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Clement Greenberg’s Modernism.

Posted in Art History Studies

Modernism refers to a global movement in society and culture that from the early decades of the twentieth century sought a new alignment with the experience and values of modern industrial life. Building on late nineteenth-century precedents, artists around the world used new imagery, materials and techniques to create artworks that they felt better reflected the realities and hopes of modern societies. [Tate]

By the 1960s Modernism had become a dominant idea of art, and a particularly narrow theory of modernist painting had been formulated by the highly influential American critic Clement Greenberg. A reaction then took place which was quickly identified as post-modernism.

According to Greenberg:

1. Art should be non objective, with no illusion or reference to the physical world.

2. Art should be true to its medium.

3. High art should transcend popular appeal.

Modernism to Greenberg included more than art and literature. It covers culture in it’s entirety and is of historical novelty. It has a self critical tendency. Greenberg believes Kant was the first real modernist because he was the first to criticise the means of criticism itself. The essence of modernism lies in the use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticise the discipline itself – like Kant used logic to establish the limits of logic. Though self criticism of Modernism grew out of Enlightenment, it was quite unlike it. Enlightenment criticised from the outside, whereas Modernism criticised from the inside. This new criticism appeared first in philosophy and then in other fields, and demanded a rational justification for every formal activity. Religion could not avail this counter in criticism in order to justify itself, but art saved itself by proving that the experience it provided was valuable enough in it’s own right.

There were a number of main contributions that developed Modernism, as it relates to painting, in the 20th century.

1.Questioning whether representation had a place in painting.

2. World War I and uprisings in revolution.

3. The camera and photography.

4. Ideas of writers and philosophers, in particular Kant.

5. Post World War II. Social, political and economic conditions in western civilisation – in particular capitalism.

Painters who’s work evidences Modernisms impact:

Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Morris Louis, Helen Frankenthaler (All used staining.) Edouard Manet was dedicated by Greenberg as the first Modernist artist because of his method of paint application. Jackson Pollock, championed by Greenberg. Bridget Riley, Cacily Brown, DJ Simpson.

Greenberg terms low art as kitsch.

“Realistic, naturalistic art had dissembled the medium, using art to conceal art; Modernism used art to call attention to art.” – Clement Greenberg

Postscript to Greenberg’s ‘Modernist Painting’:

Postscript (1978)
The above appeared first in 1960 as a pamphlet in a series published by the Voice of America. It had
been broadcast over that agency’s radio in the spring of the same year. With some minor verbal
changes it was reprinted in the spring 1965 number of Art and Literature in Paris, and then in Gregory
Battcock’s anthology The New Art (1966).

I want to take this chance to correct an error, one of interpretation an not of fact. Many readers,
though by no means all, seem to have taken the ‘rationale’ of Modernist art outlined here as
representing a position adopted by the writer himself that is, that what he describes he also
advocates. This may be a fault of the writing or the rhetoric. Nevertheless, a close reading of what he
writes will find nothing at all to indicate that he subscribes to, believes in, the things that he
adumbrates. (The quotation marks around pure and purity should have been enough to show that.)
The writer is trying to account in part for how most of the very best art of the last hundred-odd years
came about, but he’s not implying that that’s how it had to come about, much less that that’s how the
best art still has to come about. ‘Pure’ art was a useful illusion, but this doesn’t make it any the less an
illusion. Nor does the possibility of its continuing usefulness make it any the less an illusion.

There have been some further constructions of what I wrote that go over into preposterousness: That
I regard flatness and the inclosing of flatness not just as the limiting conditions of pictorial art, but as
criteria of aesthetic quality in pictorial art; that the further a work advances the self-definition of an art,
the better that work is bound to be. The philosopher or art historian who can envision me — or anyone
at all — arriving at aesthetic judgments in this way reads shockingly more into himself or herself than
into my article.

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