Welcome to the fourth installment of The Long ish Read : an AD feature which presents texts written by notable essayists that resonate with contemporary architecture, interior architecture, urbanism or landscape design. Ornament and Crime began as a lecture delivered by Adolf Loos in in response to a time the late 19th and early 20th Centuries and a place Vienna , in which Art Nouveau was the status quo. The human embryo goes through all the phases of animal life while still inside the womb. When man is born, his instincts are those of a newborn dog. His childhood runs through all the changes corresponding to the history of mankind. At the age of two he looks like a Papuan, at four like one of an ancient Germanic tribe, at six like Socrates, at eight like Voltaire.
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Welcome to the fourth installment of The Long ish Read : an AD feature which presents texts written by notable essayists that resonate with contemporary architecture, interior architecture, urbanism or landscape design. Ornament and Crime began as a lecture delivered by Adolf Loos in in response to a time the late 19th and early 20th Centuries and a place Vienna , in which Art Nouveau was the status quo. The human embryo goes through all the phases of animal life while still inside the womb.
When man is born, his instincts are those of a newborn dog. His childhood runs through all the changes corresponding to the history of mankind. At the age of two he looks like a Papuan, at four like one of an ancient Germanic tribe, at six like Socrates, at eight like Voltaire.
When he is eight years old, he becomes conscious of violet, the colour discovered by the eighteenth century, for until then violets were blue and purple-fish were red. The physicist today points out colours in the spectrum of the sun that have already been named, but whose comprehension has been reserved for future generations.
The child is amoral. So is the Papuan, to us. The Papuan kills his enemies and eats them. He is no criminal but if a modern man kills someone and eats him, he is a criminal or a degenerate.
The Papuan tattoos his skin, his boat, his rudder, his oars; in short, everything he can get his hands on. He is no criminal. Tattooed men who are not behind bars are either latent criminals or degenerate aristocrats. If someone who is tattooed dies in freedom, then he does so a few years before he would have committed murder.
The urge to decorate one's face and everything in reach is the origin of the graphic arts. It is the babbling of painting. All art is erotic. The first ornament invented, the cross, was of erotic origin. The first work of art, the first artistic act, which the first artist scrawled on the wall to give his exuberance vent.
A horizontal line: the woman. A vertical line: the man penetrating her. The man who created this felt the same creative urge as Beethoven, he was in the same state of exultation in which Beethoven created the Ninth. Of course, this urge affects people with such symptoms of degeneracy most strongly in the lavatory.
It is possible to estimate a country's culture by the amount of scrawling on lavatory walls. In children this is a natural phenomenon: their first artistic expression is scribbling erotic symbols on walls. But what is natural for, a Papuan and a child, is degenerate for modern man. I have discovered the following truth and present it to the world: cultural evolution is equivalent to the removal of Ornament from articles in daily use.
I thought I was giving the world a new source of pleasure with this; it did not thank me for it. People were sad and despondent. What oppressed them was the realization that no new ornament could be created. What every Negro can do, what all nations and ages have been able to do, why should that be denied to us, men of the nineteenth century? What humanity had achieved in earlier millennia without decoration has been carelessly tossed aside and consigned to destruction.
We no longer possess carpenters' benches from the Carolingian period, but any trash that exhibited the merest trace of decoration was collected and cleaned up, and splendid palaces built to house it.
People walked sadly around the showcases, ashamed of their own impotence. Shall every age have a style of its own and our age alone be denied one? By style they meant decoration. But I said: Don't weep! Don't you see that the greatness of our age lies in its inability to produce a new form of decoration?
We have conquered ornament, we have won through to lack of ornamentation. Look, the time is nigh, fulfilment awaits us. Soon the streets of the town will glisten like white walls.
Like Zion, the holy city, the metropolis of heaven. Then we shall have fulfillment. But there are some pessimists who will not permit this. Humanity must be kept down in the slavery of decoration.
People progressed far enough for ornament to give them pleasure no longer, indeed so far that a tattooed face no longer heightened their aesthetic sensibility, as it did with the Papuans, but diminished it.
They were sophisticated enough to feel pleasure at the sight of a smooth cigarette case while they passed over a decorated one, even at the same price. They were happy with their clothes and glad that they did not have to walk about in red velvet pants with gold' braid like monkeys at a fair.
