Bauhaus STEAMpunks and a Crisis-Based Humanities

Justus Nieland looks at two recent books on László Moholy-Nagy and György Kepes.

Bauhaus STEAMpunks and a Crisis-Based Humanities

Gyorgy Kepes: Undreaming the Bauhaus by John R. Blakinger. The MIT Press. 504 pages.

László Moholy-Nagy: Painting after Photography by Joyce Tsai. University of California Press. 248 pages.

IN THE THICK of World War II, scrambling again to keep the lights on at his chronically underfunded School of Design in Chicago, Bauhaus master László Moholy-Nagy shot a series of 16mm Kodachrome films documenting the school’s wartime activities. Known today as Design Workshops (1944), the films traveled with Moholy, artist-cum-administrator, as he pitched the school to potential investors. “Since we can’t afford to advertise,” he quipped to his wife Sibyl, “I have to be the advertisement.” The films surveyed the range of the students’ experimental work across media: textiles, drawing, painting, and furniture design; photograms and kinetic assemblages; and various DIY exercises in sculpting with light, using what Moholy called “light modulators.” Design Workshops offered a primer in the interdisciplinary sensory training Moholy dubbed “the new education” in his midcentury treatise Vision in Motion, written largely in 1944 and published posthumously in 1947.

“[N]o democracy can exist,” Moholy explained, “without the most careful education of its citizens.” For him, this urgent pedagogical agenda was imperiled by specialization, the corporate mass media, and the saturation of market values that threatened to swap homo politicus with homo oeconomicus. Narrow vocational training stunted humanity’s innate biological capacities for creativity. Liberal education, a corrective to specialization, was too technophobic — precisely when students’ needed multimedia training to restore their sensory potential. Like Vision in Motion, Design Workshops expressed a midcentury arts and humanities mission in crisis.

As ad campaigns for Moholy’s program, the films articulate the lofty pedagogical ideals transplanted from Moholy’s tenure at the Bauhaus (1923–’28), strategically transformed to meet the needs of his new, exilic nation at war, and they prototype postwar applications of novel synthetic materials (plywood, plastic) in the process. In one sequence, for example, the Hungarian artist and designer György Kepes, head of the school’s “Light and Color Workshop,” wraps a fashion model in thin silver wire, as colored gels bathe her in hues of blue and red. Kepes’s shoot frames the model next to another vanguard product — a plywood chair. Its bright red removable upholstery, we learn, is woven in part by Saran, a new substance engineered by Dow Chemical. A slick bit of product placement, the sequence also promotes a vision of the humanities that insists on its usefulness for industry — on its imperative to train students’ capacities in various media or what Moholy would extol as their integrated “senses, hand, and brain.”


A startling later scene surveys the work of School’s new “Principles of Camouflage” course taught by Kepes in 1942 under the auspices of the Office of Civilian Defense. The sequence immediately follows another dedicated to kinetic assemblages, and Moholy’s own Papmac (1943), a Plexiglas painting. Moholy’s editing underscores the compatibility between the school’s formalist experimentation with light, color, and new materials and the highly functional illusion taught in the camouflage courses.

In close-up, a hand holding a red crayon traces a pattern in translucent paper above a reconnaissance photo to mask it from bombardment. The now-mobilized hands trained to conceal potential aerial targets during war are the same ones equipped to build the novel stuff of the postwar good life. Such flexible, interdisciplinary training at the School of Design, Moholy explained in Vision in Motion, aimed to produce a “new kind of specialist” capable of “seeing, feeling, and thinking in relationship and not as a series of isolated phenomena.”


Kepes, for his part, described camouflage as an ideal site of interdisciplinary activity and collaboration, requiring “the combined knowledge of people with a great variety of training — architects, engineers, painters, sculptors, graphic artists.”

