Recap Modernism a term typically associated with the twentieth-century reaction against realism and romanticism within the arts. More generally, it is often used to refer to a twentieth-century belief in the virtues of science, technology and the planned management of social change. Modernity refers to a period extending from the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries (in the case of Europe) to the mid to late twentieth century characterized by the growth and strengthening of a specific set of social practices and ways of doing things. It is often associated with capitalism and notions such as progress.
Modernism is related to but not to be confused with Modernity. Modernity relates to the massive changes in culture and society due mainly to the developments brought about by the industrial revolutions and subsequent political unrest within Europe.
High Modernism High or Late Modernism is a particular instance of modernism, coined towards the end of modernism. Clement Greenberg was an important proponent of High Modernism. Modernism valorizes personal style. This presupposes a unique individuality - a private identity or self (subject) - that generates his or her own style according to a personal vision. This individualism is put into question in High (or Late) Modernism.
Abstract Expressionism Abstract Expressionism is a type of art in which the artist expresses himself purely through the use of form and colour. It non-representational, or non-objective, art, which means that there are no actual objects represented.
Abstract Expressionism The movement can be more or less divided into two groups: Action Painting, typified by artists such as Pollock, de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Philip Guston, stressed the physical action involved in painting; Willem de Kooning: Woman (1949)
Abstract Expressionism Colour Field Painting, practiced by Mark Rothko and Kenneth Noland, among others, was primarily concerned with exploring the effects of pure color on a canvas. Mark Rothko. Red White and Brown c1957
Abstract Expressionism: Importance of the Critics Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg
Abstract Expressionism was an avant-garde movement
Critics provided explanations for what these radical works meant
Greenberg is considered a formalist critic - his assessment of the value of an artwork lay in its formal characteristics.
Believed that although form was not the total of art, it provided the only firm basis on which to make judgements on both the quality and character of different works of art, as it was too easy to make contradictory assertions about subject matter. Greenberg:
An evolving linear progression abstracted from artists’ lives and historic events
Against the subjective nature of aesthetic judgement
Formalism We can perhaps begin by describing formalism as the valorization of the purely aesthetic experience, as aestheticism. The principle work of formalism focuses on the techniques specific to a medium.
According to Greenberg: “Realistic, naturalistic art had dissembled the medium using art to conceal art: Modernism used art to call attention to art. The limitations that constituted the medium of painting – the flat surface, the shape of the support, the properties of the pigment – were all treated by the Old Masters as negative factors that could be acknowledged. Only implicity or indirectly. Under Modernism, these same limitations came to be regarded as positive factors and were acknowledged openly.” Clement Greenberg argued that art should hold itself separately from mass culture, and defend its own purity and complexity against the vulgarization and blandishments of kitsch.
The project of Modernity can be thought of as the development of science, philosophy and art, each according to its own inner logic. This links the concept of modernity to the concept of modernism as it was articulated by Greenberg. The concept of the avant-garde is that of a loosely organized oppositional force and challenge to the dominant artistic culture. The avant-garde is often thought of as part of the "inner logic of modernism" - the built in source of contradiction or critique that moves art forward. (Note that this assumes a model of progress as part of the inner development of the arts and culture.)
Critics such as Roger Fry, Clive Bell and Clement Greenberg spoke up for a specific ‘aesthetic experience’
explicit critique of the effects of capitalism on culture was part of his evaluative process
‘good’ or ‘great’ art was a form of resistance to the destructive effects of mass production, the division of labour, and the encroachment of high technology
committed to the formal and historical significance of the art he discussed
supported ‘abstract’ art, considering it a revolution against the established American taste for nationalistic narrative painting
Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) Abstract Expressionism is a form of art in which the artist expresses himself purely through the use of form and colour. It is form of non-representational, or non-objective, art, which means that there are no concrete objects represented. Jackson Pollock, Lavender Mist: Number 1, 1950
American modernism Considering American modernism in the early decades of the Cold War, we can trace the combative debate among artists, writers, and intellectuals over the nature of the aesthetic form in an age of mass politics and mass culture.
The rise of Abstract Expressionism after the Second World War and the cultural cold was politics, and the role of MOMA
MOMA was part and parcel of the CIA’s efforts to combat Communism with American culture
The Abstract Expressionists were overwhelmingly men, previously Marxists and then disillusioned Marxists
Their art exemplified a worldview that could be construed as the ultimate antithesis to Communism
They were individualistic, autonomous, exuding despair and anxiety
Jackson Pollock, in particular, became the icon of alienation
The CIA latched onto Abstract Expressionism for its purported anti-communism
Modern art was CIA 'weapon' Revealed: how the spy agency used unwitting artists such as Pollock and de Kooning in a cultural Cold War For decades in art circles it was either a rumour or a joke, but now it is confirmed as a fact. The Central Intelligence Agency used American modern art - including the works of such artists as Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko - as a weapon in the Cold War. In the manner of a Renaissance prince - except that it acted secretly - the CIA fostered and promoted American Abstract Expressionist painting around the world for more than 20 years. Why did the CIA support them? Because in the propaganda war with the Soviet Union, this new artistic movement could be held up as proof of the creativity, the intellectual freedom, and the cultural power of the US. Russian art, strapped into the communist ideological straitjacket, could not compete. Stonor Saunders, Frances. Sunday, 22 October 1995, The Independent http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/modern-art-was-cia-weapon-1578808.html
The Specificity of the Medium The uniqueness of an art form ultimately depends upon the specificity of the medium, i.e. the characteristics that it shares with no other form of art. Once this specificity has been discovered, Greenberg claims, the progressive modernist is called upon to purge all elements not essential and specific to the medium. Nothing borrowed from the medium of another art can be tolerated. Thus, under Modernism, each art searches for "purity" and in that purity, absolute autonomy not only from other advanced art forms, but from mundane everyday life and popular (mass) culture as well. (All forms of popular culture are referred to by Greenberg as kitsch.) [See Greenberg, "Avant-Garde and Kitsch"]
Abstraction As a result, Greenberg saw abstraction as being a necessary means of removing all other content from artwork. The abstraction referred back to the painting itself, as opposed to the real world. Greenberg’s theory surrounding Abstract Expressionism was based on the concept of the ‘purity’ of art, “art for art’s sake”. Greenberg championed Abstract Expressionism as being a movement that removed art from all other humanist concerns such as politics, popular culture, and instead drew on the artwork itself for its concept.
