In his work titled Modernist Painting, Greenberg speculates on specific characteristics of Modernist art in general and pictures in particular. The author argues that Modernism defined itself through fundamental self-criticism and had inherited a lot from the art traditions that had existed before it. Analyzing Greenberg’s work requires three components: reviewing his arguments, assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the text, and showing examples of art that demonstrate the author’s principal points.
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First of all, Greenberg argues that the roots of Modernism lie in self-criticism. The author traces Modernist philosophy and aesthetics back to Kant, whose method was internal criticism. It means that something is criticized within its own framework. Greenberg states that “Modernism criticizes from the inside, through the procedures themselves of that which is being criticized” (1). The main point of criticism that underlies the Modernist art is that every kind of art had to define itself in terms of characteristics that made it essentially different from other kinds of art. For painting, flatness became such a characteristic. Greenberg gives examples from the history of art to illustrate his thought. Another major argument is that, despite sometimes seen as a protest against the art of the past, Modernism, in fact, continued “the past without gap or break” (Greenberg 6), i.e. had been largely influenced by traditions and previous developments.
The critiqued text is strong in terms of writing and profoundness of analysis, while its complicatedness can be considered a weakness. First, Greenberg employs a very sophisticated language that manages to successfully grasp the comprehensive concepts that he addresses. The text is well-written and has a certain structure. The beginning is straightforward and immediately attracts the reader’s attention. Throughout his work, the author demonstrates profound knowledge of art, which makes the text reliable and convincing. However, Greenberg’s writing may appear too complicated to some readers. The text is very dense in terms of being saturated with ideas and concepts. It requires being read several times to understand the author’s points. It may be hard to read, especially to those readers who have not encountered profound texts on the history and theory of art before.
Greenberg speculates on the Modernist art but does not show any appraisal or valuation. Judging from the critiqued text, I do not think that Greenberg divided works of art into the categories of acceptable and non-acceptable. However, it can be argued that some pieces of art fit into the author’s understanding of Modernism while some other ones do not. For instance, Picasso’s Cubism perfectly illustrates Greenberg’s idea that flatness became a crucial component of the art of Modernist painting (Clark 150). An example of Cubism is Picasso’s painting Girl with a Mandolin. Similarly, Greenberg might approve of the art by Giulio Paolini, an artist who explicitly protested against the flatness (Staff 28). His works, such as To Be or Not to Be, feature the theme of liberation from the frame. Therefore, paintings that could be regarded by Greenberg as non-acceptable are those that failed to recognize flatness as a critical element of Modernist painting, e.g. those that continued the traditions of Impressionism without modifying them in any way.
The author makes two major points throughout the text: first, self-criticism and the challenging of frameworks and media played a crucial role in the development of Modernism; second, Modernist art is a continuation of its past, not a break with it. Greenberg manages to make his text strong and convincing by demonstrating good knowledge of the subject. His ideas can be applied to particular artists and their works in order to assess their relation to Modernism.
Clark, Timothy. Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica. Princeton University Press, 2013.
Greenberg, Clement. Modernist Painting. Voice of America, 1959.
Staff, Craig. After Modernist Painting: The History of a Contemporary Practice. IB Tauris, 2013.