I have drafted this blog about Greenberg’s perspective on the arts under modernism in response to an issue which Ted raised at our group meeting, but am cross-posting it here as I feel it may be of broader interest:

Clement Greenberg was a visual art critic from the US whose writings on modernism in the arts proved highly influential. In what is sometimes termed a concept of medium specificity, he developed his view that the advance of modernism went hand in hand with a sharpened focus on the unique qualities of each artistic medium, i.e. on what makes one art form distinct from another. In Modernist Painting (originally published in 1960), he offered the following observations on painting:

“The essence of Modernism lies, as I see it, in the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence. …

What had to be exhibited was not only that which was unique and irreducible in art in general, but also that which was unique and irreducible in each particular art. Each art had to determine, through its own operations and works, the effects exclusive to itself….

The task of self-criticism became to eliminate from the specific effects of each art any and every effect that might conceivably be borrowed from or by the medium of any other art. Thus would each art be rendered “pure,” and in its “purity” find the guarantee of its standards of quality as well as of its independence. …

It was the stressing of the ineluctable flatness of the surface that remained […] more fundamental than anything else to the processes by which pictorial art criticized and defined itself under Modernism. For flatness alone was unique and exclusive to pictorial art. The enclosing shape of the picture was a limiting condition, or norm, that was shared with the art of the theater; color was a norm and a means shared not only with the theater, but also with sculpture. Because flatness was the only condition painting shared with no other art, Modernist painting oriented itself to flatness as it did to nothing else.”


Greenberg’s notion of modernism was effectively defined by a separation of the arts, in contrast with their synthesis as posited in Wagner’s concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk (‘total work of art’) whose impact on modernism was also considerable. In any case, Greenberg’s ideas on the uniqueness of each artistic medium have been applied to dance by the likes of Roger Copeland and David Michael Levin. I do not have Copeland’s whole essay to hand here, but he wrote in 1986 that “twenty years ago the reigning sensibility among serious experimental artists was the quest for ‘purity’ of the medium, the desire to determine what each art form can do uniquely well… Choreographers were expected to emphasise the barebones essence of their medium, the human body in motion, unembellished by theatrical trappings.” (178) He was obviously thinking of the Judson Dance Theater here.

Copeland has also suggested that Balanchine’s purist works, which strips ballet of everything extraneous such as a story, décor, etc. exemplify Greenberg’s notion of modernism; while the alliance of the arts in the works by the Ballets Russes typifies an approach more akin to Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk.

Now, we have moved away from modernism quite a while ago, but I can see how these issues are still relevant in our era, and might more specifically be applied to our project….

Modernism, the Arts and Greenberg

One thought on “Modernism, the Arts and Greenberg

  • I appreciate Greenberg’s take on modernism.

    For me, Childs (2008) offers a helpful elaboration on dance modernism with its “emphasis on radical aesthetics, technical experimentation, spatial or rhythmic, rather than chronological form, and self-conscious reflexiveness as well as the search for authenticity in human relations, abstraction in art, and utopian striving.”

    Traditionally, artists worked within a style, but we don’t think of ourselves that way. We either equate our style with art itself or else offered universal reasons for stylistic choices. For example, classical styles were often defended on the ground that the ancient Greeks had discovered universal principles of beauty and representation.

    Then, it seems that, at the dawning of modernism, it became obvious that all art depicts the world through a style, that styles differ from time to time and place to place, and there is no independent aesthetic standard that makes one better than all the others. We now think that the artists of other times and places struggled to address issues that seemed inevitable, but these questions were actually relative to the local cultures. It is possible to understand a Baroque dancer who views the world as a stage. But it is impossible to be like him: to address a question that seems intrinsic to art.

    Instead, beginning with the modern era, everyone is a stylist. There are no longer objective aesthetic questions. To make a dance becomes an entirely different matter. Every artist develops a manner of his or her own and creates works that appear, first, as art objects; second, as products of a particular artist, and last (if at all) as representations of something. Thus “modernism” means recognizing that all past ways of representing the world have been arbitrary and culturally relative styles.

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