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(post-)Hydrocarbon Aesthetics

Though I could hardly call myself a professional violinist these days, I still get the occasional call for a wedding or other special function, and I cherish these increasingly rare opportunities to work alongside competent players. This past April I was hired to play in a string quartet to provide the requisite “musical wallpaper” for the opening of a traveling exhibit (“International Arts and Crafts: From William Morris to Frank Lloyd Wright”) at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. As a tip to the musicians, the Museum offered us each a pair of tickets to the exhibit. Since my wife Janet and I have long been fascinated by the Arts and Crafts movement, we made use of those tickets a few weeks later.

The exhibit included top examples of the British, German, Scandinavian, American, and Japanese versions of the genre. There were fabric and book designs by William Morris, interiors by Frank Lloyd Wright, and furnishings by C.F.A. Yoysey and others.

As Janet and I walked through the exhibition I couldn’t help but reflect on its implications for humanity’s aesthetic past, present, and future.

The Arts and Crafts movement was, in essence, a critical aesthetic response to the industrial revolution. William Morris, the movement’s founder, saw the industrialization of Britain and deplored the results. Farmers, craftspeople, and manual workers often could not compete economically with fuel-fed engines, and so vocations and skills that had developed across generations vanished in favor of “jobs” tending machines. But the machines could not work intelligently or soulfully, and so the aesthetic environment of Britain became progressively more denatured and dehumanized.

During Morris’s lifetime, the designs of mass production usually merely imitated the symbolic elements of architecture and furnishings from previous eras. As the burgeoning “middle class” sought outer reassurance of its attainments, the factory system obliged with the ornate facades and kitsch bric-a-brac fashioned to impart an “upper-class” aura. Victorian buildings and cluttered parlors displayed an incoherent regurgitation of Greek, Roman, Renaissance, Egyptian, Chinese, and occasionally Aztec or Mayan themes mixed and mutilated often beyond recognition.

Morris and his colleagues drew inspiration instead from the philosophy of John Ruskin, especially as set forth in the books The Stones of Venice and Unto this Last, which related the moral and social health of a nation to the qualities of its architecture and designs. For Ruskin, and subsequently for Morris and other followers of the movement, the spirit of industrialism began with the Renaissance, when the rising mercantile class devalued and destroyed the traditions of free and mostly anonymous artists and craftspeople who had worked independently throughout the medieval period to build the free cities and great cathedrals of Europe.

Already, by the sixteenth century, architects, builders, painters, and carpenters had become mere hired workers whose efforts were mostly directed by—and meant to glorify—wealthy burghers. Thus, for Ruskin and Morris, inspiration had to come from an earlier era—the Gothic period, in which (in Morris’s words) “guildsmen of the Free Cities” enjoyed a “freedom of the hand and mind subordinated to the collective harmony which made freedom possible.” Morris’s aesthetic was thus politically grounded, and he, together with socialist colleagues such as Crane and Ashbee, looked not only backward in history but also forward—to an attainable, simpler way of life in which craftspeople, working in guilds, would control their own lives as well as the economies of cities and nations.

The aesthetic sensibilities of Morris and his followers echoed those of the Pre-Raphaelite painters such as Edward Burne-Jones, who were similarly inspired by Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice, and especially by the chapter “The Nature of Gothic.” Both movements sought to promote not just a backward-looking philosophy, but a practical alternative to the domination of humanity by its tools—and implicitly, by the enormous energies unleashed from fossil fuels.

The Arts and Crafts artisans aimed at a quality of design characterized by an organic simplicity flowing from the honoring of both the raw materials and the skill of the individual worker. Decorative themes emerged from functional necessity and from regional vernacular design vocabularies.

Art Nouveau was the Arts and Crafts movement’s decadent cousin. It produced luscious tendril-limned furniture and facades, but lacked the earnest social philosophy of Morris and his disciples.

