Steve Jobs, John Lennon & Modernism

Yesterday, as the news of Steve Jobs’s death came, I went to the Apple site and the image of Steve Jobs instantly recalled for me the iconic images of John Lennon. The same kind of glasses, similar slender, sharp noses. Eyes that reveal little as they are looking at us. Look at them. Two sides of the same coin. Mirroring each other: one man linked to the avant-garde, experimental, “grungy” side of modernism, Fluxus and happenings; the other representing the unified, monolithic, effectively beautiful side of modernism, that of the International style.

On numerous occasions lately, I have ended up in conversations with Jay Bolter about what he calls popular modernism. We have talked about his ideas about John Lennon as a popular modernist who by happenstance and/or design ended up via Yoko Ono embracing the avant-garde of the 1960s and 1970s. Yoko was part of the Fluxus movement in New York, and John joined her. Their activist and artistic activities are well-documented, for instance in their joint albums, experimentations with music and sounds. The documentary Lennonyc is one glimpse into that NYC Lennon. Jay recently spoke about how Lennon is a popular modernist, that his political activism connected to the avant-garde practices of the Fluxus via Yoko Ono. His fame, of course, propelled the message far beyond the art circles of NY, and therefore it became infinitely more successful and threatening at the same time. Lennon’s important, quirky legacy links to Apple in many ways, not just in the battle between Apple Corps and Apple whose resolution was magnificently announced as Apple launched, and re-launched, The Beatles on iTunes in November 2010. It is all so (too) neatly coming together… Apple as the lens through which we see popular modernism.

Over and over, TV-commentators clamor for attention as they repeat what we all have heard since Apple’s return: the sleek design of its products, Jobs’s unrelenting, committed and ultimately very successful management style and design philosophy. (They also talk about the Americanness of Jobs as a “do-it” man, much to say about that, but not now.)

Jobs is the mirror to Lennon. Steve Jobs and his Apple products represent the architectural/graphic design side of modernism. Jobs has become the figure for the work that others also helped shape, most prominently Jonathan Ive. The shapely long lines of a NYC Guggenheim museum, the holistic and unified view of an international style house: 1; 2, the functionality foregrounded in Le Corbusier’s “une machine est une machine-à-habiter.” Or the gently responsive surface of, yes, an iPad.
In January, Blake Gopnik of The Daily Beast wrote of Apple’s design:
“It is easy to imagine a ThinkPad or a Dell on the assembly line, in a clanking factory that stinks of solder: you can see their every join and part; you can almost smell the plastic they’re made from. Their attempts at decoration only make the industrial cover-up more apparent, like reeds planted near a tailings pond. Whereas the water-carved clamshell of my beautiful Air just seems to have arisen from the waves, immaculate and virtuous, without a whiff of brimstone or fuel oil.”

Gopnik argues that the design is not modernist, but rather something so new it barely exists; that “describing the ‘look’ of the iPad is like describing the look of a sheet of glass. The iPad almost lets you leave the world of objects and jump straight into Web space.” But, that IS modernist design. Principles like “form follows function,” “truth to materials” of modernist architects like Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius can easily be re-aligned to the basic notions of Apple design. In graphic design and typography, the international style emphasized clean and gridded design (think Josef Müller-Brockmann, Max Bill, Jan Tschichold, Helvetica). Le Corbusier again: “You employ stone, wood and concrete, and with these materials you build houses and palaces. That is construction. Ingenuity is at work. But suddenly you touch my heart, you do me good, I am happy and I say: ‘This is beautiful.’ That is Architecture. Art enters in.”
Jobs: “People think it’s this veneer – that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” ( But we all know that it has to work AND feel and look great. If not art, then, aesthetics enters in. (In the 1980s, Jobs himself linked Apple’s view of design for the computer with modernist styles in graphic design and typography when he hired Susan Kare to design user interface graphics and fonts for MacIntosh.)

Certainly, the iPad’s sheet of glass is not just glass; it is combined with immense and – to use Jobs’s word – magical computational powers but the gestures that the glassy surface responds to, the gentle touch it welcomes and the place it takes in the whole family of Apple products – material and virtual – all suggest International Style in popularized form in our time. No industrial assembly-line, but certainly a glorification of the object for what it is and does. “Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China.” It matters.

Lennon and Jobs offer interesting lenses to the mid and late periods of modernism. Popular modernism is modernism’s late period; it is no longer new and shocking, but accepted and popular-ized. In The New York Times John Markoff writes today about Steven P. Jobs: “Apple’s Visionary Redefined Digital Age.” In December 1980 John Leonard wrote, also in The New York Times, that “Lennon Energized High Art with Pop.”

Both miss the mark: Jobs redefines our age, period, and Lennon helped energize popular culture with art.

Categories aesthetics, design, digital media, modernism

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