Modernism Vs. Postmodernism This question highlights one of the themes central to the account of modem art offered in this course: the tension between the theoretical perspectives of, on the one hand, Modernist criticism and, on the other, an approach focused on the relationship of the art of any given period to its social, political and historical context. The two quotations given above may be interpreted as representing these polarities. It would be an oversimplification to suggest that to accept a Modernist account of modem art must imply rejection of a socio-historical view, or vice-versa (the discussion between TJ Clark and Michael Fried about Pollock (TV21) suggests that there is room for negotiation, if not for compromise). It is, however, arguable that a definition of postmodernism should take into consideration both the close interrelationship between Modernist criticism and mid-twentieth century abstract art, which together constituted the dominant hegemony in art from the late 1940s to the early 1960s (and hence the artistic context against which postmodernism in the visual arts evolved), and the social, historical and political context within which art characterised as postmodern has developed.
It seems reasonable, therefore, to start by attempting to clarify the critical positions represented by Greenberg and Burgin. Greenberg, in ‘Modernist Painting’ (1961) and other writings, sets the development of modem art, specifically painting, in the context of the ideas of the Enlightenment philosopher Kant, who ‘used logic to establish the limits of logic’ (Art in Theory p.755.) Kant thereby established a precedent for using the techniques of a particular medium to define and refine that medium, a process referred to by Greenberg as ‘self-criticism’. This implies that painting, rather than ‘using art to conceal art’ (ibid) by creating illusionistic space and depth, should rather use art ‘to call attention to art’ (ibid), that is, to emphasise the unique characteristics of the medium; ‘the flat surface, the shape of the support, the properties of pigment’ (ibid). Greenberg states that such a process would render art ‘pure’, that is, autonomous, free of any extraneous elements deriving from other arts, such as theatricality or narrative. The impact of a painting should thus derive from those technical aspects characteristic of painting, such as colour, form and composition. An example of the sort of painting Greenberg was advocating at the time may clarify this.
Morris Louis’s painting Alpha-Phi (pl.D10) is exactly contemporary with the publication of ‘Modernist Painting’. It consists of bold, ragged, diagonal streaks of pure colour against an off-white ground; Louis’s use of acrylic paints, which soak into the canvas, means that the colours appear integrated with the ground and hence do not disrupt the flatness of the picture plane. Its effect depends upon the arrangement of colours and the large scale of the painting which makes it occupy ‘so much of one’s visual field that it loses its character as a discrete tactile object and thereby become that much more purely a picture, a strictly visual entity’ (Greenberg, ‘Louis and Noland’, p.28). It is apparently devoid of references to anything other than the intrinsic qualities of forms and colours. Louis’s painting, and the contemporary work of Kenneth Noland (e.g. Bloom, pl 141) and Jules Olitski (e.g.
(Twice) Disarmed pl.D11) were seen by Greenberg as being how paintings should look if they are to continue ‘the intelligible continuity of taste and tradition’ (Art in Theory p.760) and offer the viewer ‘a sufficient degree of aesthetic power’ (Modernism in Dispute p. 173) in the 1960s. Burgin, however, sees Greenberg’s approach and hence, by implication, paintings such as Alpha-Phi, as ‘the terminal point of [an] historical trajectory’. It is arguable that paintings such as those of Louis represent a point beyond which art could not be further refined, and must therefore be reassessed or stagnate. Furthermore, in the context of the major social and political upheavals of the late 1960s and thereafter, such work might appear increasingly irrelevant. From Burgin’s viewpoint, Greenberg’s privileging of aesthetic and technical issues marginalises those types of art which can be validated by reference to their relationship with their historical context, to the way in which they represent their times. Thus Dada would be of little importance in a Greenbergian art history, but significant in the context of ‘a history [i.e. an art history] which opens onto history’ and which deals with representations.
Following from this, if the most important thing about art is that it should connect with the conceptual framework of its socio-historical context, then technical issues can be subordinated to ideas, and new means of representation, such as photography and installation, which do not fit easily within a Modernist aesthetic, are legitimated. Burgin’s statement expands the concept of art beyond the relatively narrow bounds set by Greenbergian Modernism, and thereby allows the consideration as art of a range of new conceptual works such as Mel Ramsden’s Secret Painting (pl. 175) which ‘plays upon the irony that language is both a medium supposedly distinct from art and the source of information about art’s content and meaning’ (Modernism in Dispute, p.205). Burgin provides a basis for identifying work as postmodernist rather than Modernist, and also sets postmodernism in the context of its antecedents in, for instance, Heartfield’s photomontages and Duchamp’s readymades. The concept of postmodernism seems to have become current from the early 1980s onwards, when it began to appear in the work of writers such as Lyotard and Jameson.
These writers were not specifically discussing art but more general cultural tendencies. However, Burgin’s challenge to the dominance of Greenbergian criticism can be connected with Lyotard’s definition of postmodernism as ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’, in this case the metanarrative of technical development in painting. Early attempts to define postmodernism in the visual arts by writers such as Krauss and Owens, ‘started from an assumption that the stylistic diversity of art after Modernism .. conceals from view some underlying unifying principle:’ (Modernism in Dispute, p.237). However, it is arguably easier to say that a specific work, or the work of a specific artist, is postmodernist than to define what, precisely, constitutes postmodernism.
The range of concepts associated with postmodernism are, as Harrison and Wood admit, complex and prone to a degree of vagueness and instability. There are, however, a number of recurrent issues associated with postmodernism which can be related to Burgin’s …