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Saturday, 27 August 2011

Modernism and Artistic Developments

By Alexandra A. Jopp


Modernism was the “cultural outcome of modernity, the social experience of living in the modern world.”[1] Many artists and critics, starting in the 1940s, abandoned traditional historicism and art forms in favor of a search for new standards, leading to an abundance of original writings, actions, reactions and artistic developments.
When reflecting on how Modernism influenced art in the 1960s, it is important to note the role of American art critic and formalist Clement Greenberg, who had great influence as an arbiter of artistic quality, taste and value. His “Greenbergian Modernism” linked “high modern” art with artists who worked to refine a medium-specific approach to their work, and he preferred, above all, painterly Abstract Expressionism, especially Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. For Greenberg, the highest form of art was that which concerned itself so strictly with its medium and essential materials that the work was about the medium and nothing else. Painting, to him, should be about painting – not subject matter, not space, not forms, just painting. Hence, the work is “rendered pure, and in its purity finds the guarantee of its standard of quality as well as of its independence.”[2]
Pam Meecham suggested in her critical anthology of modern art “When Was Modernism?” that Greenbergian Modernism is perhaps “closer to a relatively useful definition of a dominant and defining history of modernism that both defined the past and influenced the working methods of artists anxious for critical acclaim.”[3] Indeed, Greenberg was, first of all, a formalist, and his criticism is highly theoretical. He focused on painting, where he saw enormous potential in the concept of essential limits when applied to the history of the art form. He asserted that there is logic to the expansion of Modernist art and, in particular, Modernist painting, which he saw as innovative, autonomous and experimental.
These ideas were well received by certain artists of the time. For instance, Frank Stella, whose early years were rooted in Abstract Expressionism, rejected elaborate formal aesthetics in favor of minimalist designs. He favored non-representational paintings that neither underlined meaning nor evoked emotions. As Carl Andre wrote in Preface to Stripe Painting, “Frank Stella found it necessary to paint stripes. There is nothing else in his paintings. He is not interested in sensitivity or personality, either his own, or those of his audience. He is interested in the necessities of paintings.”[4] In other words, he wanted his beholder to value color, shape and structure alone.
Also in the 1960s, some artists and critics began to embrace the idea that art should not be separated from life and that objects should interact with people. As Claes Oldenburg and Allan Kaprow wrote, “the performativity of the body and the larger contextual frame of audience and space are made the focus of art.”[5] The Fluxus group broadened this, narrowing the boundary between art and life while creating works that would be completed by the viewer or listener. As John Cage wrote, “we have eyes as well as ears, and it is our business while we are alive to use them.”[6]
While Modernist artists in the 1960s could differ greatly from one another, they shared a desire to fulfill the potential of whatever medium in which they were working. The audience, meanwhile, became an essential element of art, with everyday experiences serving as artistic subjects. The thirst for freedom of expression during this era led to radically new artistic movements and the birth of a new artistic vision that ended the dominance of old ideals of beauty.
Bibliography


Cage, John. "Experimental Music," in Silence: lectures and writings. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1973.

Greenberg, Clement. The Collected Essays and Criticism: Modernism with a vengeance, 1957-1969. Chicago: The Chicago University Press, 1983.

LaBelle, Brandon. Background noise: perspectives on sound art. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc, 2006.

Meecham, Pam and Julie Sheldon. Modern art: a critical introduction. New York:  Rutledge, 2000.

Selz, Peter Howard and Kristine Stiles. Theories and documents of contemporary art: a sourcebook of artists' writings. Berkeley: University of California Press, Ltd., 1996.


[1]  Julie Sheldon Pam Meecham, Modern art: a critical introduction (London: Routledge, 2000), 2.
[2]  Clement Greenberg, The Collected Essays and Criticism: Modernism with a vengeance, 1957-1969 (Chicago: The Chicago University Press, 1983), 86.
[3]  Julie Sheldon Pam Meecham, Modern art: a critical introduction (London: Routledge, 2000), 11.
[4]  Peter Howard Selz, Kristine Stiles, Theories and documents of contemporary art: a sourcebook of artists' writings (Berkeley: University of California Press, Ltd., 1996), 124.
[5]  Brandon LaBelle, Background noise: perspectives on sound art (New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc, 2006), 8.
[6]  John Cage, "Experimental Music," in Silence: lectures and writings , 7-13 (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1973).

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