In North America, Frank Lloyd Wright led the “prairie school” of architecture, which sought to make buildings fit into the landscape rather than arbitrarily dominating it. Wright hated the modern industrial city and its ubiquitous symbol—the skyscraper, which he regarded as a “human filing cabinet.” “The skyscraper as the typical expression of the city” he wrote, “is the human stable, stalls filled with the herd, all to be milked by the system that keeps the animals docile by such fodder as it puts in the manger and such warmth as the crowd instills in the crowd.” Wright viewed the urban street grid and the skyscraper as mere expedients of power and social control with “no higher ideal than commercial success.” A truly democratic society, he argued, must consist of a decentralized, organic human community integrated into the landscape around it.

Another American proponent of the Arts and Crafts sensibility was Elbert Hubbard of East Aurora, New York, who headed a community of artisans known as the Roycrofters. Hubbard was a homespun Yankee craftsman-philosopher, the kind of self-taught natural leader who, if he had lived in the 1970s, would probably have been the guru of a hippie cult. A congenital aphorist with vaguely right-wing political views (his most famous writing was the astonishingly popular pamphlet, “A Message to Garcia,” which extolled the diligence of a soldier in the Spanish American war who helped turn Cuba into a de facto US colony), Hubbard extolled independence and hard work but seldom criticized the expanding corporate structures of the American economy that were systematically undermining the livelihoods of small farmers and artisans. When Hubbard perished on the Lusitania in 1914, the Roycrofters lost their spokesman and guiding light. They soldiered on for a few years, but, by the end of the ’20s were merely reproducing a few popular designs from their heyday. Today in East Aurora one can still visit some of the Roycrofters’ old workshops and savor the afterglow of their happy experiment.

The Arts and Crafts movement spread also to continental Europe and Japan, in each instance acquiring the local flavors not only of traditional design elements but of indigenous social philosophies.

Nevertheless, by the end of the 1920s, it had mostly disappeared. Sadly but predictably, Morris and his followers had failed to create an enduring artisanal paradise. Industrialism and capitalism swallowed and digested their efforts, which in the end merely yielded buildings and ornaments for middle- and upper-class consumption.

Designing for the Tragic Interlude of Cheap Abundance

By the late 1920s the industrial mega-machine was extruding heaps of new objects with no Gothic predecessors. The most obvious and commercially significant was the personal automobile (what would a Gothic motorcar look like? Why bother even imagining one?). Here was the Machine Triumphant, the symbol and substance of personal attainment and ease of movement. Another significant invention was the airplane, with its capability of transcending limits of space and time through vertical ascent and sheer speed. As aircraft designers gradually began to appreciate the functional benefits of aerodynamics, the look of the airplane (and, for a while, that of the dirigible) began to be appropriated for use on objects whose function had little or nothing to do with flight or rapid motion—from staplers and blenders to lamps and toasters.

This transition from over-wrought Victorianism to streamlined modernism came about during a period when, with so many new inventions needing a marketable “look,” industrial design emerged as a burgeoning new field of specialization within the arts. Car designers competed to make fenders more voluptuous, dashboards more commanding—and to make cars look more like airplanes. Designers consciously incorporated modern style elements to stimulate sales; as advertising executive Earnest Elmo Calkins put it in a magazine article in 1927, “this new influence on articles of barter and sale is largely used to make people dissatisfied with what they have of the old order, still good and useful and efficient, but lacking in the newest touch. In the expressive slang of the day . . . [these goods] ‘date.’”

Streamlining led to an emphasis on curving, smooth surfaces, long lines, and the illusion of speed. It hid the jagged electrical motors or combustion engines of machines beneath flowing metallic skins, just as rumbling machines themselves cloaked the real source of their power—fossil fuels dug from mines or drawn from deep wells.

Streamlining was the Look of the Future. But in retrospect, once it had itself become “dated” by the endless imperative to reinvent style for the sake of sales, it became known as Art Deco.

