This project is based on Clement Greenberg’s article Modernist Painting (1960).

What is Greenberg talking about in general and what are his main arguments?

In this text Greenberg attempts to define Modernist Painting, its origins, how it has developed, and how it has influenced our current view of art in general. He argues that, based on the theories of the philosopher Kant, modernism equals self-criticism in the arts. This rose out of a need to differentiate the arts from mere entertainment or therapy. Within this, each discipline (sculpture, painting etc.) had to assert its own importance and justify its own value.

In terms of painting this was done by focussing on the unique qualities of pictorial art, which were believed to lie in the flat nature of the painted surface. By drawing attention to this unique quality modernist painting became different and ‘pure’, which indicated quality.

Greenberg argues that modernist painting is more akin to modern science than philosophy because of its dedication to the purely visual or optical experience of painting as well as its experimental nature.

He argues that modernist painting does not imply a break with the past or continuity; on the contrary through self-criticism it challenges our judgements of art and actually helps us to appreciate it in a more informed way. He also asserts that none of this is entirely deliberate, it is based on the highly personal and intuitive nature of painting, and that the self-critical tendencies of modernist painting have only been revealed over time.

Who does Greenberg mention and what is his opinion of them?

He refers to Manet’s paintings as being the first real modernist paintings because they draw attention to the painted surface through the use of expressive brush marks and washes.

He mentions the Impressionists and commends them on their observation that the purely sensory or optical experience of painting is what sets it apart from other disciplines.

He also mentions Cézanne and the Cubists and their reaction against the Impressionists’ anti-sculptural style, which in turn lead to a style that was even flatter than the work of the impressionist. He highlights that this divergence between different movements is what fuels the continuity and continued experimentation of modernist painting.

Does he quote others and make reference to their work?

He refers to the philosophical theories of Kant to make his point about Modernist Painting being self-critical and he refers to the work of modernist artists and old masters in order to show the progression of painting styles through time and how they became self-critical and experimental with Modernism.

My feelings as to whether he is convincing

His ideas about art having to assert its importance make me feel sad; I think this is an ongoing battle. I think artists have an almost impossible task making sustainable careers for themselves. They also have to defend themselves from being undermined socially as the need for their product or indeed its worth is constantly called into question.

I am convinced by his arguments in general although I don’t entirely understand his references to religion as becoming levelled down or becoming a therapy.

I agree that art is personal and intuitive. I do think art is self-critical and experimental. I also agree with the idea that art is fuelled by a need to maintain the excellence of the past.

Has he changed my mind or confirmed what I thought before?

This article has given me a clearer idea of how painting has developed and why it is the way it is. I am aware that this article was written half a century ago and many things have evolved and changed and I wonder what the reality is now. I have more respect for the Impressionists and a better understanding of what they were trying to do. I think these developments in painting reflect a general development in western consciousness.

If his ideas are new to me do I agree with him?

I’m worried about the assertion that visual art is a visual experience only, I think there are many artist’s that would beg to differ. I’m also concerned about the idea that abstract art has no illusion to 3D space, I was under the impression that abstract painting was about working with space. I think on some level the idea that abstract art has no illusion to representation and therefore objects helps his argument but I think it’s a vast area that should be treated with more sensitivity.


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