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Against Functionalism


1. Talk at the International Congress of Industrial Design
(10th Triennale of Industrial Art, Milan, 1954)

First of all, I would like to apologize for speaking to you in a language in which I am not fluent.

Some people may be surprised by the fact that a free artist — a false artist according to Max Bill — is taking part in a discussion of industrial design and society, particularly since I am essentially merely restating in another form the viewpoints already expressed by Monsieur Paci. As an artist, I will permit myself however to throw some light on some fundamental elements of the problem: the justification of the present evolution of art and technology. I would like to try to show that this problem must be observed from a point of view that has been neglected until now: the point of view of the free artist.

This point of view, I will admit, is clearly distinct from that of technicians and sociologists; and I am far from saying that it is the only acceptable view. I will not even go so far as to believe that it is possible to establish a harmony among these different points of view. I only claim that truth, here as elsewhere, is not unique; that it is composed of several truths that are mutually insoluble, linked in a sort of paradoxical complexity; that truth is a complementary system of mutually contradictory truths. This is a new conception of reality, a conception that is in accord with the latest evolutions of science and philosophy.

This conception has only recently overturned all classical geometry, logic and philosophy. It is creating a new situation that is radically transforming our view of the world and of human life. Because of this, today we are obliged to call into question everything that we know and everything that we have done up till now.

The task of the new science is to call into question what we know, while the task of the art and theory of modern techniques is to call into question everything that we do. Scientific doubt is expressed by analysis, but artistic doubt is expressed by action. It is up to us to do everything that cannot be done; to not do any of the things that we are obliged to do by tradition and dogmatism; to unmask false anxieties, false assurances, false luxuries and false usefulness; and to organize the results of our experiments in accordance with these aims. Man and society ceaselessly create for themselves new obligations and new taboos, and modern technology is currently the greatest source of this evolution.

The doctrines of Le Corbusier and of the old Bauhaus in Germany were revolutionary in their time, and they constitute one of the bases of the revolution that is presently beginning. But their doctrines were all based on classical philosophy and logic. Today we need a new ideological foundation. We need new doctrines. But what have the technical and architectural theorists done during and since the war? Nothing new, or virtually nothing. My impression is that they have been blinded by the overwhelming dominance of abstract art in the academic milieus of our time. Today this nightmare is drawing to a close, and we can see more clearly why we have made no progress. We have not made the effort necessary to renovate the philosophical foundation. In practice as well as in theory we have failed to adapt to the immensely promising dialectical system that could be derived from the systems of complementarity put forth, among others, by the Danish atomic scientist Niels Bohr.

I don’t want to give the erroneous impression that I am familiar with the nuances of nuclear physics, or that I have understood the whole philosophical system of Niels Bohr. Far from it. I can claim neither to agree with him nor to criticize him. As an artist, I can only sketch out a simple program that is nothing more than a perspective toward new experiments, and not a doctrine or a formula for “how to make images.”

The Milan Triennale Exhibition of Decorative and Industrial Arts and Modern Architecture is the largest and most important meeting place that exists in this domain. It can provide a wealth of pertinent indications regarding modern trends in the evolution of form.

Technique, function and aesthetics: these three aspects of the character of an object are identical with structure, form and presentation. It is our intention to show that these three aspects are mutually contradictory, even though they represent an essential trinity in all the creations of the world.

We immediately note a bizarre fact: the third point of view, the aesthetic one, must be considered as the first if we wish to arrive at a dynamic conception of form. It is rather surprising to realize that the aesthetic character of something, its presentation, is a beginning and not a final embellishment.

This fact will put the so-called “Fine Arts” in a different light, and totally transform the conception of fine arts established by the academies during the hegemony of classicism.

But what, then, is the presentational — or aesthetic — character of an object? Is it the formal harmony of the ensemble and the details? No.

The great discovery of Functionalism is to have demonstrated that an object that is the very expression of its structure and of its utilitarian form always possesses, thanks to this unity of technique and function, a perfect overall harmony, even if this harmony is not intended. Machines and motors are examples of this. It is precisely because of this discovery that certain imbeciles imagine today that aesthetic considerations should be excluded from industrial objects. The airplane is beautiful only because it is new. Period.

The aesthetic aspect of a thing is its exterior, its direct communication or its immediate effect on our senses, without taking into account its utility or its structural value. Its virtue is to attract our attention, to awaken our curiosity and our intelligence, to shock us and surprise us, to create an immediate interest.

