The Great Secession

(c) Glasgow Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

As I am preparing for my upcoming move, I am trying to remember that stuff is just stuff.

I have moved many, many times in my life. Sometimes, I have hopped on a plane with a few suitcases and a Rubbermaid tub. Other times I have hired huge moving trucks to take my possessions and me across country to a city I have never really been before.

In moving, no matter the situation, you always have to get rid of stuff. You clean out the closets and the cupboards. Do I really need this? Have I worn this lately? This is nice but do I love this?

For a person who delights in nice shoes, specialty perfume and everyday objects that are designed beautifully, I have a striking lack of attachment to things, in general. The hypothetical question, what would you take with you if your house were on fire, is answered pretty simply by me: Lolita (my Chihuahua), my computer (which houses my writings and photos), and a few pieces of jewelry that belonged to my mother and grandmother. Everything else can, literally, go up in flames as far as I am concerned.

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Gustav Klimt: Judith

When you have moved, literally, eight times in 20 years like I have, you would think that packing up a house would be easy. You would assume that I wouldn’t be tempted to collect too much stuff, or to be surrounded by objects whose importance is, inevitably, questioned. Moreover, I wouldn’t want to purchase something that has a 50/50 chance of being donated. And yet this is not the case, at all.

I have stuff. And lots of it. And moving is always a time to take stock of things.

I was reading George Baird’s The Space of Appearances, and his introductory chapter is about the difference between two schools of artistic thought at the turn of the 20th century in Austria. The Secession Movement, whose first president and most famous member was Gustav Klimt, was concerned with beauty. The Secessionists were a group of forward thinking artists and designers who were opposed to the prevailing Historicism design style in Vienna at the time. While the Historists objectively looked back in time for inspiration for paintings, sculpture, and architecture, the Secessionists looked forward and were passionately consumed with their work and its intracacy. These artists, literally, seceeded from the dominant style of the time.

A major tenent of this group was the idea of Gesamtkuntswerk (German for “total work of art”). What this meant was the Secessionists thought every detail in life could be designed, made to be beautiful, and inspire an aesthetic response. One look at a Klimt painting and you can see what the Secession Movement was, visually, all about. His works are highly romanticized and ornate. Decadent and provocative.

You wouldn’t really think that now since you can get a copy of “The Kiss” on everything from aprons to wallpaper. Notwithstanding, at the time, Klimt’s works were notorious and women wanted him to paint their portrait. They wanted to live in one of his paintings because, no matter how old or ugly or unfortunate, Klimt made them his muse: beautiful, mysterious and draped in luminous fabrics. They were haunting, pensive, and on the brink of speaking the unutterable. In fact in some works like Judith, I can almost feel her breath as she is about to tell her lover a terrible, exciting secret.

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Charles Rennie Mackintosh – Silver Set

But the Secession Movement also included craftsman and architects, designers, and artisans who were interested in thinking about the future of aesthetics instead of duplicating the past. The inclusion of these artists completed the notion of Gesamtkuntswerk because they could not only design a house that contained the Klimt but could design the dining table, tea cups, and pillows that completed the “ideal” living environment.  Scottish designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh, one of my favorites of the period personifies the idea of total work of art. A veritable artistic genius, Mackintosh was an architect and a designer from house to flatware. One of his most famous motifs – the pink flower – was included in many of his pieces and I admit to having a pen in the same design.

And so the question is, why wouldn’t we all like to be a Gustav Klimt woman living in a Charles Rennie Mackintosh house? Why wouldn’t we want to look equally beautiful in person and object?

A major pitfall in the idea of the total work of art, is that someone has to decide what that total work of art looks like and that person is almost always the designer – not the patron. Because of this dedication to the total work of art, Secession designs were ornamental, complicated and thought out in every small detail. When completed, some home owners would not only get a floorplan but a map indicating where furniture, art and decorative items were to be placed. This was, of course, because the architect knew what was most beautiful but also beacuse he knew you, as a person, and who you could become in everything was just right. Architect knows best.

Here is an example: Let’s say I am building a new house and my lot has a gorgeous easterly view. Perfect opportunity for a breakfast room, right? Here’s the thing, I take breakfast in my room each morning and have never sat at a breakfast room table my entire life but because the architect thinks I should have a breakfast nook, he designs it.

