This is an excerpt from from a paper I delivered at the Universities Art Association Conference in October, 2008. I still like it, especially the last paragraph: one great whacking sentence with everything in it, like a big leftover stew. It was fun to read out loud.
Gottfried Semper spent his lifetime (1803 – 1879) searching for the “inner laws”
of art. His great work, Style in the Technical and Tectonic Arts; or, Practical
Aesthetics, spends 1,000 pages examining the so-called decorative arts (and he
didn’t even get to his principal interest, architecture). He describes the
relationship between how a water vessel is carried and used, and its design and
centre of gravity: the low-slung Egyptian situla is for drawing water from the earth;
the upright Greek hydria is for catching water from springs.
In the German romantic tradition, Semper could not resist attributing national
characteristics or, in the words of translator Harry Francis Mallgrave, a “collective
psychological demeanor,” to such things: the ancient Egyptians were earth bound,
heavy, and low; the Greeks soaring and spiritual. Every object, for Semper, was
replete with evidence of a culture’s inner meaning.
Today, such sweeping attributions might strike us as overreaching; simpleminded;
or even just racist. But perhaps we can venture an equally broad
conclusion from the prevailing non-style of the blank commodities that choke the
aisles; namely, that the cultural logic of capitalism is on such a massive scale,
compels such a level and intensity of stylistic variation, has made the artificial so
compelling, and has penetrated our lived experience to such a total degree, that to
map and diagram the prevailing visual logic around us is to point not towards the
justification of extraordinary practices, spirals of earth shimmering in a salt lake,
but instead towards the inescapable truth that even the most familiar of objects,
like the most difficult, are and must always remain utterly arbitrary; social
constructs beyond an individual’s private use or control; incapable of sincerity; the
products of an imposed logic.