Modernist art-the critic speaks

Project: Modernist Art: The critic speaks.

I read Art in Theory 1900-2000 pp773-9: Clement Greenberg’s Modernist Painting. (Reading 1, and Reading 2) completed

Response to the article as a whole:

Its a very complex article to read, but I enjoyed it. It felt like I was really exercising my brain by analysing a complex argument and even after 2 readings there were bits which were a little difficult to understand.  However I think I’v e got most of the main ideas now, and understand the writer’s  thoughts and what he wants to say to me.  The text is packed full of difficult ideas- mainly I think due to the subtlety of the arguments (and its explanatory examples, and distinctions), and also because of my lack of familiarity of reading this type of complex writing.

Some of  the ideas  are very difficult and I’m not sure I have made the right conclusion eg. that Modernist ainting is defined by distilling the essence of painting ie elements within painting that are not shown in other arts, but that these other elements do still exist in modernist painting (which is clearly true). Also that even in Modernism, as in  all  art,  Aesthetic Quality is the ultimate  final  property on which to judge, and  that the search for Purity, does not cause aesthetic quality, but that it has coincided with it.

The piece seems to be written by a man who is very skilled in writing and thought, and the argument is presented clearly, slowly, and with good examples to back up or clarify the points made. He seems deeply committed to Modernist art, and art throughout the ages, and he wants to enlighten the reader about what is, and what it’s not. He is at pains to explain to the reader why he thinks that the ideas within Modernism do not make it any more weird or less acceptable than any other period of pictorial art.

Unfamiliar language, and language used in an unfamiliar way:

  • Kantian self-criticism: Kant was the first philosopher to criticise logic using logical elements, so generally this term means self-criticism of a discipline using elements of that discipline.
  • Dialectical tension: Dialectic is the process of arriving at truth through argument (, so this term means the difficulties/contradictions within that argument.
  • Illusionist painting: I am more familiar with terms like figurative, realistic and representational than ‘illusionist’, which seems to be used here in the same context.
  • Verisimilitude: The quality of appearing true or real
  • Pictorial art: This seems to mean ‘paintings’ in this context
  • Sculptural painting: Sculptural is defined as relating to the working in sculpture or relief ( ) whilst the same site’s Thesaurus entry allows ‘relating to sculpture’. In this latter context sculptural painting seems to mean painting which contains elements which suggest 3 D space (such as modelling/form/perspective).
  • Aesthetic consistency: I am unsure what this means within the sentence it is found in (see ‘Difficult sentences’)
  • Subversive tending or intending to subvert or overthrow, destroy, or undermine an established or existing system (

In general the author uses clear language, and relies on complex argument, rather than complex words. It s not that I don’t understand the words, but that I struggle to follow the intracacies of some of the arguments. I also have a couple of doubts about the consistency of a few of the sentences/terms.

Words and Phrases of special Importance

  • Self-critical
  • Modernist
  • That which was unique and irreducible
  • Limitations of painting
  • Flatness
  • The only and necessary way
  • Representation…. does not abate the uniqueness of pictorial art /All recognisable entities exist in free space (paradox within this argument? I  can see that he later says that its the Association that abates the flatness of pictorial art, but I construe association to be inextricably linked to the word Representation. On the other hand,   perhaps representation and recognisability of an object are not bound together . For example if one man represents an object, and another views it but does not associate anything from it. If an alien ( or a baby?) saw Matisse’s ‘Snail’, and had never seen animals, this would be to him a picture which is ‘pure’ in Greenberg’s eyes. If an adult saw it, and read the title, it would not be ‘Pure’ because the association has destroyed this purity. .
  • Some of the greatest feats of Western painting came ………to suppress and dispel the sculptural
  • Thus by the middle of the 19th C all ambitious tendencies in painting were converging … an anti-sculptural direction.
  • Modernism…….made it more conscious of itself
  • Risks have been taken with these, not only for the sake of new expression, but…………to exhibit them more clearly as norms
  • The more……..the norms of a discipline become defined, the less apt they are to permit liberties
  • ………I have had to simplify and exaggerate
  • The first mark made on a surface destroys its flatness
  • Actually that consistency promises nothing in the way of aesthetic quality
  • Self criticism of Modernist art………..has been altogether a question of practice…. and never a topic of theory.
  • The immediate aims of Modernist artists remain individual before anything else
  • Modern art develops out of the past without gap or break.
  • Modernist art has been able to dispense with them ( factors thought to be essential to the making and experiencing of art) and yet continue to provide the experience of art in all its essentials.
  • Most of the things written about contemporary art belong to journalism rather than criticism properly speaking.
  • Without the past of art, and without the need and compulsion to maintain past standards, such a thing as Modernist art would not exist.

Difficult sentences:

‘…effort…to suppress and dispel the sculptural’ I understand the point here, but don’t know enough about the previous four centuries to understand the techniques used to do this.

I m not sure how much we can say that in Manet and the impressionists the question  was  ‘ purely optical as against optical experience modified or revised  by tactile associations’…. surely they  commented on Parisian society, their love of nature etc using non optical methods as well??

