So it’s no secret that these are troubled times. I’ve been thinking a lot about a long-term art situation that maybe counts as an inspiring story where the good guys win in the long run, or at least their ideas do. If you’re willing to have kind of a fluid definition of “good guys,” I guess. Anyway: let’s talk about the life and death and long, triumphant afterlife of the Bauhaus.
What’s the Bauhaus, you ask? Why, the Bauhaus is many things! It’s the seminal Goth band, for one thing. Within the city of Minneapolis, it’s an apartment building whose appearance is kind of a visual pun AND it’s a brewery that makes so-so beer but has a really cool taproom that’s often full of dogs. But of course, these are all derivative names, shadows of the real thing.
The real Bauhaus that inspired all of these namesakes was a revolutionary art and design school in Germany in the 1920s and 30s. The Bauhaus sprang up immediately after World War 1 and lived and died with the liberal Weimar Republic; it was shut down by the Nazis immediately when they came to power for being decadent.
At the time, the Bauhaus was a big deal because of their unconventional modes of teaching art, which have since become very conventional; their curriculum eventually undergirded a lot of 20th century art instruction, especially the idea of teaching foundational skills courses first. At the time, they were also famous because their faculty was something of a Murderer’s Row of major European artists and architects. Paul Gropius founded the school and ran it for years; Ludwig Mies van der Rohe also ran it for a while. Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Lazlo Moholy-Nagy all taught and helped develop the curriculum, and Marcel Breuer was an early student who joined the faculty after graduation. Minnesotans in particular might be familiar with some of his work here:
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More than (or maybe because of) the innovative curriculum and high-caliber faculty, the Bauhaus cast a long shadow because of their design philosophy. It’s important to keep in mind that the school opened right after World War 1, as Europe and America got used to the fact that everyone’s lives were increasingly going to be dominated by mass-produced factory goods. The Bauhaus taught that industrial design (and architecture) should be functional, minimalist (at least in the sense of not including elements that didn’t contribute to the item’s function), and, wherever possible, beautiful. These ideas weren’t entirely new (the architect Louis Sullivan had said “form follows function” a few decades before), but the Bauhaus was new in applying them to industrial design and in doing them so well (it’s easy to practice beautiful design when your faculty is a slate of notable artists). It’s no surprise that this went over in a world uneasy with the economic shift; if our houses have to be full of stuff made in factories, it could at least be beautiful stuff, right?
So Bauhaus stuff is always immediately recognizable. It’s simple, it’s functional, it’s clean, it’s geometric, and it uses cutting-edge materials, even if in the 1920s that meant “chrome pipes.” We’ll come back to this in a second.
I don’t want to get into an in-depth history of the Bauhaus here. The important parts are: Gropius opened the school in 1919 in Weimar, and it became famous and respected after a rough first couple of years. Then conservative politicians ran the school out of town, and they moved to the city of Dessau, where the school remained famous, respected, and enormously influential. Until a different round of conservative local politicians raised trouble and the school had to move to the suburbs of Berlin, where it was just starting to get its feet under it with more of a focus on architecture when the Nazis took power and immediately shut the whole thing down. The Nazis hated the Bauhaus because its embrace of modernism ran counter to their dominant romanticism, and because the international appeal of the school’s style made it insufficiently German in their eyes. All of this international modernism was considered decadent by Hitler. Aesthetics were important to the Nazis; remember, Hitler was a failed painter, and his #2 by the end of the war was the architect Albert Speer.
(By the way, part of what prompted me to write this piece was the news of the Trump administration’s order banning decadent modern architecture from Federal buildings, mandating a return to wholesome, nationalist Neoclassicisim)
But here’s the inspiring part: the Bauhaus, after being shut down, essentially pulled an Obi-Wan Kenobi and became more powerful than Hitler could possibly imagine. The school was shut down in 1933, and the students, faculty and alumni scattered, many of them winding up in America. Where they went on to dominate the world of design for decades afterwards. Hitler was a charred corpse 12 years after he closed the Bauhaus; but I’m sitting here in 2020 typing this on a clean, sleek, geometric, minimalist Apple laptop that just screams Bauhaus principles, even down to the sans-serif letters on each of its keys. Everything else in my office here, every single device or piece of furniture, was designed in a way that either extends or reacts against the Bauhaus; the entire modern world of industrial design, which encompasses pretty much all of our stuff, lives in its shadow. Sometimes the good guys, or at least the good ideas, win in the end, albeit at great cost.
The band’s pretty good, too.
This is going to be pretty hit or miss, but: lately, I’ve gotten really into checking out music by people who were considered masters of the electric guitar before our modern idea of what it should sound like developed (so, people before Jimi Hendrix, kind of). And it’s great stuff! If you want something rad to listen to, run to Spotify or Youtube and see what you can find by Charlie Christian (with whoever) and Les Paul (both with and without Mary Ford). And listen to Django Reinhardt, too, even if he usually wasn’t playing electric!
It’s really old, but you can never go wrong with this soundboard that lets you play snippets isolated David Lee Roth vocals.
I also continue to be a fan of this hilariously deadpan Twitter account that just reports the police log in Iowa City, a town plagued by people pulling over to the side of the road to flip people off.
OK, so here at the bottom, sorry for the ragged copy editing; my deal with myself was to keep this fast and loose, which is gonna mean typos. On the other hand, that also means it’ll actually come out, instead of being obsessed over.
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