In contrast to the Arts and Crafts style-philosophy, Art Deco took for granted—even glorified—the machine and machine-based production. Nevertheless, the best practitioners of the latter genre sought to develop a design vocabulary (using geometry and the primitivist elements commandeered by “modern” artists like Picasso) that, while fitting with the needs of the factory and the ad agency, still fed the human hunger for beauty.

Many of the early pioneers of industrial design described their efforts in idealistic terms. Architect Peter Behrens, hired in 1907 by the German industrial firm AEG to create a unified look for the company’s products and advertising, sought to infuse his work with a “spiritual” content as he replaced useless and tasteless ornamentation with clean, geometric lines. Here was a design philosophy for a new age of universal freedom and convenience!

However, modern industrial design grew up alongside advertising and the increasing need for advertising. As Morris had seen and predicted, fuel-fed machines could not help but overwhelm the human community and the skill and pride of craftsmanship. They likewise overwhelmed the ability of ordinary humans to buy and use material goods. So many goods could be produced, and so quickly, that markets were easily saturated; hence the need for new, quickly expanding credit and advertising industries. More invention required more investment, which required more capital accumulation, which in turn required more sales—more consumption. Therefore consumption had to be stimulated, and advertisers, using the scientific discoveries of the new science of psychology, were eager to oblige.

Meanwhile the corporation provided the legal, economic, and social nexus for organizing all of these efforts at finance, production, and advertising. Itself a kind of machine, with capital its fuel, the corporation had, and has, an inbuilt imperative for growth and the accumulation of power, one that transcends the personality or ethical views of any particular manager or executive.

Industrial design provided the soul and self-image for otherwise faceless corporate power, as each corporation sought its own identifiable “personality” expressed in color, shape, tone, and texture. The result: during the twentieth century, even the noblest efforts of industrial designers yielded products that were expressions of a system whose overall characteristics were dictated by scale, speed, accumulation, and efficiency—dictates that made both the shapers and ultimate users of products mere instruments for the attainment of a purpose ultimately at odds with cultural integrity, human sanity, and species survival. As Stuart Ewen put it in his brilliant book, All Consuming Images: On the Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture:

If the overarching image of a corporation points our eye’s mind toward the center of an apparently rational and well-intentioned system, the design of consumer products can ratify the prerogatives of that system in the details of everyday life. In the carefully calculated design of many consumer goods, the technological supremacy of the corporation is made seemingly accessible to the consumer. While at work many people spend their lives performing routine and minuscule elements within an impenetrable bureaucratic or productive maze, the designer of many products—particularly appliances and other electronic items—suggests that with the purchase of the product, you will have your hands on the controls. In a world where a genuine sense of mastery is elusive, and feelings of impotency abound, the well-designed product can provide a symbolism of autonomous proficiency and power.

As industrial design progressed after World War II and into the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, style continued to evolve, as it had to do in order to serve the purposes of fashion and planned obsolescence. Images and objects became more frankly seductive and more directly suggestive of the very qualities of which the lives of human beings were in fact being systematically drained—autonomy, creativity, and fulfillment.

In hindsight, it appears that Deco was the last hiccup of design originality for the hydrocarbon age. Everything after it has been essentially just imitative recycling. Today, the unified vision of Deco is attractively “retro,” and in its place contemporary designers have managed to achieve a kind of new Victorianism consisting of a mangled, chaotically tumbled style hurled together from the detritus of the past, a style they proudly term “post-modernism.”

Hydrocarbon Style: Big, Fast, and Ugly

I often feel a jarring visceral response upon leaving the best museum exhibits and returning to contemporary urban existence: everything outside looks ugly and pitiful by comparison. I get the same feeling when leaving a city like Venice or Kyoto and flying back to California. It’s a response I can only call aesthetic shock.

If Morris and his followers were alive today, they might regard a stroll through a Wal-Mart as a veritable descent into hell. Yet many Americans evidently think of it as a visit to consumer Paradise. Perhaps this is some gauge of the degree of our collective aesthetic degeneration.