The wartime operations of the School of Design — and their relevance for understanding two key figures of the Bauhaus diaspora — are taken up in two excellent recent studies of Moholy and his protégé and collaborator Kepes, Joyce Tsai’s László Moholy-Nagy: Painting after Photography and John R. Blakinger’s Gyorgy Kepes: Undreaming the Bauhaus. These books coincide with centennial celebrations of the Bauhaus around the globe, and follow a blockbuster retrospective of Moholy, Future Present, the artist’s first in the United States in 50 years, and a new documentary feature on the School of Design, The New Bauhaus, which premiered at the Chicago International Film Festival last fall.

Scholarship on the Bauhaus’s American incarnations has noted how the idealistic core of founder Walter Gropius’s vision — a transdisciplinary union of art and technology in the collective activity of building (bau) — was pragmatically institutionalized in the United States following the German school’s shuttering by the Nazis in 1933. By “institutionalization,” scholars have often meant aesthetic and political cooptation or betrayal, with Moholy’s Chicago period (1937–1946) framed as Research and Development for postwar corporate America, and Kepes’s tenure at MIT (1946–1974) cast as a tale of military-industrial complicity. According to this reading, Moholy and Kepes’s once-radical “new vision” is incapacitated by the postwar liberal consensus, and ensnared in the militarization of the US research university and the Cold War’s “organizational complex.” In this vein, Tsai concludes with Moholy’s Chicago program, and “the myriad ways in which artistic, philosophical, and pedagogical enterprises were compromised; tools, strategies, and technologies deployed as instruments antithetical to the utopian spirit in which they were once invented.” Blakinger’s story begins where Tsai’s ends, exploring Kepes’s “camouflage aesthetics” as a wartime interdiscipline and a metaphor for the tactical concealment of the designer’s formerly radical politics in the Cold War, when the artist was reborn as a technocrat.

These books return us to the question of the midcentury fate of the Bauhaus’s utopian ideals, but they also recover in the Bauhauslers’ work a timely species of vanguard, technophilic humanism. Pragmatic upon arrival in the United States, because forged in interwar economic and political upheaval, crisis was its medium. Long before anxious arts and humanities programs, pressed to “make the case” for their own relevance, pitched a curricular move from STEM (science, technology, mathematics, engineering) to STEAM by integrating the arts, these designers explored an interdisciplinary pedagogy that sought to unite technological sophistication with humane values, and mulitimedia experimentation with the expression of foundational human capacities.

As Blakinger shows, this humanism became entangled in the growth and transformation of American higher education at midcentury: Kepes moved from Chicago to MIT, an archetypal Cold War university, precisely when that institution, influenced by a postwar vogue for “general education,” sought to install the humanities into the heart of its engineering curriculum. Both designers thought hard about the humanities’ role in the production of “creative” and “flexible” democratic citizens — precisely the kind featured in Design Workshops. And both stumped for humane, interdisciplinary knowledge production — what Kepes called “interfeeling” and “interseeing” — as a means of managing the democratic citizen and the institution in a time of crisis. As Moholy and Kepes remade themselves at midcentury as canny arts administrators, their overlapping media programs and media theory offer a prehistory of our ongoing, crisis-based humanities.


The hands featured in close-ups throughout Design Workshops extend a privileged motif in Moholy’s work and artistic self-fashioning. As Tsai acknowledges, the human hand recurred as a ghostly presence in many of his photograms in the 1920s, signaling Moholy’s allegiance to new, modern ways of making and seeing abetted by the technical media of photography and film. In the aesthetic tradition before World War I, she writes, the painterly hand of the artist left its traces “in sensuous, expressive brushwork.” Traveling in various and overlapping avant-garde networks — Expressionism, Dada, Constructivism — the Moholy of the 1920s, scarred by his experience in World War I, would leave that hand behind, and with it, an entirely outmoded conception of painting within the emulative tradition. In place of painting as sign of artistic autonomy, contemplative subjectivity, or individual genius, Moholy reconceptualized painting as “part of a multimedia arsenal.”


