Friday, September 24, 2021


I've written before about my theory of the Hidden City in the history of the arts: that through most of the 20C a hegemony of modernists in each of the arts declared themselves the only true modern artists, and belittled or preferably ignored anybody who didn't create to that template.

Two recent references to the hegemony have caught my notice. Scott Alexander has written a post expressing his puzzlement at the modernist hegemony, mostly in architecture where he finds it continuing to maintain its hegemony. As several commenters including me have pointed out, Scott is essentially replicating the polemic argument in Tom Wolfe's From Bauhaus to Our House, a book he doesn't mention. But as usual, he expresses himself intelligently and entertainingly.

Then there's an article in the 9/27 New Yorker about Richard Neutra, one of the premier architects of the modernist hegemony. It's by Alex Ross, who usually writes about music and in that field is usually aware that the hegemony was just a hegemony and not the whole story. Something in the article helped clarify in my mind, though without any help from Ross who here only tells one side of the story, the specific aesthetic difference between the hegemony and the hidden city (which in architecture was led by Frank Lloyd Wright). Neutra specialized in glass houses cunningly designed so that people inside the house could have the visual illusion of not being sure where the border was between the house and the outside. He was very sensitive, Ross says, to the placement of his buildings in the landscape.

But from outside, his houses look like alien artifacts placed arbitrarily in their location, with no connection to where they are. And he apparently wanted that effect. Since houses are in fact artificial, Neutra felt they should look that way. Here Ross contrasts Neutra with Wright, who was also sensitive to landscape, but who designed his buildings to look as if they fit where they were placed.

Neutra scorned this aesthetic, like any modernist scorning the hidden city. Ross quotes him: "Houses do not sprout from the ground. That is a lyrical exaggeration, a pretty fairy tale for children."

Aside from the knee-jerk belittlement of fairy tales and the association of them with children, something which J.R.R. Tolkien, another hidden city artist, could have corrected Neutra on, this is factually correct: houses are artificial.

But it's only the modernist hegemony which thinks that therefore they should look that way. The hidden city aesthetic says it's because they're artificial, and because we know they're artificial, that it's a greater and desirable artistic achievement to make them look organic, as if they sprout from the landscape. In much the same way that Tolkien's creation of a world with the texture of reality is all the more impressive because it feels real while we know that it's fiction. If we didn't know it was fiction it wouldn't be so impressive that it looks like fact; if we didn't know that Wright's houses are built artifacts they wouldn't seem so beautiful in the illusion that they're organic. Isn't "the illusion of reality" supposed to be the entire point of traditional painting? What Neutra calls "lyrical exaggeration, a pretty fairy tale" is a good thing: it's where worthwhile artistic achievement lies.

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