Now, San Francisco is not the most beautiful of the world’s cities, but neither is it the ugliest—by a long shot (I’ll spare you my nominations for that prize). Nevertheless the endless concrete pavement, the buildings, and, more than anything else, the automobiles that surround us in most modern cities (certainly including San Francisco) are beyond dreary. The cars are so much a part of our lives that we are inured to their dominating, ubiquitous physical presence. Only when one has lived for at least a few days in an environment free from cars is one likely to notice how deeply the industrial aesthetic environment is entwined with them.

Our constant, habitual, unconscious psychic adaptation to the soullessness of the manufactured environment is part of our personal price of admission to the industrial fiesta. Who can be aesthetically proud of a car, a computer, a refrigerator? One might be proud of having one, if that is in question (I am certain there are millions of new car owners in China and Russia who do feel considerable pride in this regard). But what of the object itself as a product of human artistry? Inherent in our appreciation of its design is our knowledge that the appliance in question will be used up in a decade, obsolete in half that time. Consequently, it must exhibit only as much beauty or craftsmanship as is necessary to get it off the showroom floor and into our home or garage. We are satisfied—for now, but not for long.

This state of affairs might be barely acceptable if such objects were the exceptions, if we were surrounded by others that were more durable and that showed more signs of care and that nourished us in deeper ways. But in most modern industrial countries that is not the case. Our houses, our packaging, our furnishings, our electronic gadgets—all share the same disposable, transitory ephemerality-by-design. This is truly a throw-away culture. Yes, it is possible to obtain antiques (for example, I like to use old fountain pens instead of disposable plastic ballpoints), or one-off art pieces, or handmade shoes, but these are anomalies and affectations. Only the wealthy can afford to surround themselves with such things. The masses instead make do with stamped-out plastic-or-metal objects that evince no sign whatever that any living, breathing human ever worked them or thought much about them.

As a way of concealing or compensating for this we seek out “designer” lines of merchandise with names like Calvin Klein or Martha Stewart on their labels. But these are goods whose actual designers are people we never hear of, let alone meet. One can even find faux remakes of Arts and Crafts (“Mission-style”) pieces in the furniture section of Wal-Mart. What’s the problem? It looks just like the real thing.

As for the economic conditions of the people who actually produce these objects—well, you don’t know and you don’t want to know. It doesn’t take much imagining to divine what Morris would think of the situation.

Oh, To Be Hip Again

The Arts and Crafts movement inhabited the lower-upside of history’s energy bell-curve; now, after a century of cheap petroleum, we are just over the crest, contemplating our way back down. What happened in between was a brief, probably inevitable, but nonetheless tragic eruption of production and consumption on a scale never seen before, and never to be seen again. It is tempting to look back now, as we contemplate the downside of the curve, and view with nostalgia the ideas and productions of Morris, Wright, etc., just as they looked back to the craft guilds of the Middle Ages.

But what will the human-made world look like a few decades beyond Peak Oil? Will we see a fulfillment of the Arts and Crafts ideal? It would be nice to think so. However, the world in which Morris and his colleagues lived and worked—including the cultural symbols, the skills, even in some cases the raw materials then readily available—has evaporated, replaced by one in which most people are loyal not to land and place, but to product and image.

One relatively recent iteration of style—the hippie aesthetic of macramé, tie-dye, beads, sandals, long hair, dulcimers, and herb gardens—may hold a few cues and clues for the post-carbon future. Hippie houses and ornaments were hand-made, but often rather ineptly so. This in itself is perhaps a sign of what is to come, as we return by necessity to handcraft but without skill or cultural memory to guide us.

In its lucid moments, the hippie aesthetic (which was on the whole more musical than visual) articulated a coherent rejection of consumerism and an embrace of the “natural.” But while it attempted a profound critique of the industrial-corporate system, it showed only limited similarity to Arts and Crafts ideals. This was partly because of the changed infrastructural context: by this point in history, cars and electronic machines were so embedded in the lives of people in industrialized nations that few could imagine a realistic alternative. Moreover, the baby boomers’ rebellion was at least partly enabled by the very wealth that cheap energy produced: rents were cheap, transportation was cheap, and food was cheap; as a result, dropping out of the employment rat race for a few months in order to tune in and turn on carried little real personal risk. Thus rejection and critique were inherently self-limiting.

