Our grandparents and great grandparents first tasted the horrors of modern industrialized warfare in World War I. What did a warrior’s courage mean when he could be completely obliterated by a single bomb from a plane, mowed down by machine gun fire, or crushed under the tracks of a tank? Stubborn and arrogant generals refused to adapt their tactics to the new technologies sending thousands of men to their deaths like cattle. The causes of the war remain ambivalent and its ending was ambivalent. What is not ambivalent was the cost of it, the decimation of an entire generation of young men. Germany lost 5 million men. Britain lost about 2 million. There was not a single household in France without a war casualty. Men of all classes died together before the indiscriminate slaughter of mechanized war.
Military Cemetery at Verdun, France
Equality of a kind was finally achieved in the even rows of tombstones in the huge military cemeteries in Belgium and northern France.
And in the end, nothing was settled. Everything changed and nothing changed. The rage left behind by the war together with the rage of populations dispossessed by post war booms and busts drove the totalitarian movements that emerged in the wake of the Great War to End All Wars.
The thread of historical continuity broke in the War. Empires and dynasties that ruled for centuries perished in the War, the Russian Empire, the German Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Hapsburg dynasty. By 1919 they were all gone. Many believed that the War was the end of Western civilization, and an opportunity to begin again. The catastrophe of the War drove some people to efforts to solve the riddles of history, to try to end human conflict once and for all. Some turned to ideological movements and totalitarianism. Others became visionary utopians of one kind or another. There were artists and architects between the wars who were convinced that Utopia could be designed and built.
Universal equality is an abstraction. We’ve all of us experienced equality of one kind or another, but no one has ever experienced universal equality, the equality of all humanity. It has never happened, except in imagination. Universal equality can’t help but be abstract.
The visionaries of the design movements between the wars understood the abstract nature of the ideal of universal equality. They created a form language that was suitably abstract, and they believed universal since it involved the simplest essences of form.
These designers and artists proclaimed the centerless grid as the ultimate egalitarian form.
The greatest poet of the grid was the Dutch artist Mondrian. The driving idea behind Mondrian’s grids is not political so much as spiritual. Like a number of other early 20th century artists (most notably Kandinsky) Mondrian followed the teachings of Madame Blavatsky. He was an enthusiastic Theosophist. He believed, as Theosophy teaches, that this world of ten thousand ephemeral phenomena is ultimately false. The true world was the one of timeless idea and essences. Mondrian began as a landscape painter, and he gradually reduced the experience of looking out at the world to its barest and most universal essentials. All of our experience of the world boiled down to the line of the horizon, and the vertical line of a tree or a figure before it.
Piet Modrian, Pier and Ocean, 1915
His paintings are all confined to right angles, that basic experience of a vertical before the horizon. He confined color to the three primaries out of which all other color is made, red, yellow, and blue.
Piet Mondrian, Composition in Black and Red, 1936
He began his compositions by using the Golden Section first described by Euclid. The Golden Section is a ratio that the ancient Greeks considered most pleasing aesthetically, which they used frequently in their architecture, and which they considered divine.
Mondrian was distantly associated with a Dutch design movement that published a magazine called De Stijl (The Style). The architects and designers of De Stijl, like a lot of other design movements of the time, believed that they could influence thought by changing the visual environment. We could create a New Man by designing a new house for him to live in.
Gerrit Rietveld, The Schroder House, Utrecht, 1923 - 24
The Schroder House, interior
. Like their Constructivist colleagues in the new Soviet Union, and their colleagues at the Bauhaus in Germany, the artists and designers of De Stijl believed in the centerless grid as the ultimate egalitarian form. Everyone gets an equal unit, and no one forms the center. The grid is universal in being infinitely expandable and by being so essential (the vertical tree and the horizon line over and over again).
Theo Van Doesburg, Counter Composition, 1924
The De Stijl artists added to this an ambition to create a universal form language based on essentials, a kind of visual Esperanto. Designers like Gerrit Rietveld and Theo Van Doesburg used Mondrian’s grids and primary colors as the basis for architecture.
Charles Edouard Jeanneret-Gris, better known as Le Corbusier, dreamed greater things for the grid than house and furniture design. He wanted to remake whole cities on the model of the great equalizing grid. Le Corbusier imagined a future where everyone would be athletic, hold rational views, work in science and technology, and travel everywhere by car. This world would be universal and egalitarian because it would be designed by an architect who believed the in the redemptive power of aesthetic experience, Le Corbusier.
