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Project 1: Modernist Art: the critic speaks

This first project required me to read Clement Greenburg’s article Modernist Painting from Art in Theory 1900 – 2000. Initially I found the article difficult to read and absorb particularly the large number of words I had either not encountered before or had not done so in the context used nor in such complex and wordy sentences! I have now began a separate collection of definitions using flash cards and am transferring that content here.

Project 1: Modernist Art: the critic speaks

In his 1960 article entitled Modernist Painting, Greenberg states that Modernism encompasses more than art and literature – perhaps all of Western Culture.

According to Greenberg, all formal social human activity is discredited, even weakened without critical rational justification.  Not criticism such as that of the Enlightenment where the criticism was of others, from the outside but of criticism from the inside – self-criticism – as first described by the German philosopher Kant.

Despite beginning his article with the notion of civilization questioning it’s own foundations, Greenberg’s article very quickly focuses on Modernist painting with very few references to Modernist art in the wider sense and almost no mention of other arts or culture, which I feel weakens his argument somewhat.  In the article Greenberg refers to Religion’s inability to adopt this “Kantian immanent criticism” and suggests that the arts might at first glance seem to fall into the same trap but avoids doing so by each art ultimately defining itself in terms of that which is peculiar and unique to itself.  He goes on to say that by so doing, each art narrows it’s area of competence thereby making its possession of this area all the more secure.

This narrowing of competence, he says, excludes any technique or practice that might be shared between the arts and through such self-definition each art form becomes pure.  Greenberg argues that with painting, its limitations (and it’s uniqueness) are the very flatness of the surface and the pigments used, limitations that the realistic, illusionist art of the Old Masters sought to disguise by the use of techniques like under-painting and glazing.  Flatness was seen as a restriction, as a negative.  Inexplicably, Greenberg completely ignores photography, with no mention of this art form at all.  One might argue that at the time of his writing, Greenberg no doubt followed the norm of not recognising photography as art at all.

However, I would have expected there to be at least some mention of photography. Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction written some 24 years earlier (in 1936) refers to the battle raging during the nineteenth century (and into the twentieth century) “as painting and photography disputed the artistic merits of their respective products…”.  Benjamin goes on to say that rather than waste so much time and effort on such arguments; effort might have been better spent on discussing whether the very nature of art had undergone a change following the invention of photography. 
Created in 1947 by Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and David Seymour, Magnum Photos had been in existence for 13 years prior to the article.  For Greenberg to simply ignore photography in this way seems to me incredulous.

In stark contrast to the Old Masters, early Modernist artists such as Manet (1832-1883) and Cezanne (1839-1906) Greenberg argues, sought to embrace, to acknowledge this very flatness seeing it as a positive and a means of attaining this self-criticism, this purity.  With Modernist painting Greenberg says one sees the picture first which “is of course the best way of seeing any kind of picture, Old or Modernist”,  “whereas one tends to see what is in an Old Master before seeing it as a picture”.  He then cites this as confirmation of his argument suggesting Modernism’s imposition of this way of seeing is in fact a success of self-criticism.  By ignoring photography, Greenberg conveniently removes Modernist painting’s biggest rival – arguably the flattest medium of all.  He also avoids destroying his uniqueness, his purity argument.

Jeanette Bicknell in her article To See a Picture “as a Picture” first: Clement Greenberg and the Ambiguities of Modernism states that in seeing a picture first and foremost as a picture would seem to suggest a denial of illusionism. “Instead of seeing a picture as the things it depicts, the proper way to view a painting is as a painted surface.” She goes on to say Greenberg could be argued to have overstated the degree of illusionism in works by the Old Masters for they too sought ways to draw attention to the status of their paintings as paintings.  Greenberg also sites Manet as an early exponent of Modernism and whilst one can scarcely deny Manet’s departure from the

under-painting and glazing techniques of  the Old Masters one must surely acknowledge for example in his painting Olympia that one at the very least simultaneously views the picture as both a picture and a (for the time) rather remarkable depiction of a prostitute.  John Berger (Ways of Seeing) describes the painting as replacing the traditional role of the woman (in traditional nude paintings) with “the realism of the prostitute – who became the quintessential woman of early avant-garde…” Clearly the depiction of the subject matter of the painting and that of the earlier Le déjeuner sur l’herbe caused quite a stir – not because of their eminent flatness but because of their content which takes on an importance perhaps greater than that of the painting itself.

Moving on to more abstract painting (Kandinsky and Mondrian are specifically mentioned) Greenberg talks of the abstractness in itself as not being a necessity of Modernist art, rather it is such paintings’ abandonment of any kind of representation of recognizable three-dimensionality that defines it as Modernist.  He goes on to state that by the mid 1800 all “ambitious tendencies” in painting were converging to re-enforce this anti-sculptural, anti-three-dimensional direction.

