OU blog

Personal Blogs

New photo

On Steinberg's critique of Greenberg A844 Ex. 3.2.8 A brilliant bit of online pedagogy

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Steve Bamlett, Monday, 26 Nov 2018, 19:12


Conduct an online search for:

Velazquez, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. In National Gallery

Artist Diego Velázquez

Artist dates 1599 - 1660

Full title Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary

Date made probably 1618

Medium and support Oil on canvas

Dimensions 60 x 103.5 cm

Inscription summary Dated

Acquisition credit Bequeathed by Sir William H. Gregory, 1892

Rembrandt, The Holy Family. In Hermitage, St. Petersburg


Rembrandt van Rijn. 1606-1669

Title: Holy Family

Place: Holland


Material: canvas

Technique :oil

Dimensions:117x91 cm

Inventory Number:ГЭ-741

Now read the extract from Leo Steinberg, ‘Other criteria’  (1968/72).

1.     What does Steinberg make of Greenberg’s claim of a qualitative distinction between old and modern art in terms of the latter’s self-reflexivity?

    1. First of all, he exposes the implication in Greenberg’s thinking that pre-Modernist figurative art lacks self-reflexivity (that is, that it does not refer to itself as art in a self-conscious way) p. 71.
    2. He uses visual evidence from the paintings themselves to support the self-reflexivity of the masters. In particular he calls attention to consciousness of framing-bands (71) in Giotto which remind us of the illusion created.
    3. As art develops into the exploration of realistic illusion, it still uses frames such as doorways, windows and mirrors to develop the idea of illusion alongside that of depth. This is presumably why we are asked to search the Velasquez (clever teaching this) which illustrates precisely that point, though Steinberg uses other examples. They are ‘forever inventing interferences with spatial recession. … they maintain an explicit, controlled, ever-visible dualism.  Fifteenth-century perspective was not a surface-denying illusion of space, but the symbolic form of space as an intelligible coordinate surface pattern.’ (74)

2.     How does Steinberg back up his claim, and what different aspects of Old Master art does he review?

    1. As above. Starts with Giotto and then takes on 15th C.-16th C. from Raphael’s use of anachronism  to the elaborate framing of mirror-effect in Michelangelo in the 16th.  To prove ‘all art is about art’ (76). Presumably we have the unmentioned Rembrandt because this uses interesting recessions that are made consciously fictive by both dramatic frameworks of spatial irregularities and anachronism – the book held by the Virgin is clearly a Dutch tome.

3.     Where do these reflections on the relation of Old Master art to modernism lead Steinberg?

    1. To reduce Greenberg’s claim to one supportive only of the ‘purity’ of the way Modernist art deals with surface. But this even belies modern art. Analysing Rothko will show patterns of variable visual depth and sometimes employ framing effects to achieve that.
    2. The last thrust is cruel and perhaps a bit elitist in tone and prejudicial 9about the provincial against the ‘mainstream’: ‘a provincialism to make the self-critical turn of mind the sufficient distinction of modernism’.

Discussion from Course

1.     Basically, Steinberg relativises Greenberg’s absolute distinction into one of degree, and shows that Greenberg’s claim of an objective difference is more like a subjective preference.

He argues that all major painting since Giotto – not just modernist painting – has called attention to its own art status, presenting its illusions of three-dimensional space, as he puts it, ‘between quotation marks’. The exceptions have been explicit trompe l’oeil illusions, and the academic art of the nineteenth century. Interestingly, Steinberg views this latter not as the continuation of the Old Master tradition, but a symptom of its debasement and ultimate collapse, precisely because of its commitment to unreflective illusionism.

Figure 3.7 Samuel van Hoogstraten, Trompe l'Oeil, 1655. Akademie der Bildende Kunste, Vienna. Photo: Erich Lessing Culture and Fine Arts Archives/ART RESOURCE, N.Y./ARTstor. 

2.     Steinberg proceeds to list several features of Old Master art by which such art drew attention to its status as art. This was achieved by a range of devices, including ‘radical colour economies’, ‘proportional attenuation’, over-emphasis on detail, and the quotation and referencing of other art, as well as ‘internal changes of scale’ and ‘shifting reality levels’. However, in addition to such formal/technical features, he also says the ‘recall to art’ may be brought about by subject matter: including elements such as internal spectators, and the use of doorways, windows and mirrors to ‘soliloquise’ about the ‘nature of illusion itself’.

3.     He sees the two epochs sharing more than is permitted by conventional categories, such as ‘representational’ and ‘abstract’, or ‘content’ and ‘form’. On the contrary, he sees art’s need to indicate its status and limits as ‘perpetual’, and that this can ‘take many forms’ in different periods:

At one historical moment painters get interested in finding out just how much their art can annex, into how much non-art it can venture and still remain art. At other times they explore the opposite end to discover how much they can renounce and still stay in business.

As usual a brilliant Discussion.

Permalink Add your comment
Share post