Today the focus is on form and in particular formalism - the question of form over content, is the central issue involved in the debates around formalismThe main areas we will cover are: deliberate concentration on formal qualities self-referentiality autonomy art for art’s sakeAbstract Expressionism FormalismWe will also questions about the role played by art in the shifting relations between the realm of the aesthetic and the political.As we have seen, modern formalism evolved during the late 19th century and early 20th. An important impetus was given to this development by aestheticism, a broad-based cultural movement, in large part a reaction against the ills of modern industrial society.In this lecture, in our discussions of formalism we will be concentrating on Abstract Expressionist painters in particular.I will contextualise Abstract Expressionism within the political framework of late 1940s America which will explain how the work was disseminated by critics such as:Clement Greenberg Harold Rosenberg
So by this stage you are well aware that Modernism is an umbrella term, or general name given to the succession of numerous avant-garde movements in art, design and literature between the end of the 18th century to the mid 20th century. The main underpinning issue of the movement is that Modernist artists became less concerned with representing objects, or scenes and people in a ‘believable’ way. Insomuch as they were often less interested in naturalism and perspective that their immediate predecessors had been. Furthermore, during the first half of the 20th century there were radical impulses within individuals and groups making art and writing about art and culture.Of particular importance, as we have seen, was how artists were increasingly dealing with the experience of a rapidly changing world. The term Modernism was first applied to a time period beginning in the 1880s, when certain artists began to build on Impressionism’s radical steps away from tradition in order to be deliberately, different, critical, and often dissenting from the dominant taste of official salons and their strictures on style, techniques, materials, and subjects of art. More recently, it has been applied to a variety of mostly abstract styles, which are often idealistic and individualistic. Modernism strives to towards originality, trying to shake loose influences of the past. It is strongly dependent on the formal vocabulary of art (line, colour, shape, form) and the inherent properties of materials. Its most infamous manifestations are either geometric and/or expressive.We have also seen howprogressive or avant-garde modernism tended to concern itself with political and social issues, drawing attention to troubling aspects of contemporary society, which they felt needed to be addressed and corrected. In this sense it is also clear that in first half of the 20th century there were radical impulses within individuals and groups making art and writing about art and culture.Through their art, the artists repeatedly pointed out political and social ills that an increasingly complacent and comfortable middle class preferred to ignore.Fundamentally, the intention of these somewhat radical and politically engaged artists was to educate the public, to keep alive in the face of conservative forces the Enlightenment ideals of freedom and equality through which the world would be made a better place.
As a label for the different works of a particular generation or community of artists, centred around New York from the 1940s through the 50s, the term Abstract Expressionism is actually fairly misleading. Embracing as it does at the one extreme, the work of Willem de Kooning, which is rarely abstract, and at the other the work of Barnett Newman, which is not characteristically expressionist.It is also important to understand the critical aspects of Abstract Expressionism.Of the many critics who would write about Abstract Expressionism, Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg were the first to popularise it in the late 1940s .Also of importance are the political implications of modernist form. We should ask ourselves if modernist form is oppositional, or does it reflect and support, either inadvertently or intentionally, the cultural and political status quo.Indeed, the modernists themselves were highly self-conscious concerning the cultural and social implications of their ‘new’ aesthetics, and the polemics/the debates/the rhetoric they initiated have been extended numerous influential Western aesthetic theorists.
another thing that does perhaps underpin the Abstract Expressionists is their interest in the particular properties of paint. For example how paint in various thickness, applied by a variety of means, behaves differently and affects the finished work in different ways. Blobs of paint mean something different from drips or thin veils. For example we can see this in Jackson Pollock turning to abstraction and abandoning the canvas on the easel or the wall and placed it on the floor to make his paintings with his drip and splatter technique.
Formalismemphasizes the autonomy or primacy of formal qualitiesconsciously detached from its ideological or cultural contextrefers to a way of creating, viewing and interpreting art that focuses on the visual elements and principles (privileging aesthetic response as mediated through sight alone), disregarding politics, historical context, content and the artistIn general, the term formalism describes the critical position that the most important aspect of a work of art is its form, that is, the way it is made and its purely visual aspects, rather than its narrative content or its relationship to the visible world. In painting therefore, a formalist critic would focus exclusively on the qualities of colour, brushwork, form, line and composition. Formalism and modernism became almost interchangeable in the field of art theory mainly in the writings of such as Clement Greenberg ( more of him later).So I think its worth quickly re-caping of the definition of Modernism and Modernity and outlining the meaning of Formalism.