The French automobile manufacturing company Voisin commissioned Le Corbusier to come up with a hypothetical design for the center of Paris remade for the automobile.
Le Corbusier, model of the Voisin Plan, 1925
Le Corbusier, drawing of a proposed street in the Voisin proposal
To us in the 21st century, the design is shocking. Le Corbusier proposed to bulldoze the entire historic center of the city of Paris. He dismissed its centuries of accumulated history as just so much “crust.” He proposed a city arranged according to a grid of broad highways for cars with tall housing flats rising up out of the green spaces in between. This form of city laid out on a grid of streets with tall gridded housing structures Le Corbusier called “The Radiant City.” Le Corbusier never built the Voisin Plan for Paris or any version of The Radiant City.
He only built one apartment flat, one piece of mass housing, the Unite d’Habitation in Marseilles.
Le Corbusier, Unite d'Habitation, Marseilles, 1949 - 1952
It is a masterpiece of design and a failure of housing, both for the same reason, its abstraction. It is one of the most beautiful such buildings built; a splendid evocation of Le Corbusier’s vision of a sunlit world of technology, rationality, and healthy athletics. His vision of technological Utopia melded with memories of ancient Greece with its harmoniously proportioned temples and sun-tanned athletes.
rooftop recreation area of the Unite
It is not built for actual people, but for Le Corbusier’s idea of the “Modular Man” who fits ideally into this perfectly measured and apportioned world.
"Modular Man" from the Unite
The apartments are all small and plain, and all the appeals to purity of form in the world could not possibly prevent a tenant from livening the place up with embroidered throw pillows.
An apartment bedroom in the Unite
Le Corbusier’s “Radiant City” would have a profound influence on the design of public housing around the world. Significantly, Le Corbusier and the famous/notorious city planner of New York Robert Moses were close friends.
The Bauhaus architect Ludwig Hilbersheimer designed an even bleaker more abstract version of the centerless grid city that he called “The Vertical City.”
Ludwig Hilbersheimer, drawing and rendering of "The Vertical City," 1924
Hilbersheimer followed the remaining Bauhaus faculty into exile to Chicago where he ended his days in the Chicago housing authority.
The Radiant City and The Vertical City were built after World War II, not as utopian new cities, but as public housing, as housing for the poor who were in no position to choose or to complain.
The Pruitt-Igoe Housing Project, St. Louis, completed 1955
The automobile and government policies emptied the professional, managerial, and even much of the working classes out of the city centers in the USA from the end of the 1940s to the 1980s (the urban migration was in the opposite direction in European cities at the same time; rich centers surrounded by poor suburbs). The people who inhabited city centers in the USA were the left-behind poor and misfits. The Radiant City became warehousing for those too poor and too different to move to the suburbs. Le Corbusier’s Utopia became a dystopia of crime and squalor inhabited by the Left Behind in America and in Europe.
The dream died when it became cheaper to destroy these housing projects than to maintain them.
Destruction of the Pruitt-Igoe houses, 1972
“The Grid of Two Hundred Million”
The egalitarian grid was not the exclusive property of socialist utopians. It could be easily adapted into the advertising researcher’s statistical grid. Everyone who could afford it would get his/her own prepackaged and carefully measured piece of the pie. The grid worked perfectly well for the less than perfectly egalitarian consumer society created after World War II in the USA (and about 20 years later in Europe).
Lakewood, California, 1950
As the Post War American suburban dream recedes into history, it now appears to be a tremendous, though deeply flawed, accomplishment. It was the world’s first achievement of mass prosperity. Accountants, shipping clerks, managers, and factory workers with their families could have a small villa with its own little fraction of property.
Levittown, PA, 1950s
Suburban tract house, 1950s
A privilege of nobility was now within the reach of millions of people. People who had spent their youths riding freight trains looking for menial work in the Great Depression could now retire with their children to their own tiny little manor with indoor plumbing, hot water, central heating, and air conditioning (whose impact on the creation of the Sunbelt economy cannot by overstated). The centerless grid of the earlier socialist utopians now became the street plans and cul-de-sacs of sprawling suburban tract housing developments.
