Theory Lecture 1: Formalism

Towards the middle of the 20th century Modernism was becoming the dominant movement in the Avant-Garde. One critic in particular believed it to be the destiny of Art to be brought to its ‘purist’ form through the guise of modernism.

Clement Greenberg described his idea of ‘purity’ in the arts in his 1961 essay ‘Modernist Painting’ as being Self reflective; ‘[A painting] is aesthetically valid in the same way as a landscape, not its picture, is valid’. The idea expressed here being that a painting should not try to express anything more than the fact it is a painting, for ‘as realism increases, the idea of the medium disappears’. This focus on the form of a painting has come to be known as ‘Formalism’ where the form itself is the content and therefore the basis of its meaning.

Formalism was primarily an American Movement; The European Avant-Garde ‘Modernist’ techniques spanned all forms of art with each country having its own more defined movement: The French ‘Cubism’, Russian ‘Constructivism’, German ‘Bauhaus’ and Dutch ‘De Stijl’. These sub-genres of modernism all broke across boundaries to include graphic design, music and theatre whereas Greenberg’s Formalism was the sole preserve of ‘Fine Art’.

Greenberg’s ideas on the state of painting were first theorised in his 1939 essay ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’, a criticism on the artist or artisan who might wish to appeal to the masses and on the masses themselves for allowing such things to grow. His belief was that whereas both folk art and high culture are genuine art, Kitsch is degenerate art that debases art for profit. Meaning Kitsch art unashamedly concentrates the ideals of the avant-garde and repeats them endlessly to use the known motifs for monetary gain. From this it can be inferred that Kitsch is what occurs when the avant-garde becomes the arrière-garde or perhaps is the process by which this happens.

The essay later goes further to talk about how ‘Kitsch’ becomes the art of the Totalitarian state. Citing Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia as his examples, Greenberg explains that the lack of viewer input into Kitsch art, thereby making it art that is easily consumable and as such is a pacifier for a public that may wish to experience its culture and allows them to forget any troubles that may be prevalent in their lives that could be attributable to the government. This discouragement from required thought in the context of art allows the public to be satisfied by their experience without mentally challenging their daily experiences.

Greenberg in particular looks at a comparison between Repin’s ‘Cossacks’ and Picasso’s ‘Woman with a Fan’. He states that the Repin has no formal expression, there is no discontinuity between the art and life; Repin’s ability to paint realistically pretends to show life as it is and fails to provoke thought on how the painting is as a picture; ‘Repeating the world stops us from thinking about the medium’. In contrast, the Picasso causes the viewer to reflect on what it is that makes the painting a painting, the play of lines and colour cause the viewer to reflect on their purpose in describing that which is similar to but external to their own world experience.

Greenberg being as such in his ideals on painting, believes that a ‘pure’ paint should appeal only to the optical sense, expressing that ‘literatures corrupting influence is only felt when all other senses are neglected’ and as such, art should be treated the same. If one is instructed to bring their own world experience to a painting e.g. if it has depth, then it takes away from our perception of the medium. Merleau Ponty stated that: ‘We only read depth because we move around the world’, so to be the most ‘pure’ painting, Greenberg believes it should reduce the viewer to solely their eye, with only the here and the now and all things other than the canvas being excluded, making the piece purely an optical experience and removing all notions of what it is to be corporal. As Greenberg’s protege Michael Fried said in his 1967 essay ‘Art and Objecthood’: ‘Our experience is complete when we are in front of the object. Presentness is grace’

As such Greenberg has championed the works of artists such as Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman for their opticality. Newman’s works in particular for the lines that often split his ‘Zip’ paintings were defined by the very frame of the canvas they sit on, the requisite to understand these paintings is all optically in front of the viewer, these paintings are ‘pure’.

The questions that remain therefore are:

What happens when pure opticality is reached? Does it mean the death of painting?

If the purest of pictures speaks only about the medium that forms it, what did Greenberg think of Field Paintings such as those done by Yves Klein?

If presentness is missing from minimalism as was said by Fried due to the requirement to move around the space, is the idea of ‘Presentness is grace’ still true for sculpture?

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1 Comment

  1. When I read what artists write if it sounds meaningful but I don’t know the meaning after reading it I think it’s BS to cover comments like “My 8 year old could do that.” Don’t overthink stuff like a blue canvas with one line and some intellectual statement. Decide for yourself if you like the blue canvas with one line or if you don’t like it without reading the BS statement and trying to understand something that has no meaning. Purity in art? hahahahahno

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