The martial metaphor is apt. Tsai underscores the decisive influence of Moholy’s wartime experience as an artillery reconnaissance officer in the Austro-Hungarian military. He enlisted in 1915 and served until his thumb was shattered by a bullet in 1917. The aesthetic of machinic exactitude and transparency in his famous Constructions in Enamel paintings — the primary subject of Tsai’s excellent second chapter — was shaped not just by Constructivist idioms but effective recon’s premium on “transmissible numerical and cartographical data.” War, Moholy realized, was a training ground for modern, technologically enhanced forms of perception. It demanded prosthetically enhanced vision with optical tools (aerial photography, field glasses, binoculars, periscopes, clinometers), as well as telegraphy and telephony. Survival in battle required workers and soldiers to “internalize new habits of seeing and being that allowed them to perform under a constant state of duress.”

By grounding Moholy’s later celebration of a technologically mediated “New Vision” in war, Tsai excavates the humanism underpinning the artist’s media theory and pedagogy. In his early essay “Production-Reproduction” (1922), Moholy clarified that freeing art from mimesis across a range of media of technological reproduction required not subjection to the dictates of machines, but rather “the presence and activity of the human hand.” This “experimental interjection of human agency” was practiced in cameraless photographs, or by making music through precise incisions into photographic discs. Like his contemporary (and admirer) Walter Benjamin, who called for a revolutionary collective that “has its organs in the new technology,” Moholy aspired to cultivate what Tsai calls “relationships between man and technology that would contribute to the development of the whole, biological human being.” His theory of media, Tsai argues, begins “with the assumption that technologies have no inherent value.” Their ends are contingent, capable of radical redefinition.

Inspired by trends in German experimental psychology, the “kinaesthetic” epistemology underlying Moholy’s teaching at the Bauhaus posed a challenge to educational models that enshrined inwardness and self-cultivation as self-discipline. Moholy’s students were impressionable, subject to external sensation and elementary experiences. His classroom was a lab requiring the development (Ausbildung) of the human sensorium through technological training and media experimentation. As Tsai notes, this notion of human development exists in tension in Moholy’s work. It connotes both a traditional project of Bildung, the aesthetic education of man, and a more radical, scientific understanding of the development of organs in response to stimuli that Moholy gleaned from contemporary “biocentric” discourses and psychotechnics, an emerging science of worker attention. The former depends on “the survival and cultivation of the expressive humanist subject”; the latter — perhaps most apparent in Moholy’s 1925 treatise Painting, Photography, Film — on “its elimination in favor of a picture of human being as improvable biological entity.”

Tsai works chronologically through case studies that variously illuminate the changing terms of Moholy’s utopian humanism and its abiding relationship to technology and pedagogical technique. Her fine discussion of Constructions in Enamel, first exhibited in 1924 at Berlin’s Sturm Gallery shortly after Moholy began teaching at the Weimar Bauhaus, clarifies the economic terms of those paintings’ “productive potential.” Here, Tsai places Moholy’s painterly technique in dialogue with the urgent financial realities of the school that shaped its curriculum. Gropius hired Moholy because of his Constructivist bona fides — an “economization of form” clearly on display in this series of paintings, manufactured by machine at a Weimar enamel factory. The technique dovetailed with Gropius’s own desire to shift the school from a craft (Handwerk) emphasis to an embrace of modern technology. This meant reforming the workshop system and bringing it into a productive relationship with industry in a way that Moholy would later be asked to duplicate in Chicago.

In the 1920s, Moholy’s contemporaneous practice of varnishing paintings to mimic the look of polished plastic, by effacing the hand, echoed the ethos of industrial production at the school. Declining state support led the school to actively pursue private partnerships, and eventually precipitated the Bauhaus’s relocation to Dessau in 1925, where Gropius anticipated better relations with industrial firms. In the context of hyperinflation in Germany and an unfavorable political climate, Gropius proclaimed that the “Bauhaus is not just a school, but rather, a productive apparatus,” and insisted that the workshops generate revenue streams.

