One day I noticed that the ugliest buildings in town are at the art gallery, so I began pondering modern design. How could the people most aware of the Beautiful veer so forcefully into making things ugly? Since modernism is all about shifting blame to root causes, I wanted to be fair to the artist community by blaming a root cause. So I’ve decided that the poverty of modern plastic design is rooted in a failure of poetic vocabulary.
“Form follows function” seems to be a guiding epigram of the modern aesthetic. And this produces minimalism. It produces what we now call “contemporary style”. But no art can survive long in minimalism, since the most fundamental function is simple survival. Art is always an extraneous object from the point of view of mere survival; it is the very opposite of minimalism. So the post-modern artist, in order to overcome the inevitable ennui that comes attached to modernism in all disciplines, resorts to what some call “whimsy” — although, as I say the word, I want to restate it, since “whimsy” is a positive word, with an element of joy, and it is useful. But I notice that the minimalist mood — wherever it appears — eventually kills all joy. (more on Minimalism versus Simplicity)
So, what does the artist and critic mean by “whimsy”, really? They mean “random”. What the post-modern artist actually cultivates is randomnity of form. Yet, the true random event has, by definition, no designer, so this path logically ends either in abandoning art entirely or in suicide. Or spend your life designing forms that go against other forms — avoidance of pattern, anti-form. (I know, I know, the lack of insight is breathtaking, but I’m just reporting here.)
But this stance is not new; we’ve seen it somewhere before…let’s see…let’s see…ah, it is old as adolescence. The definition of oneself by adopting anything random that is new and is not what your elders did — to define yourself in contrast to others — is the adolescent pose. What a sad spectacle is this: high intelligence, such as God gave an artist, harnessed to the end of intentionally avoiding order or value. Unspeakable tragedy.
So that doesn’t work. It produces the ultimate absurdity: the ugly art gallery. What makes more sense? Well, in the real world, form and function are intertwined inseparably, of course, but we do need to express their relationship in a verb, or we have no guide whatsoever for formal (design) decisions. The problem is in the verb “follows”, which connotes passivity. It relegates “form” to a passive role, which is eventually always a death. The minute we choose the verb “follows” in the epigram, and let that relationship be the way we think about form and function, we start down a road to random form. Bad poetic vocabulary locks us in bad thought, and bad work.
Better: “Form REJOICES in function”. This gives both nouns something to do. Within the building this architect is drawing, real people work. Let the form rejoice in that work, not just accomodate it. If Form rejoices in the function it facilitates, then it will be something worthy of beholding in its own right. Art. And the artist — the architect’s job is to rejoice.
A poet would know that if the wrong word sneaks into the communal mind, it can kill for generations an entire discipline.