tastometer 2011

Alfred C. Barnes, when he was alive, and still able to forcibly beat the crap out of anyone who suggested dismantling his collection

Although taste can neither be judged on a perfect continuum (since so often events and objects evince both good and bad taste) nor be comfortable within delimiting factors of a ten-part end-of-year list, the turning of the calendar does seem an appropriate time to take pause, consider the year that has passed, and acknowledge special achievements in Taste: the good, the bad, and otherwise.  MoT‘s Department of Tastemetrics offers the following study of events of 2011, ranging from the Worst of Bad Taste to Tasty of the Tasty, recognizing that bad taste is sometimes enjoyable and good taste can be downright boring.

Rather than apply a simple numeric system to this slippery study, the Department instead adopts a system of word-pictures.  These Taste Indicator Determinant arBited Illustration Types (TIDBITs) have been assigned somewhat like the party election symbols used in India–not that those were judgmental, as MoT‘s are, but they are illustrative little morsels none the less.  Join us as we start at the scuzzy, slimy bottom:

Bunga-bunga?  Buh-bye!

The resignation of Silvio Berlusconi as Prime Minister of Italy finally took place on 16 November.  There’s nothing redeeming about this story; he was a schmucky guy who took advantage of everything and everyone.  Yuck.  TIDBIT: Flaming Bag of Poo

The celebration of “Architect Barbie” by people who should know better: it was bad enough that this crummy parody of a female professional was unleashed, it’s worse that there has been so much praise and excitement about it from professionals and academics.  Ugh, we’ve been through this enough and have submitted the Barbie Department here at MoT HQ to redundancy downsizing, so just read their now-historic report here.  TIDBIT: Cat Barf

A nut that was cracked wide open in an interview on ABC in February, Charlie Sheen’s simultaneous meltdown and reinvention was sad, overplayed and tedious, but somehow heroic, albeit in a deluded sort of way.  We include it here mostly to emphasize how much we hate Architect Barbie by making her the meat in a crap sandwich with Silvio & Charlie as the bread.  TIDBIT: A Crap Sandwich

one monstrosity OMA hasn’t managed to get built yet

There’s plenty of stupid spectacle architecture out there, both built and proposed (here’s an exemplary late entry), but the La Paille Dans L’Åil Du Voisin is the stupidest (watch the video if you have excess IQ points to spare).  TIDBIT: Whatever Tastes Like The Head of Michelangelo’s David With A Big Beam Rammed Through It

On July 3 the Barnes Foundation closed. What a travesty.  Readers unaware of what a slimy business the art world is (especially in Philadelphia, but not uniquely so), need to read up or see this good documentary.  Glimmer of hope: with this theft, more people will be able to see and enjoy the art at the center of the controversy.  But that’s the same kind of thin excuse that protects a lot art in European museums stolen by marauding armies.  This time the crime was perpetrated by very slick culture vultures, but the result is the same.  TIDBIT: Heirloom Tomato, Rotten and Worm-Eaten

Josh: SHOULDDA

A one-time favorite around HQ, Project Runway concluded season 9 by naming Anya the winner. Inconceivable!  Anya, who can make only one dress, for one climate, but sew no sleeves, and never heard the word “zipper.”  This, especially when the duo of Joshua (left) and Viktor were actual contenders, dripping with loads of talent and versatility and skill.  Although the award raises an interesting point–how essential is design education vs. natural talent?–it revealed the producer’s interest, finally, in favor of sizzle over steak.  TIDBIT: Beadazzled Crap Sandwich

Mixed blessings from England: someone newly hired at Mini somehow missed the memo that “mini” means “small,” and urged the developement of maxi-size minis.  The Mini Cooper “Countryman” (what does that even mean?) is weird, and dumb.  Problem: it was first advertised with this commercial, and the catch phrase cram it in the boot, that we really kind of like.  However, when MoT crams it, we cram it in a properly-scaled mini Mini boot, thank you very much.  A proper Mini is more than adequate for our needs, and we have stretched it to accomode, at one point, two of MoT‘s junior staffers toting backpacks, viola and cello, and a pitbull, for good measure, and did so while maintaining the spirit of Mini as encapsulated in the great commercial that celebrates the “Best Test Drive Ever, Period.”  (However, MoT‘s six-word “Best Test Drive Ever, Period.” would be described thusly: MrDarcy, Quadrilatero’d’Oro, Ringstrasse, Scone, Hogwarts, Siouxsie.)  But that’s just not happening in a Countryman.  TIDBIT: Poofy Scone, Oversized For American Market 

We needed a lie-down, too

MoT staffers have anticipated few movies for their artistic promise alone like they have Lars von Trier’s Melancholia.  What a visual treat it was . . . until we had to run out of the theatre due to severe nausea caused by over-indulgence of the shaky-cam.  Why, Lars, why?  We were ready for the cinematic version of German Romantic paintings, and instead were sickened by camerawork that would be too jerky for a Bourne installation.  TIDBIT: Sad Scone.  A Beautiful, Sad, Nearly-Vomiting Scone. 

