Aesthetics and norms, by Philipp Hindahl
Aesthetics and norms
Philipp Hindahl, Nov. 2020
By means of a typology of everyday things, a hidden narrative of modernity can be traced, using objects that have a place in households, businesses, and industry, up to the present day. Things whose aesthetic value barely comes into view. Their raison d'être is their practicality. Standardized, reliable and of consistent quality, they are emblems of the industrial age, but also bearers of a problematic history.
Carsten Becker condenses the aspects of standardization for his DIN series, in which functional and aesthetic concerns meet. Above all, two systems of standardization converge here: Becker paints objects, standardized by the German Institute for Standardization (DIN), in standard colors for German industry, called RAL, and photographs them. They are illuminated to the maximum, so that the matte paint loses depth and the objects reflect little light; only a gentle shadow gives a hint of their plasticity.
At this point, it is worth looking at the aesthetic aspects of standards and mass-produced objects. For the period immediately after the First World War—from which the DIN and RAL standards originate—was defined by an explosion of avant-garde movements in art, design, and architecture. Even before the First World War, the stage was set for this: with the Russian avant-garde painters, with Adolf Loos's condemnation of ornament in architecture and design, and with the manifesto of the Italian Futurists, published in 1909. Only the mass production of the early 1920s provided the counterpart to the technological utopias of artists and architects.
Le Corbusier was among the defining figures who recognized the aesthetic potential of standardization, which is why he recommended the engineer to architects as a role model: "Inspired by the law of Economy and governed by mathematical calculation, [the Engineer] puts us in accord with universal law. He achieves harmony,"¹ wrote Le Corbusier, who at one point wanted to raze Paris to the ground to build a new, rational city, in his treatise Vers une architecture. He elevated the rationalization of all areas of life to a transcendent task of humanity.
But, despite all the enthusiasm for the technical object, there was still a gap between architects' aesthetic vision and the reality of mass production. Desire and necessity of production had not yet met, because the history of standardization was broad and replete with conflicts of interest. And those who elevated it to an aesthetic principle often threw themselves into the arms of fascism.
In 1909, the Italian writer Filippo Tommaso Marinetti proclaimed in the Manifesto of Futurism: "We will glorify war—the world's only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, (...),"² possibly already suspecting that a little later there would indeed be a war in which many artists, architects, and designers went to the front. This statement might be read as playfully radical, but later Marinetti supported the fascists. Here we can already read in nuce the technical fetishism and militarism of the totalitarian regimes. It almost seems like the aesthetic preparation for the coming conflicts.
The German army’s machine gun in the First World War was the MG 08, introduced in 1908, and seven years later further developed into the MG 08/15. Its parts, however, did not come from a single supplier, but had to be uniformly standardized. The manufacturing required accuracy, down to fractions of a millimeter. Soon after, DIN was created, the standards set by the so-called Standardization Committee of German Industry. In 1917, the standardization committee for tapered pins was founded, and in December of the same year, the first standard for tapered pins was issued. Its name: DIN 1. These pins were also used in the production of that very same machine gun.
This, one might think, was the beginning of the history of standardization for mass industrial production. At first, however, the basis for these standards lacked definition. Therefore, DIN's Materials Committee began to compile regulations from authorities and large companies. Just as the history of the artistic avant-gardes is not straightforward and simple, this history was also not simple and conflict-free.
Among the first DIN standards were paper sizes, which are still in use today, although in the early Weimar Republic, the paper industry protested almost unanimously against this kind of standardization. A little later, the Reich Committee for Delivery Conditions (RAL) was founded, sponsored by the Reich Board of Economics. Matters became complicated, because the two bodies disagreed on responsibilities. This was unfavorable since DIN standards were to be exported to neighboring European countries as a successful model in the mid-1920s. Finally, however, in 1927, RAL and DIN agreed on their respective areas of competence. The history of standardization continued during the period of fascism, and from 1940 standards for the army, navy, and air force were incorporated into the body of standards. Wartime necessities provided additional standardization.
In Becker's pictures, the problematic entanglements at the heart of industrial modernism become legible. For example, the ball knob—DIN 319, a control element for carbines, among other things—is painted in dark yellow, a color developed by the German Wehrmacht as a camouflage against infrared sighting devices. A bottle, its shape called Vichy 2, is shown in reddish brown. This echoes not only the French Vichy regime, which collaborated with the Nazis, but also shows the color in which the freight cars of the German Reichsbahn were painted.
In Becker’s photographs, a strange effect arises: The proportions seem to change, the medium of representation pushes into the foreground and creates an alienation, and the arrangements are reminiscent of abstracted still lives. The objects—bottles, handles, small hand wheels—and the colors are removed from the sphere of use. These small things, with their millimeter-precise dimensions, were introduced in close proximity to the artistic avant-gardes. In his works, Becker allows a version of modernism to crystallize.
Philipp Hindahl is an art historian and author, he is living in Berlin.
¹ Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture. Translated by Frederick Etchells. London: J. Rodker, 1931. Reprint New York: Dover Publications, 1985.
² Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, "Manifesto of Futurism", in: Le Figaro, Paris 1909.