THE NEW AND THE FOUND

To Ms Cook, who commented very insightfully on that Mid-Century Modern Facebook thread [pertaining to a photograph in which Natasha, my pet crow, scrutinizes an Eames House Bird], your point about the House Bird’s modernist claim — its being a perhaps dubious or at least complicated claim — is an interesting one. My own answer has two parts. (At least two.)

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First, who’s making that claim? Not Charles and Ray Eames, for whom this and other “found designs” merely — and at the same time significantly — resonated with their modernist aesthetic. The House Bird is simple, monochromatic, and stylized. It is representational though without being naturalistic. Moreover it presents a twist on what critics call “pathetic fallacy,” the imbuing of objects, creatures, or events in the natural world with human intent. Pathetic fallacy is part and parcel of Romanticism, the movement that, in aesthetic terms, immediately precedes Modernism, and to which Modernism is both successor and rejoinder. The Eames bird is, conspicuously, a false bird. Made by people, it fully acknowledges human involvement and, arguably, even human subversion of natural forces or properties. By refusing to mask its human provenance as an object of craft, a contrived thing, it both disputes the privileging of nature over design and at the same time reaffirms an inevitable pre-condition: all human enterprise participates in nature. That in itself is a very modern idea.

But another key ingredient of what makes this particular object modern in spite of its being purloined from traditional folk culture, is precisely that it, so to speak, comes from somewhere else. One of Modernism’s unspoken tenets is that “the new” is intimately bound up with a contradictory yet binary concept, that of “the found.” Eames’s Case Study House (#8) is a perfect example: Eames and his silent collaborator on the project, Eero Saarinen, had determined that this building would be constructed from industrial joinery products that could be ordered straight from the catalogs of steel, glass, and composite fabricators. In other words, the elements of that house, literally its physical components, had come “from somewhere else.”

We think of Modernism as a “radical” movement in aesthetics. Yet the modernists themselves, regardless of whom we cite as instigators — whether we begin with Charles Baudelaire or Max Reger or Oskar Kokoschka — were never confused about the source of that concept: “radical” in the etymological sense of “back to the root.”

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