A counterpoint piece – counter to my piece called STUFF which was written on 1.1.17. Say, my own inner dialectics. However, only a thesis then and an antithesis this time: my reader has some synthetic work to do all by himself.

When Walter Benjamin wrote his piece against stuffed interiors he did so in rather a general way. So did Adolf Loos when he wrote his famous diatribe against ‘ornamentation as a crime’.



Adolf Loos: Villa Müller


Against such generalisations I wrote my piece on ‘Stuff’, a little ode to the things that surround us, with which we surround ourselves and which we need in order to be.

As I put it: Our exterior as mirror of our interior; things around us to support us in our endeavour to exist. And more generally my thesis runs: Persons who are not capable to attach themselves to ‘things’ are fundamentally incapable to attach themselves to other persons. So a grave thing this is. Mine was a general reply to other writers’ general theses.

Now am going to ‘change terrain’, like a general in a battle is moving his troops around, sort of suddenly – in order to surprise the opponent. The strategy remains the same; tactics may change in order to achieve that premeditated goal.

Like all thinkers Benjamin and Loos wrote within a historical context. Thus what appears to be their universal plea for bare walls, abstract art and barren architecture was in fact a guerrilla against the way of life of a certain social class in a very specific area of the world in a certain period: Austria and Germany at the very end of the 19th century.

The bourgeoisie had retreated into a niche of expensive beauty, their houses jam-packed with art and objects. Being the successor class to the aristocracy as the ruling class, at first they strove to imitate their life style, having art collections, lots of furniture and objets d’art. Reinforced social segregation, one might say.

Especially Vienna is a prime example. Here even the working class apartment buildings were fitted out by the entrepreneur as looking like real palaces. Of course, the interiors were proletarian.




The petty-bourgeoisie in Middle and Eastern Europe replicated the bourgeois neighbours on a more vulgar level, stocking their interiors with little replica gondolas brought back from Venice and other object just to fill up the house.

Taken the fact that at the end of that 19th century the working class had organized itself properly and had become a real threat to this plush and sheltered life, one might compare this reaction of the ruling classes with the horror vacui so characteristic of the Baroque period – fearing the void, this time the one they will leave after The Revolution.

The more progressive elements of this bourgeoisie were well aware of the menacing change and tried to concoct an ideological, in this case also aesthetic anti-revolution. They sought to beautify everyday life in the hope that this make up might not only please themselves, but also pacify and ‘elevate the lower classes’.

Jugendstil – hope you guessed my name!

However Jugendstil was vey much like ‘moral rearmament’. Its art as such referred to a private, subjective experience; artists and their clients were considering themselves a spiritual avant-garde. Their works, especially buildings with exquisite interiors, were ‘masks put on urban fragments – hailed as the seeds and embryo’s of future utopias’ as Manfredo Tafuri phrased it so well. Or in the words of Delevoy: ‘For the privileged classes, Jugendstil was a surrogate for Modernism’.

It was also a totalitarian style. Buildings, like Horta’s magnificent houses in Brussels, were aus einem Guss, every detail necessarily connecting with every other detail. A full house, just as Benjamin disliked it. In the end is was no more than an artist’s metropolitan guerrilla; like beautiful stones throwing houses at the masses to create a liberated enclave as well as ‘elevate the workers’. A substitute for real revolution.



A Horta House

The ideological counterattack came from artists and philosophers who more or less sympathised with the revolutionary class. The contemporary philosopher Simmel noted the indifference of objects: ‘Experience is entirely abstracted from the specific individuality of its object. No object is worthy of being preferred to another object’. It is in this vein that Benjamin and Loos were also writing.

And indeed: my anti-thesis: So much stuffing takes out the wind of a man’s mind! Thus, bare walls were advocated with just one abstract painting on it, or houses designed without any ornaments. Like there is a good argument for the necessity of things to encounter – my thesis on ‘Stuff’ – there is also a good argument against too much stuff.

Marshall McLuhan wrote a famous book: Media – the Extensions of Man. He argues the crucial difference between what he considered to be ‘hot and cold media’.