There’s good taste, and bad taste, and then there’s excellent bad taste.  Hello, Honey Badger, the short film first posted to YouTube in January.  Nasty indeed, but humor that fresh and funny is something to celebrate.  TIDBIT: Steak ‘n Shake Chili Deluxe With Cheese Fries

the Lake Shore Drive “graveyard” in February

That leads to the mid-point of the Tastometer and the potentially taste-neutral matter of time and weather.  The latter was dealt a wallop near MoT HQ in February, when SnOwMaGeddon swept into the Chicago area.  It’s only weather if you notice it, and it’s only tasty if something cool happens because of it: behold Jim Cantore’s response to thundersnow!  (How this has not been autotuned is beyond our understanding.)  Also, all those abandoned cars on Lake Shore Drive became the subject matter of great Snowpocalypse photography.  TIDBIT: Flaming Baked Alaska

Likewise, dates tend to be  untasty.  But no day for years and years will live up to the graphic simplicity and regularity of 11 11 11; likewise, no date will ever emphasize one of cinema’s most tasty scenes, ever.  TIDBIT: Shark Sandwich.*

Launched in April, the architecture blog Philaphilia wins high marks in a similar vein as the Honey Badger, but for buildings (and so it’s better than studies of “nature”).  Philaphilia is remarkably active and consistent, has a very specific point of view, is historically spot-on and full of sage wisdom (a favorite bon mot: “don’t build buildings out of sidewalks.”)  That’s all we can quote here and keep our PG rating.  If you like your architectural criticism sprinkled with F-bombs, hearken ye to Philaphilia.  TIDBIT: Salty Caramel

The Tastometer begins to pick up now, with the very tasty news that the British Library now offers an e-classics app for the iPad, huzzah!  For a monthly fee (say, the cost of an Aztec cocoa, or two whoopie pies, or half a bottle of Essie nailpolish–all tasty things) one may access tens of thousands of books, scanned from the original, on an iPad.  With this service, Hermione’s beaded bag has nothing on your own Birken, virtually full of 30,000 nineteenth-century tomes.  Actual books are still better than their electronic versions, but since MoT‘s collecting habits in nineteenth-centry books are, alas, somewhat limited, we are grateful to the Brits.  Once again.    TIDBIT: Scone with Clotted Cream

MoT hearts books

With its new director, the Art institute of Chicago seems to be going gangbusters with exhibitions, but many of them have fallen flat.  Not so for our favorite of the year, a very small collection of printed materials arranged in the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries in celebration of the citywide “Festival of the Architecture Book,” marking the 500th anniversary of the publication of the first illustrated architecture book.  “Design Inspiration: Nineteenth- Century American Builders’ Manuals and Pattern Books” was a wonderful show.  More, please!  TIDBIT: Chocolate Chip Cookie

A certain big box retailer scored big with another blockbuster designer collaboration with the storied house of Missoni for Target.  Fashionista Bargainistas saw zigzags . . . then saw red (more about that here), as stores were cleaned out and the Target.com website went kaput.  Several months later, very slow boats from China are still struggling to fill open orders.  TIDBIT: Bruschetta di Milano

Trrrooolllllllll!!!

The big and little screen made us happy, from the visually and intellectually stunning Cave of Forgotten Dreams to the local favorite Munger Road, also big Scandinavian “tummar-upp”  (well, that’s what Røger Ebertssen would say) for Trollhunter, which managed to blend aspects of The Blair Witch Project, Jaws, and Scandinavian myths together in an effective way that makes us eager for a sequel and a prequel to learn more about the stoic hero for whom the movie was named.  We applaud two humane shows in the midst of dreck on television: Parks and Recreation features characters who are actually genuinely likeable people, and The Walking Dead mixes up the good and the bad, and makes a person wonder every week which one they are.  TIDBIT: Zombie Waffles, with Lingonberries

Colin Firth, action hero

Was 2011 The Year of Firth? An Oscar, London Film Critics Circle, the European Film Award, and that was after raking in a few dozen similar trophies in the last months of 2010, all for The King’s Speech, which was released on dvd in April, and you bought it immediately, didn’t you?  And in June he was presented at the Queen’s Honours with the Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).  (Bryan Ferry was also honored in that program, prompting our consideration that the whole event should have a special award for Tastiness.)  The year closes with the opening of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which also holds the promise of the action figures we most look forward to seeing under our Christmas tree.  TIDBIT: Scone With Clotted Cream *And* Jam.