Moholy designed a catalog promoting the modernity of the school’s workshops in 1923, relegating the fine arts (“free art”) to the book’s final section. He also demanded that every workshop answer the question of its “contemporary relevance,” and voiced his belief that the painting and sculpture workshops were preoccupied with “matters on their way to extinction.” Ultimately, those partnerships with industry failed to materialize until the late 1920s, and the school’s limited capacity for serial production condemned the workshops’ productivity to the cottage production of luxury goods — the dream of egalitarian design betrayed by a “bespoke modernism.”

In other words, when Moholy resigned from the Bauhaus in 1928, he was no stranger to a crisis-based humanities curriculum, which, under the conditions of capitalism, demanded it justify itself and prove its relevance. “All education systems,” he would later write, “are the results of an economic structure.” By 1929, with the publication of From Material to Architecture, Moholy began to express a new investment in industrial materials based on “the specificity of effects generated” and “not in the design of a feasible future product.” Tsai argues that Moholy’s commitment to materiality as a field of autonomous experimentation with special pedagogical uses pushed him to abandon painting for a time, and to continue his pedagogical legacy in the 1930s through other media: book publications, photography exhibitions, set design, and experimentation with light itself as a medium. Tsai casts Moholy’s most famous kinetic light machine, Light Prop for an Electric Stage, as “the culmination of a decade’s work in harnessing technology” to restore to wholeness a humanitas stunted by modernity’s fragmentation of the senses. And she convincingly reads the work — and Moholy’s changing relationship to it — as a sign of his growing ambivalence toward technology in the 1930s.

When Moholy returned to painting in 1930, he often attempted to reproduce in the medium quasi-kinetic effects inspired by Light Prop, but with “minimal material and technical requirements.” Light Prop, Tsai reminds us, was a notoriously glitchy, often inoperable machine, and a conservator’s nightmare, prone to breakdown. What’s more, with the rise of National Socialism, Moholy’s dream of the revolutionary transformation of the masses “by using the correct technology to produce the proper stimulus” was perverted in various forms of fascist techno-spectacle. All the more reason to rethink the scale of his technological ambitions.

For example, when, in 1936, Moholy selected his painting Z VII as a representative work in the Czech avant-garde journal Telehor, a work reproduced in color on the journal’s cover, he explained his return to painting as the realization of the constraints placed by industrial capitalism on “sovereign access to the means” of artistic production. Tsai brilliantly reads Telehor as an intermedial space. In its spiral-bound pages (novel at the time), a painting like Z VII “advances color photography and its photomechanical reproduction,” imitating not just Light Prop’s kineticism, what Moholy called painting’s capacity for “spatial kinetics,” but also its obdurate materiality. As a damaged, torn work, repaired by Moholy, Z VII announces the return of the human hand, and the “laboriousness of manual work at every turn.”

Tsai observes a similar return to painting as a way of “pioneering technological media” in Moholy’s Space Modulators, now through painting on plastic (Rhodoid and Plexiglas). Moholy would make thermoplastic vulnerable to manual shaping by heating it at home, in his kitchen’s oven, an act that Tsai reads as a sign of Moholy’s newly domesticated technological ambitions. Terms like “domestication” and “modulation,” Tsai productively suggests, speak to the rescaling of Moholy’s revolutionary aims in the United States. To modulate is not to create from a tabula rasa, but to “change the properties of something that already exists.” No longer waiting for capitalism to change, Moholy poached the time and experimental materials of his patrons: “[I]n these works, he could reign sovereign over domains where capitalism, or for that matter, fascism, saw no use.”


Tsai asks us to understand Moholy’s Chicago period as refracted through the experience of exile, and a sense of the “precariousness of that existence.” Moholy’s Vision in Motion, written during the artist’s treatment for leukemia, offers the best, late articulation of this damaged and humane pragmatism — what Moholy called the transformation of “Utopia into action.” Marked by a “trust in technocratic expertise,” as Tsai calls it, reflecting the wartime prestige of planning, Moholy lays out a brief for a kind of radical, postwar institutionalism, assigning “an importance, even a responsibility, to institutions for coordinating the work of experts in a variety of domains.” Vision in Motion begins and ends with a call for a “parliament of social design,” an “international cultural working assembly” made up of “outstanding scientists, sociologists, artists, writers, musicians, technicians” who, by exchanging knowledge, restore the “basic unity of all human experiences.”

