EVEN THE MOST FUTILE OF OBJECTS CAN TURN OUT TO BE SURPRISINGLY UTILITARIAN, EVEN THE MOST UTOPIAN IN CONCEPTION MAY BE WHOLLY PRAGMATIC IN PRACTICE. One aspect of Modernism, as Frederic Jameson points out in The Modernist Papers, is its quest for the ultimate mirage of the identity of form and content, the ideal moment in which the latter merges with the former. Being a mirage, that union relentlessly retreated from the grasp of artists, while forever remaining at the periphery of their vision. indeed, one persistent strain of Modernism might be taken as the zenith of art's capacity for periphrasis, complaining in the longest way possible--Remembrance of Things Past, Berlin Alexanderplatz, Ulysses, The Cantos, Zorn's Lemma, the oeuvre of Mark Rothko--that you can't ever get what you want.
It is precisely in that failure to attain its goal, however, that the use value of art may be realised, perhaps in ways that its progenitors never intended. What I am thinking of here is not the way that, for example, a readymade can always be put back to work in the real world--one could plumb in Marcel Duchamp's Fountain, put his In Advance of the Broken Arm to work clearing snow. Rather, I am concerned with those projects explicitly conceived to unify form and content, let's say Modernism at work in the domain of design, accidentally or inadvertently achieving utilitarian ends without the mirage ever becoming a real, historical moment.
If this accident, which I see ultimately as the product of a mismatch between modernist art's historical critique, or lack thereof, and the reality of any given moment, characterises the art of the past--our classical ruins, as TJ Clark characterises Modernism--then how does it relate to such projects in the present? We are, in 'postmodernity', almost overrun by the design projects of contemporary artists. Their productions swing from fashion--handbags by Tracey Emin (Longchamp) or Morimura (Louis Vuitton) through furniture (the estate of Donald Judd) to cutlery and fabric. We have witnessed the costumes of performance art turned into fashion, almost off the back of the artist, in the 1990s work of Elisa Jimenez, and the production of fashion as gallery or street performance, staged by artists whose very positioning blurs the cultural boundary between the two modalities--in the 1990s work of Karen Kimmel or more recently of Lucy Orta. Jimenez's project oddly, and according to the artist inadvertently, witnesses symbolic content becoming pure form. As postmodern art practice, and in Jimenez's subsequent transformation into fashion designer, it also mirrors Modernism. In particular it shadows the trajectory of Sonia Delaunay, whose 'simultaneous dress' of 1914 is, in one sense, painting come to life. The same abstraction of space, colour and time that characterises Delaunay's canvases of the Bul Bullier bar in Montparnasse is transferred to cotton, silk and wool in a union of form and content upon the body which is ultimately, and pragmatically, reified first within the fashion store Casa Sonia and in the 1920s by the atelier Maison Delaunay. We have, then, in both Modernism and contemporary art's engagement with design, the same confusion of intents, between the utopian and the cynical, between critical and detached aesthetics, which we might call strands of the dialectic; we have similarly inadvertent outcomes, though none yet are perhaps as useful as those stumbled upon within Modernism. Is there, then, any difference between modernist and postmodern art when it comes to the union of aesthetics and utility? Do both simply end up selling their ideas to entertain bemused bankers with no taste of their own?
Clearly we are haunted by Modernism's failure in a way that Modernism itself could not be. All except the most transcendently under-educated of contemporary practitioners know that the mirage was and, if it still persists, remains a mirage. …