4. Art, design and modernity: the Bauhaus and beyond

Kim Charnley (The Open University)


This essay explores the relationship between art and design in the twentieth century through the Bauhaus, the school which established a revolutionary model for modern art and design education between 1919 and 1933. The Bauhaus vision of design is closely identified with a ‘machine aesthetic’, where the form of an object is governed by its function and adapted to the demands of mass production. The pedagogy of the school, which involved a distinctive and unstable synthesis of art, craft, and design, was inspired by the Gesamtkunstwerk, an idea that was influential among avant-gardes of the early twentieth century, which is usually translated as a synthesis of the arts. This essay explores the utopianism of the Bauhaus, and its relationship to the Gesamtkunstwerk, through a comparison between the ideas of two artist-designers associated with the school: László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) and Anni Albers (1899-1994). Although the ‘machine aesthetic’ of industrial design shaped the reception of the Bauhaus, Albers’s work as a weaver, textile artist and textile designer ought to be given equal prominence in evaluation of the school’s design ethos. Once it is, established criticisms of the utopianism of the Bauhaus are called into question, because they take their cue from a narrow and selective account of the activities of the school. This essay concludes by sketching some implications of this shift of perspective for contemporary design.

Keywords: Bauhaus, modernist design, Gesamtkunstwerk, utopianism, Anni Albers, László Moholy-Nagy, Jean Baudrillard, Hal Foster, Manfredo Tafuri

Full text: OAJ_Issue9_Charnley_Final (PDF 2.4 MB).

DOI:  http://dx.doi.org/10.5456/issn.2050-3679/2020w04

Biographical note 

Kim Charnley is Staff Tutor at The Open University. His research specialism is contemporary art with a focus on ‘post-object’, socially engaged art such as ‘social practice’, art activism and institutional critique. He is also interested in the intersection between art, design and craft and, especially, the way that avant-gardes have at different times conceived of themselves as collectives. He has published in journals including Art and the Public Sphere, Art Journal, Historical Materialism and The Large Glass and contributed an introduction to Delirium and Resistance: Activist Art and the Crisis of Capitalism, a collection of essays by the artist and theorist Gregory Sholette (Pluto, 2017). A monograph exploring the role of the collective in contemporary art’s politics, titled Sociopolitical Aesthetics: Art, Crisis, Neoliberalism, will be published by Bloomsbury in early 2021.