Thursday, July 07, 2005

Musings on Greenbergians

Since I've been referencing Suzi Gablik (the anti-modernist) I thought I should throw in a view from the other side of the fence. NewCrit is a bastion for believers in High Modernism as understood by Clement Greenberg. John Link, one of my former professors, is a cofounder of the site.

An interesting paradox is how adherents to this branch of modernism go on at length about the quality of prehistoric and Renaissance art. If I understand their thinking, quality is based solely on what your eye sees and has very little if anything to do with content. See Jules Olitski's essay for a sample.

Olitski writes :
Throughout the ages (and most particularly in Hellenic art) beauty and excellence were premier goals, until now, when, like Gresham's Law, the question is, will low art drive out high art?
What troubles me about this view is that for the artists of prehistoric times through the Renaissance the visual quality of their work was only important as far as it conveyed spiritual meaning. Yes, the Greeks and Egyptians cared about beauty and excellence in the crafting of their objects - but the first priority was to make objects that fulfilled their beliefs. During the Renaissance this began to change, but even something as simple as a still life was viewed as vanitas, as a symbol of death-in-life.

Through Gablik's lens you can view the period after the Industrial Revolution to the present as the exception in the world history of art - art stopped being a part of life, a part of the spiritual beliefs of the culture, and slowly became isolated to the point where it has little value to society except as a commodity.

If, under this Modernist paradigm, true art is by definition isolated from and independent of life, how then can it be favorably compared to the art of the past, which was decidedly part of life and in the eyes of the creators gained value from its place in that life?

Perhaps I'm oversimplifying the Modernist view. I have not studied much Greenberg. I'm not saying I totally disagree with them, just as I can't say I completely agree with Gablik's strenuous opposing view. I have an affinity for Arthur Danto, who at least allows that these movements can co-exist. The funny thing is, both the Modernists and Gablik see pure post-modernism as decadent. I guess they agree on something after all.

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