Richard Paul Lohse:
Art in the age of technology

Aesthetics can only be defined within the framework of a social background.

In this age of technology, we have already ventured into the hitherto undiscovered world of space and our capacity for knowledge is growing at an unprecedented rate. This trend is confronted today with irrationalism and individualism in art and architecture claiming to be simultaneously in opposition and an expression of the spirit of our times. The presumption with which the apologists of irrationalism make this claim needs to be corrected. Above all it must be shown that irrationalism has now reached the point of schizophrenia in face of the global instrumentarium of today's technological structure. The proponents of irrationalism maintain that their theories represent the necessary counterbalance to modern civilization, but such a contrast can only be justified as dialectic principle within the same category of terminology and philosophy. But this is not the case by any means – irrationalism in modern art is in fact a negative reaction to thought processes and findings in art and architecture, analogous to the German romantic movement of the nineteenth century, which turned out to be no more than a reaction against the findings of encyclopaedists and the heritage of the French Revolution in 1792. Today's citizen wants to forget that he is a social product of the revolutions which created these ages and destroyed the suppressive systems and their aesthetics. It was not the classical beauty of the Nash Crescent but the grand hall constructions of Paxton in early capitalism which marked those times; it was not the dreams of Redon – Monet transformed material into light, it was the engineers of those grand halls and the impressionists who realised the essential of that era.

The epoch in which we live will go down in history as the age of technology – an incomplete definition in my opinion. Surely it is more correct to say that a new vision of the world has been born in these times. Identical with this age are thus a characteristic vocabulary and an instrumentarium of methods and systems, together with behaviour patterns and forms of expression which have already governed lifestyles for an epoch and will go on doing so. A reality of unmistakable means and a new space-time consciousness which are only possible in this age.

Every form of cultural expression is a function of its social basis; each aesthetic form belongs to a conception of life. In no other art form do the means and methods of this global strategy find their legitimate expression than in constructive, logical or systematic art form which is a sublimated and critical echo of civilization structures. None, other than the constructive art form has such a large share within visual creation in structural thinking – a phenomenon which is so characteristic of our times. Without this and without the basic theoretical and practical foundations of constructive art, extension to other forms of expression within the framework of systematic creation would not have been possible.

The question as to what extent art can be autonomous may be answered inasmuch as each form of artistic expression is determined by its dialectic relation to its epoch as far as basic idea and expression are concerned – even if an art form is ahead of its times, and appears to contradict current requirements or generally accepted aesthetic behaviour. Claiming to be an instrument of the times with its forms and effects demands deliberation, and a clear recognition that the structures of constructive art are only possible in the current epoch and in no other – that they are naturally identical with their times.

Although parallel phenomena with the ideas of the times do not necessarily occur simultaneously, the trends and effects of the basic wave of cultural ideology can be recognized even at wide time intervals. They often determine the direction taken over a long period, rather like an underground stream which remains hidden until it breaks into the open in various ways to show the basic principle of the age. Above all in the similarity of methods, dimensional values, basic patterns and chronological sequence of work phases, the new signature of Today is recognizable. Each method is determined by the epoch of its birth and expresses itself through an original structure – as the sum of existence, consciousness and action. Technological reality is a fact which cannot be ignored. It can neither be altered nor eliminated. To do away with technology would neither be desirable for us nor its opponents. It would mean relinquishing discovery, curtailing development and thus abandoning all hope of improving our social conditions. If we could turn mythology and irrationalism into reality, that would be like returning to a magical, pre-mythological age. Hence antirational philosophy can justifiably be accused of anachronism and falsehood. Clearly, returning to the economic and social status of the mythologists would mean living without dimensional consciousness, becoming hunters and cavemen again and declining once more into slavery. The idea is absurd, but still logical if you use the same arguments in economic and social terms as are put forward about congruence with our epoch of neo-archaic art forms. The ideal of an artist without time-consciousness is equivalent to the archaic ideal of absence of time and space restrictions.

Irrationality no longer has any possibility of genuine realization – so unthinkable is Mondrian in an archaic epoch. What we see now are rudimentary reflections of irrational ideas in this technological age, which have affected us both negatively and positively. Improving the benefits of modern technology is not a question of the existence or non-existence of civilization, but a matter of social politics. The right answer to this question can only come from a confrontation between society and the proprietors of technology – not from prohibiting nuclear fission.

Antirationalism tries to ignore the fact that it lives every day with and through the Ratio. The conditions created by civilization are just as vitally essential for the irrationalists as for the rest of us. From a certain point in life onwards, the human being becomes – personally and globally – a member of a certain form of society which is determined by development of the corresponding processes. For the irrationalists, living in industrialized society and helping themselves to the benefits of technology is matter-of-course. The tragic thing about their mentality is that they try to combat this technological age through their art, but are nevertheless obliged and willing to live in it. Spontaneity appears at the right time as Deus ex machina, in order to celebrate again the dream of free individuality. With this dual function in their contradiction between protest and timing, the Homunculi of archaic art are created, whose prophets are not prepared to admit that between civilization and pseudo-magical expression forms on the one hand and the instrumentarium of this technological age on the other, an unbridgeable hiatus exists. One is tempted to ask whether irrationalism – which appears in so many forms (naturalistic, expressive, African) – is the stratagem of a society, which mistrusts thought processes for various reasons. Certainly, however, this has something to do with the reinstatement of the so-called pure artist type à la Makart as so-called third force. Obviously these aesthetic streams correspond to an attitude which looks backwards both politically and culturally – this is clearly evident at the masked ball in "La presenza del passato".

Analogous to the contradiction between the arsenal of civilization and antirational art forms, is the contradiction between inventive capacity and possible uses – or in other words, the social gap between the mighty and the masses. The insoluble conflict is not only between being and consciousness however, but also between the progressive forces of political life and the critical-rational conception of constructive art. In view of the way in which the technological instrumentarium of this age works, it is an anachronism to maintain that tangible reality is the only possible theme of art. It would be unnecessary to point all this out if our progressive political powers had not failed to grapple with these fundamental problems of our age. The fact that they have ignored them is one of the reasons for their isolation. It seems as if reality has caught up with theories of social reality and overtaken them. There is not only a gap between the "haves and have-nots", between mythologists and rationalists, but also between the so-called elite of progressive political forces and those who defend constructive art. They can also be accused of ignorance and veiling the truth about the new facts of life, indifferent to the complexity of economy and culture.

The real task of progressive movements is to come to grips with these problems, and not to reject them with the superficial argument that constructive art is alien to the people. It is much more important to show the identity of forms of expression of civilization with the essential and critical form vocabulary of constructive art, and create a basis on which constructive art is not put down as formalism but understood as an exemplary, productive form of creation in and for this epoch. Which other art form could have expressed the dynamics of the present era? The congruence of pictorial action, directness and thematics represent a new phenomenon of our times: the picture as structure, a new dimension of means – parallel to the forms and consequences of this age.

Systematic creative forms represent a parallel to the instrumental structures of present-day reality in civilization. Although identical, they simultaneously question the social reality of these structures. By using objective means, transparent methods which can be calculated in advance, and creating unlimited but regular structures, constructive art is destined in its philosophy and working methods to further our quest of changing society and the environment.

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80th birthday address by Richard Paul Lohse at Kunsthaus Zürich, 10 September 1982.

First published in "Tages-Anzeiger", Zürich, 2 October 1982 (in German).

English translation published in: Richard Paul Lohse 1902-1988, Wilhelm-Hack-Museum, Ludwigshafen am Rhein, exhibition catalogue 1992; see Publications.

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