In effect, Moholy proposes upscaling to the level of national and global knowledge work the kind of integrative, humanistic group activity taught at the School of Design, on display in Design Workshops, and promoted in Moholy’s pedagogical theory. What Moholy hails in Vision in Motion as vanguard, democratic education is an incipient technique of postwar well-being: “[A] new methodology for approaching problems; a social mechanism of production and creative education.”

It was György Kepes, Moholy’s collaborator at the School of Design, who eventually realized Moholy’s interdisciplinary vision in “undreaming the Bauhaus” and actualizing its ideals. Blakinger’s groundbreaking study frames Kepes’s career as a protracted agon with the power of postwar institutions, especially MIT, as its research mission became entangled with the military-industrial complex. Marshall McLuhan, Blakinger suggests, likely had Kepes in mind when he observed, in Understanding Media, that the postwar artist “tends now to move from the ivory tower to the control tower,” serving to manage the rapid growth of techno-scientific change.

Kepes’s tenure at MIT (1946–’74) coincided with what recent scholarship has described as design’s expanded sphere of influence in the postwar period. The profession’s purview widened from the making of things to the production of postwar citizens. Having proved themselves capable problem-solvers during the war, designers like Kepes and his friends Charles and Ray Eames, increasingly participated in the training of future knowledge workers for life in a postindustrial society defined by information abundance. Midcentury designers placed faith in the power of communication between and across tidy disciplinary boundaries as a salve for information overload, the threat of technoscience, and the fragmentation of knowledge.

For Blakinger, Kepes’s career at MIT reflects a sustained commitment to “a utopianism based on the promise of communication” between disciplines. This interdisciplinary practice across science and the arts matured in the 1950s and ’60s through Kepes’s exposure to the transdisciplinary idioms of systems theory, cybernetics, and information theory. But it began in earnest with Kepes’s wartime “camouflage aesthetics” at the School of Design. After Pearl Harbor, Kepes’s quest for a holistic language of vision was instrumentalized through his “Principles of Camouflage” courses, which sought to translate “the methods and methodologies for making art” with “the strategies and tactics for making war.” Trained at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, in the summer of 1942, Kepes was one of 73 civilian instructors who, after graduating, returned to their home institutions to help the government establish a network of “Regional Camouflage Schools.”


At the School of Design, Kepes’s camouflage course was a hit. It helped Moholy solve an enrollment problem, and he leveraged its success in grant applications as he tirelessly sought additional funds from potential benefactors. An object lesson in a mobilized humanities and morale-building interdisciplinarity, Kepes’s camouflage pedagogy also allows Blakinger to assess Kepes’s own survival strategy — the strategic concealment of his leftist political commitments. (Like Moholy, Gropius, and other leftist Bauhauslers, Kepes was a person of interest for the FBI.) Blakinger’s archival digging reveals that Kepes was considerably more ambivalent about this pedagogical opportunism than Moholy, which led to their falling out, and Kepes’s departure from the school. In fact, Kepes later explained that he thought the camouflage course “had no justification […] nor was it appropriate to have such a course in the context of the declared and believed goals of the school.”

Throughout, Blakinger challenges Kepes’s reputation as a kind of Moholy manqué, a “tragic epigone of the master.” Kepes’s career teaching the new interdiscipline of what he termed “visual design” at MIT was defined by a similarly ambivalent position vis-à-vis postwar technocracy in the United States. As Blakinger sees it, Kepes was neither entirely complicit with, nor fully co-opted by the ideology of the institution that employed him — and gave him access to vast technical resources. Rather, he worked as a “subtle operator” within MIT’s network of experts, many of whom were involved in weapons and defense research.

