It is wrong, in my view, to place aesthetic constraints on artistic expression, whether that is painting, sculpture or any other artistic endeavor. What permits one to make good art is, in part, the freedom to explore, and when necessary, push the boundaries of the media one is working with. Clement Greenberg would vehemently disagree with my perspective. Although his analysis throughout his career included many artistic mediums, in this article it is with ‘Modernist Painting’ that he is primarily concerned.
Greenberg begins his analysis with a Kantian argument; that is a medium should be self-critical, synthesize itself, and in so doing, it will entrench itself as necessary and competent. Greenberg stressed the ‘purity’ of painting; thus a good painting should abolish itself of anything not specific to the medium, aesthetically and physically. It is the flatness of the picture plane that is critical, three-dimensionality, for example, is the domain of sculpture. Painting should not depict ‘space that recognizable objects can inhabit,’ to do so would distract the viewer. One should become aware of the picture plane firstly, and explore its content secondly. Other materials, those found in sculpture or environmental art for example, are specific to those arts, and should not be incorporated into painting. Modernist painting is an art using its most basic elements, in order to criticize itself. No one painter did this better, in Greenberg’s view, than did Jackson Pollock.
I timidly agree with Greenberg’s argument, but only as it relates to Modernist painting, as a genre, and not other styles of painting. He would, no doubt, argue that there will not, or should not, exist another movement within the realm of painting aside from Modernism. Abstract Expressionism was the quintessential style, the zenith of painting, as far as he was concerned. However, to dismiss other works based on a rigid set of aesthetic and technical criteria does a disservice to the medium. Art is fluid, but Greenberg’s Modernist view is not. One can quickly become bogged down in a Hegelian Dialectic nightmare trying to argue the tenets of Modernism verse Post-Modernism, or Modernism and Romanticism and so on. Greenberg doesn’t concede anything with regards to his viewpoint. The theoretical is removed, in every way, for the work to be successful, according to Greenberg. He defends this by stating that Modernist art has simply turned the theoretical into the empirical, but he only loosely expands that point enough to clarify his position.
To define art is a risky proposition, but it is safe to say that one tenet of art is to enlighten. Greenberg’s Modernism has no need, nor any desire, to enlighten anyone. Its primary function is to further entrench itself as a necessary and competent artistic endeavor. But art doesn’t adhere well to strict criteria. Robert Smithson, if he were alive, could argue that point. Ultimately I believe Greenberg is a genius, and the most important art critic of the twentieth century, but his rigidity limits his analysis and doesn’t allow the best new art much room to breathe.