The counterculture expressed itself through dreams of footloose, motored mobility (Easy Rider), and in music amped to the max with inexpensive electricity. The latter was hardly incidental: the voltage that made Harrison’s and Clapton’s guitars gently weep, and that wafted Grace Slick’s and Janis Joplin’s voices past the back rows in amphitheaters seating tens of thousands—in short, the power of the music that united a generation—flowed ultimately from coal-fired generating plants. That same 110 volt, 60 cycle AC current energized the stereo sets in dorm rooms and apartments across America, allowing ten million teenagers to memorize the lyrics to songs impressed on vinyl (i.e., petroleum) disks in the certain knowledge that these were revelatory words that would change the course of history.

If the hippie aesthetic was at least occasionally endearing, it was easily stereotyped, and, when profitable, readily co-opted by cynical ad executives. Also, it was often naively uncritical of its own assumptions. If you want to appreciate for yourself the embedded contradictions of the movement, just rent the movie Woodstock: the wide-eyed, self-congratulatory idealism of the “kids”—who arrived by automobile to liberate themselves through amateur psychopharmacology and to worship at the altar of electric amplification—is simultaneously touching and unbearable. It was no wonder the revolution failed: without an understanding of the energetic basis of industrialism, and therefore of the modern corporate state, rebellion could never have been more than symbolic.

Where the hippie aesthetic drew on deeper philosophical and political roots (such as the back-to-the-land philosophy of Scott and Helen Nearing), it persisted—as it still does to this day. Perhaps the most durable and intelligent product of the era was a design philosophy known as Permaculture, developed in Australia by ecologists Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. A practical—rather than an aesthetic—design system for producing food, energy, and shelter, Permaculture was conceived in prescient expectation of the looming era of limits, and it is endlessly adaptable to differing climates and cultures. In the future, its principles may serve as the fundamental frame of reference for builders and craftspeople as they elaborate new aesthetic styles.

Manifesto for a Post-Carbon Aesthetic

Will industrial production survive in the post-hydrocarbon era? The answer will of course depend on how much energy humans will have at their disposal. The total amount, as well as the per capita amount, will certainly be substantially reduced, especially in the most highly industrialized societies—but by how much? The very earliest factories were powered by water and wind, resources that presumably will still be available to future generations. Will these sources provide enough power to run the machine tools to make the lathes to make the sophisticated wind turbines (and other energy production devices) that will be needed in order to maintain some semblance of an electrical grid, or a manufacturing economy? It is impossible to know the answer at this point.

What can be said with confidence is that everything in the post-hydrocarbon world will operate on a smaller scale (let us hope that E. F. Schumacher was right in insisting that “small is beautiful”). There will be less of nearly everything to go around, and virtually every process of production and transport will occur more slowly.

The prospect of returning to human muscles for productive power is both exciting and scary. Will this mean an explosion of craftsmanship, or a return to drudgery (particularly for women)? Most likely, it will result in both. However, if adopted widely, the Permaculture design system could at least minimize the drudgery and hence provide opportunity for devotion of more attention to the quality and beauty of products.

At first thought, aesthetics might seem utterly incidental, given the survival challenges imposed by Peak Oil, climate chaos, mass extinctions, and so on. However, art is part of the necessary process of cultural adaptation. People inevitably find ways not just to endure, but to enjoy—to find happiness in the midst of change. We are, after all, environment shapers. As birds build nests, we build campsites, fashion clothing, and (if we are civilized humans) build cities. But as we shape our environments, those environments in turn mold our perceptions, our judgments, our expectations, our very consciousness. Art, religion, politics, and economics, will all have to adjust as the world’s energy infrastructure shifts. And the forms we create to express and embody those shifts and adjustments will in turn alter us. Cultural change is a process of reverberation.

