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On Center and Margins

In a 1972 text, designers Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour suggest on the symbolism of architectural form.

But to gain insight from the commonplace is nothing new: Fine art often follows folk art.

For instance:

Romantic architects of the eighteenth century discovered an existing and conventional rustic architecture. Early Modern architects appropriated an existing and conventional industrial vocabulary without much adaptation. Le Corbusier loved grain elevators and steamships; the Bauhaus looked like a factory; Mies [van der Rohe] refined the details of American steel factories for concrete buildings

First observation: the “center”—from Bourdieu’s field theory—is not the primary source of new inventions; ideas emerge from the margins, or from the past.

Very little emerging from the underground fails to turn up in the mainstream. Pornography, once the bane of puritan society, is used by the advertising industry for edgy allure. Despite the occasional salvos by morality-in-media groups, all manner of publicly taboo sexuality appears in magazines and on billboards. Popular tolerances have increased to a level where shock in any realm is hard to come by.

(Steven Heller, The Underground Mainstream, 2008)

Second observation: before becoming mainstream, an idea (which is not necessarily new) undergoes an underground phase, before being integrated into mainstream culture, where the condition of acceptation is the tolerance of the public, which in turn depends on a society’s current customs and the degree of exposition.

How to become mainstream?

Heller denotes a two-step process: art must make its own advertisement, but more importantly invent its own language. It’s what dadaism, futurism or constructivism did in the past and what separated them from the mass culture of their time.

As we appear, in the post-postmodernist soup of extreme-contemporaneity, to have swung the pendulum in every possible direction, what meaning is there left to invent?