Magazine article The Spectator

Man as Machine

Magazine article The Spectator

Man as Machine

Article excerpt

Cold War Modern: Designs 1945-1970 V&A, until 11 January 2009

It's difficult not to admire the ambition of the V&A in mounting exhibitions which summarise and explain the great historical movements in design.

There have been notable successes in the past, particularly with their surveys of Art Nouveau and Art Deco, but the closer the organisers approach our own times, the more fraught with complication is the enterprise. It's almost impossible to locate and maintain any degree of objectivity about very recent happenings -- we have no historical perspective on them and find it difficult to view them except in terms of personal preference. Of course, like and dislike have become the bugbear and benchmark of contemporary criticism in a society in which standards of excellence have been vilified and impugned. Scholarship, however, demands more, though the rigours of its disciplines are all too easily cloaked in jargon and verbiage when dealing with the near-contemporary. Cold War Modern is a case in point.

The period under study, 1945-70, is seen as encapsulating a dialogue between anxiety and optimism. But what age has not? These are fundamentals of the human condition.

It is also perceived as a period of unprecedented technological development against a political backdrop of opposition between communism and capitalism. In the cultural foreground, we are informed, was an international competition to be modern. Really?

Perhaps among a very few of the unregenerate avant-garde, but I suspect most people wanted simply to recover from the devastation of world war, and the loss of belief.

What did it all mean? Post-war rehabilitation among the trend-setters and supposedly original thinkers seemed to involve an obliteration of the past, a refusal to think about recent horrors. Utopian thinking (and I've always thought it revealing that utopia literally means nowhere, underlining the unreality of so much utopian dreaming) seemed in favour of a progressive dehumanisation. Le Corbusier called a building a machine for living in, and Buckminster Fuller referred to Spaceship Earth, making the whole planet a machine.

Function replaced any pretence to beauty in architecture and seemed to demand a society in which every housewife was a heroine provided she bought all the most up-to-date gadgets and didn't stay at home to use them.

Of course, this was all part of the attempt to replace God with machines, but there was a huge emptiness at the heart of the operation. No one cares to explain why the passionate search for 'a better life' seemed to necessitate a blitzkrieg of moral values and a wholesale renunciation of the past. What of continuity? Cannot the present be built on the past, the future on the present? The modern denial of history, which leads inexorably (in the art world at least) to endless repetition of what has already been done, sometimes only a few years ago, suggests that fashion is more important than development, and that culture is seasonal and cyclical. What a nightmare.

The cult of the modern demands a clean break with the past, a tabula rasa on which to build, as if nothing has gone before. This is, thankfully, only theory, and impossible to implement, but the wish is persistently there, as can be seen in the three main rooms of this large exhibition. There are more than 300 objects laid out in seven doom-laden sections: Anxiety and Hope in the Aftermath of War, Conscription of the Arts, The Competition of the Modern, Crisis and Fear, Space Odysseys, Revolution, The Last Utopians. …

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