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Clement Greenberg's Definition of Modernism

This study will examine Clement Greenberg's definition of modernism (as expressed in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, edited by Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz) and will then apply those statements to an analysis of one modernist and one non/anti- or post-modernist work of art, including statements by the artists themselves which will shed light on the nature of modernism, particularly as a theory of the teleology of art. The modernist work selected is Jackson Pollock's "Alchemy" (1947) and the anti-or post-modernist work is Arnulf Rainer's "Face Farces" (1969). Despite the fact that only twenty-two years separate the two works of art, a great chasm of intention and perception on the part of the artists separates the essence of the works.

The essence of modernism lies . . . in the use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the disciple itself. . . . What had to be exhibited and made explicit was that which was unique and irreducible not only in art in general but also in each particular art. each art had to determine, through the operations peculiar to itself, the effects peculiar and exclusive to itself (Stiles and Selz 2).

This aspect of Greenberg's definition perhaps refers more to the technical aspects of each art, although the technical and the teleological in modernism cannot truly be separated. Greenberg means that in painting, for example, the Modernists focused on the actual paint on the canvas more than any specific representation which he or she was making of an actual object in the world. Accordingly, Pollock's painting "Alchemy" is entirely abstract, and makes no pretense about representing anything perceivable in the "real" world. At the same time, it immediately strikes the viewer as a "serious" piece of art which is attempting to portray some message about the meaning of life, a meaning perhaps suggested in part by the title of the work. In this sense, it does support the modernis...

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Clement Greenberg's Definition of Modernism. (1969, December 31). In Retrieved 15:37, May 20, 2019, from