Tag: Bauhaus

Style, Stylisation

In writing on the historically gendered and class-ridden hierarchies of art production, the feminist art historian Griselda Pollock states: ‘women were encouraged to ornament every conceivable surface because decoration in itself suggested a refined, tasteful life-style.’ Ornament, surface, decoration, lifestyle. When you line these terms up, what you reach is an infinitely serene and plastic flatness; the kind of flatness that speaks directly to the planar, the canvas, the living room and the wall. What is it about this plastic flatness that so neatly neutralises and cordons off the practice of women artists at work in the history of art, leaving them speaking to the wall? The clue is in the last designation – lifestyle – which, while  conceptually consolidating it’s formalising antecedents into a pocketable nosegay that may be seen, felt and admired when tea is served (but never thought on), also serves to draw the line between Style and stylisation.

The first word, Style (an absolutism that includes everything from schools, periodisations, collective facilities, uses and abuses, appropriation, pastiche, theft, reclamation and progress) must speak to Art’s true life-force: which is (nominally) 1) the foregrounding of a play of contradictions 2) the contestation of surface value. In its forward-rolling repetition of the same in different guises, Style squanders and hijacks and breaks the limits of form (even before it has properly surfaced); and all in its macho race to represent an Idea (any idea). It might be unfair and wrong to say that Style is the domain of male artists, but this is exactly the point and the problem Pollock draws (of course the Modernist avant-gardes sabotaged and opened up the rights to Style, even while masculinities were impressed more forcibly than ever).

Now to the second word: stylisation. If Style regards the object only fleetingly on its master-quest of critical invention, the protocols of stylisation quite literally force the practitioner to the ground’s surface (‘Style’ from stilus [Latin] DEF: a stake; a pointed instrument, used by the Romans, for writing upon wax tablets’). Embroidery epitomises stylisation to the extent that it is ornate; concentrated; Manneristic. When holding a pillow up to the afternoon light, you cannot survey: you must scrutinise microscopically. Here, vision itself figures the hand-weary entrapment and social paralysis encoded within embroidery as cultural practice. Thus Style unthinkingly carves up and allocates space for the curtailment of women’s invention, to the self-pinning labour of stylised ‘living’.

If Griselda Pollock sought to difference the canon by stratifying male and female roles against the backdrop of Style and stylisation – as I claim she does – then it is not only the emancipatory politics of the public sphere that may be seen to have (incrementally) redressed the rights of women, but the Modernist avant-gardes (Bauhaus; the Arts & Crafts Movement; De Stijl). It was their reclamation and valorisation of handiwork-as-lifestyle, as the most effective way of putting aesthetic practices and ‘useless’ productions across to social use; that retrospectively (and maybe without even intending it so), opened up a lit-space for the critical inclusion and assessment of women artists. Considered in these terms, the micro-laced patches of embroidery that adorned and domesticated the ‘progress’ Style blindly engendered, might be read as the site of a feminist revolution.*

*It is exactly this designation of a ‘women’s art history’, of a curtailed site of resistance, that Griselda Pollock fights against. I am here merely interested in describing the slippages that take place between Style and stylisation; to see how they  can be put to work.



Labour forms a metabolic link between humankind and nature. There is our own labour – a labouring through the world that constitutes our everyday – and then there is a kind of labour that we read onto things. It is not very often that we are confronted by a stillness that cannot be overwritten by movement, or process. Function-less form makes no sense to the labouring eye. Some artists have deliberately materialized this vertiginous impulse. Robert Morris’ Box With the Sound of Its Own Making (1961), in which he installed a feedback-loop recording of the labour of constructing the box, within the form itself. Here, form is literalized as a carrier of functions. Some objects, like tools and instruments, give off a greater sense of immediate use, while ‘Do not touch’ artworks fall in at the other end of the scale. Paradoxically, traditional aesthetics has supplemented this distancing from touch by installing our metabolic reflexes within the act of looking itself, whereby mere witnessing is transformed into the act of beholding. This is a peculiarity of aesthetics that borders on a kind of fetishism (insofar as one sensuous domain is recruited to compensate for another’s withdrawal).

Bauhaus sought to rectify this fetishism by shifting the burden of representation back on to the crafts and practices that go in to production. This Modernist project realized what Douglas Crimp would later go on to theorize as ‘cultural practice’. (Interestingly, this shift occurred soon after Wölfflin’s Principles was published. Wölfflin pushed the fetishism of aesthetics to its formalist limit, by investing vision with the sculptural qualities of material praxis (i.e. he posited a vision that was able to penetrate and remodel physical attributes of the object).) Bauhaus failed because, although representation had been shifted on to the ethics of practice – i.e. the School – its utilitarianism was still ultimately subject to the production and display of objects (cf. the recent Barbican exhibition). Attempts to erase the object, to present labour in-itself, have multiplied in every direction since the day Bauhaus lay washed up on the shores of America. Most recently, Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics and its theorization of participatory art projects presents a move to categorically replace aesthetics with ethics, as the correct backing epistemology for the production/reception of artworks. But even so, the same problem that arose with the Bauhaus remains: how to represent the event after the event and what to do with the audience. Instead, I want to chart and imagine instances where we, as spectators, have moved in the opposite direction. A situation where art objects become the raw materials to kinds of representative practices that take place beyond the gallery space. I want to look at the production of lifestyles as an unintended offshoot to the determinate blurring of the borderland between art and life. We no longer labour to survive; today we labour to look good. I want to locate instances that realize Bourdieu’s attack on Kantian aesthetics, instances where subjects maximize on their social capital. I do not intend to valorise the production of lifestyles from artworks, but instead the hope is that, by recognizing and pushing its methods and labour, we might be in a position to question the validity of practices that seek to redress the ‘fetishism’ of aesthetics with a well-meaning ethical commitment that – as I claim – backfires. By surpassing this commitment, I hope to draw the parameters of renewed possibilities for aesthetics today.