Socialism or Aestheticism
In Margarethe von Trotta’s film Rosa Luxemburg, there is a depiction of the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands’ new year’s eve party of 1899/1900. Barbara Sukowa’s Rosa is dressed in the style of Japonisme, a red kimono and sticks in her hair; Clara Zetkin in a black feather boa; and the revisionist Eduard Bernstein, with whom Rosa refuses to dance, wears a clown’s pointy hat. Dancing waltzes and tarantellas, Leo Jogisches and our heroine discuss the pleasures of belonging to a mass Party. At the scene’s end, August Bebel declares ‘the proletariat enters the 20th century!’ flanked by a dance band in Pierrot costumes. This delightful little scene, which is likely to be fairly accurate, given the film’s historical scrupulousness, is, on the face of it, a reminder that even the left wing of the second Socialist International was bourgeois in its tastes – a bunch of Mikado Marxists, even on Rosa’s leftist fringe. But there’s something more interesting here. This is a conflation of two seemingly opposed tendencies of the fin de siecle: aestheticism and socialism.
There is, on the face of it, only one figure who really reconciled art for art's sake and commitment to revolutionary social transformation – Oscar Wilde, whose The Soul of Man under Socialism is the most brilliant of socialist polemics, not least for its scorn for the ‘usefulness’ of charity and reformism (‘the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it’). While disdaining the direct social application of art, and in so doing rejecting his arts & crafts background – sent to build bridges or what have you when he was tutored by Ruskin – Wilde’s aestheticism is not just a gleefully non-utilitarian gesture in a decomposing society, prizing ‘contemplation’ and languor above all action (although it is that too). In ‘The Decay of Lying’, a tangle of self-destructing aestheticist pronouncements, there is the claim:
‘(the Greeks) knew that life…can form herself on the very lines and colours of art…hence came their objection to realism. They disliked it on purely social grounds. They felt in inevitably made people ugly, and they were right. We try to improve the conditions of the race by means of good air, wholesome water, free sunlight, and hideous bare buildings for the better housing of the lower orders. But these things merely produce health, they do not produce beauty. For this, art is required, and the true disciples of the artist are not his studio-imitators but those who become like his works of art…in a word, life is art’s best, art’s only pupil.’
The ‘hideous bare buildings’ are hateful not for their contemptible social intent (although Wilde was certainly jibing at reform, if not revolution) but for being merely utilitarian. An intensification of art would necessarily create an intensification of life, and in that sense Wilde is not so far from the socialist aesthetes of the 1920s as one might imagine. Formally, of course, he is several million miles away.
There were three serious outgrowths of arts and crafts as, perhaps, the first real attempt at socialist aesthetics, of a sort. The familiar, tweedy, folksy exultation of popular tastes (as long as they were pre-industrial) that runs from William Morris through to Woody Guthrie; the concreteness and productivism of Constructivism/Neues Bauen and its many permutations (the link goes via the garden cities); and art nouveau. The latter, with its sinuousness, decadence, headiness, richness, would seem to be the odd one out. But the link is there. From Mackmurdo to Henry van de Velde, its practitioners were mostly trained in Ruskin's moralist craft socialism. Aubrey Beardsley and Ernst May were both Morris disciples of a sort.
In this sense, Adorno, though he meant this as a denunciation, wasn’t far wrong when he wrote that ‘from a distance, the gap between the Bauhaus and the Wiener Werkstatte (the craft workshops of the Viennese secession) is not so wide’. The obsessive redesign of the everyday indulged in by the latter (Olbrich, Josef Hoffman, Klimt etc) may have been intended for a more bourgeois public than the former, although the largest experiment in socialist architecture outside the USSR and Germany was made by ex-Sezessionists in Red Vienna. The idea is essentially similar, even if the line is different, as Pevsner recognised in Pioneers of Modern Design. The jugendstil colony of Darmstadt and the workers’ siedlung of Dammerstock have more in common, in their implicit desire to transform a world, no matter how compromised or contradictory that might be, than Gropius does with Gehry.
It is a little whimsical, perhaps, to try and imagine a Huysmans Socialism, or people waving the little yellow book as much as the red one. Nonetheless – let’s look at the architectural products of art nouveau, outside of the innumerable villas. There’s Victor Horta’s (demolished) headquarters for the Belgian Socialist Party in Brussels, with its twisting lines of iron and glass, as famous a work in its time as were his surviving luxury residences. Or three buildings in Ghent: in the centre, commanding a medieval square, towering over the gables, is ‘OUR HOUSE’, a wildly eclectic mix of Lautrec motifs reassigned from woozy hedonism to aggressively house the Socialist Workers’ Union, or the offices by the same architect for Forwards, the Party newspaper. These turn of the century works are the product of something advancing, confident, and turning not just extravagance but novelty over to the workers’ movement. Meanwhile Henry Van de Velde, a public supporter of the Belgian socialists, and whose 1930s tower for the University Library straightens the jugendstil line, was so obsessive an aesthete that his wife had to wear specially designed clothes to match the interiors.
In The Soul of Man, one of the reasons for the necessity of socialism is to make everyone a potential artist. The essay is dismissive of the idea that ‘popular taste’ can be ‘improved’, at least in a society based on private property – when he mentions the resurgence of British design that led to art nouveau, he stresses how it was initially as a slap in the face for public taste. Yet when a mass form is needed – e.g., in ‘housing for the lower orders’ – it’s not possible for everyone to be a perfect aesthetic individualist. In an interview recently, Oscar Niemeyer recalled Walter Gropius telling him of one of his curvaceous constructions, ‘it’s beautiful, but it can’t be mass-produced’. ‘As if I intended any such thing! What an idiot’. This exemplifies nicely why the bauhaus reformist might have been a lesser ‘artist’ but a better socialist, although the Brazilian was the card-carrier. In terms of constructivism’s theoretical and technological seriousness, art nouveau is mainly whimsical, facile stuff – and maybe its employment by socialists reflected a certain confusion and aspiration to the cultivated. Maybe, yet how fantastic is the image of the revolutionary dressed as Pierrot or Red Rosa dancing around in a red kimono before manning the barricades? In another period where widespread aesthetic whimsy is concomitant with a barbarism fiercer than ever, it’s worth reminding yourself that a fair few of the fin de siecle decadents dreamed of serving the masses, so that as Wilde put it, socialism could bring a true individualism into being.