“A pattern of privacies”

I randomly came across art critic T.J. Clark’s “Modernism, Postmodernism, and Steam” and decided to read it because it had some analysis of one of my favorite paintings, Manet’s Le Chemin de fer:

le chemin

Clark points out what has always struck me most about it, the uncomfortably short distance between the viewer and the figures depicted: “The girl and the governess are put in a space that is more like a cage than a terrain vague. From railings to picture plane there are no more than two or three feet.” No wonder the woman looks annoyed, as though we’ve interrupted her reading and now we’re crowding her by looking. I like how Clark wants to give an optimistic read of this but then talks himself out of it:

The governess is reading and dreaming. For a moment she may be all outwardness and facingness, but she still has two fingers keeping her place in her book. Maybe steam could also be a metaphor for the freedom of the imagination. But then we look again at those implacable railings, dividing and ruling the rectangle, pressing everything up to the picture surface. Surfaces are too easily organized, that is the trouble with modern mobility and anonymity. Always in the new city freedom (evanescence) is the other side of frozenness and constraint.

Clark takes the steam as representative of modern instability, the anomie and potentiality that  Simmel describes in the “Metropolis and Mental Life,” which some can face and others can’t. But that changeability, that fantasy of infinite urban possibility, is also an illusion, something that taunts us from the other side of the fence. The more immediate reality is intrusion, surveillance, professionalized care relationships like that of a governess for her charge.

Modernity was making the world a “pattern of privacies — of appetites, possessions, accumulations.” Clark sees Manet’s girl as an expression of this seemingly hopeful promise, whereas the governess suggests the flip side of control, the process of inculcating standardization at a deeper level than public conformity. Modernity made for individuated subjects and media-marshaled masses simultaneously; it begins to enact control through individuated desire, through the freedom of consumer choice. It aspired toward “absolute material lucidity” through total standardization or rationalization.

Modernist art, Clark argues, is a response to modernity, an attempt to express those conflicted ideals and test them.

Modernism is the form formalism took in conditions of modernity — the form it took as it tried to devise an answer to modernity. And that form was stressed and aberrant. Either formal order was foregrounded — one might say fetishized — to the point that it registered as positively an imposition, a prefabrication, a set of machine-made templates. Or form was dispersed — pushed toward the point of emptiness or mere random juxtaposition — discovered always on the verge of incompetence or arbitrariness… Modernism is the art that continually discovers coherence and intensity in tentativeness and schematism, or blankness lurking on the other side of sensuousness.

In modernism. “formalism was extremism,” Clark writes.

All this reminded me of this Time article about the campaign against skeuomorphism. Skeuomorphs are digital objects that are designed to mimic their functional analogues in nondigital space: a “trash can” on a computer, for example, or a digital bookshelf that displays the epub files on an iPad, or this whole trompe l’oeil shelf motif in OS X’s dock:

Screen Shot 2013-05-23 at 3.46.30 PM

Interface designers, in a modernist gesture, want to do away with them entirely, which, as the Time article points out, will make for a fairly user-unfriendly experience. The lack of skeuomorphs — the radical flatness of the interface design — is why most people want nothing to do with Windows 8, the same way they want nothing to do with Cubism.

It’s worth asking of anti-skeuomorphic design the same questions Clark asks about modernist painting:

How do the values and excitements called “modernity” look (this is Manet’s question) when they are put down in two dimensions? Painting in modernism was a means of investigation: it was a way of discovering what the dreams of modernity really amounted to, by finding what it took to make a painting of them — what kind of play between flatness and depth, what kind of stress on the picture’s shape and limits, what sorts of painterly insistence or abbreviation? And if these are the means we need to give such and such an ideal of modernity form, then what does this tell us about the ideal? Does the available imagery of the modern pass the test of representation? If I draw it — if I give it this particular visual existence — does it survive?

If aggressive user-unfriendliness is the cost of anti-skeuomorphism, what does that tell us about that designers’ ideals? What are they trying to represent? A fantasy of pure functionality?  But by purging “gratuitous” ornament, these interfaces become paradoxically nonfunctional.

The persistence of skeuomorphs indexes the resistance users have to living entirely in a hermetically designed world — created by a design team, working in isolation, with as little reference to the familiar, shared material world as possible — that is superimposed over the patterns of privacy we’ve knocked out for ourselves using the shared visual language of the socially built world. We cling to our fake digital textures and desktop metaphors not out of bitterness or cluelessness but because we don’t want to be oppressed by the tyranny of industrial designers.

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