This brings us to High Modernism. High 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. Late Modernism is situated at a time of Social turmoil, increasing nuclear threat, the technologization of the workforce under multinational capitalism, and the breakdown of religious belief that led to a kind of nihilism and anxiety about the future.After World War II - Negative effects of the war are offset temporarily by the economic prosperity & postwar reconstruction which takes place during the ‘50s. However Cold War - Tension between the Soviet Union and the United States under the strain of a nuclear buildup offsets the psychological effects of the post-War economic prosperity.Domestic tensions: Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Movement, Environmentalism, Viet Nam, political assassinations (JFK, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X).Before the outbreak of World War II, Social Realism provided the dominant artistic style, representing and reflecting the tumultuous political and social climate of the Depression. During this time artists in the city were influenced from a number of different directions, initially by Marxism - which stressed the importance of socially relevant art - and later by Freudian psychoanalysis, Cubism and Surrealism. Throughout the early 1940s many artists began to experiment with abstraction, and by the end of the decade the Abstract Expressionists were experiencing their most important breakthroughs. During this time critics such as Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg developed theoretical justifications for the new styles, and, by the mid 1950s, critical debate was focussed around the ideas Greenberg put forward in his essay "American-Type Painting," and those launched by Rosenberg in "The American Action Painters." During the early part of the period, many moved further away from the political beliefs they had held in the 1930s, while some began to embrace Existentialism.
Since the first decades of the 20th century the concern for formal qualities generally acknowledged as “formalism”, has been by and large what we might call the hallmark of art criticism.Formalism as a critical stance came into being in response to Impressionism and Post-Impressionism (especially the painting of Cézanne) in which unprecedented emphasis was placed on the purely visual aspects of the work. Maurice Denis Definition of Neo-Traditionism (1890). 'Remember, that a picture, before it is a picture of a battle horse, a nude woman, or some story, is essentially a flat surface covered in colours arranged in a certain order.' Denis emphasised that aesthetic pleasure was to be found in the painting itself not its subject.
Broadly speaking the term AE is generally described as:non-representational art of the mid 20c in which line, colour, and technique combine to express and elicit powerful emotion. AE is also sometimes referred to as the ‘New York School’. AE ranges from impeccable geometry to ‘Action Painting’, the latter exhibiting the energetic imprint of the working process (or gesture) visible in such details as brushstrokes. It is stylistically varied but usually marked by a tendency to exploit expressive possibilities of colour and materials.Abstract Expressionism was a branch of American art that received the most direct European influence - but it also embodied something of the mythical American initiative, rugged individualism, and so on. It was, in other words, a highly suitable sign for the propagandist idea of the unity of the United States and Western Europe - but unity under American leadership.
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;
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. This style of abstraction emphasisescolour, and is often painted on so large a scale that the colour fills the viewer’s entire field of vision. One of the main issues for these artists was flatness and the bonding of paint and canvas to become a single integrated unit instead of canvas simple being the ground on which paint is applied. This emphasis is an aspect of one of modern art’s tenets that art should not be about something else but instead it should express its own specific and unique qualities, independent of representations of reality or illustrations of an ideology.
FranzKline (1910 –1962) was an American painter mainly associated with the Abstract Expressionist painters who were centered, geographically, around New York, and temporally, in the 1940s and 1950s; but not limited to that setting.
Franz Kline’s powerful brushstrokes, summarise the more action-orientated aspects of Abstract Expressionism.Kline eliminates recognisable in his paintings, and even the title ‘Painting Number 2’ provides the viewer with little direction to interpret the work.A lot of Kline’s paintings cultivate a spirit of spontaneity, of improvisation, almost as if he was making those marks as he went along, without knowing where he was going. While generally his paintings have a dynamic, spontaneous and dramatic impact, in actuality he closely referred to his compositional drawings. Kline carefully rendered many of his most complex pictures from studies.