What gives certain objects the power to act strongly on our senses? It is solely the fact that they represent something new and particular for us. The aesthetic and particular aspect is thus inevitably the same. Functionalist activity between the two World Wars was a new phenomenon, and for that very reason it was aesthetic and surprising. But its program of standardization was distinctly antiaesthetic, and the Functionalists ended up creating a world that was increasingly regularized, ordered, rationalized and stabilized. The more Functionalism has lost its false aesthetic character, the more boring it has become.

The new is identical with the unknown, and the unknown is inevitably useless. One has to know something in order to use it. In art and technique one knows and recognizes only what one can use. This is why aesthetics makes the object strange and chaotic, and ends up being the weak point of any rational object. But the strange objects at the beginning of Functionalism were not created by the Functionalists themselves. Their appearance was not part of the program. The chaos was already there, created by the new machine technology. The Functionalist doctrines presume the existence of a chaotic production which does not continue indefinitely: this is their greatest weakness. This kind of production must be maintained artificially in the future by aesthetic experiments.

It is important to see that not just any strange or out of the ordinary phenomenon can be considered as an artistic endeavor. The phenomenon must also be the expression of a human desire. It must be formed and imposed by man. In this way, aesthetic expression immediately and clearly becomes the most human expression that exists. If an expression is not human, it has no aesthetic value. It is this immediately or superficially human value that gives aesthetic appearances their decorative values, and it is for this reason that machines are distinctly incapable of creating purely decorative values. Ornamentation is killed by machinery. This truth, which was discovered by the Functionalists, is definitive. Such stereotyped repetitions are intolerable for man, even if they are made with plastic and win prizes in design.

The classic idea that man desires to decorate things is an “abhors a vacuum” theory. The contrary idea, namely that decoration is caused by a desire to adapt a vacuum, to conquer it, to mark it with one’s presence, is much more true. This conquest is the essential character of aesthetic activity (cf. science fiction).

In its most authentic sense, the word art (Kunst) means that which we can do, our capacity (können) in any domain. Thus we are all artists, and all techniques are arts. But the fine arts are something else. To be an artist of an aesthetic character, a false artist, a deceiver, an imaginist, means that one is capable of making something that cannot be made, that one can do the impossible. In aesthetics, the impossible does not exist. The new is always impossible, a deception, because the possible is the known.

The complementary contradiction of Dadaism and Constructivism, between the two World Wars, is evident today. We can now see that they are two sides of the same coin. The reason that postwar Constructivism has become insipid and exhausted is the cessation of contradictions. Dadaism was transformed into an active system thanks to Surrealism, but the old Constructivism remained in its old position.

The basic question posed by the artist to all the people of today is this: How can we avoid a total automatism, a transformation of our intelligence into an instinctive and standardized reflex? We cannot find a solution to this question by babbling about defending free enterprise or a dying individualism, nor by opposing socialization.

Of all living beings, only man has ended up transforming his life, changing it from dependence on the richness or poverty of nature into the life of a cultivator and a constructor, transforming nature according to his desires. A second crisis is now manifesting itself. Can we artificially — or artistically — maintain our youth, our intelligence and our desire turned toward the unknown? Can we retain freedom and experimental desire under the new historical conditions?

To create the basis for a systematic development of this possibility, and to find a method for doing this, is the most important task that confronts the artists and technicians of today.

People who are particularly involved with social change will perhaps tell me that we have to wait, that we first have to concern ourselves with political questions and technological development. But we must not forget that the same indivisible historical necessity has already been imposing this problem for the last hundred years, as is shown by the entire history of modern culture.

Max Bill proposes to us four “necessities” for the evolution of our problem. He says that the function of the artist is not to express himself, but to create harmonious objects in the service of man. Agreed.

But in the name of the false artists [Jorn is ironically adopting Max Bill’s derogatory term, mentioned at the beginning of this text], I say to you that you are mistaken when you speak at the same time of an education that must liberate the personality, because the personality is precisely the individualistic aspect of man.

Second point: According to you, the true artist must concern himself with serial production. Fine.

But the false artists should be interested only in what concerns them personally, i.e. externalizing their own desires and needs. Purely individual desires don’t exist, although any new fulfillment begins as the fulfillment of a particular case of more general desires. The Milan Triennale is very important as a field of experimentation. Max Bill seems to find it utterly useless. But we must be wary. There are useful luxuries as well as useless ones. The Triennale is useless for people without imagination. But certain people understand that future objects are not prefabricated, but are composed of a mass of details derived from numerous objects that are defective as a whole; for these latter people, the Triennale is extremely useful.

