To further my ongoing research into the place of painting in the 21st Century, I have been reading modernist art criticism from the 1960’s & ’70’s. In this blog I will briefly review & expand on how two of the major critics of that era shaped current attitudes toward painting. I will argue that their perceived need to develop a comprehensive and defensible explanation for why certain works of art can be considered “good” and others not has had a profound effect on the direction of modern & post-modern art. I will also suggest that the influence of these critics has led to an emphasis on the cerebral aspects of the visual arts as a whole, not just art criticism. Further, that this emphasis on the cerebral has been instrumental in shaping attitudes as to what is or is not acceptable painting practice. I will conclude that this cerebral focus has been promoted by institutions to serve their own ends, and that these institutions have skewed the discipline of painting in a direction that it would likely not otherwise have gone.
Though many, if not most, self-defined post-modernists would seek to differentiate their views from those of Clement Greenburg’s, there is a clear link between his theories and post-modernist attitudes toward painting. The main thrust of Greenberg’s thinking was that the point of painting was to “… determine the irreducible working essence of art…Under Modernism, more and more of the conventions of the art of painting have shown themselves to be dispensable, unessential…the irreducible essence of pictorial art consists in but two constitutive conventions or norms: flatness and the delimitation of flatness…”. Greenberg also insisted that painting establishes a purely visual or “optical space”, one addressed to eyesight alone and unmodified or revised by tactile associations.
Though disparaged and eventually de-throned, Greenberg’s views have had an overwhelming impact on contemporary art practice up to the present and have been widely accepted as unassailably true. The creative path of artists like Mondrian or Picasso might have been the source of Greenberg’s theory that painting is on an unswerving trajectory toward perfecting itself through jettisoning the inessential. How artists were to define what is inessential Greenberg left up to individual self-criticism, but it soon became clear that only what teh artists that Greenberg admired deemed inessential led to irreducibly “good” paintings.
The art critic & historian Michael Fried was an early disciple of Greenberg and sought to expand on his views but appears to have accepted the concept of irreducibility. However, he took issue with other of Greenberg’s theories. In his book, Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews (1998), he challenges Greenberg’s insistence that painting establishes “…a purely visual or “optical space… one addressed to eyesight alone.”(p. 19) and unmodified or revised by tactile associations. Fried suggested that there was nothing wrong with tactile associations then went on to argue that not flatness but “shape” (ie the relationship of the painting to its support) was the central issue for modernist painting (p. 25). But he qualified this to stress that good art is not reducible to either “flatness” or “shape”. He said that what the modernist painter must discover in his work is that it is capable of convincing him that it is able to, “stand in comparison with the painting of both the modernist and the premodernist past whose quality seems to him to be beyond question”. This he also called “conviction”, or the capability of compelling conviction, of succeeding as a painting. (Note the unabashed use of the masculine pronoun – unfortunately Fried, like most art critics even today, only took male artists seriously).
Later, Fried took on the Minimalists (who he also refers to as Literalists) for their wholly literal approach to painting & sculpture. By that he meant that they pursued the idea of finding the irreducible essence of art to its logical conclusion which was “the surpassing of painting in the interests of literalness” or what Fried called “objecthood”. He claims that seeing works of art as objects began around 1960 as modernist painters continued in the direction first promoted by Greenberg. As examples of Minimalist artists who indulged in “objecthood”, he cites sculptors Donald Judd and David Smith. He suggested that these artists were careful to create work that “deadened its expressiveness”, denied its sense of humanness”. (p. 42)
The abstract painters Fried most admired sought to undo or neutralize objecthood. These painters included Kenneth Noland, Frank Stella,
and sculptor Anthony Caro.
From the perspective of a female painter working in 2018, the differences between the admired or disparaged sculptures and paintings shown above are subtle. They are all hard-edged, analytical, & cold with little or no acknowledgement of the humans who created them or will look at them. At one point, Fried draws an analogy between the works of Henri Matisse and Kenneth Noland as both having “unbrokenness, uniform intensity and sheer breadth of colour”. (p. 186) He considers that what Nolan has done is to make work like Matisse’s “radically abstract”. This agrees with Greenberg’s assertion that progress in painting has to do with discovering its essence, its irreducibility.