Speaking of men we love, David McCullough published The Greater Journey, a book that celebrates some of America’s greatest architects, artists, writers, and others who aspired to greatness and pursued it in Paris.  Like all of Mr. McCllough’s books, it is an inspirational and wonderful tale.  We have long admired this fabulous historian who writes history that people actually want to read.  The fact that MoT‘s Chief of Literature Consumption met him at a book signing, where he was marvelously sweet, kind, supportive, personable, gave him the edge over Mr. Darcy.  (No, she still hasn’t washed the hand that he so warmly shook.)  TIDBIT: Boeuf Bourguignon

Always.

A dominant force in the Tastiverse this year was the final installment of the Harry Potter movies, the Deathly Hallows, Part II. Fine film it was, but that’s not why it ranks so high on this list: it’s just that the final installment finally gave a platform to Snape’s long suffering.  At last, Alan Rickman was able to let loose and reveal Snape’s heartbreakingly courageous lonesome lovelorn sacrificial self as a main pivot point for the whole story.  (Too bad the filmmakers crapped up the ending so bad, or this entry would have crept closer to the top of the list.)  TIDBIT: Flourless Chocolate Torte & Port

One of the tastiest events to blow into New York–a city that knows from taste–blew away all previous exhibition records at the Met: Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, dominated the summer.  MoT‘s Department of Exhibition Critique worries that museums are not doing their job if a fashion designer can out-draw painters and sculptors who have made a more proven and lasting contrition to civilization, but even so, admit that it was an extraordinary and amazing show. It is a rare treat when an exhibition encapsulates the spirit of its subject without overwhelming it.  TIDBIT: Any Two Or Three of These Cakes

kiss me, Kate

Nearing the top of the list, it’s hard to deny that Britain had the corner on taste in 2011, for no event was more anticipated and drawn out and over-reported and yet still left us somehow unsatiated than the great fabulous Royal Wedding of April 29, for these four reasons: (1) Kate Middleton, (now Her Royal Highness Princess William Arthur Philip Louis, Duchess of Cambridge, Countess of Strathearn and Baroness Carrickfergus), not only looked great but has acted with admirable demureness through this whole crazy affair; (2) the beautiful sublimity of the gorgeous day was thrown comfortably and realistically off by the crazy hats, especially  Princess Beatrice’s Fascinator (don’t you feel better about what your embarrassing cousin wore to your wedding now?), and the peevishness of Princess Grumpsalot (left);  (3) it inspired one of our favorite websites of the year, Kate Middleton For The Win, and (4) it was a great excuse to get up early, make scones and finally figure out where in town we can source clotted cream.  TIDBIT: Just The Clotted Cream

Finally, what’s tastier than The Taste?  Well it’s the tasty readers of the Taste of course, a readership that has gone berserker in the last weeks of 2011 thanks, as far as MoT‘s  Electronic Media Research Team can tell, from a post from two years ago being circulated like gang busters.  MoT has now been read on at least four continents and translated into Chinese.  For that, 作者 sends a hearty 谢谢 to our new friends at renren.com, and also our friends at Google Translate, who allowed our Department of Poor Language Skills to put the Chinese back into English, to hilarious results.  Plenty of traffic was also prompted by the tweeting of tasty folks at Dwell.com and postings at Archinect.com, but we especially thank Artmagonline.wordpress.com, since they introduced our post on a page with Helena Bonham Carter, so now MoT and HBC are BFFs.  Glad to have you all along for the ride, please introduce yourselves to the faithful who have been around since our launch on Borromini’s birthday in 2009.  TIDBIT: You!  (Or Almond Bark)

Savage Beauty: McQueen, 2005

*that one is for you, MoT CFO

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“apostles of beauty” (arts and crafts exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago)

crop morris cray 1885

"Cray" panel (William Morris, ca. 1885)

The new exhibition at the Art Institute (click here for the website) certainly delivers the beauty. Only a biased Modernist or partisan Classicist would fail to find something to love in this show, which is stuffed with furniture, textiles, lithographs, ceramics, metalwork and a dozen other kinds of art, most of it dating from the 1870s to the 1910s, and all of it related one way or another to the Arts and Crafts movement that began in mid-nineteenth-century Britain.