‘the further back these limits are pushed, the more explicitly they have to be observed’ a very difficult sentence to clearly grasp in context.

I am not sure I agree about the distinction between the 3 D space created by the old masters, being completely different to the ‘strictly optical third dimension’ of a modernist painting. Surely Modernists like Picasso and Matisse allude to 3D spaces we might consider walking through sometimes?

I find the term ‘aesthetic consistency’ confusing. For this argument to make sense it seems it should be replaced by the term ‘aesthetic quality’ .

What are the author’s main arguments?

Modernism what is it? Para1 . Kant mentioned as first real Modernist

Essence of Modernism P2, Kant example 2.

Idea of criticism using the procedures of that being criticized, first in philosophy, but then in any discipline. P3

The Arts, and each art within this, is  saved from being just entertainment, by showing it has a value not obtained in other activities. This secures its area of competence.  P4 /5

Each art’s unique area was its proper area of competence, and this gives it ‘Purity’, ‘quality’ and ‘independence’.  P6

Modern art is compared to older masters, which used illusion, and were therefore less pure than modern artists. Manet is quoted as the first modernist painter, followed by the Impressionists , and Cezanne, because each drew attention to areas which are quintessentially about painting techniques.   P7

Flatness is cited as the most characteristic, and pure factor in painting, using examples of other characteristics shared by other disciplines. P8

Older painters  set up a ‘dialectical tension’ between the flatness of the support, and the space which was eluded to. Modernist painters don’t do this differently, but they make the flatness and identity of a painting primary, and the contents a secondary matter, reversing the scheme of previous times.  P9

Abstraction in itself is not necessary in modern art, but the conversion of the 3 D space is (relates to P8). He thinks Kandinsky and Mondrian were wrong about this. Representation does not destroy ‘purity’, but the associations of the things represented does.  3 dimensionality is associated with sculpture ( related closely to painting I think), so to reduce the 3D in painting increases its uniqueness with respect to sculpture.  P10

Resisting the sculptural is central to Modernist painting, but this is a continuation of the resistance of western painting to the sculptural over the previous few hundred years.  Emphasising other elements such as colour is argued as being more important in this time than sculptural 3D relief, eg.  Ingres.  P11

The impressionists and Manet turned the dichotomy between  colour and drawing into that between a purely visual experience and one which is ‘modified or revised by tactile associations’ (presumably this refers to sculptural or 3D illusions, although  it could also be interpreted as an absence of the sign/signified (ie. associations of pictures with concepts) ( see P10).  Just like Ingres became flatter than previous artists, so cubists and Cezanne became flatter than the artists they revolted against (the Impressionists). There seems to be a central evolving towards the flat.  P12

Other characteristics of pictures such as the frame, finish, texture, contrast (though not unique to painting) have also been explored and pushed about (between the very simplified to the very complicated)  in order to both help expression, and to define them as normal elements of painting, and is still continuing in abstract art ( should the author use Modernist art here to be wholly consistent? P13

Although Modernist art is frequently associated with liberties/liberation, the  process of defining and exploring particular  elements makes them a limiting condition which must be applied for a work to be a painting/picture. These elements can be pushed to the extreme, but nevertheless are ‘traditional’ in their use of the element eg. Mondrian’s reference to the frame in his modern paintings make them more traditional than Monet’s later works (the elements of these are not discussed). P14

This paragraph is important because it admits that the author has taken an extreme route in stating his examples and arguments.  However it does suggest this may be a basis for the impression that some of the authors arguments are a little spurious/paradoxical/imprecise. (for example P10). P15

Science is referred to as the ultimate Kantian subject , in that science or its disciplines are criticised by the elements which it contains, and no other. Perhaps this is an old fashioned view however- eg. Scientists (and science) can be criticised for being male-dominated and sexist, and science can often be criticised by ethical arguments (eg the science of atomic fission V the events of Nagasaki and Hiroshima).  The neo-impressionists are forgiven when they ‘flirted’ with science (quite perjorative language). However, neo impressionist works, definitely do not ‘make no reference to anything given in other orders of experience’. This particular ‘exaggeration ‘ by the author is my main difficulty.  I don’t know ANY pictures which completely exclude  non-visual  associations (even Maleevich’s Black Square  has several associations with the non visual eg. when it was first exhibited it was hung in a position which was usually associated with  Orthodox holy Icons (Graeme-Dixon, 2008, p440).  P16

The  author says that the consistent paring down of modern art to its purest elements, was not the cause of the quality of Modern art , but that it was coincidence, and that in the end aesthetic  consistency ( I think aesthetic quality is more precise), is the true basis on which to judge art. However I think a more realistic view of ‘Modern’ art (and I think the same may apply to some  ‘Modernist art’), is that the aesthetic quality of it has often been questioned (often by the non-elite) such as  Equivalent V111, 1966, by Carl Andre- the famously shocking bricks in the Tate Modern. And the truth is  and that its quality has often been judged (by elites) on the exploration and testing of just these artistic ‘methods and means’, and not its Aesthetic quality. P17

