As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Carlos Kong looks at Albrecht Wellmer’s “Art and Industrial Production” from Telos 57 (Fall 1983).
In “Art and Industrial Production,” from Telos 57 (Fall 1983), philosopher Albrecht Wellmer provides an ethical-aesthetic account of art and industrial production by analyzing the nature of their intersection in twentieth-century architecture. Wellmer charts parallel trajectories of philosophical thought and architectural endeavors, from the progressive aims of the German Arts and Craft Society through a critical response in postmodern principles of design. Through explicating the recurrent failure of realizing ethical praxes in both modern and postmodern architecture, Wellmer reorients the discordance of industrialized art production and the goals of living subjects from an overestimation of “production-aesthetics” to an insufficient account of “use-aesthetics.” Wellmer’s exegesis conveys an urgency of revising and clarifying the sociopolitical affordances of design and production in order to advocate for an ethical communication of industrial culture.
Wellmer initiates his criticism of artistic and industrial convergence, as exemplified in architecture, by expounding on the failed mobilization of the German Arts and Craft Society’s (Deutscher Werkbund) design theories into a relevant social praxis, persistent throughout the broader functionalist project of modern architecture. From its founding in 1907, the Society aimed to foreground industrial progress by harmonizing art and industrial production in the development of a technological-aesthetic moral culture. In addition, the Arts and Craft Society implemented functionalist properties of design, postulating that “form follows function,” to advance the social transformation of the modern subject by reuniting the artist, technician, and merchant. When describing the failed alliance of art and industrial production, Wellmer states: “If one can speak of a central, underlying illusion in the original platforms of the Arts and Craft Society, it is this: that the interests in a humanization of the work environment, an expansion of capitalist markets, and the development of a new attitude towards form and material could operate in conformity with one another.” Thus, Wellmer explains the impaired progress of modern architecture as symptomatic of the irreconcilability of capitalist development and functionalist design, as well as with reference to the lack of a critical reflexivity to the politicized affordances of aesthetic production.
Wellmer extends his analysis of the German Arts and Craft Society to encompass a broader critique of the functionalist tenets of modernism. Wellmer distinguishes between “mechanical functionalism” and “historical functionalism,” both of which he claims contributed to the failure of a social intervention through architecture. Mechanical functionalism, as Wellmer maintains, refers to the formalist investment in “technocratic simplification.” Wellmer cites Le Corbusier’s architecture as a manifestation of mechanical functionalism’s technocratic-aesthetic ideal, in which the utopian simplicity of form-function gestures toward an emancipation of architecture itself. However, Wellmer further argues that absent from a mechanical, functionalist ideal is the effect of social reorganization against capitalist modernization and the destructiveness of industrial culture. Instead, mechanical functionalism becomes an idealism of “spiritual,” humanist projection onto material and design, operating within the superstructural confines of “the cult of utility and the religion of art.”
Wellmer additionally defines historical functionalism as the teleology of architectural fantasy throughout the twentieth century that, along with the formalism of mechanical functionalism, failed to account for and reconfigure an ethical paradigm in industrialized aesthetics. While the functionalist ideologies of modern design aimed to facilitate social transformations in response to the threat of capitalist modernization, Wellmer delineates this failed translation of aesthetic theory into a reorganizing praxis: “In contrast, the version of functionalism which has historically predominated is afflicted with the formal and mechanical simplifications of the technocratic spirit. It suffers especially from a lack of reflection on the functional and objective relationships in reference to which a functionalist production ought to be carried out.” Thus, Wellmer problematizes the absent attunement of architecture to the capitalist relations of industrial production, unable to promote a revival of individual and cultural sovereignty amid the totalizing imperatives of pervasive capitalism and wartime conditions.
Wellmer explicates Adorno’s defense of architectural modernism and posits Charles Jencks’s semiotics of postmodern architecture as a critical counterpoint, foregrounding his own thesis that argues for the communicative clarification of social goals and the realization of an aesthetics of use within the parameters of industrial culture. In his speech to the Arts and Craft Society in 1965, Adorno characterizes the reciprocity of materials, forms, and goals in functionalist architecture, asserting that “the feeling for space has grown together with the goals . . . a specific goal can become space, in which forms and materials, all moments, bear reciprocally upon each other.” Wellmer interprets Adorno’s defense of functionalism as a dialectic of subjectivity and objecthood, in which architecture recovers human subjectivity in objectified form while additionally functioning as a “spatial structure replete with significance” for the human subject.
Wellmer contrasts Adorno’s semiotic rendering of architecture, in which art and industry converge in a linguistic-aesthetic realm, with Jencks’s lexical theorizations of postmodern architecture. Jencks suggests that the rediscovery of language in architecture aims to oppose the hegemonic rationality, structuralism, and one-dimensionality of modernism. Jencks argues in favor of realizing democratic urbanity through an eclecticism of style and a pluralism of subjectivity, both of which account for the inability of a homogeneous system of signification in industrial societies. Wellmer applies Wittgenstein’s notion of the “prejudice of crystal purity,” which demands a perspectival shift in linguistic articulation, to Jencks postmodern critique of functionalist unambiguity. Thus, Jencks maintains that technocratic rationality is undermined in the necessity of a communicative social praxis across complex systems of ethical heterogeneity and significatory plurality, lacking the direct technological-aesthetic purity that modernism purported to uphold. However, Wellmer further challenges Jencks’s positioning of postmodernism, claiming that Jencks’s postmodernism encompasses ambiguous slippages of problematic tendencies—technical rationality as irrationalism, contextualism as particularism, symbolism as authoritarianism—that irreconcilably protest and retreat from technocratic modernism. Therefore, Wellmer argues that Jencks’s configuration of postmodernism fails to reject modernist enlightenment as well as to formulate a convincing determination of sociopolitical action. Instead, Jencks’s postmodernist lexicon fundamentally participates in Adorno’s legacy by critiquing the reification of instrumental reason.
Wellmer’s explication of a philosophy of twentieth-century architecture thus makes manifest the historicized inability of bridging an ethical social praxis in industrial culture with modern and postmodern aesthetic theories. As a response to the ever-urgent discordance between the goals of industrial production and those of living subjects, Wellmer ultimately asserts that design must account for the social, political, and ecological relations within the public consciousness of capitalist modes of production. Wellmer proposes the critical analysis of an “aesthetics of use,” for which production occurs, as a solution to mobilizing an ethical sociality in industrial culture: “An ‘aesthetic of use’ emerges where the aesthetic quality of life is concerned, in dependence on the sensibleness of goals embodied in the objects of usage. Today, the problems of ‘contemporary form’ are above all those of the aesthetics of usage, whose solution the model of an interaction of art and industry is no longer sufficient.” Thus, Wellmer’s invocation for a revision of use-aesthetics in industrial processes provides a pertinent framework for clarifying and communicating the social goals of production, aiming toward the recovery of art and industrial production within an enlightened democratic practice of industrial culture.