical classification applied to art forms by modernist philosophy, leading to the division of high art (painting and sculpture) from low art (ornament), is a stance to be criticized from the viewpoint of feminism, especially by feminist biological and psychoanalytical theories, as presented and elaborated hereunder.
In the above mentioned essay, Loos encourages simplicity and rejects the use of ornament by maintaining that "the evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornamentation from the objects of everyday use" (Loos 167). In another part of this manifesto, he emphasizes that "ornament is no longer a natural product of our culture, but a symptom of backwardness or degeneracy" (Ibid 170). In this connection, he lauds the United States and Britain for their civilization, cultural development and their fewness of cultural laggards, and places them against Austria and Germany with their support of useless decoration and paucity of modern people. He also brings in the example of a Papuan, who, similar to a child, is considered amoral. Tattooing his skin and all his belongings, the “primitive” is in fact doing what is natural for him, but a sign of degeneracy in the modern adult. Therefore, the use of ornamentation is considered a crime.
Elaborating on his opposition to ornaments, Loos' 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 ages of six and eight that a human child is granted the status of Socrates and Voltaire. Loos also contends that “every epoch had its own style, and ours alone should be denied one!?” (168). He thus points to the belief that the style and ornament are the same, which could change from one epoch to another. He not only labels ornament as primitive, outdated and a threat to the modern culture, but also maintains that ornament is feminine, when he clearly states in his another essay, ‘Ornament and Education’, that “when I abuse an object by decorating it, I shorten its life-span through the demise of the style in which it is decorated. This waste of good material can be justified only by womanly caprice and ambition, for ornament in the service of woman will live forever… In the final analysis, women’s ornament goes back to the savage, it has erotic significance” (187, emphasis is mine). Loos hence implies that the modern art should be seen through the lens of masculinity, which is linked to the logic of the conscious against the emotionality of the unconscious as feminine. This association of women and women’s ornaments to nature not only implies that they are regarded as less refined and less liable to cultural modification, but also points to their being moody, unpredictable and acting on the basis of natural impulses and instincts pertaining to the material world and corporeality, instead of intellectuality, rationality and culture.
Loos' 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 the faithfulness of each field 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 what poetry does; otherwise, they will turn into impure art and are rejected as being worthless. In the same manner, according to Loos, ornaments are something redundant that if entered into a certain art field or mingled with objects of practical use, they will scarcely have an aesthetic value, and reduce the “durability” of those objects which is highly regarded in the modern world (187); 2) The hierarchy of arts and their division into the categories of fine arts, decorative arts, applied arts and mechanical arts. For example, there is the 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 for the form and shape rather than the content and meaning. Therefore, ornaments imposed on an object either serve the “purpose” of relieving the monotony of work for the worker, if looked at psychologically, as Loos believes (186); or cover and hide the structural defect of an object, as Auguste Perret, the modernist artist, maintains (Wilkins, Undecorated Space). Viewed from the two mentioned stances of Loos and Perret, ornamentation is hence considered redundant since it is somehow functional, not making any contribution to the form; 4- Loneliness of modern man as the outcome of industrialization has increased the gap between individuals as well as man’s separation from the past, and has led the individual to plunge more into one's own internal word and love of self, and caused the replacement of emotion and feelings by logic and intellect. So, ornaments were likewise rejected as a past heritage and a means of connection with the surrounding world through the use of patterns, designs and images pertaining to and found in nature, such as spirals or those in connection with sacred geometry (conceived as a complex system of religious symbols and structures involving space, time and form) which considers the basic patterns of existence as sacred.
However, the first question that comes to the mind is how Loos defines notions such as "culture", "morality", "degeneracy" and "sickness" – terms open to interpretation in many ways, just as are many other abstract concepts he uses in his writing in order to consider the American or British models the best models for modern cultural development, and to "dictate" it to the world as "an aristocratic ideal" to be followed 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' viewpoint is as if the whole world, before the twentieth century, has been developing with a low speed in its cultural and economical evolutionary path, and then with the dawn of modernism the human beings experienced a huge cultural leap forward in their way toward civilization by abandoning the "unhealthy nature" of modern ornaments. This idea is of course grounded on the elitism inherent in the modernist outlook and also in Loos. Therefore, it is not likewise surprising that Loos looks down on a Papuan and excludes him from his modernist utopia by pinning the label of cultural laggard on him, when he maintains that “the genius of a Papuan, that is of a six year-old child, is of no use to humanity” (Loos 184), or “[a human being child] at two he sees with the eyes of a Papuan … A child is amoral. A Papuan too, for us” (167). He bases his reasoning on Papuan’s using tattoos as decoration and his practice of cannibalism. He could thus be considered a criminal – according to the moral codes of the modern world which stand outside the world of Papuan’s beliefs - and has remained at the intellectual level of a two year old (or a six year old) child. In addition to contradictory statements of Loos regarding the intellectual level of a Papuan (whether remaining a two year old child, or achieving the status of Socrates, as he compares a six year old child to Socrates (167)), Loos is actually ignoring the different and various functions and practical uses those tattoos could serve for unindustrialized people, according to their own culture and mythical beliefs. Examples could be drawn from ancient people's cults, e.g.: 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 uniforms, such as that of a priest, of a military or a civil servant). They hence represent the natural forms of the "mother earth" in two dimensions as a symbol of the artistic drive for the creation of rhythm and symmetry and restlessness for action. This tends to point to the themes of procreation, liveliness, freshness and re-birth in seasonal ceremonies; to indicate the ancient and aboriginal people’s contribution to the natural processes of nature and accelerating its phenomena such as blossoming of flowers and growth of vegetation by their spiritual energy; to serve as a marker of one’s initiation to different stages of a human life, and also to underline the symbolic significance in the motifs made of vegetal ornaments. Moreover, from the standpoint of Freudian analysis, “incorporation’ is a form of “introjection” and regarded as a mechanism through which one is so frightened of separation from his desired object that aided by his phantasms, he absorbs his desired object into his body, through the phantasm of “cannibalism”, as the final stage of the mentioned mechanism. 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 demanded in their previous functions an attention toward the implied content and stood against the purely formalist understanding of the work of art. Ornament does not pass for formalism, as it diverts the audience's attention from the form to the meaning, while formalism indicates that a work of art should not be a means serving a certain function (for example, preaching morality or serving the religion, society or economy), and as such, should not degrade itself by doing so, the same way decorative applied artworks do. Art for art’s sake is the motto of modernism in this respect, and thus condemns ornamentation for wasting the material and labor, on the basis of economical and historical justifications.
