American Art in the 1950s and 1960s - Modern vs Postmodern Perspectives on Abstract Expressionism
Please consider the following questions and provide feedback in a short statement, providing reference to specific examples where appropriate.
1. With reference to at least Abstract Expressionism, outline the difference between a ‘Modern’ and a ‘Postmodern’ understanding of quality in painting.
Modernism and Postmodernism have a very different outlook and interpretation on the quality of painting, which is evident in their differing viewpoints and explanations of Abstract Expressionism.
Modernism (as defined by Greenberg) views the quality of a painting as either “high” or “low” art. High art achieves an ideal purity in its formal qualities of color, form, the shape and flatness of the support, and an aesthetic experience that requires only the viewer’s eye to appreciate the work. The gallery that it hangs in is stripped of any outside intrusions and the audience that views the object on the wall is a passive recipient of the work. It seeks a utopian experience by denying any outside (or natural) influences of the culture and society that it was made in, or the psychology of the artist that made the work. Modernism is chiefly concerned with reducing any subject to its core essence, an autonomous abstraction, not a representation of a subject matter. With Abstract Expressionism, Modernism takes Formalist and traditional perspective viewing it as a continuation of European Modernism, stressing Cubism and Surrealism as chief influences. It evaluates the work for its essential formal properties only as determined by Greenberg’s value system.
Postmodernism had a much different outlook on how to evaluate the quality of a painting and how that related to Abstract Expressionism. Rosenberg argued that Abstract Expressionism wasn’t an extension of European Modernism, but rather it shows a discontent with the formalist restraints that Greenberg and Modernism placed on art making. He argues that it originated in America and represented a wholly American set of values and ideas of individuality and social activism. The artists (known as the New York School) sought to represent unique acts of introspection and (for the most part) saw their work as an individual expression of their own unconscious mind. They created an arena for expressing their radical individuality, and viewed the work as an artifact representing the event of making the piece. In contrast to Modernism, the postmodern perspective of art de-emphasizes the aesthetic and the art object itself, and instead it elevates the idea, the psychology of the artist, the active participation of the viewer, and places specificity on the society and culture that the work was created in.
2. With which critical position do you have the greater sympathy, and why?
I feel that the Postmodern perspective, and the freedom of expression that comes with it, resonates with me the most. I feel that Abstract Expressionist work demonstrates an expression of the individual’s unconscious and represents their reactions to the society and culture that they existed in. However, the denial of the aesthetic and the art object doesn’t sit too well with me. I definitely place an importance on the idea behind the art, and the psychology of the artist, but the actual aesthetic itself (in my opinion) is paramount in evaluating quality in works of art.
3. Do you believe it is possible to remove, or deny, an aesthetic content and maintain the status of the object as ‘art’?
In my opinion, as stated in the previous response, I do not feel that the aesthetic can be denied or removed completely and the object still be art. I feel a sense that some regulating principals are needed in art making and evaluating quality in art in order to have some universal standards. Otherwise I feel if we are only concerned with the idea and psychology, then it’s philosophy first and foremost.
In Duchamp’s essay “The Creative Act”, he asserts that it only takes two groups (the artist and spectator) to declare anything as art. I have such a hard time, personally, with Duchamp’s idea that for something to be art it only takes the artist and the spectator. I’m sure that is why his work “Fountain” has never resonated with me and I can’t agree with his philosophy. The idea that (for example) I could throw my napkin down on the gallery floor and call it “art” and as long as someone agrees with me, then it IS art… it just makes art meaningless. A napkin is not art just because two people say it is… it is just trash on the floor.
I feel that the the concept, the intent BEHIND the work plays the most important role. With that being said, If I were to propose a universal regulating principal it would be that: a piece can only be considered ‘art’ if there are conceptual ideas being presented, and a purposeful intent in the work to evoke an emotional or intellectual response from the viewer. The aesthetic then comes into play in the evaluation of the piece as good or bad execution of the concept. The piece can emphasize or deny the aesthetic, look subjectively good or bad, but if there is no conceptual idea behind it, then it can’t be legitimately considered ‘art’.
With that regulating principal in mind, referring to the example I gave above, the napkin on floor isn’t art just because I say it is and someone agrees. But instead, if I said that the napkin is art BECAUSE it represents our over consumerised fast-food culture and I want you to recognize the degradation of our society’s value system… THEN it’s art! The concept is there… the piece may not present the concept well, and therefore be considered ‘bad’ art. Or may subjectively look bad and deny the aesthetic, but because I have given it conceptual depth, it is ‘art’ nonetheless.