Notes on Clement Greenberg's Modernism

Topics: Modernism, Clement Greenberg, Modern art Pages: 3 (784 words) Published: October 12, 2013
Formalist Approach:
Characteristics: Theory of high art, focus on quality, retrospective specialisation (flatness), self-definition. Key Terms: Flatness, surface, self-criticism, depth, medium specificity.

For Greenberg, the key motivating force within modern art was the pursuit of quality (Art is a matter strictly of experience, not of principles, and what counts first and last in art is quality)

By experience, he meant the practical aspect of making art and the artist’s attention to the medium of painting. For Greenberg, all successful modern painting acknowledged the surface of the painting, i.e. the flatness of its support, which contrasts strongly with the illusion of depth created in the Academic tradition For example, Greenberg did not say that Pollock’s work of the 1940s and 1950s was a direct succession of Manet’s 1800s works, but he did argue that a logical development can be traced Manet’s works became the first Modernist ones by virtue of the frankness with which they declared the surfaces on which they were painted

e.g. In Olympia, Manet painted
his subject with sketchy
brushstrokes and very little depth – she is painted with an expanse of white flesh edged with abrupt grey outlines which draw attention to the flatness of the picture surface In other words, Greenberg thought that the quality of modern works of art depended on the acknowledgement of the medium. Art moved forward by engaging critically with the most ambitious modern art to have preceded it, and it was ‘self-critical’ in this respect

For this reason, ‘flatness’ is the most important feature of painting for Greenberg, because it is this 2D characteristic which is peculiar to it and which makes it like no other art

Problems? The Modernist canon has established a group of exemplary artworks, but Greenberg’s Modernist account privileges some art at the expense of others. Esp since the 1970s, it has been contested. e.g. Many feminist art historians have seen...
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