Read Clement Greenberg’s Modernist Painting in Art in Theory 1900-2000 pps 773-9

 

In your blog make notes referring to the following:

What is Greenberg talking about in general and what are his main arguments?

Who does he mention and what is his opinion of them?

Does he quote others and make reference to their work?

Include notes on your feelings as to whether he is convincing, has he changed your mind or confirmed what you thought. If his ideas are totally new to you, do you tend to agree with him or not?

 

The first time I read Clement Greenberg’s article I knew nothing about him although perhaps more than a smattering about the era he discusses; a period of time beginning at some point during the industrial revolution leading up to the early/middle of last century. In fact the most profound message I may have received from my first reading was that Modernism did not explode out of a vacuum but in fact was a continuation of artistic, philosophical and scientific thought in Western culture that had its roots in centuries past. He discusses ‘resistance to the sculptural’[1] for example as one aspect of Modernism growing out of a long held tradition that started at least 4 centuries prior to the birth of Mondrian whose work is as far from sculptural as you can imagine.

Having just finished reading it for the second time I am struck by the intense self-confidence with which the essay is written, as something that sticks out even more than the information contained within it. Although I must add that the OCA question about whether or not Greenberg quotes others is a bit of a clue to what I am probably being prompted to think about. Unless I’m missing something, Greenberg does not quote other people. He lays out his opinion and backs it up with arguments that are all his and his alone as far as we can see. He does not ascribe them to anyone else. He writes from the position of expert.

He does use examples and lists a host of artists and other people such as the philosopher, Kant, which establishes a sense of being extremely well informed and educated. This serves to deepen the impression that I am reading someone who really does know his stuff.

I don’t have a problem with any of this. If someone has something to say and has the confidence to say it without needing to constantly justify themselves, that is terrific.

However, a quick Google search on Greenberg reveals that he worked with several artists, two of whose work, after their deaths, he changed and adjusted,[2] altering lines and even removing paint from sculptor David Smith’s work claiming that he was not an important colourist, so it didn’t matter.

Such an act is suggestive of extreme arrogance and a significant superiority complex. Which in turn leads me to read the essay slightly differently than I otherwise might have done. Being female (and therefore covertly and overtly conditioned since birth to think men are cleverer than me), not rich, educated to an average degree at a polytechnic rather than at Oxbridge or some other Russell Group university all mean it would be very easy for me to simply accept Greenberg’s words as a fait accompli. Realising that I should NOT take it for granted that he is entirely right about everything is, I suspect, one of the points of this exercise.

Additionally, it suddenly becomes apparent to me that the essay is included in a book helpfully subtitled “An Anthology of Changing Ideas” which further suggests that my own essay will demonstrate whether or not I have picked up on the fact that studying Visual Culture is inherently tricky as the ideas surrounding art, theory and practice, are not fixed. Neither though is science: as developments and discoveries constantly change the opinions of experts. (Autism for instance was blamed on mothering until fairly recently amongst experts and even now some studies still suggest mothers are to blame in a round about way[3].)

Saying all of this, I can’t help but think Greenberg clearly was a very clever person with strong views based on experience and a huge wealth of knowledge, a lifetime of thought. It would be churlish to dismiss him entirely.  Despite his extraordinary acts of sabotage on artists’ work following their deaths I don’t think his own work should be in anyway be discounted.

So of course, I can see that there is still much worth absorbing and taking note of in Greenberg’s words. I do not have to agree or disagree with all he says, but I must remember to bear in mind that what he wrote nearly half a century ago, as a male, middle class member of the New York intellectual elite, should never be taken as de facto simply because of the position he held. Nor, despite his extremely authoritative written voice.

Greenberg starts his essay by describing the essence of Modernism as “the use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself – not in order to subvert it, but to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence”.[4] He says that although this trend for criticism also existed in the Enlightenment it was a different sort, more internal and introspective than previous.

I think about Brecht whom I know from my time as an actor and acting- student, and how Brechtian theatre dispensed with traditional conventions; gone was the proscenium arch, the curtains, the attempt to hypnotise the audience into a type of dreamlike escapism. Instead the internal seams were now all on show. Brecht wanted his audience to be fully aware they were at the theatre, that the people on stage were actors pretending to be broad, archetypical characters, easily recognisable from the big stories of life. The sets were designed in the Modernist style – without artifice, wherever possible. Sheets hung on a line on a bare black stage to suggest a scene rather than the typical illusionary and sometimes fantastical sets audiences had been used to. Brecht attempted to change the whole system and style of acting, using alienation* to make his audiences question the nature of what they were watching, rather than be tricked into thinking any of it was real, escaping momentarily to a different world where they might forget their worries and indulge in fantasy. Yes, Brecht seems to be engaging in a critical rejection of the old conventions, but I’m not sure that is the essence of his theatre. The means justified the aims.  He is criticizing the power structures that kept those conventions in place, not only overtly through the subject matter, but also by attempting to forge a new way of creating and presenting the subject matter too, as surely it would not have fitted within the standardized way of producing a play. The energy could never have been contained in what must have seemed oppressive and stale, old fashioned production values and habits.   Just thinking about it evokes some of the angry excitement of the time in me.

How does that translate to Modernist painting, which I think Greenberg is primary concerned with in this essay, despite his statements that he is discussing all of Modernism?   It’s difficult for me to say but I go back to this statement and think about Hannah Hoch’s work, which I went to see at the Whitechapel early on in my TAOP course, and I think about how wonderfully she recorded the fragmentation of the time. The very structure of her collage work is fragmented and for me the way she illustrates the breaking down of the old, along with the peculiar, painful reconstruction of the new, which at the time manifested itself in a gruesome, violent set of wars is so prescient and expressive.