But that vastness of enterprise is part of this imperfect exhibition’s undoing. Its broad sweep goes far beyond the content that appears to be announced in the exhibition’s advertisement as Arts and Crafts from Britain to Chicago. By reading the advertised subtitle, one might expect to see and learn about art and design in those two places and the transmission of ideas between them, and not a collection of Arts and Crafts goods that somehow found their way to area collections. The curators have used the preposition “to” rather broadly; the journey of Arts and Crafts ideals is actually from Britain to a dozen other places in America, and finally to Chicago—but then beyond: the show concludes with Scottish furniture and German criticism. And, although the approach to the Arts and Crafts as a philosophical point of view more than a stylistic movement is valid, the exhibit uses this as an excuse to bring unexpected disciplines into the tent while leaving some we’d expect to find there at the periphery, if not abandoning them out in the cold.

D. G. Rossetti Beata Beatrix 1871

Beata Beatrix (D. G. Rossetti, 1871)

The exhibition begins promisingly enough, with a brief acknowledgement of the movement’s founding fathers: A. W. N. Pugin, John Ruskin, William Morris, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Beatrix, at left, represents all of the Pre-Raphaelites). It’s a brief overview, but reasonably solid, although the suggestion that Pugin’s Catholicism was an excuse for his medievalism is stated in terms that are a little strong. (But more of him later.)

The immediate impact of these progenitors as portrayed in the following room provides the strongest display in the five-part exhibit. Fans of the Arts and Crafts will thrill at the very walls shouting out the glories of the movement with well-known quotes from Morris and C. F. A. Voysey, with some of their famous works close at hand. It’s a wonderful collection, chockfull of things you expect to see in a big Arts and Crafts show: Philip Webb’s iconic Morris chair (see one by clicking here), a range of Voysey and Morris textiles, the Kelmscott Chaucer (see another copy by clicking here), metalwork by M. H. Baillie Scott. And there are some unexpected delights (which is what a big exhibition is supposed to have, right?), like two big Edward Burne-Jones cartoons for stained glass windows (click here). Better yet, the kinds of things I was hoping to see in a Chicago-centric show: Marion Mahony Griffin’s lush renderings (on satin!) of Wright designs and Chicago illustrator Will H. Bradley’s zincographs for the locally-published Chap-Book are delightful and on-point. Also interesting is the small section on Ukiyo-e prints as part of the concurrent “Japanism” in the later nineteenth century, which touches on the influence of Japanese prints in America, specifically among Chicago collectors and the impact of Japanese goods at the Columbian Exposition of 1893 that was followed by a Ukiyo-e exhibition at the Art Institute designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1908. There were enough compelling ideas in that one corner to mount a separate exhibition.

bradley chapbook

Chap-Book (Will Bradley, 1895)

The intellectual clarity and visual thematic purpose so clear in that display fell apart upon crossing the threshold; the rest of the show gave me the distinct impression that the curators had filled out the rest of the exhibition with whatever was lying around upstairs, and/or got tired and forgot what it was they set out to accomplish in the first place. Ostensibly this part of the exhibition was intended to portray the general sweep of Arts and Crafts influence in America, but it was not comprehensive enough to really do that job, nor did it enhance the “Chicago” angle of the exhibit. With the exception of two small pieces by Midwestern jewelers Marie Zimmerman and Mildred Watkins (whose pendant necklace is one of the loveliest objects in the exhibition), the exhibition takes an artistic and intellectual freefall into a realm that includes admittedly nice things (Greene and Greene furniture, Arthur Wesley Dow paintings, more than enough of the Gustav Stickley catalogue), but they do not enhance the Britain/Chicago angle. At all. And their selection seems incredibly hit-or-miss. This is especially true of the display of some two dozen Pictorialist photographs which apparently have some philosophical underpinning in common with the Arts and Crafts movement, but their inclusion was really a stretch. Mind you, there are worse things you can do with your time than look at Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, but this part of the exhibition in particular reveals significant mission drift—especially on the heels of what felt like a really good start.