It is important to understand this inevitable law: quantity creates the basis for the birth of new qualities. This is why large expositions need to retain their character as fields of experimentation and avoid becoming transformed into educational institutions. The greatest experiments here are the confrontations between the different stages of perfection, and the direct confrontation between objects and the public.

Third point: I have already given my response to the topic of the unity of functions, and I repeat that this unity can be attained only on the basis of an internal contradiction.

Fourth point: I have also already given my response to this question. The goal of all production must be to satisfy the needs and aspirations of man. I agree. But how?

I will permit myself to conclude this explanation with a direct question to Max Bill:

If it were possible, on the basis of the doctrines of the old Bauhaus, to establish a new doctrine that was in total contradiction with the old Bauhaus, would you wish to combat this new doctrine in the new Bauhaus because it is in contradiction with the doctrine of the old Bauhaus? Or would you publicize and develop these new doctrines with the aid of the old ones?

Or would you prefer to remain neutral, and to ignore all the doctrines that do not logically correspond to those of the old Bauhaus? The response to this question is of capital importance for the future of the problems that we are concerned with.


2. Notes on the Formation of an Imaginist Bauhaus

 What was the Bauhaus?

The Bauhaus was an answer to the question: What kind of “education” do artists need in order to take their place in the machine age?

How was the Bauhaus idea implemented?

It was implemented with a “school” in Germany, first at Weimar, then at Dessau. Founded in 1919 by the architect Walter Gropius, it was destroyed by the Nazis in 1933.

What is the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus?

It is the answer to the question WHERE AND HOW to find a justified place for artists in the machine age. This answer demonstrates that the education carried out by the old Bauhaus was mistaken.

How has the idea of an International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus been implemented?

The Movement was founded in Switzerland in 1953 as a tendency aimed at forming a united organization capable of promoting an integral revolutionary cultural approach. In 1954 the experience of the Albissola gathering demonstrated that experimental artists must get hold of industrial means and subject them to their own nonutilitarian ends. In 1955 an imaginist laboratory was founded at Alba. Conclusion of the Albissola experience: complete inflationary devaluation of modern values of decoration (cf. ceramics produced by children). In 1956 the Alba Congress dialectically defined unitary urbanism. In 1957 the Movement is promulgating the watchword of psychogeographical action.

What we want

We want the same economic and practical means and possibilities that are already at the disposal of scientific research, of whose momentous results everyone is aware.

Artistic research is identical to “human science,” which for us means “concerned” science, not purely historical science. This research should be carried out by artists with the assistance of scientists.

The first institute ever formed for this purpose is the experimental laboratory for free artistic research founded September 29, 1955, at Alba. This type of laboratory is not an instructional institution; it simply offers new possibilities for artistic experimentation.

The leaders of the old Bauhaus were great masters with exceptional talents, but they were poor teachers. The students’ works were only pious imitations of their masters. The real influence of the latter was indirect, by force of example: Ruskin on Van de Velde, Van de Velde on Gropius.

This is not at all a criticism, it is simply a recognition of reality, from which the following conclusions may be drawn: The direct transfer of artistic gifts is impossible; artistic adaptation takes place through a series of contradictory phases: Shock — Wonder — Imitation — Rejection — Experimentation — Possession.

None of these phases can be avoided, though they need not all be gone through by any one individual.

Our practical conclusion is the following: We are abandoning all efforts at pedagogical action and moving toward experimental activity.


3. Opening Speech at the First World Congress of Free Artists
(Alba, Italy, 1956)

We have organized a Congress here. Why? What reason is there for artists, the freest and most independent people in this society — people who live “like the lilies of the field” — to come together, to organize themselves and to undertake theoretical discussions?

“Create, artist; don’t talk.” That statement has been made to us too often by people who claim to speak for us, to think for us and to act for us: politicians, intellectuals, industrialists, professors, art critics and others. And we have always been betrayed.

I create, I think and I speak. But thoughts don’t emerge exclusively by way of the mouth; man’s whole body thinks and his whole body also speaks. We speak with gestures as well as with words, and like the dancer and the musician, the painter speaks with gestures that he imprints in a material that is independent of himself. It is this transmission of gestures that we call pictorial creation. The artist of our language can express himself like this: “I don’t seek or find, I create.”