And I said: look, Goethe's death chamber is more magnificent than all the Renaissance grandeur and a smooth piece of furniture more beautiful than all the inlaid and carved museum pieces. Goethe's language is finer than all the florid similes of the Pegnitz Shepherds. The pessimist heard this with displeasure and the State, whose task it is to retard the cultural progress of the people, took up the fight for the development and revival of ornament.
Woe to the State whose revolutions are made by Privy Councillors! A sideboard was soon on show in the Vienna Museum of Arts and Crafts called The Rich Haul of Fish , soon there were cupboards called The Enchanted Princess or something similar, relating to the ornament that covered these unfortunate pieces.
The Austrian government takes its task so seriously that it makes sure that puttees do not disappear from the borders of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy.
It forces every civilized twenty-year-old man to wear puttees instead of knitted hose for three years. For every government still labours under the supposition that a nation on a low standard is easier to govern. All right, then, the plague of ornament is recognized by the State and subsidized by State finds.
But I look on this as retrogression. I do not allow the objection that ornament heightens a cultivated man's joy in life; I do not allow the objection: "but what if the ornament is beautiful If I want to eat some gingerbread, I choose a piece that is quite plain, and not in the shape of a heart or a baby or a horseman, and gilded all over.
The man from the fifteenth century will not understand me. But all modem people will. The advocate of ornament believes that my urge for simplicity is equivalent to a mortification of the flesh. No, my dear art school professor, I'm not mortifying myself.
I prefer it that way. I walk though a culinary display with revulsion at the thought that I am supposed to eat these stuffed animal corpses. I eat roast beef. The immense damage and devastation wrought on aesthetic development by the revival of decoration could easily be overcome, for no one, not even governments, can arrest the evolution of mankind. It can only be retarded We can wait.
But it is a crime against the national economy that human labour, money and material should thereby be ruined. This kind of damage cannot be put right by time. The tempo of cultural progress suffers through stragglers. I may be living in , yet my neighbour still lives in and that one over there in It is a misfortune for a country if the cultural development of its people is spread over such a long period.
The peasant from Kals lives in the twelfth century. And in the jubilee procession there were contingents from national groups which would have been thought backward even in the period of the migrations of the tribes. Happy the country that has no such stragglers and marauders!
Happy America! In our country there are old-fashioned people even in the cities, stragglers from the eighteenth century, who are shocked by a picture with violet shadows because they can't yet see violet. They prefer the pheasant on which the chef has had to work for days, and cigarette cases with Renaissance decoration please them better than smooth ones.
And how is it in the country? The farmer is not a Christian, he is still a heathen. Stragglers slow down the cultural progress of nations and humanity; for ornament is not only produced by criminals; it itself commits a crime, by damaging men's health, the national economy and cultural development. I am supposing that each lives according to his inclinations. The twentieth century man can pay for his needs with much less capital and can therefore save.
The vegetables he likes are simply boiled in water and then served with a little melted butter. The other man doesn't enjoy them until honey and nuts have been added and someone has been busy cooking them for hours.
Decorated plates are very dear, while the plain white china that the modem man likes is cheap. One man accumulates savings, the other one debts. So it is with whole nations. Woe to the country that lags behind in cultural development! The English become richer and we poorer Even greater is the damage ornament inflicts on the workers. As ornament is no longer a natural product of our civilization, it accordingly represents backwardness or degeneration, and the labour of the man who makes it is not adequately remunerated.
The producers of ornament must work twenty hours to earn the wages a modern worker gets in eight. Decoration adds to the price of an object as a rule, and yet it can happen that a decorated object, with the same outlay in materials and demonstrably three times as much work, is offered for sale at half the price of a plain object.
The lack of ornament means shorter working hours and consequently higher wages.
Ornament and Crime
Only in was the essay published in German in the Frankfurter Zeitung , as Ornament und Verbrechen. It was the architect Henry Kulka , who assisted Loos during a reprint of the essay in in Trotzdem , that altered the original year to after he consulted Loos, who either didn't remember well or wanted to assume primacy in the confrontation against the Secessionists. The essay was written when Art Nouveau —known as Secession in Austria and which Loos had excoriated even at its height in —was showing a new way forward for modern art. The essay is important in articulating some moralizing views, inherited from the Arts and Crafts movement , which would be fundamental to the Bauhaus design studio, and would help define the ideology of modernism in architecture. He eventually conceded to requirements by adding a flowerpot. In the essay, Loos explains his philosophy, describing how ornamentation can have the effect of causing objects to go out of style and thus become obsolete.
The Long(ish) Read: "Ornament and Crime" by Adolf Loos