The exhibition increasingly suffers just from plain old bad design: wall text without clear connection to displays, elements strewn far and wide through the room. Even in the one corner set up like a little sitting-room, the objects were treated so individually that it became painfully obvious just how challenging it is to show the Arts and Crafts—a movement tied to the “total work of art” environment, and the intimate domestic scale if ever there was one—in a museum setting (although, for the record, it’s not impossible: the Delaware Art Museum displays a fine collection of Arts and Crafts decorative arts and Pre-Raphaelite painting in a colorful gallery complete with Morris Wall paper and period-appropriate furniture that visitors are allowed to use). The irony of this movement, dedicated to beautifying ordinary objects and obliterating the notion of “fine” art, sequestered in a museum that has the gall to charge $60 for a family of four to visit, suddenly dawned on me as a sad legacy of this exhibit.

teco

Vase (Teco Potteries, ca. 1910)

The final room is the most disappointing for anyone who came for a celebration of Chicago design in the context of the British Arts and Crafts movement. Such parallel movements as department store development (earlier we read a note about Liberty of London and see a tiny sampling of Liberty goods; how interesting it would have been to compare Mr. Liberty with Marshall Field), social reform and education are all alluded to, but not really taken up. Text and a photo reference Hull House, but I could only find a single example of its craft production on display. Instead of looking more deeply into these lesser-known subjects—which have a very strong philosophical connection with the roots of the movement in Britain—, we get another load of Wright furniture and Sullivan ornament which is, you know, fine and all, but we’ve seen these things before. There’s a little (actually, too little) from local craft firms Teco, Gates Potteries and the Kalo Shop; their pottery and silver are both Chicago-specific and Arts and Crafts-inspired. More of this—which would have emphasized the role of Chicago like the exhibition title suggests—and fewer pieces of crummy Mackintosh furniture—allegedly part of the proof of the international quality of the movement, which again seems off-point—would have been very welcome. A few local goods that are rarely seen, and maybe for good reason, includes some incredibly clunky pieces by George Maher, and an orange velvet curtain with a thorn design that is really pretty great—but, it hung in a house that Maher designed for some very wealthy folks in Evanston: not exactly an example of the reformist story that is suggested (but not illustrated very well) on the other side of the room.

By the time I was at the end of the room and ready to exit—nearly blinded by one more far-too-brightly-lit stained glass by you-know-who (which reminds me: honestly, do we need another exhibition poster featuring another Wright window?)—I had the same feeling as I do when I am grading an essay by a student with a really good thesis, but who feels compelled to include every scrap of research he’s completed. That is understandable for a college student learning to self-edit; it’s not OK for the curatorial team for a big fat exhibition.

Lastly, my disappointment bordered on distraction by a final bit of wall text featuring a quotation by Hermann Muthesius (from his publication The English House—although the exhibition doesn’t tell us that), who, it turns out, is the source of the reference to “apostles” in the exhibition title. In 1901 he wrote of the Arts and Crafts:

Once the movement had gathered momentum, another way out emerged: the way of modern art. The essential means towards it had been the ethical values practiced by those apostles on the basis of medieval art, the sincerity, faithfulness, and pleasure taken by the workmen in their work, in general: the good workmanship, genuine materials and sound construction, in particular. The medieval forms that the apostles had advocated as indispensable concomitants of these values disappeared at last and out of the ashes rose the phoenix of modern art.

Muthesius is a provocative and significant choice to physically cap off the exhibition space that was opened with Pugin, the most medieval of the “apostles.” The means by which Pugin’s moralizing design theory eventually was hammered and bent into the ideas which spawned the Modernist movement of the 1920s is a fascinating road: you can draw a line (maybe not a straight one, but a line nonetheless) from the Red House to the Bauhaus. But that little intellectual thrill is only available if (1) you have read a whole bunch of books about this period and (2) if you go looking really hard for some sort of (intellectual) saving grace in this show.  But more importantly, interesting as the Pugin-Muthesius connection is, it too is off-message.

Because of the curators’ inconsistent treatment of their subject and scattered design of the galleries they don’t really accomplish the aim of making the exhibit more about Arts and Crafts philosophy than turn-of-the-century style; nor does it follow through on the promise of celebrating its host city.  In spite of the exhibition’s uneven quality and shifting points of view, it does accomplish the task of bringing together a variety of aesthetically delightful objects, from chairs to jewelry and from books to textiles.   The ultimate message of the “apostles” may be obscured in its translation from mid-nineteenth-century Britain to twenty-first-century Chicago, but the beauty of the objects transcends even a clunky exhibition.

crop voysey purple bird 1899

"Purple bird" (C. F. A. Voysey, 1899)

“Apostles of Beauty: Arts and Crafts from Britain to Chicago”runs from November 7, 2009 to January 31, 2010