This explanation shows that the artist has no need to express himself in a language that is not the language of his art, and that any theoretical endeavor is a waste of his time and energy. This might seem to indicate that our Congress is totally pointless. Unfortunately, it is not. The reason the artist is now obliged to speak is not because the public demands a literary explanation of any particular artistic creation, it is because the public continues to receive nothing but false explanations.

The art critics who claim that painting cannot be explained in musical terms make no bones about explaining music and painting in literary terms. The very existence of a critique seems to justify the existence of such a critique; and if we denounce this lack of logic, it is not in order to have done with it nor to take its place, it is to caution against confusionist practices and to point our way toward a more precise and useful foundation.

The error of the old Bauhaus was included in the slogan of its first Staatlichen Bauhauses Weimar manifesto: ARCHITECTS, SCULPTORS, PAINTERS, WE MUST ALL RETURN TO CRAFT PRODUCTION.

This slogan perhaps had a certain pertinence at the time, but today craft production has become a small and insignificant domain in comparison with the domains of industry and of free art.

The old Bauhaus was the logical transformation of the craft schools that had grown out of the academies. Its real task was to replace not only the craft schools but also the fine arts schools. Its mistake, which led to its failure, was that it shrunk back from struggling against the organization of the academies which, in contrast to the scientific faculties of the universities, have remained purely speculative and formalistic enterprises.

This failure manifested itself in the most striking manner in the hostile attitude of the old Bauhaus toward the ventures of the painter Van Doesburg and the Dutch De Stijl group; a mistake aggravated even more by the leadership of the new Bauhaus at Ulm when, in response to our attempts to seek a rapprochement, it proposed that we collaborate with the fine arts academies! As if these latter were capable of confronting the problems that face present-day art, a notion that is obviously totally absurd.

On the contrary, we remain faithful to the ideas of Gropius and Le Corbusier, namely that academicism is today the number-one enemy in this domain. In the journal Eristica we have clearly set out the reasons for the inevitable failure of the academies, and we insist on the fact that the resolution of the fundamental problems of the old Bauhaus depends on the supersession of academicism in the domain of the fine arts, following the supersession of craft production by the industrial world.

It would be a great error to try to pigeonhole us among the antiacademic autodidacts. We are not opposed to craft schools nor to fine arts schools as primary or even secondary schools. That is none of our concern. We only wish to point out that the global evolution in the domain of art and techniques has arrived at such a formal confusion that it has become glaringly evident  that it is necessary to establish an INSTITUTE OF ARTISTIC EXPERIMENTS AND THEORIZATIONS that will be on the level of the scientific institutes, an institute that will go beyond scholarly, professional, artistic or industrial problems. The establishment of such an institute is our specific and immediate aim.

To me, the banner of artistic Avant-Garde has always seemed suspect. Extremism is usually a hollow attitude. I have always avoided those who parade themselves with the medal of the avant-garde on their chest; and yet at the same time I have never been interested in going anywhere unless I was able to go all the way to the extreme. I have always striven to establish the most direct contact with the people and with the intellectual milieu in general. For this reason, it is a great disappointment to be obliged to admit that our movement has arrived at a stage where we cannot avoid calling it an avant-garde movement.

There are two conditions for a movement to be called an avant-garde movement. First, it must find itself isolated and without any direct support from the established forces, abandoned to an apparently pointless and impossible struggle. I think that everyone will agree that our movement completely fulfills this condition.

Secondly, it is necessary that the group be of vital importance for the forces in whose name it struggles (in our case, human society and artistic evolution) and that the position gained by this avant-garde be ultimately verified by a general evolution.

The future alone will reveal whether our movement fulfills this latter condition. For now, it remains in the domain of hope and belief, even if numerous expressions of sympathy, as well as our own confidence in the validity of our venture, assure us of its success.


4. Art and the Popular University

“In the history of education, the most striking phenomenon is that schools of learning, which at one epoch are alive with a ferment of genius, in a succeeding generation exhibit merely pedantry and routine. The reason is, that they are overladen with inert ideas. Education with inert ideas is not only useless: it is, above all things, harmful. . . . That is the reason why uneducated clever women, who have seen much of the world, are in middle life so much the most cultured part of the community. . . . The understanding which we want is an understanding of an insistent present. The only use of a knowledge of the past is to equip us for the present. . . . Passing now to the scientific and logical side of education, we remember that here also ideas which are not UTILISED are positively harmful. By utilising an idea, I mean relating it to that stream, compounded of sense perceptions, feelings, hopes, desires and of mental activities adjusting thought to thought, which FORMS OUR LIFE.”