Greenberg also refers to an earlier period of painting starting in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries suggesting that this move away from the sculptural in painting had already begun and that Modernist painting both demonstrates its continuance of this process and bolsters it claim to be a continuation, an evolvement in painting rather than a break away from the past.  He refers to explicitly to Jacques Louis David (1748-1825) and his pupil Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) suggesting that they among others at the time (mid to late eighteenth century) tried to revive sculptural painting.  He goes on to state that by the mid 1800 all “ambitious tendencies” in painting were converging to re-enforce this anti-sculptural, anti-three-dimensional direction.

Towards his closing arguments, Greenberg then seeks to qualify his writing by stating that in order to plot and define rational behind Modernist art he has had to “simplify and exaggerate” further stating that virtual flatness is destroyed by the very nature of adding any mark to the surface – to the canvas or board. Simplification and exaggeration to illustrate one’s point of view are hardly a sound foundation for any argument.  Despite his opening statement that the very definition of Modernist art has come from the continual self-criticism and purification of each art form, Greenberg goes on to state that this self-criticism “has never been carried on in any by a spontaneous and subliminal way. It has been altogether a question of practice, immanent to practice and never a topic of theory.”

Leading Modernist artists seem to both substantiate and repudiate Greenberg’s arguments as bourn out by a letter written in 1943 by Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottilieb to the New York Times in response to an review of an exhibition of the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors written by art critic Edward Alden Jewell.  In his article, Jewell admits to being baffled, in particular, by two paintings – The Syria Bull (Rothko) and Gottilieb’s The Rape of Persephone.  Rothko and Gottilieb had chosen expressionism in favour of surrealism and mythic imagery.  The artists’ letter

to the critic explained, though without justification, the purpose behind the two paintings. The letter went on to state that far from Greenbergs unconscious self-criticism both artists consciously sought to achieve such ends.

Rothko wrote, “We favor simple expression over complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy the illusion and reveal truth” and then later in the letter he adds “There is no such thing as a good painting about nothing. We assert that the subject matter is crucial…”

Clearly for these two artists at least, Greenberg’s arguments leak like water through a sieve.  Furthermore, in a later postscript to the original article written in 1970, Greenberg attempts to distance himself from any misconceptions suggesting that “an error, one of interpretation” had taken place. He now states that he was merely expressing a theory that might explain how and why Modernism developed in the way it did and that his own views don’t necessarily follow this argument, though he fails to state his point of view clearly.  His use of pure and purity in quotation marks he says “should have been enough to show that”.

I hadn’t considered the question of Modern art and it’s origins, it’s purpose and it’s development prior to reading this article.  In conclusion, whilst there is no doubt some merit in some of Greenberg’s article, I believe that a fundamental flaw exists in many of his arguments and so it seems to many other’s I found through research online.  Although the article seems very dated now, even making such allowances do not excuse or expunge the articles shortcomings.  Despite beginning with the notion of civilization questioning it’s own foundations, Greenberg’s inappropriately narrow focus, his ignoring of photography and other art forms other than Modernist painting fail to support his central argument that Modernist painting grew out of and is defined by Kantian self-criticism. Inexorably in my opinion these omissions weaken his arguments.

It is also clear that leading artists including those he greatly admired did not adhere to nor fully agree with his views.  The final damming statement comes from Greenberg himself, where in his postscript he seeks to distance himself from his own writings; a statement that I believe undermines his thesis.  When writing the article he had ample opportunity to raise a counter or contrasting point of view which at no time did he seek to do.  I can only conclude that he later changed his mind in the light of critical comment. For myself I remain largely unconvinced by much of his argument.

Although the article seems very dated now, even making such allowances do not excuse or expunge the articles shortcomings.  Despite beginning with the notion of civilization questioning it’s own foundations, Greenberg’s inappropriately narrow focus, his ignoring of photography and scant reference to other art forms allows Greenberg to develop and support his argument falsely.  Yet inexorably in my opinion these omissions weaken his arguments.

It is also clear that leading artists including those he greatly admired did not adhere nor agree with his views. The final straw that I believe undermines his thesis is his postscript in which seeks to distance himself from his writings. When writing the article he had ample opportunity to raise a counter or contrasting point of view which at no time did he seek to do. I can only conclude that he later changed his mind in the light of critical comment. For myself I remain largely unconvinced by much of his argument.

References & links:

  1. Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas by Charles Harrison, Dr Paul J. Wood
  2. Modern and Postmodern – William Dobell Memorial Lecture, Sydney, Australia, Oct 31, 1979
  3. To See a Picture “as a Picture” First: Clement Greenberg and the Ambiguities of Modernism – Jeanette Bicknell
  4. Greenberg, Kant and Modernism? – Joachim Pissarro
  5. Modern Art Concept: Flatness
  6. Modernist Painting, Clement Greenberg
  7. Allen Memoria Art Museum – Mark Rothko, The Syrian Bull
  8. Rothko & Gottlieb’s letter to the New York Times
  9. The City Review – Mark Rothko
Posted by ian on February 16, 2011

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