The work of Barnett Newman reflects the more geometric approach of Abstract Expressionism. This painting is an enormous red expanse. Newman applied cadmium red paint in smooth layers so that no brushstrokes are visible. The red expanse is subdivided by five vertical stripes, which Newman termed “zips.” Together, these vertical bands form an almost perfect square near the centre of the otherwise asymmetrical, abstract compositionAt eighteen feet long and eight feet high, this work was Newman’s largest painting at the time of its completion, andis meant to overwhelm the senses. Viewers may be inclined to step back from it to see it all at once, but Newman instructed precisely the opposite. When the painting was first exhibited, in 1951 at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York, Newman tacked to the wall a notice that read, “There is a tendency to look at large pictures from a distance. The large pictures in this exhibition are intended to be seen from a short distance.” Newman believed deeply in the spiritual potential of abstract art. The Latin title of this painting means “Man, heroic and sublime.”
Pollock’s work steers clear of specific references, opening the field to a greater number of associations and feelings.Pollock’s work, like Kline’s, typifies ‘Action Painting’ which is an apt term since by way of the paint you can track the actions undertaken to make the painting. The paint conveys the energy with which it was applied, and the idea is then that the property of these lines express or convey meanings.Further more it is argued by art theorist such as Clement Greenberg (who I will talk about later) that we need not know anything about the artist or his life to engage with the work. However as I will argue, the context of the works production is relevant. We are talking about post World War 2 America basking in a boundless, heroic, and victorious feeling of exuberance and power, tinged a little by some fear of what its superpower responsibilities may mean.
Two of the most important art critics of the 20th century – esp. for Abstract Expressionism were Harold Rosenberg and Clement GreenbergGreenberg and Rosenberg had diametrically opposing views to art: Greenberg was more interested in the ‘abstract’ element and Rosenberg was more concerned with the ‘expressionist’ part of Abstract ExpressionismAbstract Expressionism: Importance of the CriticsAbstract Expressionism was an avant-garde movementTherefore, it was new to audiencesCritics provided explanations for what these radical works meant
Despite a number of differences in their approaches to formalism, theorists share two common commitments, which make up the core of formalist aesthetics, and which can be summarized as follows: one, the definition of art in terms of its formal qualities, i.e. form vs. art as representation or expression; and two, the dichotomy of form vs. content.
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:Concrete aesthetic encountersSure of its own objectivityForm over contentPurist media categoriesAn evolving linear progression abstracted from artists’ lives and historic eventsAgainst the subjective nature of aesthetic judgement
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. Greenberg described Jackson Pollock’s paintings as emotionally charged yet rationally controlled and highly individualistic.
JACKSON POLLOCKGreenberg was quick to recognize that Pollock’s innovative and provocative drip paintings were important to the avant-garde.Pollock's paintings marked a significant juncture in the development of Formalism, with them we enter into a new view of art - one that includes both gesture and process. Drip painting fulfilled the conditions of the evolving Modern aesthetic of form and at the same reestablished the premise set forth by Clive Bell that the value of art lies in expression of the ‘vital force’; (in the emotive connection the artist makes with the viewer through the painting).
I have repeatedly spoken about the great narrative of modernism in art, or the canon as a means ofsystematically accounting for modern developments by emphasizing formal characteristics of paintings as especially revealing to construct a particular history of modern art.Formalism became a very effective instrument of control over unruly and disruptive art. The underlying assumptions at work here first of all posit that the visual artist, by virtue of special gifts, are able to express the finer things of humanity through a ‘purely visual’ understanding and mode of expression. This ‘purely visual’ characteristic of art made it an autonomous sphere of activity, completely separate from the everyday world of social and political life. The self–determining nature of visual art meant that questions asked of it could be properly put, and answered, only in its own terms. Modernism’s ‘history’ was constructed through reference only to itself. Each ‘ism’, gains its art historical significance through its place within a scheme of stylistic development that has its roots in the preceding ‘isms’ and for its influence on for successive styles or ‘isms’.
