Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Back to furniture

“To Generalize is to be an Idiot. To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit.”

Blake was protesting against the culture of the eighteenth century in which all particularities were referenced to and judged against general standards of good taste, correctness and politeness (a quality then seen as much an essential component of art as of social behaviour).

Originality was thought as likely to be absurd as enlightening, and so slightly valued that Joshua Reynolds, whose Discourses Blake was annotating, could observe, "invention, strictly speaking, is little more than a new combination of those images which have been previously gathered and deposited in the memory."

T S Eliot remarked that so positive was the culture of that age that it crushed a number of smaller men who thought differently but could not bear to face the fact.

With Blake it was his own perception and vision that was positive and not to be crushed and his apprehension of the particular was not to be referenced to the general.

In our own times, we seem not to know whether we wish to particularise or generalise, and to have lost our confidence in both. We cherish the particular but have lost the sense of accumulated experience into which it might be placed. We are surrounded by a plethora of cultural signs so clamorous that they have driven out meaning. The world and its history has become a cultural and natural supermarket which we loot for our individual satisfaction.

So furniture designer-makers have recently been berating themselves for how infrequently they indulge in any critical commentary on furniture, but the response is thin, and focussed on assessment of this or that designer’s whole body of work rather than on the examination of individual pieces of furniture. Such comment puts us in the realm of claim and counter claim, some doubtless more intelligent or discriminating than others but none able to validate itself, as individual criticism could do.

The debate is more political (in a cultural sense) than critical. We have an unsatisfied need to give shape to our inchoate culture by ranking and sanctioning practitioners rather than artefacts, although usually it is done politely, by quiet selection or exclusion rather than by manifesto or denunciation. Yet, however it is done, the process of creation, whereby individual perception is transmuted into something less limitingly personal is devalued, vulgarised or commercialised.

We have lost confidence in meaning or significance: objects are classed as ‘iconic’, without any sense of what they signify, simply because they are striking and frequently referenced. Furniture is ‘expressive’ without our having any sense of what it expresses. Little did Le Corbusier know what he was about to visit on the poor humble chair when he declared it to be ‘art’. Modern designer-maker furniture sometimes seems more ‘gestural’ than ‘expressive’, typified by the extravagant curve or the enveloping surface texture, offering a route to distinctiveness, sophistication or soul, bypassing the kind of design or cultural awareness necessary to achieve that sense of newness and rightness that dawns quietly on the observer rather than loudly assaulting him.