Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Summary of Lecture Eleven

The first part of the lecture concerned the rise of the discipline of design in England in the middle of the 19th century. Significantly, the English word "design" has migrated without change into French and German.

Provisionally, we suggested that design differs from older concepts of the "applied arts" and the "minor arts" principally because it harnesses the designing function to exploitation by industrial processes. That is, the designer does not proceed to execute his or her concept by hand, but must rely on the intervention of industry to carry it out. John Ruskin and other conservative critics held that quality could not be maintained under the new circumstances, and indeed they were able to point to many examples of shoddy work. However, the design revolution of Christopher Dresser proved them wrong. Modern design in therefore, perforce, industrial design.

We began with a brief prologue: two buildings. Paddington Station in West London illustrates the rise of a new building type--the railway terminal. The Brunel-Wyatt design (1852ff.) shows a number of revealing purloinings from an analysis of medieval architecture: the bay system surmounted by ribs imitated in cast iron; the transept; and the tell-tale Perpendicular cells in the spandrels. More generally, Paddington benefits from the Gothic sense of cost analysis: how can one get the maximum of building with the minimal deployment of materials?

The second building is Joseph Paxton's great hall (the "Crystal Palace") for the 1851 Great Exhibition, the first World's Fair, in Hyde Park. With its "functionalist" economy of means, this building may be regarded as the beginning of modern architecture. It was put up in record time, relying on the principle of standardized units (cast iron and glass). Immediately after the exhibition it was reerected in Sydenham in South London (where it unfortunately burned in 1936).

The Crystal Palace exhibits, especially those in the field of home furnishings and the decorative arts, were less satisfactory. In fact, they were frankly kitschy, combining vulgarity and shoddy workmanship.

This perceived debacle precipitated a demand for reform of design. Government design schools appeared, and what became the Victorian and Albert Museum arose in South Kensington as a showplace for well-designed objects from the world over. This institution became the model for other museums of this kind, including our Cooper-Hewitt.

The most radical response to the spirit of design reform was led by Christopher Dresser, the precursor of all later "modern" design. Dresser acknowledged three influences: the Gothic (as seen in his schemes for stained-glass windows); ancient Egypt; and Japan, with he visited personally.

Dresser's tea kettles and other domestic objects flaunt a drastic elimination of any unnecessary ornament. Less is indeed more. He had a few English followers, such as Archibald Knox, but essentially the baton passed to the Continent, as seen in the work of J. M. Olbrich and other Viennese Sezessionists, not to mention the Bauhaus.

We then turned to the major theme of the lecture: the medieval contribution to our modern sense of sex and love. Ås a general principle one may posit that sex is a universal biological substrate, conditioned by the need of organisms to participate in the chain that prolongs the species. On this substructure, however, each society imposes a superstructure consisting of dos and don'ts, and (above all) a particular love ethic. Thus there was one dominant concept of love in ancient Greece, another in medieval Japan, a third in Islam, and a fourth in the high Middle Ages.

Accordingly, our analysis of the medieval contribution divides into the grosser aspects, mainly seen in our linguistic heritage, and the new sophistication of the concept of love, the precursor of our own sense of love (most recently affirmed by Dorothy Tennov as limerance).

The prurient impulse to censure language, especially when it comes to excretory and sexual functions, is probably perennial, though it is much stronger in some eras than others. Even ancient Rome, famous for its ribald works of satire, found it expedient to replace the harsh word mentula with penis, and merda with faeces. Cunnus yielded to vagina ("sheath"). (The substitutes found their way, of course into our own formal language.)

In the English-speaking world, the beginnings of what might be called the dual language system--"four-letter" words vs. dignified substitutes--may be placed around 1600. Neither Shakespeare nor the King James Bible employ the more familiar Anglo-Saxon terms which had, as a rule, been freely used in Old and Middle English texts. This reign of prudery reached its height in Victorian times, when some chose to replace "leg" with limb. Prostitutes were "fallen women" and homosexuality was the "sin that dare not speak its name." (The principle of unspeakability represents the extreme version of this reign of censorship.)

The taboos were not broken until the 1960s, where a series of court cases in England and America cleared the way for the publication of such "dirty books" as those of Henry Miller and D. H. Lawrence. Visual pornography soon followed. Nowadays, even college dictionaries include the George Carlin Seven--and much else of the kind. No longer need young people search in vain for words that almost everyone knows.

The Middle Ages had its own "pornography" in the form of the fabliaux, a tradition gently echoed in the Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer.

Lest one overidealize the linguistic tolerance of the Middle Ages, one should note that the era gave rise to ideas that have continued to spread confusion. These fabrications regarding sex are the result of the combination of ecclesiastical taboos with popular prejudice. "Baeddel, baedling" is a case in point, as these Old English word fuse the distinction ideas of anatomical hermaphroditism and same-sex behavior. (Curiously the words gave rise to our modern English adjective of disparagement: "bad.") "Buggery" derives, via French, from a notion that the old Bulgarians combined dualist heresy (Manichaeanism) with sexual variance.

Visual parallels are found in the grotesque images of female presentation known as the Sheela-na-gig. While these may stem in part from representations of the vice of Lust (as at Moissac) they reflect an older stratum of genital display as menace (cf. Baubo in ancient Greece). As such, the images performed an apotropaic function, protecting windows, doorways, and arches from hostile intruders.

We also looked at the beautiful droleries in the 14th-centure Ormsby Psalter in Oxford. These reveal preoccupations (anal, monstrous) that might be thought to lie in the realm of psychoanalysis. In fact they represent not the pathology of an individual artist, but a stable tradition of marginalia (see the recent monograph by Michael Camille).

Turning now to the medieval contribution to the higher realm of emotions, we considered the rise of Courtly Love in the south of France in the 11th century in the work of the Troubadour poets. This invention coincided geographically with the rise of Romanesque, as determined by Puig i Cadafalch.

The customs of Courtly Love stemmed in the first instance from the fact that elite marriages were essentially economic arrangements, a situation in which love did not flourish. Accordingly, one sought emotional satisfaction outside the marriage bonds--in adulterous arrangements. However, these were difficult to achieve, hence the longueurs of the courting process. In keeping with the feudal concept of vassalage the Courtly Love suitor idealized his lady, going so far as to refer to her as "midons" my lord. The suitor was expected to be exemplary in word and deed, so that the process had a character-building aspect.

Andreas Capellanus expatiated on the theory of Courtly Love. He placed a very high value on the concept, asserting that everything good in this world (as distinction from the celestial realm of perfection) takes its origin from love. Love indeed makes the world go around. He spoke of the courts of love. Those committed to the celebration of its mysteries were the "soldiers" of love."

It would take too long to trace the entire itinerary linking this concept and our modern notions of romantic love. Suffice it to say that the traditions spread south (in the Italian trend of the dolce stil nuovo, with Dante at its head and Petrarch as its heir) and north to the courts of northern France, Germany, and England. About 1180 Chretien de Troyes placed a decisive stamp of Courtly Love on the older "matter of Britain," especially the Lancelot story.

We concluded by first examining medieval manuscripts of the Arthurian legends concerning Lancelot of the Lake and Tristan and Iseult (Isolde). Then we saw English exemplars by Aubrey Beardsley and Edward Burne-Jones.

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