Notes on Bauhaus: Community of Creative Workers

In this text a collection of notes on the book Bauhaus (1999), by Jeannine Fiedler and Peter Feierabend (editors) and in particular the introduction Bauhaus - geschichtlich by Andreas Haus, is used as a starting point for further reasonings about the ideas and motivations of the historic avant-garde in general and Bauhaus in particular, and why that matters for contemporary practices. Key issues are the development of arts and arts and crafts within an increasingly industrial economy, art/-isanal working methodologies and relationships with science and new technologies, and the notion of the artistic or artisianal community as a driver of social change.

In Bauhaus (1999), by Jeannine Fiedler and Peter Feierabend (editors)1, the introductory essay Bauhaus - geschichtlich by Andreas Haus, starts with the important statement that "Bauhaus was the child of a time that felt revolutionary"2. Bauhaus was founded in the year 1919 in Weimar, Germany, the town associated with the German classics, Goethe and Schiller, a town also which became synonymous with the Weimar Republic, the common term to describe the Germany of the interwar years. Bauhaus lasted exactly as long as the Weimar Republic, from 1919 to 1933. It was founded at a time after Germany had lost WWI and had seen the end of the empire of Wilhelm II (FIXME). The end of the war in 1918 was characterised by a genuine revolutionary atmosphere in Germany, when socialist and communist movements had felt that there was a chance to seize power. After all, the Bolshevists had just done so in Russia, following on to the October Revolution in 1917. As Eric Hobsbawm explains in The Age of Extremes (1994), Germany had a much larger industrial base than Russia and therefore a much larger working class, and was therefore, in theory, a much more likely place for revolutionary socialism to succeed. Andreas Haus is in step with other authors (Hobsbawm 1994, Graeber 2008, Williams FIXME year) who all assert the same: the revolutionary art movements of the 'historic avant-garde' were inspired by or influenced by and probably only made possible by a general revolutionary Zeitgeist with working class movements in many industrialised countries trying to seize power towards or after the end of WWI, when the war had weakened or crushed states or Empires (such as the Austro-Hungarian empire, Tzarist Russia, Prussian Germany). That revolutionary spirit had already been firmly in place before the war, yet, to the great disappointment of Internationalists the working classes of belligerent countries allowed themselves to be manipulated into a patriotic frenzy by the national presses and had joined the war rather than opting for international solidarity, conscientious objection and therefore peace.

As David Graeber points out, 1917 is not only a political date, it is also an important date on any timeline mapping philosophic, theoretic, and artistic paradigm changes. It is a recognizable date when something ended and something new began. However, as much as exact dates are useful in signifying important turning points or paradigm changes, it is at the same time also important to acknowledge that the forces involved in such moments of historic change have much deeper roots and that some of the things involved before that moment of change have a legacy that goes much beyond it - and it is the task of the reseracher to both highlight the significance of moments of change yet also show the trajectories of what went before and what came after it, in short to identify the movens (Latin, that what moves something) of history.

Haus links that revolutionary spirit, referring to Friedrich Nietzsche, to a "reassessment of all values". "Many people held the viewpoint that the old bourgeoise world of industrialism and militarism with its high-aristocracy and internal contradictions had destroyed itself in the hybrid war of nation states" (Haus 1999, p. 14, own translation).

