Representation as examined by the writings of Plato and Clement Greenberg

Having recently been researching the issue of art education for academic purposes I found myself looking into its history in Classical Greece and thus in the writings of Aristotle and Plato. Apart from the fact that Greek history (which I despised as a subject in school) has once more crept up on me in this unexpected way, there is another motif I keep coming across and finding unable to overlook: the overwhelming naivete of the acceptance of the Greenbergian theories and values. It has become a popular thing to hate on Greenberg, and I am sure there are various valid and not so valid reasons for it, but what follows is my own opinion based on what little I have read of his literature.

When reading Greenberg’s Towards a Newer Laocoon, an essay referencing Irvin Babbitt’s The New Laokoon: An Essay on the Confusion of the Arts, one probably finds themselves wondering about the validity of the ideas described in the text. Greenberg explains the reasons why the concept of a dominant art form is possible; like the case of literature in 17th century Europe, and how this causes the remaining arts to attempt to imitate the dominant one in order to achieve popularity and therefore, survival. He also examines the romantic approach to painting, that of expressing the artist’s ephemeral feelings and suppressing the role of the medium, to the point where the audience’s experience of the work is identical to that of the artist’s. He characterizes the avant-garde as art’s attempt to self-preservation, and its interest in music as a method of art the catalyst in defining abstraction and purity in the complete ‘Greenbergian’ sense, being the form of expression least subdued to an imitation or portrayal of nature.

There are however a few things Greenberg skillfully avoided to mention when talking about his purist ideals (excluding of course the all-time classics such as irrationality, physicality, sexuality and the mess of life, as it has been pinpointed by critics such as Rosalind Krauss), and one of them is how in 381 BC Plato had already expressed his concerns on representation in art as an imperfect imitation of nature, the concept of ideal forms and the purity of music compared to the visual arts. This, I believe, was not due to ignorance; at least not from Greenberg’s part. His authoritarian figure in the art world that constituted him (as my tutor likes to say) an ultimate judge to the effectiveness of the work of primitive creators that were no better than primates was heavily relying on the authenticity of his own genius.

To the American cultural society, safely distanced from the horrors of the second world war, home to some of the most important European artists forced into exile, and of course, thirsty to champion its own perception of ideals, aesthetics, cultural symbols and its very own ‘art’, the acceptance of Greenberg’s theory and his unconditional support of abstract expressionist painters was highly unlikely to be compared to the Classics of another continent two millennia ago. It does however, raise the question of whether his theory would have been so widely accepted, had Classical writings been an integral part of the United States educational curriculum. It is a striking example of how selective or no exposure to global history can affect the creation of contemporary norms and culture.

Another detail Greenberg fails to mention, and that contemporary painters highly dislike to discuss, is how painting has been affected by the invention of photography in the early 19th century. Contrary to Greenberg’s writings, according to which painting is merely trying to survive by imitating the dominant forms of art, there is a much more pragmatic explanation on why the avant-garde desired to distance art from representation, and that is the fact that its patrons did not need it in the way they used to anymore.

In John Berger’s Ways of Seeing lies an uncomfortable truth: that of how painting and the arts as a whole were (and still are) subject to the whims and desires of its patrons, those who wish to fund the artist’s endeavors. Before the invention of photography, the role of the painter when hired to create a portrait was to some extent similar to that of a smartphone camera: capturing the subject along with a number of their belongings: animals, furniture, food, lands and clothing, very much like the oh-so-dreaded self-portraits of millenials in the context of capitalism. The introduction of photography dramatically changed the wealthy individuals’ need for paintings and painters. Its affordability and ease of use rendered a significant part of the activities that produced their income redundant, forcing visual artists to turn to experimentation and seek new potential to their medium in order for it to survive. Whether it is a popular opinion or not, it is solid fact; painting started distancing itself from rigid representation only after there was no need for it. In fact, it could be suggested that photography set painting free of its confinement to its commissioners, leading to movements such as impressionism and fauvism, and the inhumane absurdity of the industrial revolution and modern society came to be the stimuli that encouraged and inspired futurism, suprematism and dada.

Now, if you happen to be an art student still forced to read Greenberg over fifty years after his opinions were proven to be blatantly wrong, you may wonder: is there a point to this? I hate to say it, but yes, there is. Apart from the fact that, in spite of his mistakes, he managed to elevate art theory and criticism to a respectable level, for a student, exposure to the mannerisms and ideals of the past is important not only in art but in every single field of study. The findings and opinions of our predecessors are essential tools and valuable knowledge that contemporary researchers and artists can use in order to be educated, informed and inspired to create, without repeating the mistakes of the past. Creativity and knowledge are derivative, and without trial and error there can be little progress.

References:

Babbitt, I. (1910). The New Laokoon: An Essay on the Confusion of the Arts. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Efland, A. (1990). A history of art education. New York [u.a.]: Teachers College Press.

Greenberg, C. (1940). Towards a Newer Laocoon. Partisan Review, VII (no. 4), pp.296, 310.

Jones, J. (2011). Clement Greenberg: the art critic who refuses to flatline. [online] The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2011/mar/11/clement-greenberg-art-critic [Accessed 20 Jul. 2017].

Mathis, M. (2014). Clement Greenberg. [online] Mileswmathis.com. Available at: http://mileswmathis.com/gberg.html [Accessed 20 Jul. 2017].

Rockmore, T. (2015). Art and truth after Plato. Chicago [u.a.]: Univ. of Chicago Press.

The Art Story. (2017). Clement Greenberg. [online] Available at: http://www.theartstory.org/critic-greenberg-clement.htm [Accessed 20 Jul. 2017].

The Art Story. (2017). Rosalind Krauss. [online] Available at: http://www.theartstory.org/critic-krauss-rosalind.htm [Accessed 20 Jul. 2017].

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