Another important question which arises from Loos' subversive statements regarding ornamentation is to ask why ornamentation has such a lowly position and is regarded as harmful to humanity in Loos' viewpoint, to the extent that he classifies it along with other culturally awkward acts such as cannibalism of the primitive. For answering this, we should analyze Loos' definition of the ornament. He maintains that ornaments usually represent the inclination to impose decorative elements on objects and everyday surrounding milieus, which add nothing to their practical or symbolic function and only increase the aesthetic pleasure in people. Similarly, Perret contends that if an object is without any defect and is complete in structure, it does not need any decoration. Therefore, in the modernist hierarchic outlook of these two figures on world and art, ornamentation is in fact a secondary object forcefully superimposed on the primary object (as the dominant and main existence). As a result, the existence of ornament is regarded as redundant, and is 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 path of development from its point of origin, 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 previous in order to adapt itself to the needs of people in each era and location. The existence of different forms of chairs (serving different purposes of studying, working, dining, resting and even sleeping in different milieus such as academic institutes, business premises and homes) is an example pointing to the change of function for a certain everyday object, in the modern period.
Another problem occurs with Loos' saying that "style" and "ornament" are one and the same. If, as Loos indicates, the style changes rapidly from one epoch to the other and is identical to ornament, then what do we have to say about styles without ornamentation of any kind which become fashionable from time to time, like women or men's clothes made of plain colored textiles, without any patterns? 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 also indicated earlier in this article, by considering ornament as redundant and thus pointing to its being a ‘non-significant other’. This kind of treatment is in line with the way men have generally and mostly treated women as a “second sex”, by denying them a real say in the art, as well as in the political, social, cultural and economical spheres because of defining and interpreting femininity according to their own criteria and hence suppressing it.
From the standpoint of "feminist cultural theory", the prevailing discourse of men's dominant culture is as such that it devalues the role of women, grants them a secondary position in the society, and turns them into “the other” and a passive object (not an active subject like a man), as Beauvoir maintains in her The Second Sex. Woman is an individual – an object in fact - who is not self-sufficient and her 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, from the feminist point of view, Loos’ statements about the removal of ornamentation as synonymous with the evolution of culture indicate that ornaments are lowly, bound to the materiality and pertaining to emotions (against the logic and transcendence of man’s made culture), and they thus enjoy a kind of feminine existence which does not have an independent essence, and find its articulation and value only in its link to a main object. Moreover, Loos’ clinging to classical ornaments in Ornament and Education (187), and also Loos’ use of the same classical ornaments in his own works, not only reveal a paradox in his opinions about ornamentation, but also underline his male chauvinist outlook which finds its base in the rationality embedded in the teachings of classical world.
Loos' 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 Lacanian viewpoint, a newborn up to three years of age experiences the 'imaginary order' in the process of subjectivity construction of the self. Nancy Chodorow, the 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 nature and the mother earth, not wishing to separate from them, even if it is a misrecognized or imaginary. This, of course, does not mean that a Papuan has not experienced further development in his path of evolution and remained stagnated in the imaginary order or in the mirror state. He rather sees his perfection in this light and according to his own world of culture and beliefs –though different from us- and actively and consciously participating in the related cults. 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' own unconscious drawing on the physical and biological images for making his points about ornamentation (including his comparing a Papuan to 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 in his statements regarding ornamentation– against the use of images arisen from intellect and abstraction which are considered masculine – is a sign for the presence feminine traits in one's personality which reveal themselves at the level of consciousness through slips of tongue when speaking or writing. 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' concern with the application of similes and metaphors drawn from the tangible biological world in his statements, 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 period and geographical location. Therefore, the main concern is not to approve or disapprove whether ornament is a crime or not, or if it should disappear or not - on the grounds of Loos' ideas that it is old, feminine, a sign of degeneracy 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 time era and a certain location or not. Moreover, Loos' subversive opinion about ornaments and also his way of representing them could be interpreted as a sexually biased and racially 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, on the same grounds as that of Jung emphasizing that the unconscious desires and wishes could be detrimental when they are suppressed and ignored.
1. Loos, Adolf. Adolf Loos, Ornament and Crime, Selected Essays, tr. Michaell Mitchell. California: Adriane Press, 1998.
2. McBride, Patrizia C. "In Praise of the Present": Adolf Loos on Style and Fashion". US: The John Hopkins University Press, 2004.