Attached to the choo-choo train of history the angelic aspect of Pollock's use of line was, for Clem, registered in the flight it could take, the statement it could make against the realm of matter and substance, and thus the sublimation it could perform.I have been reading Rosalind Krauss' The Optical Unconscious (1993) and enjoying it very much. The above quote (from pg.290) made me laugh. Choo-choo train of history? Ouch! The way she argues with Clement Greenberg is highly charged. She's mean, and I suspect that was one way of getting through to the man, speaking his language. Of course, her arguments are not really addressed to Greenberg. Her goal isn't to convince him (she's not delusional), nor even, ultimately, to taunt him, but to assert her own paradigm for assessing works of modern art. Not only does she dissemble his theoretical positions with cogent argument, but she does so on his rhetorical terms. If one can talk of "owning" when it comes to shared cultural ideas, Greenberg is widely understood to "own" high modernism. But Krauss would beg to differ. Modernism isn't Greenberg, it's an historical era and Krauss has her own compelling version of events.
In the final section of the book, however, the following paragraph is repeated five times.
He's sitting there just as I remember him, next to the neat little marble-topped table, with its prim lamp in gilt bronze, and its assortment of tiny ashtrays, one of them containing a heap of crumpled butts, the only disarray in this fanatically ordered space. I am across the room from him, perched on a long yellow sofa above which there hangs a dour Hans Hoffman, a brown surface of palette scrapings from which two squares of pure color have been allowed to escape with relative impunity, a larger one of vermillion, a smaller, acid one of green. As usual he is lecturing me, about art, the art world, people we know in common, artists I've never met. As always I am held by the arrogance of his mouth — fleshy, toothy, aggressive — and its pronouncements, which though voiced in the studied hesitancy of his Southern drawl are, as always, implacably final.Five times that painful paragraph is repeated, as if its iteration was a kind of exorcism. The book is not addressed to Greenberg, but his presence in the text is sometimes unnervingly personal — he's employed as a theoretical object, but he's also close to Krauss' heart.
Part of the reason I bring this up is because Tom Moody has recently posted about the prevalent contemporary invocation of Greenberg as a straw man. Excerpt:
Artists need their straw people, though: an entire generation ascended in the art academy rebelling against Greenberg's purist ideals of non-commingled art forms. Without his strong spine the culture of rebellion falls apart into semi-articulated cults. So it becomes necessary to perennially construct mini-Greenbergs: imagined foes of low culture who can be shot down.Krauss may have been using Greenberg as a foil, but (unlike the people Moody is complaining about) she also knew the man, at certain points looked up to him, and worked for many years with his ideas. What I find mind-blowing about The Optical Unconscious is that Krauss loves modern art — loves it with a depth of aesthetic engagement that is truly rare in any art criticism. She also maintains an affinity for high modernism, being one of those rare individuals who made a fundamental shift to her belief system without abandoning it altogether.
In the Krauss chapter on Pollock, quoted above, she tackles "high" and "low." Her primary concern, however, is not with with high art vs. low art / fine art vs. kitsch. She is more interested in gravity and human physiology. In Greenbergian modernism, paintings are addressed to the eyes, hung at eye-level, and the predominance of vision over the other senses is associated with the upright stature of humankind. In this respect, opticality is "high," both physically high and high in the sense that our human verticality is a symbol of civilization, of rationality. Opticality itself becomes loaded with transcendence. What Krauss understands in Pollock is a violent refutation of the reification and isolation of vision from the rest of human experience. Pollock worked on the floor. His paintings are indexical evidence of something low — temporal activity taking place on the ground, under the influence of gravity.
For Krauss, "low" does imply pop culture, and she addresses this in her chapters on Ernst and Duchamp. More importantly, however, it implies a more fully embodied aesthetic experience than the optical detachment theorized by Greenberg. In both Ernst and Duchamp she sees the mechanisms of desire operating through automata — each artist making a direct address to the physiology of vision (Rotoreliefs in Duchamp and zoetropes of Ernst) but indicating that vision is sexual, temporal and cultural. The brilliance of Pollock, for Krauss, was not that he exemplified an epitome of the picture plane, but that, by working on all fours, he refuted the neat formalist framing of vision as an autonomous sense.
Krauss, loving modernism, opens it up from within. She refutes rampant rationalism with science, formalism with form, re-charting Greenberg's territory according to an embodied aesthetic scheme that engages with a much broader spectrum of human experience.
Today, Greenberg is a myth, synonymous with modernism. The Greenberg of Krauss was more of an infuriating-but-respected-colleague than a straw man. But I think that contemporary arguments with fictional "mini-Greenbergs" (as Tom Moody calls them) have a function. Formalism, as a theoretical mode, has not gone away. It is no longer attached to opticality and media-specificity, but the tautology of self-reflexive, rule-based aesthetics is still prevalent. While I would agree that invoking Greenberg in debates about reductive net.art ideologies, for example, may do history a disservice, the Greenberg straw man does serve, thanks in part to Krauss, as a quick and easy reminder of the dehumanising fragmentation inherent to any purely formal system.
I can't quite make it as far as modernism today. The CNE air show is on, so at the moment, I'm an Italian Futurist. (zoom)
F-22 Raptor stole the show. 21st Century Fighter.