Monday, September 17, 2012

The De-symbolized City

"Art that points to itself but not beyond itself is bad art... the imitative arts are always jeweled with symbols that flash to something beyond themselves."   Friederich Wilhelmsen

Wisconsin State capitol, the focus of demonstrations
of every political persuation, it becomes
the symbol of the political virtues all hold.
 Symbolism is probably the most essential attribute of art, as it is the one attribute that allows a work of art to be more than just simply what it is.   Most modern art, having taken it for granted that to represent another thing is a bad thing, has systematically removed the idea of symbol from art.
There may be some argument for some modern art carrying symbols, such as Duchamps urinal, the symbolism that they contain is not readily apparent or intrinsic to the art itself.   The modern work of symbolic art is usually accompanied by a long explanation of the things it is symbolizing, as nothing in the art references commonly known cultural touchstones from which to spring from. 

There is probably no more apt example of the problems of the de-symbolization of art than in the realm of civic architecture.   As Wilhelmsen points out, symbols art point to something beyond itself, such as the civic virtues of justice and order.  By the nature of the symbolic content to be found in civic architecture, symbols tied to a cultural context and consciousness, the citizen sees that his participation in the polis is a participation in the virtues of such a place, the virtues of justice, order, duty, patriotism, etc.  Civic architecture becomes a symbolic focus towards these highest ideals, that to which all people in a society order their political life.

The modernist civic building through the embrace of the stripped down glass and steel aesthetic is an architecture devoid of symbol and meaning.   Indeed there is little to distinguish a civic building, where justice is rendered, order created and the polis formed, from the myriad other nondescript de-symbolized buildings of the modern city.  The modernist civic building has been stripped of symbolic content, and thus has stripped civic consciousness down to its barest functionality and utilitarian ends.  Without symbolism the bureaucratic state is all that is left, and what it can give the individual, or rather what it can compel the individual to do, is all that is left.   Such an institution is not something to which a sense of duty can be felt, but rather is only a sense of fear or dependence which is felt toward the modern state.

Thom Mayne's Federal Courthouse in Eugene Oregon.
Nothing intrinsic to the building tells you what it is,
words are necessary to identify it as a courthouse.



The only symbols left are merely that of the written word, and this only in the form of the merely pragmatic identifier, the words "Courthouse" emblazoned on a blank wall to identify this as a place where one goes to get sued or to be prosecuted.  The idea of justice as a virtue is not to be found in the symbolism of the building, and so too, the justice to be found inside is merely the utilitarian instrumentality of power. 

This barrenness of symbols is only to evident in our memorials as well, where proper symbolic content through the arts of painting and sculpture have long been banished.   Instead they have been superseded by the museum and interpretive center.  The materialist and desymbolized man of today cannot identify with anything but mere "facts."  The idea of a myth or symbol is entirely alien and banished in this world of pure reason, but this is a discussion for another post...

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3 comments:

  1. 20 years after William Jordy's article on "Symbolic Essence of Modern European Architecture" glass fa├žades could hardly be considered to be removing symbolic content from art (at most one could argue they removed the 'art' from symbolic content…). To believe one sort of symbolic content to be "higher" than another is a different matter. This is why Kant argued that the value of art should be independent from its purposes, so that we do not mix up aesthetic merit with sociological musings.

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  2. Very true. All art does have symbolism intrinsic in it, which is what I was pointing out about Modern architecture. Modernism symbolizes that there are no symbols, which leaves you with only the barest utilitarianism. Modernism screams "This is all there is! And nothing more!" Deconstructionism screams "Everything is chaos!" And we wonder why people are nihilists and relativists?

    See my earlier posts about Propaganda and art for my thoughts on your last point. I have to admit I've not read Kant on this but I'm meaning to very soon.

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  3. I am admittedly an amateur on the subject of art. So, from my place of ignorance, it seems like talking about art that isn't symbolic is like talking about dehydrated water. Nevertheless, am I on target in distinguishing three general modes of sybolism and art in the works of man: 1) works that explicitly are trying to avoid being "artistic" but are still emblematic of the artist; 2) works that are simple or practical in their form that deliberatly and explicitly contain symbols; and 3) works whose form is deliberately artisitic and symbolic?

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