Formalism, though, could also be turned to the advantage of the progressives who were able to use it in defense of modernism, abstraction in particular. Formalism also neatly dovetailed in the early 20th century with another goal of progressive modernism: universalism. For art to be an effective instrument of social betterment, it needed to be understood by as many people as possible. But it was not a matter of simply manipulating images, it was the ‘true’ art behind the image that was deemed important. Art can be many things and one example may look quite different from the next. But something called ‘art’ is common to all. Whatever this ‘true’ art was, it was universal; like the scientific ‘truth’ of the Enlightenment. All art obviously possessed it.Some artists went in search of ‘art.’ From an Enlightenment point of view, this was a search for the ‘truth’ or essence of art, and was carried out using a sort of pictorial reasoning. The first step was to strip away distracting elements such as recognizable objects which tended to conceal or hide the common ‘art’ thing…reducing their compositions to arrangements of colours, lines, and shapes. The belief being that colours, lines, and shapes could exist autonomously in a painting without any connection to recognizable objects.
Art for art’s sakeThe practice of artistic freedom became fundamental to progressive modernism. Artists began to seek freedom not just from the rules of the Academy, but from the expectations of the public. It was claimed that art possessed its own intrinsic value and should not have to be made to satisfy any edifying, utilitarian, or moral function. It was claimed that art should be produced not for the public’s sake, but for art’s sake. ‘Art for Art's Sake’ in some senses became subjugated by those who wanted to neutralize the content and political effects of modernist art. Art was to be discussed in formal terms — colour, line, shape, space, composition — which effectively removed the question of meaning and purpose from consideration and allowed whatever social, political, or progressive statements the artist had hoped to make in their work to be conveniently ignored or played down. In defense of this attitude, it was argued that, because the function of art is to preserve and enhance the values and sensibilities of civilized human beings, art should attempt to remain aloof from the malignant influences of contemporary culture which was becoming increasingly coarse and dehumanized.There emerged the notion that modernist art is to be practiced entirely within a closed formalist sphere that was necessarily separated from, so as not to become contaminated by, the real world.
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.”Greenberg felt that art existed in a ‘pure’ state, and can be experienced in a transcendental way by all human beings and organised into categories that don’t overlap, and should never mix with everyday life or mass culture. He 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’ Greenberg: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 technologycommitted to the formal and historical significance of the art he discussedchampioned American avant-garde painting supported ‘abstract’ art, considering it a revolution against the established American taste for nationalistic narrative paintingIn terms of Greenberg’s famous dichotomy between avant-garde and kitsch, the arts produced by Nazism and Stalinism were both to be regarded as kitsch - that is, as having falsified content. Pure form was offered as the revolutionary alternative. In effect he offered Abstract Expressionism as a way out of the dilemma of failed faith in Stalinism. His unqualified assertion that ‘quality’ is to be judged only by the eye, and that only he had the eye to do it
Important exhibition ‘French and American Painters’ in 1942, brought Jackson Pollock’s work to the public for the first time, alongside the work of De Kooning and Krasner’s in juxtaposition with paintings by acknowledged French masters like Braque and Picasso. Greenberg championed painter Jackson Pollock above all others. He saw his absolute abstraction as ensuring the ‘purity’ of the art, and he wrote of his use of colour and all-over composition. First Generation Abstract ExpressionistsGreenberg championed Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, William De Kooning, David Smith and Robert Motherwell Jackson Pollock was an abstract expressionist. 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 was considered to exemplify the romantic notion of the artist genius, iconic hero of individuality and expression. Since the days of Romantic art, a visceral notion of the artist driven by his urge to create has been associated with psychic instability and social isolation.
