A CRITIQUE OF CLEMENT GREENBERG (1904- 1994) AN IMPORTANT MODERNIST WHO USED HIS EXPERIENCE AND KNOWLEDGE TO DEFINE A THEORY OF ‘HIGH MODERNISM’ WHICH REJECTED OTHER FORMS OF MODERN ART IN THE 20TH CENTURY INCLUDING POP ART , MINIMALISM , NEO REALISM,PERFORMANCE ART CONCEPTUAL ART, VIDEO INSTALLATION AND THE ART OF MARCEL DUCHAMP: PART 3.

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This is the third part of my critique of Clement Greenberg the foremost Modernist Art critic in the 20th century. Barabara Reise continues her critique of Greenberg.

” The Greenbergian distortion of art and History ensure the subjectivity of his evaluation  of art no matter how objective he believes his arguments to be”. [1].

Referring to Michael Fried one of Greenberg’s disciples Reise makes the following comment.

” His inability to apprehend content outside the material form of painting and sculpture results in his crude characterisation of all media , mixtures and content of general human sensibility into Theatre”. [2[.

In her footnotes of this essay Reise makes some interesting comments about Abstract expressionist painters.

” Newman , Still and Rothko developed their characteristic styles in the late 40’s concurrently and in close association with Pollock , De Kooning , Motherwell Gottlieb Tomlin and (later) Kline: they did not previously paint in interlaced drips or body gestured slashing’s characteristic of the morphological form of others paintings. The Irascible 18 protesting at the Metropolitan museum (in New York) , and thus must be considered as much a part of the group as the artists known as Abstract Expressionists “.[3].

” After 1949 the paintings of the group known as abstract expressionists have essentially nothing to do with Cubist compositional space fragmented by multiple planes related to the picture surface , rather they are united fields of space and colour in which no planes can be measured by geometric or representational standards”. [4].

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Again I have displayed a number of different Images but wanted to confirm Reise’s argument about the abstract expressionist work having no relation to Cubism.

Michael Fried in his essay 3 American Painters offers his opinion of what is a Modernist Painting.

” Roughly speaking the History of painting from Manet through synethic Cubism and Matisse may be characterised in terms of the gradual withdrawal of Painting from the task of representing reality- in favour of an increasing pre occupation with the problems intrinsic to Painting itself”. [5]

Of course Fried is merely repeating Greenberg’s mantra of a subjective idealist representation in Art. Fried is clearly wrong as Reise has argued previously.

Fried continues with his idealism demonstrating what to him was the importance of Cubism, but failing to recognise that Cubism was reality.

” Without the achievements of Cubism in the first and second decades of this century if not before Painting and sculpture became free to pursue concerns intrinsic to themselves”. [6].

Fried continues with an attempt to influence his readers with a reference to Hegel the great Objective idealist philosopher who was responsible for both Feuerbachian Philosophy and Marxist Scientific socialism.

” I mean what is essential in Hegel’s  conception of historical progression as expounded in this century by the Marxist (Stalinist) philosopher George Luckacs in his great work History and Class Consciousness”.[7].

The authority of Lucaks is somewhat flawed. He remained a subjective idealist for most of his Life and in the end embraced all the Stalinist twists and turns from popular frontism to ultra Leftism of the third period.

Cliff Slaughter a former Marxist is correct to analyse Luckac’s  proper historical role.

” From the beginning of Stalinism in 1924 until his own death in 1972 Luckacs for all his theoretical work was at no time an opponent of the Stalinist revisions of Marxist theory”. [8].

Rodney Livingstone a New left academic shows further the role of Luckacs in the Hungarian revolution.

” The publication of this work in 1923 resulted in Luckacs condemnation in 1924 by Zinoview at the 5th congress of the Communist International”. [9].

Michael Archer  another critic of High Modernism comments ” This means that while Modernist Painting has increasingly divorced itself from the concerns of society in which it previously flourishes”. [10].

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In my most recent images I have shown paintings defined by Fried and Greenberg as part of the modernist canon , including Cezanne , Van Doesburg , Mondrian with their Geometrical abstract images which according to Fried was intrinsic to painting. Of course he rejects Performance art and the Pop Art of Lichenstein and Warhol.

Archer continues with his critique of Modernism.

” Throughout the later 1960’s and 1970’s anything which fed a market was perceived by some US Artists in particular lending tacit support however indirectly to the US Involvement among other things to the Vietnam war, an art which could assertively  as such ,while denying the saleability of objects carried a certain ideological and political efficacy that was contrary to the tenets of capitalist market economy”[11]

Archer goes on to show how artists like Hans Haacke took a very critical stance towards Greenberg and Fried.

