“It was the compounds that produced the sort of avant-gardism that makes up so much of the history of twentieth-century art. The compounds — whether the Cubists, Fauvists, Futurists, or Secessionists — had a natural tendency to be esoteric, to generate theories and forms that would baffle the bourgeoisie. The most perfect device, they soon discovered, was painting, composing, designing in code. The peculiar genius of the early Cubists, such as Braque and Picasso, was not in creating “new ways of seeing” but in creating visual codes for the esoteric theories of their compound. For example, the Cubist technique of painting a face in cartoon profile, with both eyes on the same side of the nose, illustrated two theories: (1) the theory of flatness, derived from Braque’s notion that a painting was nothing more than a certain arrangement of colors and forms on a flat surface; and (2) the theory of simultaneity, derived from discoveries in the new field of stereoptics indicating that a person sees an object from two angles simultaneously.”
– Tom Wolfe, From Bauhaus To Our House, 1981, pg 14 (1)
The quote above is fairly self-contained, and I’ll probably quote other parts of that book at times — it’s a very good book and Wolfe is a very witty writer.
Regarding the quote above, you can’t define things by what they are not. Somewhere a definition has to include information about what the thing is.
Usually a group will come together to work on a certain project or explore a certain concept. And that’s an example of defining something by what it is. We go to karate class to study our karate forms and work on our conditioning. We go to the local board meeting of such-and-such organization to discuss the month’s business and budget. We go to the farm chemical distributor meeting to find out what herbicides are currently available from what dealers and what is the recommended chemical and dose for specific weeds.
But when things fall apart is when a group starts defining itself by what it is not. As Wolfe describes in much of his book, the compound architects became obssessed with making sure that whatever they did, it wasn’t bourgeios. So it all winds up looking like boxes because if all you’re doing is defining yourself by what you’re not, that doesn’t leave a lot of room to figure out what you are.
(1) Tom Wolfe, From Bauhaus To Our House, copyright 1981, ISBN 978-0-312-42914-0, published by Picador Reading Group Guide