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Adolf Loos: Mueller House

And so, Gesamtkuntswerk, in its unity can also be tyrannical. In fact, many patrons who commissioned architects were deeply unhappy with their homes because they were unlivable. Like living in a staged house. All the time.  With such high aesthetic standards, patrons must have felt that they had an impossible ideal to live up to. Simply put, in some cases, they had to live up to the expectation of a well-designed tea service.

In contrast to the Secession Movement was Adolf Loos, a Viennese and Czechoslovaka architect, who was an early force in what we now call Modernism. Although this style now makes us think of Design Within Reach and big white rooms with uncomfortable furniture, Loos believed that architecture should be a mixture of the beautiful, the functional, and the everyday. (It is the preoccupation with functionality that gave Modernism the simple, industrial aesthetic that we now see in office buildings, institutional buildings, and museums.) In short, Loos did not believe in the Gesamtkuntswerk. For Loos, life was not a work of art that could be mapped out by any person, much less an architect. For Loos, the living was more important than the art.

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Jugendstil: Tea Service

I agree. I don’t believe that my life (or anyone else’s) is a work of art. I could never live with the pressure of emulating a painting or keeping my couch at a perfect 37 degree angle from the living room window. Just thinking about that makes me laugh. I think that life is scattered and random, illogical and unpredictable. Like Adolf Loos, I believe that our lives are a collection of things that are beautiful and things that are functional. For example, I love paper towels and grapefruit cleaning spray beacuse it makes me feel like my life is clean and in order. I also love beautiful objects, like the glass ballerina powder box given to me by my great aunt because it gives me a sense comfort in a world that can seem accidental and cruel. It is true: sometimes an elaborate Secession tea service, on the worst of days, can make you feel a bit happier but, we know, it cannot make you happy. Not really.

And as much as I have tried to surround myself with beautiful things, I am not a work of art, perfectly planned without a stray item and packing my house reminds me of this. I am just a collection of things – some more useful than others.

Our lives and the objects we acquire are a combination of necessity and desire. They tell the world both who we want to be, and, sometimes more awkwardly, who we actually are. And in the same way that we have to personally evolve in order to adapt to new environments or ways of being that help us strive towards happiness, we have to let go of some stuff in order to make room for new stuff.

I am still in the process of going through my stuff, and it is remarkable to see all the places I have been and all the stuff I have acquired because of it. Sometimes it is nice to have a token of a wonderful evening. Sometimes my memory of someone is more poignant than any keepsake. There are some beautiful, non-functional things that I cannot bear to be without, like my red and gold chrome stiletto Christian Diors. There are other functional things that I know, if I really need them, I can buy them again, like my juicer.

I have found that, because I am a little bit like a gypsy, my world would be so much easier if I could live like a Gesamtkuntswerk. Everything beautiful and accounted for. The design of my world perfectly self-contained. I could be mysterious and haunting like the character in a Klimt painting. No sorting through closets. No searching for extra boxes. Nothing unnecessary. My whole world mapped out in a beautiful aesthetic floor plan that I could unfold with ease no matter where I am. Alas, I am not that glamorous or organized.

In my mind, the Secession Movement was not only about leaving the past behind and moving forward; it was also about seceeding from the everyday world. They were retreating while it was this practical world that allowed them to create their fiction of idealized beauty.

In the case of moving, neither of those positions are possible. You cannot leave your past behind, since it is sitting there in your closet – staring at you, wondering what you are going to do with it. And you cannot retreat from the world world in which the movers come 2 hours late and charge you 30% more than expected.

The fact of the matter is that I don’t want to be an aesthetized version of myself, I do not aspire to be a work of art, and I most certainly do not need an architect.

I know I have stuff that is superfluous. I know that much will get sold in a garage sale or on e-Bay. Even more important, though, is that I know the objects I am surrounded by speak to who I was but cannot express who I am much less who I will become. As I continue to go through my stuff in the goal of heading to my new adventure, I will hold onto things – both functional and beautiful – but not too many. I need to make room for what will come next.

Jeanette Joy Harris is an artist and writer who lives in Houston, Texas. She has had solo and collaborative photography, installation, and video works shown in Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Portland, and San Francisco. She has published work with TribTalk, Glasstire, and Illusion. With a background in philosophy and politics, Joy has also presented academic work on the concepts of public space and action, particularly in the work of Hannah Arendt and Diane Arbus.

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