” Like many others (Hans Haacke) viewed political art as a rejection of the formalist approach to practice and criticism espoused by Greenberg. He stated for decades now Greenberg’s formalist doctrine has managed to have us believe that Art floats ten feet above the ground and has nothing to do with the historical situation out of which it grew”. [12].

” In the 1960’s for followers of Clement Greenberg the refusal to represent distanced Art from sordid reality , while for Michael Fried so-called literalists the stamp of ‘object hood’ made it a part of reality”. [13].

Archer correctly points out that it was not now about the representation of abstraction the debate was now about Figurative or non figurative art.

” Thus in Painting what in the 1960’s had been arguments over the interpretation of abstraction was transformed into the 1970’s into a debate about the apparent significance and political connotations of Figurative or non Figurative work”. [14].

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Thomas Crow a well known American Marxist art critic offers his comments on the Greenbergian   Modernism.

” During the late 1950’s Greenberg was in the process of refining his various commitments into over reaching theory of artistic progress in the Modern age. for painting these lay in its articulation of Surface and two dimensional shape and in consequent refusal of cultural or literary violations of the manifest integrity of the picture plane”. [15].

The Late Charles Harrison a senior lecturer at the Open University who taught me was a great tutor particularly his knowledge of Modernism and he was also part of the Art and Language group of Baldwin and Atkinson. It was through his teaching that I learnt about modernism. In his important essay Conceptual Art , the aesthetic and the end  of art he comments on Greenberg’s interpretation of Modernism.

” Greenberg was responsible for all the resolute political individualism of the abstract expressionist themselves that dominance was now inescapably associated with the exercise of American Military and economic power”. [16].

” Clement Greenberg commented  Modernism is the singular value that an influential body of theory and criticism represents as common to various works of art since Manet”. [17]

Harrisons shows in the following comments that it is the Curators and Directors of major modern Museums and galleries who are responsible for this strangle hood of High Modernism which as Harrison has argued previously has become the tool of American Imperialism.

” Matters were not helped by the fact that a powerful curatorial and distributive apparatus was now in place which paid lip service to the relevant Modernist protocols”.[18].

” Greenberg’s complaints of an art critic was written to support two principal theses the first that aesthetic judgements upon works of Art coincide with the involuntary and thus disinterested responses to their non-literary properties”. [19].

Harrison finally shows how Greenberg’s Modernist canon is reinforced.

” Other things being equal a painting by Henri Matisse is for Greenberg always better thasn a painting by Edvard Munch”. [20].

This completes my third part of my investigation into Clement Greenberg’s High Modernist Canon. in Part 4 I will further examine and critique Greenbergian Modernism.

FOOTNOTES

  1. ART IN MODERN CULTURE : GREENBERG AND THE GROUP A RETROSPECTIVE VIEW:BARABARA M.REISE. PG.256
  2. DITTO.PG.258
  3. FOOTNOTE 36.PG.361 DITTO.
  4. FOOTNOTE 37.PG.362 DITTO
  5. ART IN THEORY 1900-2000: THREE AMERICAN PAINTERS: MICHAEL FRIED. PG.115
  6. DITTO.PG.117
  7. DITTO.PG.118
  8. MARXISM IDEOLOGY AND LITERATURE : A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS GEORG LUCKACS. CLIFF SLAUGHTER.PG.114-5
  9. TACTICS AND ETHICS. 1919-1929. GEORGE LUCKACS. INTRODUCTION BY RODNEY LIVINGSTONE.
  10. ART SINCE 1960: MICHAEL ARCHER. PG.109
  11. DITTO.PG.111
  12. DITTO.PG.139
  13. DITTO.PG.139
  14. DITTO.PG.139
  15. RISE OF THE SIXTIES: THOMAS CROW. PG.60
  16. THEMES IN CONTEMPORARY ART: CONCEPTUAL ART, THE AESTHETIC AND THE END OF ART. CHARLES HARRISON.PG.61
  17. DITTO.PG.59
  18. DITTO.PG58
  19. DITTO.PG.61.
  20. DITTO.PG.62

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One thought on “A CRITIQUE OF CLEMENT GREENBERG (1904- 1994) AN IMPORTANT MODERNIST WHO USED HIS EXPERIENCE AND KNOWLEDGE TO DEFINE A THEORY OF ‘HIGH MODERNISM’ WHICH REJECTED OTHER FORMS OF MODERN ART IN THE 20TH CENTURY INCLUDING POP ART , MINIMALISM , NEO REALISM,PERFORMANCE ART CONCEPTUAL ART, VIDEO INSTALLATION AND THE ART OF MARCEL DUCHAMP: PART 3.”

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