Modernist artists have developed their analysis of their art through practical painting and not through a great theorising on the subject (with a few exceptions), which seems to suggest the author dislikes an idea of modernist painters who over analyse  drily, in ivory towers.  Instead Modern artists develop their methods and evolution like all other artists in history- through individual expression, and being part of a living group, who may influence one another, but not self consciously so. Is this a little paradoxical for a discipline whose essence is to criticise its own methods using those elements unique to itself? P18

Modernism is seen as being a natural continuation of all (western?) art preceding it, and will be itself followed by other periods of artistic development.  P19

Modernism is subversive in its ability to show that not all elements thought to be essential in art , are essential in art.  It has not stopped us valuing  artists such as Leanardo, Rembrandt etc. It has even allowed us to revive other artists ( like El Greco, Vermeer). The author does not say what distinguishes these 2 categories of artists so the reasons for this are unclear. He does state that Modernism has clarified that some of these older artists were valued for the wrong reasons (again not discussed).p20

The author shows his cynicism about much of art criticism in both past and present, referring to it as journalism rather than  proper criticism. He criticises these journalists for always  behaving the same way-  it uses false claims  to attract attention- that this or that period or movement is fundamentally different than the next or previous, and that it has been liberated from its norms such that absolutely anyone, however uneducated,  can fully understand it. He refutes this, saying that each movement including Modernist painting  always turns out to be ‘in the intelligible community of taste and tradition’.  P21

A summary of the Argument

The author discusses what modernist art is and what it is not. Modernist art uses its own characteristic elements to criticise itself. This idea was first introduced by the philosopher  Kant, and reaches its apotheosis in science. It strives to find the elements which are unique to pictorial art (and found in no other discipline  eg sculpture, theatre…), so that it can be thought important in its own right, and not simply an unimportant ‘therapy’.

The author discusses at length the different elements which can be found in art, such as the association of images, the framing of images, textures, colours, an illusion of 3-dimensional space, an allusion to literature, and flatness. Flatness is stated as the purest element of modernist art. The author admits that during his argument he has used exaggeration in order to make his points- eg no picture can be truly without association once any mark is made.

Modernism attempts to isolate and highlight artistic elements, but in this respect is  not destructive or subversive . In this respect Modernism was alluded to by the old masters from 400 years ago,  when they tried to concentrate on elements like colour  in contrast to ‘drawing’ (illusionist  draftsmanship?), and by more recent painters  (Manet, the impressionist, and post impressionists).

Like all other movements and periods, Modernist art is essentially practical, and driven by artists as  doers, not theorisers.  The rigor of the investigation and manipulation of artistic elements in Modernism has come about as a coincidence-the individual artist’s creative expression is always the main driving force for the production of art. One should always judge art on Quality, and not Methods.

Modernist painting is a continuation of the past and is not fundamentally different from other art movements. It is certainly not understood properly by journalists who exaggerate, and misrepresent it, as they have all other artists/periods,  because that is just what journalists do! Like all other art, those who seek to understand it must know something about artistic traditions, and artistic elements-  it is not  open to understanding by literally anyone.

Who does he mention and what’s his opinion of them ?

Kant: A revolutionary philosopher

The impressionists: revolutionaries,

Neo-Ipressionists: Mixed feelings- ‘not altogether misguided’

Mondrian, Kandinsky: Mixed, He says they are eminent, but he says they were wrong to think that Abstraction was necessary for Modernism.

Cubists, Cezanne : revolutionaries reacting to 3D sculpturalism.

Critics: He’s very scathing , saying they are wrong in their views, and driven by shallow aims.

The Old Masters are talked of with great respect, David, Ingres, Leanardo etc….

Does he quote others and reference their work?

The author does not use any direct quotes, and references no  specific  paintings, although he references many painters, and the way in which they developed art. Perhaps it would  have been better to use some specific quotes, in order that the reader can see that others’ words can reinforce his argument. Additionally, mention of specific works (‘the last paintings of Monet’ is the most specific reference given) would allow the reader to look themselves at the pictures (or reproductions), and gain further data with which to judge the author’s argument.


My overall feelings on the article.

The article is well structured and written, and the author is clearly a great proponent of Modernist Painting. There are some very interesting and well crafted arguments, and the author is skilled at helping the reader through the text using broad examples, and building up complicated arguments.

However, as has been discussed earlier, there are some signs of the author being a little too enthusiastic, of  exaggerating, of lacking precision in words, and of lacking specific examples to  reinforce ideas, and lacking specific quotes from others who might reinforce his ideas. All these things give the impression that although a skilled writer, the author is a little defensive, and dogmatic, which lessens the readers ultimate acceptance of his argument.

I think on the whole I agree with his ideas (but not all), and many of them are very well stated. The criticisms above came about through several readings of the text, and are my attempt to balance my response to an overall very enjoyable article.  I still have some problems when assessing the aesthetic quality of Modern Paintings, and more generally ‘Modern art’ and do not necessarily agree that Modernist Painting (or Modern/contemporary  art today) is judged by aesthetic quality alone.


Author: PhilHepArt

This site contains my BLOG for my Open College of the Art's module 'Understanding Visual Culture'. I am currently on Level 1 of the degree pathway BA Painting.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s