In many ways, the suburban Utopia of the 1950s was a tract house built on sand. It was the creation of a unique and unrepeatable moment in history. The USA was the only major participant in the Second World War to emerge unscratched. Cities in Europe and Asia were flattened with millions of dead. It would be 2 decades before those cities fully rebuilt. Large sections of the population were deliberately excluded from suburbia. African Americans were legally prohibited from those neighborhoods and from the home mortgages necessary to move in until the Civil Rights Act. While traditional American rhetoric about this new prosperity as a reward for individual hard work and enterprise is largely true, that reward was secured with a lot of government policy from city planning policies that favored the car and the highway (and bypassed and isolated minority communities) to mortgage subsidies for veterans and first time home buyers. The Second World War was many things to Americans including a massive government spending program that pumped billions into the economy and put large amounts of spending money into employee pockets for the first time ever. It was the defense industry and government contracts that built and sustained the prosperity of California from Word War II through the Cold War.
The suburban Utopia of the 1950s was built upon the sands of segregation and the internal combustion engine with the assumption that petroleum was an infinite and benign resource.
That vision of mass prosperity may be passing away as a deeply divided USA today looks more and more like Europe of a century ago with its established privileged classes and rigid lines of class. Manufacturing that once provided high wages (guaranteed by a strong labor movement) is largely gone from an economy now built on services and on moving money around from one place to another. Market speculation has replaced making and selling things as a basic business model. Real wages remain stagnant and a recent Brookings Institution study found that suburbia now has the fastest expanding rate of poverty. The Post War dream of mass prosperity may disappear into oblivion and be only a memory by the midpoint of this century. Ironically, it is the various movements for “sustainable growth” and a “green economy” that are the most sincerely interested in preserving that original vision of mass prosperity. Though routinely lampooned from all sides as “tree huggers,” they want to preserve that original vision of privilege for the many by making it sustainable and adapting it to changed circumstances.
The consumer culture profoundly remade cities and the land, but it also profoundly remade our conception of ourselves. George WS Trow in his very brilliant and very strange book The Context of No Context observes that in ages past, human societies were considered from the individual outwards. Communities were considered as collections of individuals and were best understood through the lives of their greater and lesser individual members. Trow observes that now social scientists and advertisers take the opposite approach, considering huge swaths of the population that share a characteristic and gradually working their way down to the statistically inconvenient individual. Trow calls this “the grid of two hundred million.” He notes the isolation created by the contrast between the lone individual and the “grid of two hundred million.” He observes the success of television, not in creating spectacle, but in creating a sense of home and comfort for increasingly isolated individuals; to the point of replacing actual remembered experience with nostalgia for past TV shows and advertising culture.
The artist who best understood this transformation was Andy Warhol, the son of a poor Pittsburgh factory worker. He grew up a chronically ill and effeminate gay boy in heavily machismo blue collar Pittsburgh. He relieved his isolation by immersing himself in Hollywood fan magazines, in fantasies of opulence and glamour that were light years removed from the poverty and loneliness of his childhood. He left Pittsburgh eventually for New York where he had a flourishing career as commercial artist. He remained frustrated and disappointed in love and in his ambition to be taken seriously as a fine artist.
Warhol made his first pictures of Marilyn Monroe right after her death in 1962. He intended these pictures to be about adoration; we could never have too much Marilyn.
Andy Warhol, Marilyn Monroe Diptych, 1962
They were also about Marilyn Monroe as product. We could each have our own little private share of Marilyn. Like a product designer, he knew that we all want what our neighbors have, so Warhol always used the exact same publicity photo of Marilyn in all of his artworks about her. Warhol was fascinated by the contrast between the uniqueness of hand-made products and the sameness of mass production. His silkscreen repetitions kept the flaws and differences between strikes. His colored images evoke the vivid artificial color of advertising, and his black and white images have a grainy slippage that recalls early television. He arranges these identical pictures of Marilyn Monroe in the modernist grid; the grid not of the socialist utopian, but the statistical grid of the advertising researcher, the grid of the store display.
Warhol understood that celebrities are ultimately product. They are famous because we desire them for whatever reason, not because they’ve done anything remarkable.
Andy Warhol, Coca Cola, 1962
. Warhol anticipated by 2 decades Trow’s observation that Coca Cola was the most successful of all celebrities with a series of paintings of massed Coca Cola bottles. We love Coke like we love Marilyn.
Warhol reveals the nihilism that underlies these commercial transactions in a series of silkscreen paintings of disasters, the sort of disasters that are the commonplaces of local news, car crashes, fires, crime, etc.
Andy Warhol, Green Burning Car I, 1963
He did a series of silkscreens of a grisly car crash in which the driver was thrown from the burning car and impaled like a mannequin on the telephone pole to the left. One family’s catastrophe is another marketing demographic’s consumable spectacle. Warhol prints the same image again and again so that everyone could have one. Once again, the grainy quality of the print reminds us of the alternately blurry and vivid imagery of early television. It also reminds us of that remarkable capacity of television to equalize; to trivialize the profound and to exalt the trivial.