American modernism like modernism in general is a trend of thought that affirms the power of human beings to create, improve, and reshape their environment, with the aid of scientific knowledge, technology and practical experimentation, and is thus in its essence both progressive and optimistic. The general term covers many political, cultural and artistic movements rooted in the changes in Western society at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. American modernism is an artistic and cultural movement in the United States starting at the turn of the 20th century with its core period between World War I and World War II and continuing into the 21st century.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.Although it started in the 1950s, the rift between the United States and the Soviet Union began during World War II.The United States believed in democracy. They adhered to the policy of free enterprise, voting to choose leaders and freedom of expression. The Soviet Union on the other hand, adhered to the doctrine of Communism. Stalin and the Soviet leaders believed that the masses were incapable of choosing their leader. Therefore, ruling with an iron fist was necessary.This ironclad rule would extend to its satellite countries. The Soviets would install leaders in Romania, Hungary and other Eastern European nations that were loyal to the USSR. They were also of course, Communists.It could be said then that, American Modernism was an attempt to bring order to the disordering forces of modernization
The rise of Abstract Expressionism after the Second World War and the cultural cold was politics, and the role of MOMAMOMAMuseums enlarged their role to become more than repositories of past art and began to exhibit and collect contemporary art, particularly in the United States.US museums, unlike their European counterparts developed primarily as a private institutionUS museums were set up on the model of their corporate trusteesThe rise of Abstract Expressionism after the Second World War and the cultural cold was politics, and the role of MOMAThese links were forged at a time by some of the most influential figures controlling museum policies and advocating cold war tactics to entice European intellectuals The political relationship between AE and the cold war can clearly be perceived through the international programmes of MOMA. As a tastemaker in the sphere of contemporary American art, the impact of MOMA, a major supporter of AE cannot be overestimated. MOMAFounded in 1929 mainly through the effort of the RockerfellersMOMA was part and parcel of the CIA’s efforts to combat Communism with American cultureThe Abstract Expressionists were overwhelmingly men, previously Marxists and then disillusioned MarxistsTheir art exemplified a worldview that could be construed as the ultimate antithesis to CommunismThey were individualistic, autonomous, exuding despair and anxietyJackson Pollock, in particular, became the icon of alienationThe CIA latched onto Abstract Expressionism for its purported anti-communism Why was Abstract Expressionist art singled out by the CIA/State Department as an essential weapon of the cultural Cold War? Why did Nelson Rockefeller purchase over 2500 pieces of Abstract Expressionist art and use these paintings to decorate the lobbies of Chase Manhattan banks? And then, why was New York’s Museum of Modern Art so enthusiastic over this specific art movement? In order to understand the trajectory behind these actions and policies, we have to examine the history and formation of the Abstract Expressionist Movement, what it was attempting to achieve in the world through its art, and how it was consequently interpreted.
Abstract Expressionism was connected to the idea of the sublime and the avant-garde, despite being so different and conservative compared to Dada, while also being wound up with US politics. The CIA established a cultural fund to enhance the States’ reputation during the cold war. Abstraction is taken to stand for freedom against the threat of Communism, where realist painting is enforced. 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.
The Specificity of the MediumThe 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"]In this sense Realist painting presents a problem in that it tends to conceal the specificity of the medium and, hence, the purity of painting. That's because realism encourages the viewer to move through the surface and into the illusionistic space of the representation. Modernist painting, on the other hand, uses the painting itself to call attention to painting. The flat surface, the shape of the support, the properties of the pigment - all these things that were denied by traditional painting are reasserted by modernist painting
AbstractionAs 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 PaintingModernism 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.For example, since sculpture is inherently three dimensional, it is absolutely necessary that modernist, i.e. pure, painting eschew any illusion of three-dimensionality. It must do this in order to sustain its autonomy. This is the real rationale for abstraction; not simply to avoid representation, but to avoid the impurity and inauthenticity of representing three dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface. A painting is to be looked at, not looked into. Its space is to be traveled through with the eye alone. According to Greenberg, this sort of resistance to sculptural effects is very much a part of, and can be found in, the historical tradition of painting in the West.
Greenberg's formalism held that modern abstract painting was the purest and most advanced artistic style in all of human history. With his seminal 1939 essay, "The Avant-Garde and Kitsch," art theory in the era of Abstract Expressionism had unofficially begun.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 is also the major figure in accounting for new developments in art terms of its formal predictions. He could account for Abstract Expressionism in general, and Jackson Pollock in particular within the terms of formalism.Greenberg is a typical formalist in that he believed that the treatment of form in Abstract Expressionism was the root of its quality; the artist he supported above all, Jackson Pollock, was judged to be great because of his success in manipulating form
Clement Greenberg's "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." In his essay, Greenberg divides art into avant-garde and kitsch. Avant-garde is the "genuine" art of our age, art that moves our society forward. It manages to be genuine by eschewing such tasteless things as subject matter in favour of art that focuses on the very processes of art, the medium of art itself. Greenberg describes a second new cultural phenomenon that appeared in the industrial West: Kitsch. For Greenberg, the new urban masses lost their taste for the folk culture of the countryside, discovered a new capacity for boredom, and set up a pressure on society to provide them with a culture fit for their own consumption. For Greenberg, Kitsch is produced by a rationalized technique that draws on science and industry and erases the values that permit distinctions between good and bad art. Kitsch is "vicarious experience and faked sensation". It changes according to mere "style" not real, profound reasons. It is also "the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times." In other words, kitsch is not immortal, but too caught up in its time. Greenberg states that the easiness of kitsch makes it a tool for Fascism; avant-garde art is of course too difficult for the use of Fascists; complexity becomes an ethical stance.In many ways Greenberg is describing High Modernism rather than the historical avant-garde such as Dada and so on that tended to be opposed to the very hierarchies of education and training that Greenberg's notion of avant garde depends on.