Inspired in part by Moholy’s call in Vision in Motion for a “parliament of social design,” Kepes announced in 1965, in the interdisciplinary journal Daedalus, his own scheme for a working community of young artists and designers “located in an academic institution with a strong scientific tradition.” This was realized with the launching of MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS) in 1967 — a kind of think-tank to foster collaborations between artists-in-residence and MIT scientists, labs, and technologies. “Art,” Kepes insisted, is “not merely a humanistic ornament to the education of scientists and engineers. It has its own frontier of discovery.” With CAVS, Kepes aimed less to create art works, necessarily, than to explore a what Blakinger calls a “poetics of interdisciplinary” based in new idioms of collaboration and communication.

As Blakinger shows, Kepes began to forge this poetics of knowledge at MIT first with his landmark 1951 exhibition The New Landscape, later reframed as a boundary-crossing book of “visual design” The New Landscape in Art and Science (1956); and then in his ambitious Vision + Value book series (1965–’72), a feat of encyclopedic knowledge production that grew from a series of interdisciplinary seminars and collaborations Kepes hosted at MIT. Blakinger’s account of these projects as feats of vanguard, Cold War knowledge work is meticulous, compelling, and often surprising. Against a standard reading of Kepes’s New Landscape — made up mostly of technical images produced in MIT research labs — as a way of lending a humanistic veneer to MIT’s visual culture, naturalizing the military-industrial complex, Blakinger explores the “subtly subversive ways” Kepes transvalued technoscientific images. Kepes’s pedagogy of visual design involved the curation and assembly of images in unusual constellations. He invited his readers’ eye to make creative connections across heterogeneous fields, and to engage in a dialectical, subjective act of pattern seeing that, at times, bordered on the irrational.

Ministering to the “crisis in communication” between fields and disciplines, the Vision + Value series turned knowledge itself into an aesthetic object. Assembling far-flung contributors across the arts and sciences, Kepes’s curation also cannily transferred legitimacy between fields. While his anthologies opportunistically turned cover design into a graphic art of name-checking, they also aspired to be a “true universitas.” The book series modeled the kind of reparative, centripetal systems-thinking Kepes hoped would hold together a world that felt “as if it was falling apart, spinning too fast, expanding every outward.”

The stunning layout and lavish illustrations of Blakinger’s lovely book are designed to facilitate precisely those acts of readerly imagination and visual creativity that Kepes wished for in his own experiments with the book as medium. In one especially eye-popping chapter, Blakinger both describes and partially reconstructs Kepes’s unfinished Light Book, a sweeping historical study of light as a creative medium with an ever-expanding scale. For Kepes, the project was an allegorical reckoning with the Janus-faced power of light as an index of technoscientific destruction and humane, romantic, therapeutic value. Resurrecting this unrealized project on the page, and doing visual thinking, Undreaming the Bauhaus is a self-reflexive work of visual design — both a thing of beauty and a smart performance of visual technique.

Like Moholy, Kepes understood technology expansively, not simply as material apparatus, but as human technique, or what Daniel Bell called “intellectual technology” in his contemporaneous study The Reforming of General Education (1966). As Blakinger notes, Bell used the term to refer to methods employed in military R-and-D: game theory, simulation, cybernetics, operations research. And he positions Kepes’s interdisciplinary poetics at CAVS as a kind of anxious double for the scientific idioms practiced in the two MIT labs most directly implicated in defense and weapons research during the Vietnam War: the Instrumentation Lab and the Lincoln Lab, both of whose personnel Kepes collaborated with on various projects.

On March 4, 1969, MIT student and faculty protestors held a campus-wide research stoppage to protest the institution’s involvement in Vietnam. “War is interdisciplinarity,” the neighboring historian Howard Zinn quipped. He didn’t need to remind Kepes (or Moholy). The protests, which led MIT’s president to charge a special panel to investigate the problem of military research on campus, directly implicated CAVS, and Kepes himself, when he appeared on a controversial panel titled “The Human Purpose,” exploring how MIT and its alums “served humanity through science and technology.”