A hot medium is one that spreads messages which are completely clear and quite often redundant. Thus, a hot medium does not appeal to a person’s endeavour to seek for ‘meaning’ because there is simply nothing to seek: a hot medium is conveying the obvious.

A cold medium on the other hand is one that understates, a medium of which the messages demand an extra input from the receiver, who needs to construe as it were both the message and its meaning.

Thus the black-and-white telly was ‘cool’ compared with ‘hot’ colour television, because the black and white image demands from the viewer the inner reconstruction of real colour life of which black and white is only its ‘poor’ and thus ‘cool’ version. Thus wise McLuhan.

Gehlen, the German anthropologist and writer of a very solid treatise on aesthetics – Zeitbilder – argues consistently that precisely for this reason truly abstract art is so intriguing. As it has no meaning as such – after all, this is the meaning of the word ‘abstract’ – man has yet to attribute some meaning to it, read something ‘into’ it. Our Gestalt-mind cannot do without such added attractions.

[I might add – between parentheses – that precisely because of this art criticism in the Modern era tended more and more so to express the ‘feelings’ and ‘emotions’ of the critic who is confronted with such abstract art: he has nothing else to write about as there is no ‘content’. A good reason, even in Postmodernity, to skip the art-pages in your paper…]

So the praise for both bare walls and abstract art from the Walter Benjamins of this world is no coincidence. And sure enough, my plea for ‘stuff’ as indispensable to a human and humane life is not a prayer for too fucking much bric à brac in houses and towns. Might it be, then, a matter of a balancing act?

Yet, I am very much convinced – and I think my argument has a point here – that a complete disinterest in things, the being proud of no-attachment to things, and that sad of feeling ‘good and well’ wherever one is, also imply a lack of attachment to fellow people. These persons will separate all too easily from what only shortly before they called their ‘loved ones’.

What was my concern in ‘Stuff’ is our attachment to special things that are not merely ‘a pleasure’ and a ‘comfort’, but first of all attachment to things and persons that provoke our attention. Even the cherished Works of Art in our own house may begin to bore us; we do not see them any longer. So time has come to re-hang them and give them a new setting or a new position in order that their provocative work may continue.

In short, I advocate good old genius loci, however in its more mundane appearance of cherished things and truly loved ones. ‘For better or for worse’ and all that jazz. Knowing all too well however, that this goes against the grain of Postmodernity where empty Self dances with spurious Identity, where ‘the flexible’ is winning everywhere, where the abstract notion of ‘relations’ has become valid for both atoms and persons, where people want to become ‘digital nomads’ and where Marx’ saying that ‘All that is solid melts into air’ has now become true for all and everybody.

Sierksma 23.1.17


Author: rjsiersk

Sierksma was born in Friesland, a 'county' in the northern part of the Netherlands with its own language which he does not speak and with an obstinate population to which he both belongs and does not belong. A retired Professor of Social Philosophy and Aesthetics, as a Harkness fellow he taught at Rutgers and Berkeley Universities in the USA, and at GUAmsterdam and TUDelft in the Netherlands. In 1991 he was awarded his PhD from Leiden University on the subject of 'Surveillance and Task: Labour Discipline between Utilitarianism and Pragmatism'. His books include Minima Memoria (1993), Lost View (2002 with Jan van Geest), and Litter Scent (2013). He has published poems and articles in Te Elfder Ure, Nynade, Oasis and the Architectural Annual. Half the year he lives in Haarlem, the other half he spends in la France Profonde, living ‘in his own words’ as the house out there was bought with the winnings from his essay Eternal Sin, written for the ECI Essay Prize (1993). In this blog, Sierksma's Sequences, written in English, he is peeping round his own and other people’s perspectives. Not easily satisfied with answers nor with questions, he turns his wry wit to a number of philosophical and historical issues. His aim in writing: to make parts of the world light up in his perspective - not my will, thine! Not being a thief, he has no cook, one wife, some children, one lover and three cats. The reader, interested in my writings on aesthetics, literature, and sociology, may want to open, where various pieces are published.

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