By Harris, Jonathan
Art Monthly , No. 297
My own experience of visiting the V&A's exhibition 'modernism: Designing a New World' was much more like a trip to my local IKEA in Warrington than to Habitat (the show's sponsors) in Chester. The museum's cramped rooms competently imitated both the crush and motion of bodies in IKEA and the off the shelf shopping pleasures and pains of our own mass-market Modernism. The show's narrative has a late sequence devoted to this zone of 30s emerging consumer capitalism, a bit like IKEA's own section of bargain basement bits and bobs: for cheap glasses, cutlery, and rugs see the V&A's radios, films, fabrics, pots and pans. Modernism, then--in its many different forms and feelings--is still with us. The puzzle is to see the connections and dislocations posed by these three institutional representations of different Modernisms at the V&A, Hayward Gallery and Tate Modern, though the Hayward exhibition is really a show centred on Georges Bataille's own avant-garde--for which read 'diversely warped'--tastes and titillations. Habitat does not appear to have wanted to see the V&A curators construct the kind of plausible 'environments of use' for historical modernist artefacts that its high street stores habitually rely on for their sales: the living rooms of contiguous sofas and kitchens decked out in stainless steel, stylish glasses, and cappuccino machines. It is these 'ideal' depictions of bourgeois consumption and lifestyle, however, that really put me off--I always end up buying nothing in Habitat because I know I simply cannot afford to live up to these images, that is, to imagine my home looking anything like these latter day 'machines for living'. IKEA, on the other hand--out by the ring road, on the retail park, handily next to Burger King--is our true mass modernity: where we occasionally go to purchase the hand-me-down, pastiched designer items that fit, more or less, into the congealed congestions and anachronisms of our actual homes.
Both the V&A's show and Tate Modern's 'Albers and Moholy-Nagy: From the Bauhaus to the New World' unsurprisingly reprise stock modernist exhibition conventions in their respective presentations of Modernism: movements and individual career lines remain standard museological variants of giving the customer what they want--as at my local Tesco, where, although they move the veg around every few weeks, the general management strategy is that the punters will reassuringly find what they want reasonably quickly with only minor irritation and might buy something new that they come across where the carrots usually are. Though the V&A's narrative journey stops in 1939, and its coverage of modernist painting is very scant--the Hayward show, also dealing with the 20s and 30s, handily fills in some of the gaps--it does a fair job of showing that modern art and design were part of a world, not apart from the world. Although historical Modernism covers a multitude of producers, products, places, and processes of production, only a small fraction of these were ever wedded to a strong notion of autonomy or art for art's sake--either in terms of the aims and hopes of practitioners included in these shows, such as Naum Gabo, Frank Lloyd Wright, Hans Arp, or Piet Mondrian or the accounts of wildly differing visionary modernist critics such as Clive Bell, Hilla Rebay, Carl Einstein or Clement Greenberg. Arguably, it is only since the 80s --in Britain anyway--partly through the drip drip influence of the Open University's 'Modern Art and Modernism: From Manet to Pollock' course, that the so-called autonomy thesis retrospectively became the dominant ideology of Modernism understood putatively as a unitary entity. 'Undercover Surrealism' eschews any discussion of Bataille or of Surrealist art as modernist or anti-modernist in any theoretically coherent sense. Oddly it fails to acknowledge Bataille's egregious exoticisations of colonial peoples, or the dominance of his journal Documents by male authors, which mirrored official Surrealism's patriarchy, and depicts its avant-garde authors and artists as mired (more than a tad obsessively) in the material world, not attempting to transcend it. …