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How is modernism historicised (narrated as a teleological end) A843 Ex. 4.2.4

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How is modernism historicised (narrated as a teleological end) A843 Ex.  4.2.4

Read the following two texts:

·        extract from Clement Greenberg, ‘Modernist painting’  (1965 [1960])

·        extract from Julius Meier-Graefe, Modern Art. Being a Contribution to a New System of Aesthetics (1908 [1904]).

Look at the mode of presentation of the two texts.

Consider the account they give of the beginnings of modern art.

Note the ways in which Greenberg and Meier-Graefe seem to differ.

Both texts speak from a ‘present’ which they regard as the ‘end’ (in the sense of completion & intentional purpose) of a narrative processes that we can call ‘history’, but history as a teleology – a history that knew where it was going (and whence it would end) even if its participant characters – painters or viewers – did not).

Of course Greenberg recalls Pollock in its defence of a trans-historical conception of art. This was not to say that art served the same purpose throughout history in the eyes of people who saw or painted it, but that only one purpose survives the ‘reduction’ of art to non-essential purposes justified by structures of meaning outside of art. Art was always a manipulation of the potentials of its media, whatever a medieval commissioner of art might have ‘divined’ it to be. That art supports both religion and illusion is not the end of art but an excrescence explained by its unknowing present participants in their own time. A knowing art grasps its meanings from its nature – the essential flatness and framedness of its being (Greenberg, p.775).

The moderns know that and hence speak only of painting as a relation to an extent of 2 dimensional space and its transformation to effects of (consciously illusory because partial) 3-dimensionality, through uses of applied media that build relations of form and colour. For Greenberg, this means losing the ‘literary character’ people (even some artists) imposed on painting (p. 777). He goes further in translating that change into a convergence with a notion of ‘science’ (p. 778) based in ‘results’. This now seems a very dated reading of science, which in part explains why Modernism has itself succumbed to historical reversals, so that its own formulations seem as outdated as the Neo-Platonist explanations of Byzantine Art.

Greenberg ends though with a modernism that is perpetually self-renewing since it interprets its past, and pasts that seem alien to it, to its own catch-all theme of continuity (778). Religion never promised as much stability as that – change that is forever the reproduction of the same essence (‘Eterne in mutabilitie’ as Spenser expresses it in the English Renaissance). Postmodernism begins to fragment that very sense of stability that lies within continuity in a way that makes the latter look like the grossest of illusions – a time-line that is singular and always going in a common direction – rather than several lines, whose only commonality is difference.

Meier-Graefe, speaking from the midst of the modern (Manet, Freud) democratises his language only to belittle that part of us and him that misunderstands that flat space and a multiplicity of impositions on it (Constable’s non-uniform greens as perceived by Delacroix (p. 140)) by merely following Constable ‘like a favourite racehorse’ (p. 136). Maier-Graefe hence simplifies art to show us its actual complexity, which lies not in the illusion of contours it appears to show than its mastery of the superficial, such that it is ‘made’ only as ‘an effect on the eye’ (ibid.). It is that effect that is the wonder of art – past and present says Meier-Graeffe from the eminence of 1904-8. Like Greenberg he aims to embrace the flat as our necessary starting point, the eye as the knowing source of the appreciation of all artistic endeavour made upon that surface forever after.

What distinguishes the latter however is I see no sense of trying to break from the literary character of art appreciation – not least in its use of sonorous literary effects to show the meaning of how Courbet reinvented Nature from a surface – the rhythms are that of the King James Bible: ‘cleft the earth with mighty strokes of the spade (p. 264)’, the use of metaphor self-conscious as here calls a brush (which ‘strokes) a ‘spade. Maybe though the difference is that the ‘literary character applies to the artist making art rather than to some narrative thought to be the meaning of the painting alone.

I don’t feel I’ve addressed the questions at all fully (if at all) but my purpose is to understand what I read rather than get a meaning someone else has already decided to be there.

All the best


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Mandy Griffiths



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