1913: Adolf Loos publishes his manifesto ‘Ornament and Crime’, decrying the obvious display of labour through ornamentation as primitive and degenerate, and proposing instead the use of stripped-down, unadorned surfaces in architecture and design.
1967: In his essay ‘Art and Objecthood’ Michael Fried attacks the perceived theatricality and literalness of the emerging minimalist art movement, instead praising art that presents a single, instantaneous, timeless experience to the viewer, arguing that “presentness is grace”.
2016: Yann Novak releases “Ornamentation”, with which he critiques Loos’ aversion to race- and class-related traditions of labour and adornment through a labour-intensive, highly crafted approach to making ambient experimental music using poor-quality or technically challenging field recordings.
Novak’s critique isn’t immediately obvious when listening to “Ornamentation”, mostly because the sounds themselves don’t betray any obvious manifestation of the substantial work and effort that went into creating the music. Processed field recordings are used alongside electronic chords to produce textures that vary from the heavy ephemerality of a cloud of fog rolling down a valley to the mechanical rumbling and clank of a goods train. At times, regular pulses or chord oscillations provide a strong sense of movement, while echoing clatters, clangs, and scrapes serve to situate the sounds in an urban or industrial context. Novak’s skill in balancing broad, immersive sound spectra with dynamic energy and temporal unfolding makes for an intense experience well removed from that of stereotypical ambient wallpaper. Yet the reversal of Loos’ rejection of working-class and racially-diverse traditions of ornamentation is far from clear.
But take a few steps forward through the history of modernist art criticism, from Loos through Afred H. Barr and Clement Greenberg to Michael Fried, and perhaps things start to become a little clearer. By 1967, when Fried was busy defending modern art from the minimalist sculpture of Donald Judd, Robert Morris, and others, modernism had moved on from promoting the morally beneficial effects of certain types of surface finish to promoting the morally beneficial effects of a certain subjective experience of art. The kind of experience offered by truly great art, Fried argued, is one akin to a revelation: “a single infinitely brief instant,” he claimed, “would be long enough to see everything, to experience the work in all its depth and fullness, to be forever convinced by it”. This is contrasted with the time required to consider a minimalist sculpture such as Judd’s ‘Untitled 1966’, which can’t be seen all at once, but only from different incomplete perspectives. In Fried’s version of modernism, instantaneity replaces Loos’ “smooth and precious surfaces” as the mark of eternal truth and value.
Novak’s work is not averse to a bit of absorbing presentness and ‘nowness’, in the sense that a piece of his music can be experienced as a single intense moment. Yet what his music resists is the claim that any such moment could offer a complete and fixed manifestation of a given thought or idea. Novak’s music is always unstable, constantly in flux, shifting from one harmonic and textural state to another, “simultaneously approaching and receding” (as Fried wrote disparagingly of theatre); it is contingent and indefinite and durational in ways that make it subtly different every time you hear it, a property that would likely horrify both Fried and Loos.
What the two modernist critics were aiming for, despite their different foci, was an art that is free from the social and historical context of its production and use, transcending the changes wrought by people and their divergent worldly traditions, habits, viewpoints, and relationships. It is this ideal that Novak’s music steadfastly refutes in its embrace of multiplicity and flux. Nowhere is this refutation as clearly and as cogently expressed as on “Ornamentation”, where low-fidelity rumble and hiss connect the music palpably to a constantly changing world, and the oscillating chords, subtle pulses, and irregular incidental noises splinter the apparent unity of the moment into a thousand shards of potential.