RBE I Workshop: Robert Leonard, "Karl Menger's Modernism: Aesthetics, Politics and Social Science"

A Historical Perspective

Collegio Carlo Alberto, Moncalieri (Torino, Italy)
April 16, 2010

Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM)

Karl Menger’s Modernism: Aesthetics, Politics and Social Science


From the beginning of my reading and archival work on Menger, both at the Illinois Institute of Technology and at Duke, I noticed his frequent references to the sphere of art and aesthetics. While this is something that is discussed only occasionally in the correspondence I have examined thus far, much of which is taken up with detailed mathematical matters, it does feature in his posthumously published Reminiscences (1994), in both their archival draft- and published versions.  At some points in his publications too, aesthetic considerations are important.  Finally, the visual arts occupied a significant place in Menger’s life.  All of this, taken together, seemed to point towards something of greater than incidental importance, worthy of closer examination.[1]

Menger was actively interested in modern art of various kinds and, if one is to judge by various obiter dicta, he was also self-consciously Modern – aware of the novelty and perhaps even slightly scandalous nature of his artistic tastes.  In the mid-1920’s, when he was in his early 20’s, he developed an interest for the work of certain graphic artists of the period, including those by the Duch avant-garde.  In the period 1925-27, not only did Menger live in The Netherlands, he spent the first year or so in Laren, an artists’ colony outside Amsterdam, where his then-mentor Ludwig Brouwer lived.  During that time, he travelled to Paris to see Piet Mondrian’s studio, and at some point he acquired for his own Vienna apartment modern furniture in the style of that made by De Stijl.  In Vienna, he discussed art with Clara Wittgenstein, the philosopher’s aunt, and he visited, and admired, the Stonborough House, which Ludwig had designed for his sister Margarethe.  He spent the academic year 1930-31 in the U.S., first at Harvard, then at the Rice Institute in Texas.  In Cambridge, Massachussetts, he engaged both Harvard’s George Birkhoff and MIT’s Norbert Wiener in discussions of aesthetics, a subject on which the former was actively working at the time.  Travelling across the U.S., Menger was greatly taken by the Native art of the American Southwest. 

Not only was Menger interested in art, but he drew connections between mathematical and artistic creativity.  It would not be an exaggeration to say that he saw mathematics as an art form, albeit one that had its rules and often showed itself to be relevant to science.  In Vienna in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, when defending complete freedom in the pursuit of abstract mathematics in the context of the foundational debates, he invoked the very Modern defence of  “Art for Art’s Sake”.  When he opposed Otto Neurath’s campaign for Unified Science, it was not because of any belief in a distinction between the natural and social sciences (regardless of what Menger Sr. may have written), but because he believed that trying to view mathematics as a sharply-defined “science” was to ignore the artistic nature of mathematical and scientific creativity. 

When Menger moved to the U.S., he soon left the University of Notre Dame for the Illinois Institute of Technology, whose campus was then being built by Mies van der Rohe, and the architecture of which Menger likened to the work of Mondrian.  In 1943, with encouragement from Walter Gropius, Menger’s wife Hilda developed a children’s game in architectural blocks, designed as an aid in cultural and political education.  In 1952, at the Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, Menger organised a geometry exhibition, another “aesthetic space”, not unreminiscent of Mondrian’s studio, designed in this case to present the wonders of geometry to a broader audience.

This essay is a tentative and preliminary attempt to explore Menger from an aesthetical point of view, to examine him from the perspective of the psychology of style. In a series of interconnected vignettes, we consider his engagement with the realm of artistic creation, looking at the places he lived, the things with which he surrounded himself, with a view to understanding how his imagination worked.  We see the resonance between the geometrical structures he explored as a mathematician, some of which could be seen by the eye, and the structures he admired in Modern art.  We see in Menger a concern for simplicity, clarity and sharp definition, aesthetic qualities that, for him, had political ramifications.  We consider the abstract theoretical structures he construed in his 1934 book in sociology, and probe the psychological, aesthetic and political dimensions of that work.

[1] It is interesting to observe how ideas evolve.  In one or two unpublished papers in the mid-1990’s, I began groping towards an understanding of the place of art in the economics and social science of interwar Vienna.  However, in the published work that eventually grew out of that (with the exception of a paper on Neurath), the artistic dimension essentially disappeared, focused, as it was, on developments in economics and game theory.  In the latter stages of my work on that, however, particularly through my explorations of von Neumann, I found myself once again confronted with questions of aesthetics and style.  This time, it was style in mathematics and the manner in which it assumed political importance in Germany in the 1930’s.  In short, I learned to see von Neumann’s game theory not merely as something stimulated by the politics of the late 1930’s but as the reassertion of a “Modern”, Hilbertian style in the face of such political chaos, an idea I now see to be quite congruent with Jeremy Gray’s new broad portrayal of mathematical Modernism.  All of this has given me fresh impetus to return to exploring the social sciences in relation to the various expressions of Modernism in the first half of the 20th century.    

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