Rosenberg was one of the key influences in introducing existentialist theory into art – the idea of abstract expressionist works being a record of the artist’s psycheRosenberg did not believe as Greenberg did, that abstraction was for the purpose of ensuring the purity of the artFor Rosenberg, abstraction was a result of the artist having no pre-meditated purpose and the painting being a work of pure self-expressionI want to read from:Harold Rosenberg, "The American Action Painters" from Tradition of the New, originally in Art News 51/8, Dec. 1952Since 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.
Getting Inside the CanvasAt 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 IfA 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-AudienceEveryone 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 patronsThey retained little or no control over the disposition of their worksMany artists rejected the materialistic values of bourgeois societyMany artists indulged in the myth that they could exist entirely outside the dominant cultureAvant-garde artists generally refused to recognise or accept their role as producers of cultural commodity
Paintings by Pollockand de Kooning were to demonstrate the free spontaneous sensibility of the American option as opposed to the robotic Socialist Realism coming out of the Soviet Union. But clearly there was something slightly dishonest about this, since it is no secret that American formalism, despite the rebellious ambitions of its practitioners, served in part to depoliticise art at a moment - the McCarthy era and its aftermath - when content inevitably seemed political and hence dangerous. In this sense Abstract Expressionism was as much a submissive response to repression as it was a daring challenge to it. But this was not so obvious at the time, when Pollock, Newman, and so on - not to mention Greenberg himself - had no idea they were being co-opted into the role of Cold Warriors.
Week 9Abstract Expressionism and the Rise of Formalism
• deliberate concentration on formal qualities• self-referentiality• Autonomy• art for art‘s sake• Abstract Expressionism• FormalismIt will contextualise Abstract Expressionism within thepolitical framework of late 1940s America, and explainhow the work was disseminated by critics such as:•Clement Greenberg• Harold Rosenberg
• emphasizes the autonomy or primacy of formal qualities• consciously detached from its ideological or cultural context• refers to a way of creating, viewing and interpreting art that focuses on the visual elements and principles (privileging aesthetic response as mediated through sight alone), disregarding politics, historical context, content and the artist
High or Late Modernism is a particular instance ofmodernism, coined towards the end of modernism.Clement Greenberg was an important proponent ofHigh Modernism.Modernism valorizes personal style.This presupposes a unique individuality - a privateidentity or self (subject) - that generates his or her ownstyle according to a personal vision.This individualism is put into question in High (or Late)Modernism.
―Remember, that a picture, before it is a pictureof a battle horse, a nude woman, or some story,is essentially a flat surface covered in coloursarranged in a certain order.‖ Maurice Denis Definition of Neo-Traditionism (1890) Paul Cezanne Female Nude (Leda) (1885- 1887)
Broadly speaking the term Abstract Expressionism refersto:• non-representational art of the mid 20c in which line,colour, and technique combine to express and elicitpowerful emotion• ranges from impeccable geometry to ‗Action Painting‘, thelatter exhibiting the energetic imprint of the working process(or gesture) visible in such details as brushstrokes• it is stylistically varied but usually marked by a tendencyto exploit expressive possibilities of colour and materialsIt is also sometimes referred to as the ‗New York School‘
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, who stressed the physical action involved in paintingWillem de KooningWoman (1949)
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 RothkoRed White and Brownc1957
Abstract Expressionism: Importance of the Critics Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg •Abstract Expressionism was an avant-garde movement •Therefore, it was new to audiences •Critics provided explanations for what these radical works meant
Despite a number of differences in theirapproaches to formalism, theorists sharetwo common commitments, which make upthe core of formalist aesthetics, and whichcan be summarized as follows: one, thedefinition of art in terms of its formalqualities, i.e. form vs. art asrepresentation or expression; and two, thedichotomy of form vs. content.
