My development as an art historian has been profoundly shaped by the legacy of modernism and its relationship to decoration, craft, and design. In chronological order, here are five books that have motivated my thinking on the importance of applied arts in the conceptualization of modernism.
Mark Wigley, White Walls, Designer Dresses (1995): Architecture as fashion
As an undergraduate at Columbia University, I was blown away by Wigley’s argument that a hallmark of modernist architecture, the white wall, exposes one of its greatest fears, the relationship between architecture and fashion. Wigley shows how arguments about the white wall put forward by Le Corbusier and his colleagues drew extensively on nineteenth-century arguments about the relationship between architecture and clothing. In the process, Wigley demonstrates modernist architects’ fascination and active engagement with fashion, color, and ornament, all the things that their modernist architecture supposedly renounced. This was one of the first texts I read that presented fashion, decoration, and ornament as hidden forces that structured the production of modernism and were just waiting to be revealed.
Nancy Troy, Couture Culture (2003): The Avant-garde as fashion
My interest in the relationship between fashion and modernism, sparked by Wigley, drew me to Nancy Troy’s Couture Culture. Troy argues that in the early-twentieth century, haute couture fashion and avant-garde art shared what she calls a “logic of fashion” that negotiated the tension between originality and reproduction. The logic of fashion requires a creator of originals, the fashion designer or avant-garde artist, but this “original” will not become a “fashion” until it is copied or followed by others. For Troy, the contradictions structuring the logic of fashion explain the desire of many modernist artists to explore, control, and channel—though not necessarily stave off—the allegedly corrupting influence of commerce and commodity culture.
Glenn Adamson, Thinking Through Craft (2007): Modernist Art as Craft
When I began my MA at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Material Culture program was heavily influenced by Glenn Adamson, who had recently taught there. Adamson rejected decades of thinking in craft scholarship by arguing that craft should not be seen as the equal to art, but as its border or conceptual limit. For Adamson, it was craft’s inferiority that made it worthy of attention, and he argued that artists were more effective when they embraced key aspects of craft—its supplementality, materiality, skill, pastoralism, and amateurism—rather than trying to turn craft into art. Through his rigorous critique of craft and insistence on craft’s inferiority to art, Adamson seemed to finally put craft and art on equal terms.
Elissa Auther, String, Felt, Thread (2009): Textiles as Craft, Art, and Politics
I began my dissertation on the relationship between modernism and tapestry just as this book was published. Auther compares the use of fiber in three different spheres of contemporary art. She argues that fiber artists sought to gain recognition for textiles as having the same expressive power as painting and sculpture, but, in part because they relied on a passé aestheticized definition of “art,” their work remained on the margins. Conversely, process or postminimalist artists found fiber attractive precisely because they considered it non-art and ordinary, and paradoxically they were able to create fiber works of highest value in the art world. For Auther, however, the real stars are the feminist artists who politicized this hierarchy of art over craft by openly embracing textile’s craft status and making the power relations that structure this hierarchy visible.
Despina Stratigakos, Hitler at Home (2015): Design as Politics
More recently, my interest in the political significance of applied art has turned away from the largely internal politics of the modernist art world to what could be called the external politics of fascism’s historic rise in the 1930s. Stratigakos shows how interior design played a largely overlooked but crucially important role in legitimating Hitler to both domestic and foreign audiences. Copious coverage of Hitler’s domestic environments created a reassuring image of the dictator at home as a “gentleman of taste” who was both elite and accessible. Here again, the applied arts emerge as a hidden force that structures the production of modern life, and that awaits rigorous analysis to reveal its powerful, perhaps even pernicious, influence.
K. L. H. Wells is assistant professor of art history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She is the author of Weaving Modernism: Postwar Tapestry Between Paris and New York, winner of a grant from the Terra Foundation for American Art International Publication Program of CAA.
Adamson, Glenn. Thinking Through Craft. New York: Bloomsbury, 2007.
Auther, Elissa. String, Felt, Thread: The Hierarchy of Art and Craft in American Art. Minneapolis, Minnesota: The University of Minnesota Press, 2009.
Stratigakos, Despina. Hitler at Home. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2015.
Troy, Nancy. Couture Culture: A Study in Modern Art and Fashion. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2002.
Wigley, Mark. White Walls, Designer Dresses: The Fashioning of Modern Architecture. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1995.