Ornament and Crime, Adolf Loos, 1910
“Ornament and Crime” is Adolf Loos' argument against ornament. He writes, we should be freed of desiring ornament—a debased desire that clouds the already-dull thinking.
Infuriating artists, it suggests they are decadent if not infantile, stuck in a primitive state of mental development. “The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from objects of daily use,” rejecting the idea that lack of ornament implies a self-denial.
For those who ornament their bodies with tattoos, “The modern man who tattoos himself is a criminal or a degenerate. There are prisons where 80 percent of the inmates bear tattoos.
Those who are tattooed but not are not imprisoned are latent criminals or degenerate aristocrats”. Of those who like to dress up, “walk about in red velvet trousers with gold braids like monkeys at a fair.”
He took as one of his examples the tattooing of the "Papuan" and the intense surface decorations of the objects about him—Loos says that, in the eyes of western culture, the Papuan has not evolved to the moral and civilized circumstances of modern man, who, should he tattoo himself, would either be considered a criminal or a degenerate.
He explains that “Erotic excess” drives painters to make their marks on canvas, the way caveman marked walls and vandals graffiti lavatories. Those who look to the past in nostalgia to revive the past, “impede the cultural development of nations and humanity itself,” and are “criminals.”
Loos critique becomes specifically grounded in class; claiming the lower classes need ornament “because they have no other means of expressing their full potential,” whereas aristocrats have legitimate culture—Beethoven’s 9th…. To Loos, the aristocrat’s “individuality is so strong that it can no longer be expressed in terms of clothing. The lack of ornament is a sign of intellectual power.” What this means is that aristocrats have earned the liberty from having to make displays of their power; they’ve achieved a kind of supremacy whereby their natural practice—allegedly “unornamented”—seems like the pure, unfettered way to do things, the expression of intellect being used without distraction.