But perhaps in searching for the irreducible essence of painting, the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater. What artists like Nolan may have felt were inessential were aspects of painting that convey life, the human factor, nature, a sense of place, joy, warmth, paint strokes & images to name a few of what Greenberg would term inessential “conventions”. Because some artists &critics did not consider these “conventions” to be essential does not mean they were & are inessential. They may have been inessential to those particular artists at that particular time, but are now needed again and may be essential to this time & place. However, this idea of whittling away everything extraneous to reveal the essence of art took hold as the dominant paradigm until painting itself became dispensable.
Greenberg and Fried were writing at a time when the modernist experiment still had life in it and they could see that the direction of painting could either go toward work that “deadened its expressiveness, denied its sense of humanness” or work that could “stand in comparison with the painting of both the modernist and the premodernist past & whose quality is be beyond question.” They were living & writing during a period when what was considered to be important paintings were works that they had in large part encouraged through their criticism. These were hard-edged, non-pictorial, intellectual works, some of which retained some aspects of painterly-ness and others that had rejected any claims to be arty. They both assumed that the direction they had pointed to in their critiques was based on a more-or-less objective assessment of the art world in which they found themselves. But a remove of a few decades reveals that their criticism was not objective in any way but emerged from their own desires to ennoble art criticism and themselves as art critics.
This ennobling desire on their part, and on the part of most art critics today, is understandable and defensible, especially in an art world that has become increasingly focused on monetary value rather than the intrinsic values of a work of art. And at the time they were writing, Greenberg & Fried were both wrestling with the emerging permission to create anti-art or non-art and demand that it be called art.
So they felt the need to formalize their objections to these emerging trends by expressing their ideas in a quasi-theoretical, quasi-intellectual mode. Much of their cogitations appear to be long digressions with no useful result – as worthwhile as the angels-on-head-of-pin debates of yore.
But through their convoluted writings they paved the way for a new attitude toward the visual arts for artists, curators, critics and viewers. This new attitude assumes that art is primarily a cerebral activity that can only be appreciated through close mental study of an art work. In other words, it is not enough to feel enchanted with a painting through its immediate visual impact transmitted to the nerves and sinews and bypassing the analytical brain. These assumptions have been transported to institutions of higher learning where students learn the words and phrases that will convey their superior understanding of art to the outside world as well as a belt of intellectual rather than technical tools. It is no longer adequate to go to art school, once must have a Masters of Fine Arts to be taken seriously as someone who understands art. For instance, in my home-town of Vancouver, the Vancouver School of Art founded in the 1940’s has morphed into the Emily Carr University of Art & Design. This university-based approach has spawned a network of artists, critics, curators and funders who speak the same language and are comfortable that they are promoting a true appreciation of art based on Greenbergian ideas about determining the irreducible working essence of art by jettisoning technique, meaning, and especially aesthetics.
The institutions of higher learning have a stake in continuing to be the arbiters of intellectual taste in the arts and have created a new Academia whose rigid conformity to the Greenberg/Fried intellectual tradition rivals that of its predecessor in pre-modernist France. This intellectual tradition – the stripping away of anything extraneous (ie visual, visceral, sensuous) – leads to major galleries mounting exhibitions that are monotonous in the extreme and comprehensible only to those willing to read the page of explanatory text beside each piece describing why it is important and meaningful.
This does not suggest that we should dumb-down art or that there is no place for art criticism. Instead it suggests that there is a greater-than-ever need for art criticism that can shake itself free from the overwhelming influence of the Academy and re-examine the critical tradition inherited from the 1960’s. There is no denying the fact that writing about the visual arts is difficult, as any artists trying to describe what s/he is doing for an exhibition, grant or other application can attest. Trying to put a purely visual/visceral/sensuous experience into words is an attempt to describe the indescribable. A writer can either surround each thought with clouds of verbiage, as Fried has done, in an effort to finally get close to the germ of the idea struggled with or, like Greenberg, simply state that s/he has good taste, knows art and knows what’s good. In order to avoid these shoals of garrulousness and ego, later writers have acceded to the belief that art criticism is necessarily subjective and that criticism can only consists of detailed descriptions of one’s personal experience of the subject artworks. None of these approaches is ideal and finding a workable alternative is the challenge for art critics today.
Fortunately, I am an artist rather than an art critic, so the task of finding a more relevant and constructive approach to art criticism is not mine, though I seem to often assume the role of critic-of-art-critics in these blogs. But my purpose is selfish rather than altruistic – I use these blogs as a means to understand what is meaningful in my painting practice and analyze the temporal/historical space in which I find myself.