Andy Warhol, Electric Chair, 1967
Andy Warhol, Electric Chair, 1967
Warhol said that all of his art is about death. It was about death as spectacle, and how turning it into a spectacle makes it distant and meaningless at the very moment the spectacle becomes accessible to us. Warhol’s work is about the hollowed out equality of the consumer culture. What remains so frustrating about Warhol is his passivity. He neither celebrates nor satirizes the effects of consumerism.
The socialist and capitalist planners made the same mistake. They assumed uniformity meant equality.
Equality is an elusive concept, as elusive as liberty. We define equality as we define liberty primarily by describing what it is not. These meditations are no exception. Like liberty, we have a hard time describing equality, but we know it when we see it. I see it now as in trouble everywhere in a new cosmopolitan world where it should be flourishing with a new lease on life.
This series of posts is only a superficial meditation on a vast subject that could fill a library. While I’ve touched on racial and labor equality, I left out gender equality. I regret that because feminism continues to be under-estimated as a major force shaping contemporary history around the world. I also neglected the equality of sexual minorities, perhaps because I’ve already posted a lot about it (though that account remains incomplete).
The idea of equality has fallen on hard times, as I pointed out at the beginning of these posts. It has been an unfashionable embarrassment in conversation for almost 30 years now.
It is not hard to imagine a near future where slavery makes a comeback complete with arguments to legitimize it. Future slavery may not necessarily be racial, it could be based on immigration status, debt, or any number of other factors. Indeed, that may already have come to pass in the sex trade and in child labor. It is not hard to imagine new arguments about how slaves deserve their servitude, or that we are somehow doing them a favor by forcing them to work for nothing (“tough love”).
In this Second Gilded Age, there is no shortage of people arguing that the ideal of equality should be discarded, just as the Social Darwinists so argued in the First Gilded Age. The problem is that equality is bound up with the matter of human dignity. It is bound up with the question of whether or not there is an irreducible and fundamental inherent dignity in being human. If there is not, then how are the sheep to be sorted from the goats? What is to be done with the superfluous remainder? How does the denial of basic dignity to some reflect upon the dignity of all? These are moral questions that our infuriatingly passive intellectual discourse, and our shallow solipsistic public discourse are incapable of addressing productively.
I sometimes think that Dr. Martin Luther King was transformed into marble and bronze monuments, into a name on everything from schools to bridges, in order to inoculate us from his legacy. He would be horrified to see his famous phrase about the content of character taking precedence over skin color used as rhetorical sophistry to argue that the struggle for civil rights is over and equality is achieved, that the field of opportunity is now level, and we can just forget about the unique historical experience of African Americans and its legacy. Beyond that, Dr. King would be especially horrified to see political democracy uncoupled from economic democracy. He argued consistently throughout his life that freedom means nothing when the liberated remain poor. The 1963 March on Washington was a march for “JOBS and Justice.” Walter Reuther, head of the UAW, was there at Dr. King’s invitation for a reason beyond just moral support. On the last day of his life, Dr. King was in Memphis supporting a sanitation worker's strike for better wages and working conditions. At the time of his death, he was planning a "poor peoples' march" on Washington DC for economic justice. Freedom for Dr. King meant not only freedom from the tyranny of segregation, but freedom from the tyranny of poverty.
Dr. King’s vision of equality had nothing to do with the actuarial business of who gets their fair share of the pie. It had everything to do with human dignity and mutual solidarity. His was a profoundly religious vision rooted in the radical egalitarianism of Christianity that proclaims all humanity as having not only dignity, but also sanctity, even the lowest. His vision was deeply religious, but not narrowly sectarian. His was a vision that welcomed other faiths and those with no faith, not as guests, but as full partners in the quest for freedom and dignity for all.
Those marches King led were not just a means to a legislative end. King meant these marches to be seen as an alternative model of human community. Everyone marches together as equal partners through history toward the common destiny of humanity, not toward extinction, but toward fulfillment of their promise. He intended these marches to be an image of an alternative to the hollowed out equality of consumerism, and the war of all against all necessary to sustain it.
I look at a photograph of King leading the second March from Selma to Montgomery Alabama, and what do I see? I see the old isocephalic composition used by artists from Masaccio to Courbet appearing in all the artless spontaneity of real life.