archive > The Encryption of Art History in Modernist Art Education
Anthony Auerbach

‘The Encryption of Art History in Modernist Art Education’, paper presented by Anthony Auerbach in Art History and the Art School: the Sensibilities of Labour, chaired by Malcolm Quinn, Association of Art Historians Annual Conference, University of Leeds, 7 April 2006.

This paper explored the transmission of art history in the education of artists in a period when the emphasis was more on art’s claim on the future than on the past. It also reflected on the legacy of the Bauhaus, received as the epitome of the modern school, in contemporary institutions.

This paper has not yet been published (to be honest, it needs to be revised). Only the opening paragraphs are reproduced here.

I claim that art history is encrypted in modernist pedagogy; that while post-modernist art education has instrumentalised art history and has historicised modernism, it has not necessarily decoded it. Giving an account of encryption means talking about a double manoeuvre of concealment and transmission. It would seem to make sense to bring images to light first in their subjective associative contexts [since my talk was not accompanied by slides, that meant in my listeners' imaginitive memory] rather than in the historical contexts which are revealed by research. This way of proceeding should also give you possession of a means of testing my assertions and, I hope, helping to develop my propositions during today’s discussion.

I would like to start with a hazy image. The word ‘Bauhaus’ conjures an image, or rather a set of images, whose persistence can be attributed to a combination of reproducibility and vagueness. Probably the most vivid, and at the same time inscrutable of the images which comes to mind is the Bauhaus building in Dessau. Completed in 1926 and restored in its own image from the 1970s until today, the building was Walter Gropius’s second Bauhaus manifesto and perhaps his greatest work of propaganda for the institution he founded. I call the image inscrutable because it is very difficult to interpret except as the Bauhaus building.

While the building’s function was to house the institution which became known as ‘the art school of modernism’, the image served and continues to serve to mask the conflicts and contradictions involved in that most illustrious attempt to redefine the relations between art, work and history. The image of the Dessau building, however, does not quite dislodge from our minds the cathedral which announced the Bauhaus for the first time — the expressionist woodcut by Lionel Feininger which appeared on the Weimar Bauhaus prospectus — or for that matter the shabby former telephone factory in Berlin where the Bauhaus finally closed its doors in 1933. Other images might also come to mind: Oscar Schlemmer’s Bauhaus seal (or even the masonic-looking logo which it replaced), geometric tea sets, tubular furniture, sans-serif typefaces, paper folding exercises, squares, triangles, circles and so on.

The result is a blur, like one of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s series of fuzzy, black and white photographs of ‘icons’ of modernist architecture. Sugimoto’s images pay homage to the empty recognisability, the prestige and the pathos, modernist monuments. The Bauhaus image — the Bauhaus as blurry image — stands for consensus. The Bauhaus is no longer controversial. Recent scholars who have aimed to bring the work and ideas of the Bauhaus into focus and bring to light its personal, political and pedagogical complexities have done little to disturb the consensus or to stir anyone to its defence. In the introduction to her book The Bauhaus Reassessed, Gillian Naylor acknowledges how the institution became an epitome of the efforts, beginning in the nineteenth century, to reform and renegotiate the what we could call in the present context the ‘labour relations’ of art, design and manufacture. She writes:

The utopian ideals with which the Bauhaus is associated were engulfed by political reality before they could really be put to the test. For Bauhaus enthusiasts, that did nothing but enhance the standing of the school and the ideals it seemed to epitomise. In practice, the European disaster ensured the dissemination of the Bauhaus idea — according to Mies van der Rohe ‘the Bauhaus was an idea’ — and it spread in large part as a result of the emigration from Germany of former students and staff. Sympathisers and sceptics agreed that Bauhaus ideals were wrecked on their partial realisations (the cynics blamed the ideals). There are those who saw the Bauhaus behind miserable workers’ housing in the communist East, and those who saw the Bauhaus-derived ‘international style’ as the universal language of corporate capitalism. And then there are those today who seem to need expensive reproductions of Bauhaus furniture to compensate for the perceived inauthenticity of Ikea’s version of Bauhaus principles.

We could speculate on what kind of school the Bauhaus might have become: a private school of architecture, like the Architectural Association; an elite design school supported by industry, like the Royal College of Art; a technology institute supported by the military, like MIT; or the art department of a regional university, struggling for academic recognition and public funding. Arguably, it became all these things, or rather, all these kinds of institution, in a fuzzy way, owe something to the Bauhaus. Reviving Bauhaus polemics, however, would seem have very little to contribute to the current debates — such as Malcolm Quinn outlined in his introduction — about the purpose and status — practical or academic — of art education, and hence the role of art history in art schools. I certainly wouldn’t recommend looking for solutions to current problems in the Bauhaus archives.

My purpose in evoking the after-images of the Bauhaus is to point out how, in the same way as the fame of the school obscures its antecedents, so the Bauhaus image holds art history hostage.

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  1. Gillian Naylor, The Bauhaus Reassessed: Sources and Design Theory (London: Herbert Press, 1985). p. 9.