WRITING—The Self-Critical Tendency in Art

Conceptual art’s move beyond Modernism’s implicit self-criticism to one of overt self-criticism.

In 1965, Clement Greenberg was continuing to promote the Modernist ‘project,’ stressing the internal nature of the self-critical tendency in art:

I identify Modernism with the intensification, almost the exacerbation, of this self-critical tendency.

The Enlightenment criticized from the outside, the way criticism in its more accepted sense does; Modernism criticizes from the inside, through the procedures themselves of that which is being criticized.

It should also be understood that the self-criticism of Modernist art has never been carried on in any but a spontaneous and subliminal way. It has been altogether a question of practice, immanent to practice and never a topic of theory.1

Whereas, at the same moment artists were already examining this process and deliberately exploiting it for it’s own ends. Adrian Piper, as an early practitioner of what came to be called Conceptual art, describes her own rationalisation of the process thus:

. . . I coined the term meta-art in 1972 to describe a kind of writing an artist may do about her work that examines its processes and clarifies its sociopolitical context and conceptual presuppositions from the first-person perspective . . . this brand of art criticism is incompatible with the myth that the critic may impersonally efface herself and her subjectivity in order more accurately to deliver objectively valid pronouncements about the criticized object.2

And Conceptual art’s emphasis on the idea mirrors Greenberg’s historicisation of Abstract art’s move to the rejection of ideas for forms:

. . . the [late nineteenth-century] avant-garde saw the necessity of an escape from ideas, which were infecting the arts with the ideological struggles of society. Ideas came to mean subject matter in general. (Subject matter as distinguished from content: in the sense that every work of art must have content, but that subject matter is something the artist does or does not have in mind when he is actually at work.) This meant a new and greater emphasis upon form . . .3

Which leads him on to the development of his theory of the medium as the determining factor in abstract art, the ‘idea’ is not mentioned again, but it’s interesting to see how it has become subordinated in Greenberg’s account.

  1. Greenberg, C.(1965). Modernist Painting. In Frascina F. and Harrison C., eds. Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology. London: Paul Chapman Publishing, 1982.
  2. Piper, A.(1997). Introduction: Some Very FORWARD Remarks. In Piper, A., Out of Order, Out of Sight Vol 1: Selected Writings in Meta-Art 1968–1992. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1997.
  3. Greenberg, C.(1940). Towards a Newer Laocoon. In Frascina F., eds. Pollock and After: The Critical Debate. London: Routledge, 1985.

Erwin Panofsky (1892–1968)—Selected Quotations (part 2)

Man’s signs and structures are records because, or rather in so far as they express ideas separated from, yet realized by, the process of signaling and building. These records have therefore the quality of emerging from the stream of time…

Now we have seen that even the selection of the material for observation and examination is predetermined, to some extent, by a theory, or by a general historical conception. This is even more evident in the procedure itself, as every step made towards the system that ‘makes sense’ presupposes not only the preceding but also the succeeding ones.

A work of art is not always created exclusively for the purpose of being enjoyed, or, to use a more scholarly expression, of being experienced aesthetically. …But a work of art always has aesthetic significance (not to be confused with aesthetic value): whether or not it serves some practical purpose, and whether it is good or bad, it demands to be experienced aesthetically.

Only he who simply and wholly abandons himself to the object of his perception will experience it aesthetically.

A man-made object, however, either demands or does not demand to be so experienced, for it has what the scholastics call an ‘intention.’

Where the sphere of practical objects ends, and that of ‘art’ begins, depends then, on the ‘intentions’ of the creators.

Erwin Panofsky, The History of Art as a Humanistic Discipline, 1940