Thursday, February 2, 2017

Ornament and Crime: the book

One of my Christmas presents was Adolf Loos' Ornament and Crime, which includes the famous essay of that title but also many more short pieces on related themes. There aren't many huge surprises, but he's funny and seems very similar to Wittgenstein in matters of taste. I couldn't wait to blog about it, but now that I've finished it I don't know what to say. Here goes nothing.

One reason I found the book interesting is that Wittgenstein once wrote that: "It is as though I wanted to change men's and women's fashions by talking" (Culture and Value p, 71, according to some notes I have, but I don't see it there in the edition I own). Loos sort of tries to do this, although he also recognizes the problem with such an enterprise. He also, like Wittgenstein, rejects talk of beauty in the arts in favor of talk about getting things right. Or rather, Loos rejects one in favor of the other, while Wittgenstein, if his students' notes are to believed, merely observed that we tend not to talk much about beauty and instead use words like 'right' and 'wrong'. Here's Loos, from the essay "Men's Fashion" (from 1898):
...what does it mean to be well dressed? It means to be correctly dressed.
To be correctly dressed! With that expression I feel as if I have removed the mystery with which our fashions have been surrounded until now. For fashion we use words such as beautiful, elegant, chic, smart, or dashing. But that is not the main point at all. The point is to be dressed in such a manner as to attract as little attention to oneself as possible. (p. 40)
He is not doing aesthetics here but trying to change men's fashions by talking. He is making propaganda, that is, against the foppishness that he identified as popular in Germany and in favor of what he identifies as the English (he is very pro-English, which probably ought to make one suspicious), modern, refined taste in men's clothing.

On the other hand, he does acknowledge that this is not generally how fashion works:
Today we wear narrow trousers, tomorrow they will be wide, and the day after narrow again. Every tailor knows that. Couldn't we just abolish the wide-trouser period, then? Oh no! We need it to be able to enjoy our narrow trousers again. (p. 60)
He does suggest, though, that the industry can impose styles on people, or at least force the speed of change to increase. And, presumably, the industry might be encouraged to do so by respected essayists. But:
Fashion progresses slowly, more slowly than one usually thinks. Objects that are really modern stay so for a long time. (p. 92)
Another engine of changing fashion is social change:
...we are heading toward a newer, greater age. Women will no longer have to appeal to sensuality to achieve equal status with men, but will do so through their economic and intellectual independence, gained through work. A woman's value will not rise and fall with fluctuations in sensuality. Silks and satins, ribbons and bows, frills and furbelows will lose their effectiveness. They will disappear. And rightly so. There is no place for them in our culture. (p. 111) 
Much has been made of the handles that Wittgenstein designed for the house he built in Vienna. (You can even buy a version of them, although his design has been reworked "to bring it in line with modern technology." The horror!) But has Loos' remark from "The New Style and the Bronze Industry" (1898, presumably, although the date given in the book is 1878--Loos was born in 1870) been noted?
There is only one decent door handle in Vienna accessible to me, and I make a special detour to see it every time I am in the vicinity. (p. 49)
From the surrounding text it seems clear that what distinguishes this handle is its lack of ornamentation. If Wittgenstein was a big fan of Loos' then he might have tried to design something that would have pleased the master. This is not easy:
Changing old objects to adapt them to modern needs is not permissible. We must either copy or create something completely new. (p. 46)
And a craftsman's best work will be the work that corresponds "most closely to his nature, to his temperament, which he produces without effort, which bear[s] the clearest stamp of his personality" (p. 45).

One rule of thumb that seems to apply throughout the book is that the duller the chapter title, the more interesting its content turns out to be. For instance, in "Interior Design: Prelude" (1898) Loos speaks of styles of furniture as languages: "Our cabinetmaker speaks German, the German of Vienna, 1898. Do not call him stupid or naive just because he cannot speak Middle High German, French, Russian, Chinese, and Greek as well" (p. 53). Perhaps this isn't earth-shattering, but it seems rather Wittgensteinian.

As, in a way, does this:
...the ancient Greeks also knew a little about beauty. And they were led by practical considerations alone, without taking beauty into account at all, without wanting to satisfy some aesthetic need. And when an object was so practical it could not be made any more practical, they called it beautiful.[...]
Are there still people who work in the same way as the Greeks? Oh, yes. As a nation, the English; as a profession, the engineers. The English and the engineers are our ancient Greeks. (p. 69)
I wonder whether Wittgenstein read this before he went to England to study engineering in Manchester.


  1. one could read "forms of life" as ways of accounting for tastes

    1. Yes. There's clearly a very close connection, at least as Loos sees things.

    2. perhaps than the analysis isn't/shouldn't-be what one can't say (wouldn't make logical sense to say) and more trying to grasp one someone in certain circumstances, and or for certain purposes, etc is likely to mean when they say ______ ?

    3. That sounds right. Language isn't a cage after all. Or: there's nothing you can't say.

    4. @spencerwoodman
      In which Trump lawyer tells judge Robart of travel ban: "We actually don't think you're supposed to look at whether it's rationally based"