I do not think it is possible to underestimate the intense and fundamental seismic effect on society that the industrial revolution had. And Modernism from what I can see is a direct expressive response to those, at times explosive, rumblings and tectonic shifts within our collective cultural, scientific and indeed existential world.

So when Greenberg says “the use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself – not in order to subvert it, but to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence”[5], the more I think about it, the more I feel I’m not entirely sure I know what he means, or rather that the statement lacks substance. How does that conceptual, perhaps quite esoteric statement relate in reality to the material world and the arts that were expressing them?

When he says, “Realistic, illusionist art had dissembled the medium, using art to conceal art, Modernism called attention to the art”[6], I can grab hold of his meaning, and apply it to reality using my knowledge of Brecht and Hoch as examples. When I look at Mondrian’s work, I am able to understand the statement, “The limitations that constitute the medium of painting – the flat surface, the shape of the support, the properties of pigment – were treated by the old masters as negative factors that could be acknowledged only implicitly or indirectly. Modernist painting has come to regard these same limitations as positive factors that are to be acknowledged openly”[7], and apply it to the other work I have mentioned too. This makes sense to me – in a way, more or less to varying degrees, the Modernists celebrated the restrictions of their medium as something potentially creative, rather than attempting to pretend it was anything other than the thing it actually was.

Which seem to me very much linked to a separation from religion, a disconnecting from the old church state, with God at the top and a couple of rich old fools just below him, and the rest of humanity, the filthy poverty stricken masses writhing around and floundering at the bottom. It’s a rejection of fantasy. And an embrace with actuality. So, this is a picture. It’s flat. It will never be anything else. Or this is a play. It’s not real. But it should make you think. And never pretend there is nothing to be filled with rage about.

Although I am beginning to question the basic statement about the essence of Modernism that Greenberg starts his essay with, some of the things he says make me think about the history and development of art along with its cultural significance in relation to us Westerners.

He talks about the move away from sculptural illusion in painting, how it occurs in Venice, Holland and Spain in the 16th century, and later in paintings by Ingres, a student of David in the 18th century[8]. He mentions that, “the Cubist counter-revolution eventuated in a kind of painting flatter than anything Western Art had seen since before Cimbaue”.

And I think about how the illusion of perspective is so Western-centric. It must have some link to our way of seeing; to our cultural development and how that manifests itself in the way we perceive and render our reality. In The Ego Trick, Julian Baggini mentions an experiment where Western sand East Asian students were asked to look at some underwater films. “The Japanese students make 60% more reference to inert, background elements. It really does seem that they perceived their environment more holistically then the Americans, who just focused on the moving foreground.”[9]

John Berger, in Ways of Seeing, says, “Every drawing or painting that used perspective proposed to the spectator that he was the unique centre of the world”[10]. I think this ties in with Baggini’s words on Western ways of seeing and that these separate statements from Greenberg, Baggini and Berger all point towards the fact that most of what I am reading and looking at is relevant from a Western point of view. That the ebb and flow towards and away from sculptural illusion, and significant points within a picture, is about our Western way of seeing. But when Greenberg says towards the end of his essay “Where the old Masters created an illusion of space into which one could imagine oneself walking, the illusion created by a Modernist is one into which one can only look, can travel through with only the eye”, I can’t help but think, really? Is that true? I’m not sure it is… Because I’m not sure that Eastern art which is traditionally quite flat I think doesn’t also offer the viewer a way of ‘travelling’.

John Berger goes on to say in the following sentence the camera and in particular the movie camera demonstrated there was no centre[11], yet Baggini’s sentence about how those students viewed the world suggest otherwise.

What I think I am getting at is that there is much to think about, to question and to consider when reading these books and essays. But that I should be no means take it all as absolute. I should of course take note of the people and work mentioned and I do think it would help me to read some of Kant’s work in light of Greenberg suggesting Kant was the first real Modernist. And I must say I do feel I have rather a lot to read in order to make the most of the course.   Project 2 beckons.

*Alientation affect – the use of theatrical techniques to stop the viewer from becoming overly emotionally involved in the drama and reminding them always that they are at a theatre watching a play. Adlibbing, making the mechanics visible, short episodic scenes for instance.

 

[1] Page 776 New Edition, Art in Theory 1900-200, An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Edited by Charles Harrison & Paul Wood, Blackwell Publishing, first published in 1992, New Edition published 2003

[2] http://www.theartstory.org/critic-greenberg-clement.htm

[3] http://journalofethics.ama-assn.org/2015/04/mhst1-1504.html

[4] Page 774 New Edition, Art in Theory 1900-200, An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Edited by Charles Harrison & Paul Wood, Blackwell Publishing, first published in 1992, New Edition published 2003

[5] Page 774 New Edition, Art in Theory 1900-200, An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Edited by Charles Harrison & Paul Wood, Blackwell Publishing, first published in 1992, New Edition published 2003

[6] Page 775 New Edition, Art in Theory 1900-200, An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Edited by Charles Harrison & Paul Wood, Blackwell Publishing, first published in 1992, New Edition published 2003

[7] Page 775 New Edition, Art in Theory 1900-200, An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Edited by Charles Harrison & Paul Wood, Blackwell Publishing, first published in 1992, New Edition published 2003

[8] Page 776 New Edition, Art in Theory 1900-200, An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Edited by Charles Harrison & Paul Wood, Blackwell Publishing, first published in 1992, New Edition published 2003

[9] The Ego Trick, Julian Baggini, Granta Books, 2012, Kindle Edition, 37%, Page 110 of 257, Loc 1579 of 4245

[10] Ways of Seeing, John Berger, Page 18, BBC and Penguin, 1972 (1987 edition)

[11] As above

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