—A.N. Whitehead [The Aims of Education, 1929]

“Scientific discovery is often carelessly looked upon as the creation of some new knowledge which can be added to the great body of old knowledge. This is true of the strictly trivial discoveries. It is not true of the fundamental discoveries, such as those of the laws of mechanics, of chemical combinations, of evolution, on which scientific advance ultimately depends. THESE ALWAYS ENTAIL THE DESTRUCTION OR DISINTEGRATION OF OLD KNOWLEDGE BEFORE THE NEW CAN BE CREATED. . . . We need a Ministry of Disturbance; a regulated source of annoyance; a destroyer of routine; an underminer of complacency.”

—C.D. Darlington [The Conflict of Society and Science, 1948]
(quoted in John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy, p. 14)

“To understand the present” is, as has been well explained by the existentialists, to grasp the incoherence of things, to adopt the artistic perspective on existence. The sole inertia that exists for man is truth, and truth means identical repetition. Inertia itself is thus the fundamental basis of scientific education and of professional apprenticeship. Nothing further need be said about this.

The suppression of impromptu acts and incoherent thought, which industry and science make a virtue of opposing, is thus the very cause of the inertia that is increasingly pervading culture. A careerless woman who has seen much of the world seems more cultivated than others precisely because most of her ideas are incoherent and useless. If we shift to ideas linked with concrete interests, we will see that the latter are extremely limited.

The question will not be resolved by rationalizing the educational system, nor by introducing a Ministry of Destruction, if such an institution is not supported by a powerful will in the people themselves, an artistic will, a creative will. But how to bring this about?

This requires a mental activity that is not only independent but also in contradiction with professional and scientific activities. Such mental activity is just as important as the latter activities.

The activity of the fine arts is antiprofessional and anti-intellectual, but it must, on its own autonomous basis, have the possibility of continually collaborating with the two areas that can provide experimental and educative bases of support: industry and professional schools, on one hand, and elementary schools, high schools, universities and research institutes, on the other; as well as with specifically fine-arts organizations around the world. All these organizations must be changed, as must the very conception of fine arts.

“The University of Form” — the new Bauhaus inaugurated at Ulm in 1955 — seemed to be the obvious center for the establishment of such autonomy of constructive activity, moving from formlessness to form, and from form to practical life. Directly combined as it is with the new Popular University of Ulm, it seemed to bring together all the basic requirements for a supersession of the old antipopular isolation.

In order to fully understand this situation, it is first of all necessary to be aware that the aesthetic or experimental attitude is and can only be the attitude of the amateur. THE FREE ARTIST IS A PROFESSIONAL AMATEUR. The spirit of amateurism is at the origin of all progress. The spirit of amateurism does not require a total autodidacticism, but is the ability to be able to surmount its knowledge and arrive at a new innocence, a new zero point or sense of not knowing anything. Popular Universities have been created solely for this antididactic and antiprofessional purpose, and they are thus anticonfessional in all domains. Antidoctrinaire. This said, it is obvious that Popular Universities must be places where each free artist enjoys full autonomy, regardless of what medium he works in. Until Popular Universities are organized on this basis, they will be nothing but vague reflections of the past or of boring places for poor rich kids; and until the University of Form rediscovers, through such Popular Universities, its roots in the people, totally independent from professional schools and intellectual academies, the school at Ulm will only aggravate the mistakes made by Gropius. And reduce itself to an institution with no reason for existing.

This sad path had already been taken by the school at Ulm before its opening, by its exclusion of the free arts which, thanks to Kandinsky, Feininger, Schlemmer, Klee and others, had constituted one of the greatest strengths of the old Bauhaus. By refusing to admit anyone without craft or industrial experience, the school’s directors transformed it into a mere professional school. Our critique in this regard had no positive effect, and we were obliged to form the “International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus,” which will carry on its activity until the establishment of a new effective platform.



These four separate texts were published together under the title Contre le Fonctionalisme in 1957, then included in Pour la Forme: ébauche d’une méthodologie des arts, a large collection of Jorn’s writings published by the Situationist International (Paris, June 1958; reprinted by Éditions Allia, 2001). Translated from the French by Ken Knabb. This translation has been included in a large anthology edited by Ruth Baumeister: Fraternité Avant Tout: Asger Jorn’s Writings on Art and Architecture, 1938-1958 (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 2011).

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