The attempts by Bismarck to repress the socialist movements of the late 19th century by passing the so called Socialist Laws had actually contributed to the creation of strong social democratic and trade union movements in Germany and had forced the unwilling Prussian Empire to implement aspects of a welfare state policy well before 1914 (FIXME source missing). The success of the Russian October revolution made it appear possible that something genuinly new might be possible. Yet, as Haus points out, the intellectual base of such future oriented thinking had also a history within the artistic movements of the late 19th and early 20th century (Ibid, p. 14). Jugendstil (Modern Style) and Art Noveau raised new promises of happyness and provided visions of human freedom in tune with a new attitude towards life shared by a whole generation before the historic avant-garde and characterised by "pure emotion, authenticity, experience, expressivity and - as Ersatz (substitute) for religion - a universal and symbolic thinking" (Ibid, p.14, own translation). The revolutions in art after 1917 had been preceded by a whole generation which had already tried to tear down the separations between art and life, and between high (academic) art and applied art. This success had been underpinned by the rise of the academies for the applied arts in the late 19th century, which, Haus claims, were in many ways more successful and more adequate to the spirit of times than the academies of painting (Ibid). Industrialisation had increasingly put an end to the "dream of a harmonic culture of one people (Traum einer harmonischen Volkskultur)" which led to artists retreating into small Bohemian circles and which in turn helped create the notion that artists were outsiders of society, an idea still clinged on to by some at the time of writing. Haus points to a contradiction which needs more attention in future research, which is at the very heart of modernity: the rise of industrial mass production triggered social romantic reform movements which were based on the idea that by reviving arts and crafts they could also revive society and create a new social unity. Key figures in this respect are John Ruskin and the Arts and Crafts Movement by the entrepreneur William Morris (Ibid. p.15).

The arts and crafts idea - not only the movement but the idea as such - shows a relationship to what Jean-Luc Nancy writes about the notion of community (in Bishop 2006) when he claims that the social utopian movements of the mid 19th century, and that includes Marxism and Marx himself, were characterised by a desire to regain community - opening a relationship between communism and community in an almost spiritual sense. This desire was stimulated by the strongly felt loss of community through the experience of alienation in the industrial workplace.

Another line of inquiry to be explored from here leads to Richard Sennett's book The Craftsman (2008) where "Sennett considers an array of artisans across different periods, from ancient Chinese chefs to contemporary mobile-phone designers, in this powerful meditation on the "skill of making things well"" (from The New Yorker, Amazon Review, Sennett claims that the loss of arts and crafts would also be socially subversive because the sense of being steeped in a tradition of "making things well" is formative to the character and that without such a formative experience anti-social individuals arise. Continuing this line of thought would offer an interesting viewpoint on the hacker community which is strongly based on intellectual craftmanship and mutual respect arising from it. So maybe the hacker movement is not so much cyber-communist as Richard Barbrook has claimed (Cyber-Communism, Barbrook 1999, but cyber-communitarian in a mid-19th century artisanal way (probably, as we will see, with roots in the middle ages).

The arts and crafts movements, as Haus points out, tried to preserve the dignity of human life at least on the small scale of a specific culture of how to work and live, whereby the introduction of 'art' into artisanal production was hoped to enable, in the long term, a new social community of the people (Haus, op.cit. paraphrased, p.15). Yet this was not to be as arts and crafts in Germany soon became an industrial policy with the foundation of the German Werkbund in 1907, which aimed at "uniting arts, industry and crafts" (Jahrbuch des Deutschen Werkbunds 1912, quoted in Haus op.cit., p.16). So much for the 'novelty' of the creative industries policies since 1997. "Art and life" became replaced by "art and industry" and its war cries were the "good form", "quality", "unity of form and content" with artisanal hand work soon in retreat and designs aiming at mass producability culminating (astonishingly) in the claim that the modern warship - this at the eve of WWI - reached the highest unity of technical construction and artistic form (Ibid, abbreviated translation, p.16). In this celebration of form also echos of classicism can be found - an important link also pointed out by Hobsbawm (1994 FIXME page missing). The young architect Walter Gropius, editor of the Werkbund Yearbooks, wrote in 1914 that so far art had been lacking an intellectual ideal of such general validity, so that artists had been unable to go beyond egocentric creation (Gropius quoted by Haus, abbreviated translation, p.16). In that same text Gropius also demands that technical constructions are imbued with a sense of artistic or even poetic density and that all details should be united into a whole which made it the symbolic expression of the inner meaning of modern constructions such as "cars, trains, steamships, aeroplanes ..." (Ibid, own translation)). Yet the battlefieds of WWI destroyed such high-thinking of symbolic expression and Gropius returned to necessity on a much more material level in 1919 demanding that first, the current generation "had to find a new humanity, a new form of living of the people" and only after that art would be possible again (Gropius quoted in Haus 1999, p. 17 own translation). This was, Haus remarks, the intellectual atmosphere which stood behind the foundation of the Bauhaus.

