Project Modernist art: the critic speaks

The first project in this course requires the reading of the essay by Clement Greenberg Modernist Painting. The essay is published in Art in Theory 1900-2000. The task is to read and re-read the essay and then to answer the following questions:

  • What is Greenberg talking about in general?
  • What are his main arguments?
  • Who does he mention?
  • What is his opinion of them?
  • Does he quote others?
  • Does he make reference to other’s work?
What is Greenberg talking about in general?
In general terms Greenberg is talking about the underlying logic of how art, and more specifically painting,  has developed and retained its integrity as a unique and valued discipline under Modernism. He attributes its development to the inherent self critical tendency within painting itself, which has increasingly emphasised the irreducible flatness of the support.
What are his main arguments?
His main thesis is based upon  comparison with Kant’s critical approach to the field of logic. Kant used logic itself to establish the limits of logic. In other words he used the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticise the discipline itself. In the case of logic, Kant’s analysis reduced the scope of the field but secured its postiion as a separate discipline of value. In Greenberg’s view it is immanent criticism similar to that applied by Kant to logic which has been the driving force for development of art under Modernism. Greenberg argues that the self criticism of Modernism differs from the criticism of the Enlightenment in that it is criticism from within rather than from the outside. He contends that disciplines which have not been able to avail themselves that of immanent criticism have been assimilated into broader disciplines. He cites the example of religion being assimilated into therapy. In effect he argues that art has avoided being assimilated into entertainment, by demonstrating that the kind of experience it provides is valuable in its own right and could not be obtained from elsewhere. His view is that each art had to effect this demonstration on its own account. In the case of painting he takes the view that  stressing the irreducible flatness of the support has been the most fundamental process by which painting has defined itself under Modernism. He illustrates the case of the development of  Modernist painting specifically by reference to particular artists. He also draws parallels with the development of modern science which he believes shows that the two disciplines have been subject to a common cultural tendency under Modernism. Finally he makes that point that the self criticism has been spontaneous and subliminal. It has been entirely driven by practice rather than in response to critical theory which he perceives has lagged throughout the process.
Who does he mention?
His intitial point of reference as mentioned above is Kant. When developing his argument for painting he cites several Modernist painters. He cites Manet’s paintings as the first Modernist paintings because of the frank way they declared the surface on which they were painted. He refers to the way the Impressionists eliminated underpainting and glazing to leave the viewer in no doubt that the colours used came from real paint. He references the way that Cezanne sacrificed spacial accuracy to fit his designs more explicitly into the rectangular shape of the canvas. He suggests that the move to abstraction arose because of the desire to eliminate representation of recognisable entities which would call up associations with three dimensional space.  He makes the point that this view contrasts with that of Kandinsky and Mondrian who believed that the move to abstraction was in itself  a key moment in the self criticism of pictorial art. He illustrates how development has taken place through a process by which successive artists have reacted to their predecessors. He cites David reacting to the colourist Fragonard, Cezanne and the cubists reacting to the Impressionists and so on.
What is his opinion of them?
Whilst mentioning many artists and thinkers, Greenberg does not express specific judgements about them other than to place them in the context of his argument that Modernist painting has developed through a process of immanent criticism.
Does he quote others?
Curiously he does not quote others. He makes reference to Kant but does not specifically quote him.
Does he make reference to others work?
Again curiously he does not. His work is standalone and he does not seek to place it within the context of broader critical opinion.
My Feelings on the Essay
I had previously considered that two of the main tenets of Modernism were ‘art for arts sake’ and emphasising the medium. This view came from my photography studies. Greenberg’s essay confirmed these elements but added flesh to the bone. By using painting as a case study Greenberg illustrated through reference to the works of successive painters how Modernist painters emphasised the medium and sought to differentiate painting as an valid independent discipline. So I was convinced that this has been a driving force for development during the Modernist era.
As to whether this development process has been successful in avoiding painting being assimilated into entertainment, I am less sure. I have the impression that Greenberg seized on Kant’s work in logic as a convenient reference point. He does not justify why something which seems to have worked in one discipline might of necessity be successful in a completely different discipline.
My own view is that the continued success of painting as a discrete independent discipline has had more to do with the fact that many different and influential groups have an interest in ensuring its continued success. Artists, investors, museums, curators, critics, art historians and art lovers are all implicated. Such interests are largely financial but also relate to the maintaining the ‘snob’ value of high art as opposed to popular culture. Many of the tenets of high art came under attack during Post Modernism. In practice, however, works of art from the Post Modern era have come to be regarded as ‘masterpieces’ with all that this entails – high prices paid for them at Auction, icon status for the artists, enduring status on gallery walls.