The Postmodernists and Mies van der Rohe

Samuel Johnson noted that writers tend to explore the same “combination of ideas [that] have been long in the possession of other hands.” In this instance I’m revisiting a topic previously examined by Roger Kimball. It is professor Elaine S. Hochman’s biography of the modernist architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969).

The gist of Kimball’s review is that postmodern theorists like Hochman offered a critique of Mies that was suspiciously biased. “What had once been hailed as aesthetically exacting and a model of artistic dedication [by Mies] was now dismissed as elitist and socially retrograde.” Admittedly there is some irony in that the modernists were being subjected to the same iconoclasm they had practiced on their predecessors.

The ostensible difference is that postmodernism had come along to denounce all “meta-narratives”—any pretense to objectivity, certainty and authority—whether traditionalist or modernist. In this respect it is true that Mies (like Le Corbusier and Gropius) embraced grand notions of society’s future. But whatever one may think of the dean of the German Bauhaus movement, there is something both shallow and ominous in Hochman’s treatment. She “seems to believe that Mies’s brand of modernism—involving as it did a commitment to architecture as high art and a belief that architecture possessed a spiritual vocation even in a secular age—revealed his kinship with Nazi ideology.”

Thirty years ago, when Hochman was writing, such denunciations were primarily intellectual in scope. The target was also safely dead. But her outlook appears an unsettling harbinger of the campus mob persecution of “heretics” that ensued only a couple of decades later. Hochman’s contrived argumentem ad Hitlerum, which compared even mild philosophical opponents to fascist sympathizers and enablers, has become the progressive establishment’s default response to dissent.

Modernism was undoubtedly a flawed experiment. Aside from aesthetic pretenses, its smug optimism failed to account for the political and moral hazards that supplanted diminishing “pre-modern” values. The very forces it unleashed would be its undoing.

As for Mies, he was undistinguishable from the majority of (non-Jewish) Germans. His stance toward the new regime was not particularly heroic; although on one occasion he ordered the removal of a Nazi flag from the Bauhaus campus. His eventual emigration from the Reich in 1937 was motivated by professional frustration. The Nazis had no affinity for his “un-Germanic” concepts.

That said, I agree with Kimball that the postmodernist attacks on Mies and others are motivated more by intolerance of rival viewpoints than impartial analysis. Hochman’s book is “a prescription not for a deeper understanding of art but for its permanent bondage to ideological currency.”

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