Cathedrals

“We are creating images whose reality is self-evident and which are deviod of the props and crutches that evoke associations with outmoded images, both sublime and beautiful. We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of Western European painting. Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or “life,” we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings. The image we produce is the self-evident one of revelation, real and concrete, that can be understood by anyone who will look at it without the nostalgic glasses of history.” [Barnett Newman The Sublime is Now]

“[Caroline] Jones retells many familiar stories in terms of the ‘Greenberg Effect’, which struggles to regulate sensation via vision. For example, the well-known narrative of Greenberg’s adoption of Hoffman’s theoretical account of European abstraction is recast as Greenberg’s rationalisation of Hoffman by expunging his spiritual preoccupations with colour and replacing them with a rational account of their effects. Stieglitz was also dismissed as someone whose irrationality disrupted Greenberg’s bureaucracy of the senses. Likewise, Greenberg’s antipathy to O’Keefe’s art is explained by his squeamishness at its specifically carnal qualities that threatened the purity of the all-seeing eye of the critic. The threat of O’Keefe’s work lay in its explicitly bodily images, which promised to bring forth a scatological and bodily modernism that would threaten rational attempts to reduce the body to the purity of vision.
… In the end, what is most convincing about the account is how Jones uses the modernist episteme of visuality to frame both a theory of art and subjectivity with the ‘Greenberg Effect’. Greenberg made a clear distinction between the pictorial and the optical interpretation of a work of art. The pictorial interpretation requires knowledge of historical traditions (such as iconography, style and so forth). The optical, on the other hand, is the non-pictorial visibility of the image; that which is encountered by eyesight alone. This signals a move in modernist aesthetics from appreciation of beauty to the regulation of its effects. Opticality is thus linked, ultimately, to alienation of a modern subject. By prizing apart the senses, the body itself (that is the embodied, phenomenological centre of experience) is experienced by different arts (music, theatre, painting, etc.). This in turn creates the detached, alienated and decentred subject of Modernity. Jones convincingly argues how the ‘Greenberg Effect’ internalised this detachment and articulated it as the ‘professional objectivity’ of formalism. Thus a theory of looking becomes a theory of subjectivity. Jones claims Greenberg saw in abstract painting a model of how we know the world: ‘the ontological condition of abstract art is thus also its epistemology’. Thus, Jones’ fundamental argument is that art is a type of thinking that not only engenders a certain type of looking but also constitutes a certain type of subject.” [Francis Halsall on Caroline Jones’ Eyesight Alone: Clement Greenberg’s Modernism and the Bureaucratization of the Senses]

The oxymoronic character of tradition from negation had already been constructed by Greenberg as the fundament of modernism’s continuity with its past. It was captured poetically by Robert Motherwell in 1951: “one of the most striking of abstract art’s appearance is her nakedness, an art stripped bare. How many rejections on the part of her artists!” Gombrich would have interpreted those rejections in terms of truth claims (not unjustified by the artists’ own formulations). Greenberg ignored such philosophical complexities, crafting his positivist readings in which truth-to-materials and disciplinary truth were the logical claims of abstract art. Only after the onset of war would it be necessary to tweak the nearly Platonic idealism of an art free of “memory, association, nostalgia, legend” – specifically to distinguish American painting from a geometric abstraction or purism associated with Europe. When differentiating themselves became crucial, artists’ rhetoric began to confirm the material conditions o the painted canvas: “naked,” self-evident,” “real and concrete.” In 1943, for example, Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb offered the readers of the New York Times that same “real and concrete” revelation that Newman espoused: “We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.”
Truth-talk dropped from Greenberg’s formulations, but the material conditions taken to support it remained….” [Caroline A. Jones Eyesight Alone]

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