Flatness as the Defining Feature of Painting Modernism reasserts the two-dimensionality of the picture surface. It forces the viewer to see the painting first as a painted surface, and only later as a picture. This, Greenberg says, is the best way to see any kind of picture.
A flat picture plane – which was a result of the artists no longer trying to represent 3D objects, necessary as it showed the artist was accepting the overriding fact of the medium.
Clement Greenberg Avant Garde and Kitsch For Greenberg in 1939, the demand for Kitsch seems to accompany modernization, be it under Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, or in the Western Democracies. "Kitsch is the culture of the masses in these countries, as it is everywhere else."
Modern Art? Or An Art of the Modern? Since the War every twentieth-century style in painting has been brought to profusion in the United States: thousands of "abstract" painters—crowded teaching courses in Modern Art—a scattering of new heroes—ambitions stimulated by new galleries, mass exhibitions, reproduction in popular magazines, festivals, appropriations. Is this the usual catching up of America with European art forms? Or is something new being created? For the question of novelty, a definition would seem indispensable. Harold Rosenberg, "The American Action Painters" from Tradition of the New, originally in Art News 51/8, Dec. 1952
Getting Inside the Canvas At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act—rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze or "express" an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event. The painter no longer approached his easel with an image in his mind; he went up to it with material in his hand to do something to that other piece of material in front of him. The image would be the result of this encounter. Call this painting "abstract" or "Expressionist" or Abstract-Expressionist," what counts is its special motive for extinguishing the object, which is not the same as in other abstract or Expressionist phases of modern art. The new American painting is not "pure" art, since the extrusion of the object was not for the sake of the esthetic. The apples weren't brushed off the table in order to make room for perfect relations of space and color. They had to go so that nothing would get in the way of the act of painting.
Dramas Of As If A painting that is an act is inseparable from the biography of the artist. The painting itself is a "moment" in the adulterated mixture of his life—whether "moment" means the actual minutes taken up with spotting the canvas or the entire duration of a lucid drama conducted in sign language. The act-painting is of the same metaphysical substance as the artist's existence. The new painting has broken down every distinction between art and life.
"It's Not That, It's Not That, It's Not That" Many of the painters were "Marxists" (WPA unions, artists' congresses); they had been trying to paint Society. Others had been trying to paint Art (Cubism, Post-Impressionism)—it amounts to the same thing. The big moment came when it was decided to paint . . . just to PAINT. The gesture on the canvas was a gesture of liberation, from Value—political, esthetic, moral…The refusal of values did not take the form of condemnation or defiance of society, as it did after World War I.
Milieu: The Busy No-Audience Everyone knows that the label Modern Art no longer has any relation to the words that compose it. To be Modern Art a work need not be either modern nor art; it need not even be a work. A three thousand-year-old mask from the South Pacific qualifies as Modern and a piece of wood found on the beach becomes Art. When they find this out, some people grow extremely enthusiastic, even, oddly enough, proud of themselves; others become infuriated. These reactions suggest what Modern Art actually is. It is not even a Style. It has nothing to do either with the period when a thing was made nor with the intention of the maker. It is something that someone has had the social power to designate as psychologically, esthetically or ideologically relevant to our epoch. The question of the driftwood is: Who found it? Modern art is educational, not with regard to art but with regard to life. You cannot explain Mondrian's painting to people who don't know anything about Vermeer, but you can easily explain the social importance of admiring Mondrian and forgetting about Vermeer.
Cockcroft, Eva. Abstract Expressionism: Weapon of the Cold War. Artforum, vol. 15, no 10, June 1974, pp39-41
“After the Industrial Revolution, with the decline of the academies, development of the gallery system, and the rise of the museums, the role of artists became less clearly defined, and the objects artists fashioned increasingly becomes part of the general flow of commodities in a market economy.”
Artists no longer had direct contact with the patrons
They retained little or no control over the disposition of their works
Many artists rejected the materialistic values of bourgeois society
Many artists indulged in the myth that they could exist entirely outside the dominant culture
Avant-garde artists generally refused to recognise or accept their role as producers of cultural commodity
References Frascina F, Harrison C, editors. Modern art and Modernism. A critical anthology. London: Paul Chapman Publishing Ltd; 1982, pp.308-14. (Greenberg)Frascina F, Harris J, editors. Art in modern culture. An anthology of critical texts. London: Phaidon Press Limited; 1992, pp.5-10. (Greenberg) Harrison C. Modernism. London: Tate Gallery Publishing Ltd; 1997, pp.6-21 and pp53-61.Meecham P, Sheldon J. Modern art: a critical introduction. London: Routledge; 2000, pp1-15. Wood P, Frascina F, Harris J, Harrison, C. Modernism in dispute. Art since the forties. London: Yale University Press; 1993, pp.170-5 http://www.sharecom.ca/greenberg/