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Art and Technology in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

by Pierre Francastel. Foreword by Yve-Alain Bois. Translated by Randall Cherry.
Zone Books: New York, 2000.
336 pages, illus. Trade US$30.00.
Reviewed by Sean Cubitt, Screen and Media Studies, University of Waikato, Private Bag 3105, Hamilton, New Zealand. E-mail: seanc@waikato.ac.nz

Pierre Francastel's most significant work, a book that had an enormous impact on French architectural culture, was first published in 1956 and, like most books on aesthetics of any serious interest, bears the scars of its era. As Bois notes in his foreword, Francastel is a chauvinist. He sees his book as correcting not just the intellectual and historical errors of such major figures in the study of technology and art as Siegfried Giedion and Lewis Mumford. He also wants to attack their Americanism. In the post-War period of reconstruction, as the Marshall Plan impacted so profoundly on Europe's sense of its identity and its fading hegemony, Francastel gives voice to a ferocious French nationalism. Only an Epistle Dedicatory to de Gaulle could make this any clearer.

In itself, this is not a problem. Francastel gives a powerful analysis of the Anglo-Saxon tradition. From Henry Cole, founder of the Victoria and Albert Museum, John Ruskin and Herbert Read, whose writings still inform the British art school tradition, through Giedion and Mumford, Francastel digs out a binary opposition which, he argues convincingly, structures modernism for a generation. It is the opposition between the technological-mechanical and the natural-organic. Design, art and especially architecture are formed over a period of a hundred years, from mid-century to mid-century, by the effort to make technology conform to organic principles. Yet, he argues, the organic is not a category without its own history, and cannot therefore be taken as a permanent principle.

Moreover, the organicism of Mumford, for example, is grounded in an earlier, aristocratic disdain for trade, a disdain which gets its strongest voice in Ruskin, for whom Francastel reserves his finest rancour. 'In these enlightened times,' he writes, 'it is unnerving to see the accumulation of archaeological errors that turn a book like The Stones of Venice into a veritable museum of scientific horrors', adding that the book 'has a pompous, pontificating style and a strained poetic tone that has lost much of its appeal' (p.40). On the other hand, he reserves a warm regard for Giedion, and especially his wonderful chapter, in Mechanisation Takes Command on the history of locks, and of the entirely new principles of mechanics embodied in the innovation of the Yale lock.

Francastel's goal, beyond settling accounts with the USA, is to analyse and then to attack the thesis, largely presumed as axiomatic, that art must elevate itself above commercially developed, machine-produced goods. Accurately assessing the origins of this belief in the thought that civilisation is the art of leisure, not that of work, he sets out to name and shame those who have promulgated the ideology of art's elevation above labour, describing the antithesis at one juncture rather illuminatingly as that between 'sensibility and reason' (p.77). This he pursues through what is now a normative art history, in which the French Impressionists and the Cubists play egregious roles. That Francastel was well ahead of the field in noting the impact of current physical theories of light on these painters is not in itself enough reason to translate a book which is so often and so deeply of its own time.

What may perhaps rationalise the translation for contemporary readers is a second expression of the antithesis as 'a confrontation between the concrete and figurative activities of our era' (p.74). The meanings of 'figurative' slip from page to page, as we can expect from a writer who just predates the turn to language in cultural analysis. More significantly, so does the term 'concrete', which is anchored in an idiosyncratic and fluid definition of the plastic 'object'. What we do gain from this is sudden flashes, for example the realisation that speed is a key category of contemporary experience, and impacts on, for instance, the movement from raw material in need of shaping to amorphous masses of stuff that can be ordered in any quantity: the effect of steel, glass and most of all for Francastel concrete technologies in building. The reference to speed and to quantity should remind us that among the late 20th century's most influential figures we find two architects: Virilio as theorist and Xenakis in music. I would go so far as to argue that Xenakis' microtonalities and blocks of sound are the clearest exposition of Francastel's conceptualisation of the new terms under which creativity takes place in either order.

A bold thesis underpinning much of the book is that architecture expresses more vividly than other media the social and technological relations of its epoch. There is a deal of sense to this, not least because it is clear that architecture has served throughout the last hundred and fifty years as a tool of empire, a forerunner of globalisation and, not only in the imagination of Albert Speer, as monumental propaganda. A similar claim might have been made for film, a medium on which Francastel is largely silent; that it has not, or not with this sense of authority, has much to do with the cinema's lack of ambition.

If now we are not so much interested in stories as in virtual worlds, not so much riveted by psychology as by knowledge architectures, we can do worse than observe the intellectual conditions under which the computer came to have its contemporary shape. Far more than art, technological or architectural history, histories of computing have been decidedly US-centred: even Francastel's chauvinism has a counterbalancing role to play in contemporary studies of the art-technology interface.

The reader unfamiliar with architectural history will prefer to have an illustrated guide at hand: there are few illustrations, presumably only those selected and authorised for the first edition. Likewise, a copy of some of his key references would be useful. This is not a book for beginners. But it is a historical document of a stage in the critical interface on which this journal is founded, and has a great deal to tell us about where we came from.


Updated 5 June 2001.

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