Post #1026 • June 30, 2007, 12:39 AM • 102 Comments
Resetting the overlong thread from previously.
At one point I offered the following as a definition of modernism, and only because I was asked to do so:
Modernism is an attitude in which one attempts to make better art based on the intrinsic properties of one's medium. That's okay as far as it goes, and I stand by it. The attitude rises out of a 19th and 20th Century historical milieu that would make it a strange thing to apply to a Medieval artist. I think all good artists understand that materials have to be handled in a beautiful way. Modernism simply made this necessity explicit, and separate from the problems of depiction and decoration in a way that they hadn't been previously.
It's important to note - although I wonder why it has to keep being noted - that Greenberg described, not prescribed, this phenomenon. Painting oriented towards flatness in the '50s because it was natural for it to do so as a process of differentiation. This ended up producing some of the best paintings of the century, but their flatness was in some respects coincidental to their quality. Artists such as Olitski proved that flatness is fairly dispensible to the pursuit of quality, and it is the pursuit of quality, visual quality, that modernism is primarily concerned with.
In fact, canvas is a fairly dimensional support, especially compared to, say, copper, which was popular in Dutch art for a time. Pigment interacts with canvas in highly varied ways depending on the viscosity of the medium and the weave and absorbancy of the canvas. These interactions have profound consequences regarding the look of the final piece, and this is true whether the result is more abstract or more realist. Modernism is a kind of visual Vipassana - an ability to detect the nature of observable phenomena and make ever better art based on them.
Put on a continuum, pre-modernist art believes in both visual quality and technique. Modernist art believes in visual quality but doubts technique. Postmodernist art doubts both visual quality and technique. Importantly, none of these three attitudes guarantees a positive or negative outcome. But from my observations, the modernist attitude aligns the widest means with the greatest number of opportunities for beautiful results. Making good art using that attitude is another mysterious matter.