Greenberg is considered a formalist critic - his assessmentof the value of an artwork lay in its formal characteristics.Believed that although form was not the total of art, itprovided the only firm basis on which to make judgementson both the quality and character of different works of art,as it was too easy to make contradictory assertions aboutsubject matter.Greenberg: Concrete aesthetic encounters Sure of its own objectivity Form over content Purist media categories An evolving linear progression abstracted from artists‘ lives and historic events Against the subjective nature of aesthetic judgement
We can perhaps begin by describing formalism as the valorizationof the purely aesthetic experience, as aestheticism. The principlework of formalism focuses on the techniques specific to amedium.
For art to be an effective instrument of social betterment, itneeded to be understood by as many people as possible.
The practice of artistic freedom becamefundamental to progressive modernism. Artistsbegan to seek freedom not just from the rules of theacademic institutions, but from the expectations ofthe public. It was claimed that art possessed its own intrinsicvalue and should not have to be made to satisfy anyedifying, utilitarian, or moral function. It was claimedthat art should be produced not for the public‘ssake, but for art‘s sake.
According to Greenberg:―Realistic, naturalistic art haddissembled the medium using artto conceal art: Modernism used artto call attention to art. Thelimitations that constituted themedium of painting – the flatsurface, the shape of the support,the properties of the pigment –were all treated by the OldMasters as negative factors thatcould be acknowledged. Only Clement Greenberg arguedimplicity or indirectly. Under that art should hold itselfModernism, these same limitations separately from mass culture,came to be regarded as positive and defend its own purity andfactors and were acknowledged complexity against the vulgarization andopenly.‖ blandishments of kitsch.
The project of Modernity can be thought of asthe development of science, philosophy andart, each according to its own innerlogic. This links the concept of modernity tothe concept of modernism as it was articulatedby Greenberg.The concept of the avant-garde is that of a loosely organizedoppositional force and challenge to the dominant artisticculture.The avant-garde is often thought of as part of the "inner logic ofmodernism" - the built in source of contradiction or critique thatmoves art forward. (Note that this assumes a model of progressas part of the inner development of the arts and culture.)
Critics such as Roger Fry, Clive Bell and Clement Greenbergspoke up for a specific „aesthetic experience‟Greenberg:• 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• championed American avant-garde painting• 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 artistexpresses himself purely through the use of form and colour. It isform of non-representational, or non-objective, art, which meansthat there are no concrete objects represented. Jackson Pollock, Lavender Mist: Number 1, 1950
Considering Americanmodernism in the earlydecades of the ColdWar, we can trace thecombative debateamong artists, writers,and intellectuals overthe nature of theaesthetic form in anage of mass politicsand mass culture.
The rise of Abstract Expressionism after the Second WorldWar 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 weaponRevealed: how the spy agency used unwitting artists such asPollock and de Kooning in a cultural Cold WarFor decades in art circles it was either a rumour or a joke, but now it isconfirmed as a fact. The Central Intelligence Agency used Americanmodern art - including the works of such artists as Jackson Pollock,Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko - as a weaponin the Cold War. In the manner of a Renaissance prince - except that itacted secretly - the CIA fostered and promoted American AbstractExpressionist painting around the world for more than 20 years.Why did the CIA support them? Because in the propaganda war with theSoviet Union, this new artistic movement could be held up as proof ofthe creativity, the intellectual freedom, and the cultural power of the US.Russian art, strapped into the communist ideological straitjacket, couldnot compete.Stonor Saunders, Frances. Sunday, 22 October 1995, The Independenthttp://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/modern-art-was-cia-weapon-1578808.html
The uniqueness of an art form ultimately depends upon thespecificity of the medium, i.e. the characteristics that itshares with no other form of art. Once this specificity hasbeen discovered, Greenberg claims, the progressivemodernist is called upon to purge all elements not essentialand specific to the medium. Nothing borrowed from themedium of another art can be tolerated. Thus, underModernism, 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) cultureas well. (All forms of popular culture are referred to byGreenberg as kitsch.)[See Greenberg, "Avant-Garde and Kitsch"]
As a result, Greenberg saw abstraction as being anecessary means of removing all other content fromartwork. The abstraction referred back to the paintingitself, as opposed to the real world.Greenberg‟s theory surrounding AbstractExpressionism was based on the concept of the „purity‟of art, “art for art‟s sake”.Greenberg championed Abstract Expressionism asbeing a movement that removed art from all otherhumanist concerns such as politics, popular culture,and instead drew on the artwork itself for its concept.