The same year, Kepes attempted to organize the US section for the 10th São Paulo Biennial, only to scrap the exhibition after a number of the participating artists (most famously, Robert Smithson) withdrew in protest of the repressive policies of Brazil’s military dictatorship, later revealed to be covertly supported by the Johnson administration in a bid to contain the spread of communism in Latin America. By the fall of 1969, Kepes and CAVS artists like Otto Piene and Ted Kraynick were targeted by a Situationist-affiliated, Boston-based student activist group as “the advanced guard of the cybernetic welfare state.” They named names: “And to you, Gyorgy Kepes, whose dream it was to gather this scum, fuck you.”

In these moments of crisis, as his interdisciplinary mission was attacked as inescapably complicit with the institutional power of the warfare state, Kepes kept faith in communication, for him, the only response to dissensus and political contestation. Sympathetic to this optimism, Blakinger bucks a scholarly tendency to read the work of Kepes and CAVS as a sign of the arts and humanities’ compensatory role within an institution driven by sponsored, technoscientific R-and-D.

In fact, Kepes heard these critiques directly from his colleagues. Inaugural CAVS fellow Jack Burnham, whose book Beyond Modern Sculpture (1968) had helped recuperate Moholy’s reputation for a younger generation of artists, collaborated with Kepes on various unrealized proposals for a civic-scale, “environmental art” inspired by ecological principles of homeostatic self-regulation and a vogue for “responsive environments.” For Burnham, Kepes’s proposals for a technologized “environmental art” — his plan for a massive light tower in the center of Boston Harbor, for example — were hopelessly impractical. He began to suspect that the Center’s real job, finally, was producing “lavishly illustrated catalogues and anthologies that would impress foundations.” In 2004, he would dismiss Kepes’s “naïve fetishism” as part of a “Bauhaus romanticization of technology.”

One sign of the strength of these two remarkable books is that they make critiques like Burnham’s seem unfair, or, at the very least, insensitive to the web of historical forces, institutional pressures, and power structures within which Moholy and Kepes charted an expansive vision of a humane art practice. Their resilient vision, forged in crisis, should compel our attention today, as the arts and humanities — booming in the postwar, but suffering a steady decline of market share in college degrees since 2005–’06 — brace for a new landscape of higher education in the wake of COVID-19. The pandemic has been branded as a kind of war, and universities have been keen to communicate the various ways their creativity, ingenuity, and “intellectual technology” can be mobilized to meet the challenge of the moment. At my home institution, our library’s “MakerSpace” has ramped up production of plastic face shields; our public broadcasting station features pandemic-related programming; faculty engineers have built DIY ventilator prototypes; and medical school researchers are developing new testing methods.

When the School of Design went to war, Moholy’s and Kepes’s handy students prototyped plywood springs to compensate for metal shortages; they designed parachute clothing, new kinds of barbed wire, and shock-proof helmets. And their teachers offered cutting-edge classes on industrial camouflage and “Visual Propaganda in Wartime.” On the other side of that episode of total mobilization was the zenith of the humanities’ postwar prestige and support in the United States: the GI bill, a period of enormous investment in higher education at both federal and state levels, and with it, an expanded middle class and the democratization of access to knowledge. Our present crisis is unlikely to yield the same results, since our problem is not the entrenched power of educational institutions, but rather their active dismantling by “powerful constituencies hostile to academic values,” eager to restrict liberal arts education as the “preserve of the elite.” That basically anti-democratic animus, the Bauhauslers knew well. It has a long history, and it compromises the agency of those seeking to rebuild and transform our institutions from within.


Justus Nieland is professor and chair of the Department of English at Michigan State University, and teaches in the Film Studies Program. He is the author of Happiness by Design: Modernism and Media in the Eames Era (University of Minnesota Press, 2020).

LARB Contributor

Justus Nieland is professor and chair of the Department of English at Michigan State University, and teaches in the Film Studies Program. He is the author of Happiness by Design: Modernism and Media in the Eames Era (University of Minnesota Press, 2020), and is currently working on a new project about modern design, packaging, and industrial film.


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