Modern Art: Practices & Debates

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  • Topic: Modernism, Postmodern art, Clement Greenberg
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  • Published : March 6, 2010
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Open University Course A316:- Modern Art: Practices & Debates, 1995 'It quickly emerged that the proper and unique area of competence of each art coincided with all that was unique to the nature of its medium. The task of self-criticism became to eliminate from the effects of each art any and every effect that might conceivably be borrowed from or by the medium of any other art. Thereby each art would be rendered 'pure', and in its 'purify' find the guarantee of its standards of quality as well as of its independence. 'Purity' meant self-definition, and the enterprise of self-criticism in the arts became one of self-definition, with a vengeance.' (Greenberg, 'Modernist Painting', Art in Theory, p.755)

'Greenberg's aesthetics are the terminal point of [an] historical trajectory. There is another history of art, however, a history of representations ... for me, and some other erstwhile conceptualists, conceptual art opened onto that other history, a history which opens onto history. Art practice was no longer to be defined as an artisanal activity, a process of crafting fine objects in a given medium, it was rather to be seen as a set of operations performed in a field of signifying practices, perhaps centred on a medium but certainly not bounded by it'. (Victor Burgin, 'The absence of presence', Art in Theory, pp. 1098-9) Discuss the merits of Burgin's statement as a basis on which to distinguish postmodernism from Modernism in the practice of art. In your answer you should make reference to at least four works which you consider to be of particular relevance to an argument between these two positions. This question highlights one of the themes central to the account of modem art offered in this course: the tension between the theoretical perspectives of, on the one hand, Modernist criticism and, on the other, an approach focused on the relationship of the art of any given period to its social, political and historical context. The two quotations given above may be interpreted as representing these polarities. It would be an oversimplification to suggest that to accept a Modernist account of modem art must imply rejection of a socio-historical view, or vice-versa (the discussion between TJ Clark and Michael Fried about Pollock (TV21) suggests that there is room for negotiation, if not for compromise). It is, however, arguable that a definition of postmodernism should take into consideration both the close interrelationship between Modernist criticism and mid-twentieth century abstract art, which together constituted the dominant hegemony in art from the late 1940s to the early 1960s (and hence the artistic context against which postmodernism in the visual arts evolved), and the social, historical and political context within which art characterised as postmodern has developed. It seems reasonable, therefore, to start by attempting to clarify the critical positions represented by Greenberg and Burgin. Greenberg, in 'Modernist Painting' (1961) and other writings, sets the development of modem art, specifically painting, in the context of the ideas of the Enlightenment philosopher Kant, who 'used logic to establish the limits of logic' (Art in Theory p.755.) Kant thereby established a precedent for using the techniques of a particular medium to define and refine that medium, a process referred to by Greenberg as 'self-criticism'. This implies that painting, rather than 'using art to conceal art' (ibid) by creating illusionistic space and depth, should rather use art 'to call attention to art' (ibid), that is, to emphasise the unique characteristics of the medium; 'the flat surface, the shape of the support, the properties of pigment' (ibid). Greenberg states that such a process would render art 'pure', that is, autonomous, free of any extraneous elements deriving from other arts, such as theatricality or narrative. The impact of a painting should thus derive from those technical aspects characteristic of painting, such as...
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