Modernism reasserts the two-dimensionality of thepicture surface. It forces the viewer to see the paintingfirst as a painted surface, and only later as a picture.This, Greenberg says, is the best way to see any kindof picture.A flat picture plane – which was a result of the artistsno longer trying to represent 3D objects, necessary asit showed the artist was accepting the overriding factof the medium.
Greenbergs formalismheld that modern abstractpainting was the purestand most advancedartistic style in all ofhuman history. With hisseminal 1939 essay, "TheAvant-Garde and Kitsch,"art theory in the era ofAbstract Expressionismhad unofficially begun.
Clement GreenbergAvant Garde and KitschFor Greenberg in 1939, thedemand for Kitsch seems toaccompany modernization, be itunder Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, orin the Western Democracies."Kitsch is the culture of themasses in these countries, as it iseverywhere else."
Modern Art? Or AnArt of the Modern?Since the War every twentieth-centurystyle in painting has been brought toprofusion in the United States:thousands of "abstract" painters—crowded teaching courses in ModernArt—a scattering of new heroes—ambitions stimulated by new galleries,mass exhibitions, reproduction inpopular magazines, festivals,appropriations.Is this the usual catching up of Americawith European art forms? Or is Harold Rosenberg, "The Americansomething new being created? For the Action Painters" from Tradition of thequestion of novelty, a definition would New, originally in Art News 51/8, Dec.seem indispensable. 1952
Getting Inside the CanvasAt a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painterafter another as an arena in which to act—rather than as a space in whichto 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; hewent up to it with material in his hand to do something to that other piece ofmaterial 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 notthe same as in other abstract or Expressionist phases of modern art.The new American painting is not "pure" art, since the extrusion of theobject was not for the sake of the esthetic. The apples werent brushed offthe 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 IfA painting that is an act is inseparablefrom the biography of the artist. Thepainting itself is a "moment" in theadulterated mixture of his life—whether"moment" means the actual minutestaken up with spotting the canvas or theentire duration of a lucid dramaconducted in sign language. The act-painting is of the same metaphysicalsubstance as the artists existence. Thenew painting has broken down everydistinction between art and life.
"Its Not That, Its Not That, Its Not That"Many of the painters were "Marxists" (WPA unions, artistscongresses); they had been trying to paint Society. Others hadbeen trying to paint Art (Cubism, Post-Impressionism)—it amountsto the same thing.The big moment came when it was decided to paint . . . just toPAINT. The gesture on the canvas was a gesture of liberation,from Value—political, esthetic, moral…The refusal of values didnot take the form of condemnation or defiance of society, as it didafter World War I.
Milieu: The Busy No-AudienceEveryone knows that the label Modern Art no longer has any relationto the words that compose it. To be Modern Art a work need not beeither 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 pieceof 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 aStyle. It has nothing to do either with the period when a thing wasmade nor with the intention of the maker. It is something thatsomeone has had the social power to designate as psychologically,esthetically or ideologically relevant to our epoch. The question of thedriftwood is: Who found it?Modern art is educational, not with regard to art but with regard to life.You cannot explain Mondrians painting to people who dont knowanything about Vermeer, but you can easily explain the socialimportance of admiring Mondrian and forgetting about Vermeer.
Cockcroft, Eva. Abstract Expressionism: Weapon ofthe 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, therole of artists became less clearly defined, and the objects artistsfashioned increasingly becomes part of the general flow of commoditiesin 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 outsidethe dominant culture• Avant-garde artists generally refused to recognise or accept their roleas producers of cultural commodity
Why did Clement Greenberg champion the concept of the autonomy of art?
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. Ananthology 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 indispute. Art since the forties. London: Yale University Press;1993, pp.170-5http://www.sharecom.ca/greenberg/