Recommended as his successor by the Dutch artist Henry van de Velde Gropius became director of the College of the applied arts in Weimar which was merged with the Weimar Academy of Arts and renamed into Bauhaus after Gropius was appointed. The name Bauhaus was taken from the houses inhabited by the craftsmen who built the medieval cathedrals, thereby referring to the "social and intellectual unity" of the builders/creators/designers who were united in a romantic desire for harmony in autonomous labour, only dedicated to art and the shared belief in working on the common goal (Ibid., p. 18, own translation). This constructive spirit - "a romantic idealism of hearts putting their bet on community" (Ibid. p. 19, own translation) - stood in stark contrast to a generation of Nietzsche readers who, through the experience of WWI had become even more nihilistic than old grumpy himself. And even so Gropius turned around Bauhaus from an organisation focused on the skill of the hand to one dedicated to industrial forms of production, explains Haus, it remained a place centred on this idea of communal living and production, of an intellectual and artistic collective culture (Ibid. p.19).The Bauhaus spirit, although soon adopting the most advanced production techniques and pioneering work with light and moving sculptures, remained a community of 'cathedral builders', of an almost religious craft ethos linked into the romantic vision of a new unity of the people.

As opposed to Werkbund, Bauhaus was not merely celebrating form and did not, in the same way as Werkbund had done, fetishise the object but was trying to design life processes and functional systems as a whole (Gropius quoted by Haus, Ibid, p.21, abbreviated translation), which was also a strategy to oppose commodity fetishism. This other focus not on products but on a more integrated view linking design with processes of life was also matched by teaching methodologies. Over two decades, Bauhaus teachers and students engaged with new materials in art, design and architecture and embarked on new ways of teaching, learning and living (as teachers and their families lived in socalled 'master houses' and everybody did morninig gymnastics together before going to lectures or into studios. In The New Vision, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1947) offers insight into the methodologies and ideas put into practice at Bauhaus. There, Moholy-Nagy emphasises personal improvement of the artist in a holistic sense over product (Ibid., p. 17), the priority of the creation of new standards over individualistic work (Ibid., p. 20), and a close encounter with materials as a path of research and innovation. When the Bauhaus style became part of the iconography of modernity after WWII, some of the stylistic elements became canonical, yet most of the idealistic background got lost. The styles of various Bauhaus artists, designers and architetcs were separated from their ways of life as creative communities, the form and object-hood of the product got cut off from the concreteness of the life that produced it and it became just another fetish-commodity (FIXME examples of large retrospective exhibitions in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s which established avant-garde as the canon of modern art.)

  • 1. Jeannine Fiedler and Peter Feierabend (editors), (1999) Bauhaus. Köln: Koenemann
  • 2. Andreas Haus, (1999) Bauhaus - geschichtlich. In:. Jeannine Fiedler and Peter Feierabend (editors), (1999) Bauhaus. Köln: Koenemann, p. 14


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The Conspiracy of Good Taste

v interesting... i feel like ive had a mini history lesson! as i was reading i thought that u (and others) mite be interested to read an excellent book on history of brit working class art/+art movement...which ive read bits of when ive been at harwoods...anyway, i just did a search for stefans name and see that he has now put the whole book online which is cool cos its been out of print. i used the book in my masters, and other texts ive written... book is v informative and passionately written..kind of Poor Pride...

The Conspiracy of Good Taste
by Stefan Szczelkun (1993)