It may be presumptuous to try to forecast what post-hydrocarbon style will look like, as people will have to make it up as they go along—and creativity is, almost by definition, difficult to predict. It will by definition be true post-modernism—though the use of the term may be more confusing than helpful. In any case, the following are a few of the characteristics that must inevitably adhere to the new aesthetic.

1. Workers will incorporate no or minimal fossil fuels, either as raw material or as energy source, in production processes. This is the defining condition for all that follows, and its implications will be profound.

2. Construction of buildings and objects will depend substantially on the application of muscle power and hand-craft. This necessarily follows from (1).

3. Pride in workmanship will therefore return.

4. Previously cheap petrochemical-based materials (such as plastics) will gradually disappear, necessitating the use of natural materials; however, many of the latter (such as wood) will also become rarer and more expensive (as is already happening). Thus workers will inevitably develop more respect for natural materials.

5. Because buildings and objects being produced will require more hand labor and scarce raw materials, the throw-away mentality and the phenomenon of planned obsolescence will disappear. Durability will be a required attribute of all products.

6. For the same reasons, reparability will also be requisite: the average person will need to know how to fix anything that breaks.

7. Since products themselves will need to be durable and reparable, the continued rapid changes of fashion and style will seem nonsensical and counter-productive. Planned aesthetic obsolescence will be replaced by the imperative to lend an enduring quality to all design.

8. Because the transitional era (i.e., the coming century) will be one in which species will continue to vanish, and because people will find themselves having to adapt to weather and other natural conditions (since they will no longer be able to insulate themselves from these with high-energy buildings and machines), workers will probably be inspired to incorporate themes from nature into their products.

9. In their efforts to identify aesthetic themes appropriate to hand labor and natural materials, workers will likely end up drawing upon vernacular design traditions.

10. Because people living in the transitional era will be witnessing the passing of the fossil-fueled machine culture of their youth, they will probably be inspired to incorporate occasional ironic or nostalgic comments on that passing into their artistic output.

11. Beauty may to a certain extent be in the eye of the beholder, but there are universal principles of harmony and proportion that perennially reappear; and, given that workers will be required to invent much of their aesthetic vocabulary from scratch, they will no doubt fall back upon these principles frequently.

12. Since we are entering an era of declining availability of raw materials, the new aesthetic will by necessity emphasize leanness and simplicity, and will eschew superfluous decoration. The Zen architecture of Japan may serve as an inspiration in this regard.

These are, of course, only the most general of parameters within which specific new regional styles may emerge over the coming decades. What exactly these styles will look like won’t be known until millions of craftspeople and builders undertake the processes of (re-)learning skills and producing large numbers of buildings, tools, furnishings, and artworks. However, one can hardly help noting that most of the characteristics listed above apply to the products of the Arts and Crafts movement.

And so, perhaps the way down the hydrocarbon curve will, at least in the best instances, indeed look a little like the way up.

Quote of the month:

Even the alarmingly large crowd of people who would rather show off than conserve will change their habits when energy consumption becomes an instant indicator of stupidity and social indifference. —Scott Burns, financial adviser

Editorial Notes: Richard has a new website where you can access past museletters and order his books including the latest The Oil Depletion Protocol: A Plan to Avert Oil Wars, Terrorism and Economic Collapse. -AF UPDATE: One source of inspiration for post-Peak design is the Shakers, the communal religious group that flourished in the U.S. during the 18th and 19th centuries. They are famous for industrial design:
Their industry brought about many inventions like the screw propeller, Babbitt metal, the rotary harrow, the circular saw, the clothespin, the flat broom and the wheel-driven washing machine. Wikipedia
The functional, minimalist Shaker style is influential and highly regarded. Perhaps because women had equal influence in Shaker communities, living arrangements were designed so as to minimize housework. Records indicate that Shakers enjoyed happiness, security and ample leisure in a rural economy, with little reliance on fossil fuels. -BA

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