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Discuss Greenberg’s Theory of Modernism with Reference to at Least one of the Painters He Writes About

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Discuss Greenberg’s theory of modernism with reference to at least one of the painters he writes about

Modernism is a philosophical movement that started around the late 19th century when people began to question and criticize what they were doing themselves. This did not just happen with art, but also everything else. Clement Greenberg was one of the most influential art critics in the 20th century, and he was an admirer of the Modern art. He believed Kant was the first Modernist, and it was he that Kantian self-criticism arose from philosophy, when self-criticism of Modernism grew out of the criticism of Enlightenment. Activities such as religion could not have taken advantage of this, and art was thought to be heading into the same direction. Artists at that time saved art by producing artworks, which were unique and different to one another. In this essay, I am going to write about what Greenberg thinks modernism is, and what I think of his personal opinions.

In the olden days, artists liked to make realistic paintings of subjects such as religions, fruits and landscape because people cared about them. The paint itself, the canvas, and the action of painting were just secondary to the paintings. But in the 20th century, things started to change. Painting had an identity crisis as there was the invention of photography. Painters questioned what they were painting onto flat canvases, and this fueled the emergence of modern art. Painters using paints and not focusing on the objects they were drawing but the textures, the technique of painting, the colours, and the applications on the canvas.  The painters abandoned illusions because they believed it was all about the medium. Modern paintings did not even have to have meanings at all, and this has eventually turned into abstract expressionism.

[pic 1]

Bords d'une rivière (Riverbanks), 1904-05, Paul Cézanne

Cézanne was one of the pioneers who started the revolution, and he used the brushstrokes to make his paintings flat. In this painting, we can see how Cézanne used structured brushstrokes to create an image, and this pictorial effect has created a flattening-out-effect to the background. You may get a sense of distance within the image from the sizes of the houses and trees, but tonally, it is a flat, yet intriguing piece of work.

Clement Greenberg believed that modern art has to be self-critical, making every art justify itself, and they should never be able to be replaced. He saw modern art as ‘pure’, where purity means that the art has self-definition and that it has guaranteed standard as well as independence. He also believed that for art to be modern, the paintings have to concern themselves with themselves. It should be original.

Modern art must also be true to its material culture, emphasizing the materiality of the paint and the flatness of the canvas. Modern art is not what you can see in everyday life – there is no special depth and you may not recognize objects in them. It is the opportunity to be anything. The flatness of the surface can always be seen in modern art paintings.

[pic 2]

Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) - Jackson Pollock

Greenberg was a big fan of Jackson Pollock’s work, and he liked the fact that Pollock was not afraid to have his work looking ugly. Using Greenberg’s theory of Modernism, we can see that there is not much special depth at all in this piece. Pollock had also used enamel, the medium, to express himself with the swerving marks he made on the canvas. He created an abstract and uninterpretable picture, and this is a huge success as a Modern art painting. Greenberg saw Pollock’s art as violent and extravagant without losing control.

In addition to this, Greenberg had also made comparisons between works of Old Masters and Modern Art. Old Master’s paintings are both naturalistic and realistic. There are limitations in their works, as they always try to make paintings very three-dimensional. These artists learnt a lot of their technique from sculptures, for instance, how to shade or how to create illusions. On the other hand, modern art celebrates the limitations of art, they accept paintings as paintings, and they don’t use as many illusions. They relish the chances of creating flat surfaces, with the aid of shapes and the properties of pigment. Old master’s paintings create space in depth that people can imagine themselves walking into it whereas modern art paintings creates an illusion that can only be seen, either figuratively or literally, with the eye. In Greenberg’s view, abstraction is more advanced than representational art, and interestingly, he believed that it was Impressionism, in particular Claude Monet, that had art painted furthest, rather than Cubism.

I agree with Greenberg when he said modern art is about pushing the boundaries of the medium used and I like the fact the modern artworks don’t need to mean anything at all, and people can just simply appreciate the use of the medium, how expressive or abstract it can be applied. I also agree that modernist should keep taking new risks and producing new, exciting art pieces, instead of just producing what people have done already. Modern art is about trial and error, with Modernists trying to come up with new ideas, as well as executing them, to keep art fresh and intriguing.

Furthermore, Clement Greenberg liked to make comparisons between modern art and ‘kitsch’ art. Kitsch originated in Munich in the 19th century and was a lowbrow style of art using popular, cultural icons. Greenberg saw the freedom in modern art, compared to the strictness in kitsch art. Kitsch is seen as mechanical, almost like it has a formula, and it always remains to be the same, in comparison to the ever-changing avant-garde. Avant-garde art was seen as a high art for Greenberg, whereas kitsch art was seen as a low art.

Kitsch had become an important part of the culture. Its mechanical and academic methods displaced the handicrafts. Greenberg believed that kitsch artists did not necessary needed to be good at art; they just needed to know the ‘formula’ to produce the same kind of art. People in places like Russia and Germany only liked kitsch art because the governments reinforced it. They are branded as ‘peasants’. Many artists were forced to do kitsch art because that is the only way they could make more money to survive in these cruel societies.

Greenberg saw avant-garde art as male, hetero, and gentile; he saw kitsch art as female and Jewish. He also made a comparison between a painting of Picasso and a painting of Repin:

[pic 3]             [pic 4] 

       Woman with a Fan – Picasso                                           Cossacks - Repin

Picasso’s painting was done with the technique of Cubism and as we can see in this painting. Picasso was missing or thinking of things that he left behind in the village - this painting clearly has meanings behind it. Greenberg felt that Repin’s painting was just a very ordinary painting compared to Picasso’s, but the peasants would prefer this because they could recognize things in the painting. They would be drawn into the illusion Repin created, and would be fascinated by how they could see the same objects in everyday life. Greenberg believed that the peasants only preferred Repin’s painting because they did not have enough energy or leisure to enjoy the meaning behind Picasso’s painting, whereas he could enjoy Repin’s painting without real effort at all. Modern artists paint cause, whereas the kitsch artists paint effects.

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