In a recent essay for Hyperallergic critic John Yau traces the lingering belief in the historical progress of visual art to the influential legacy of 20th century American critic Clement Greenberg. Yau’s article, which makes important points regarding flawed justifications for contemporary trends, is underlayed by the supposition that Clement Greenberg preached a doctrine of historical progress in art, specifically painting, and that this belief translated into a historical imperative for the development of future art. As a result, according to Yau, a situation where “painting is marginalized in a variety of obvious and not-so-obvious ways” now exists.
There is good evidence to suggest that Greenberg subscribed to at least some version of a historical progress model in visual art. Greenberg accepts as fact the presence of an avant-garde (which posits a leading edge) in both art and literature (“Avant-Garde and Kitsch”), often makes appeals to science (“Modernist Painting”), and frequently employs words such as “advanced” which allow for multiple interpretations.
But as an American writer coming to the zenith of his powers in the mid-20th century, a writer steeped in Kant, Hegel and Marx, and one with professed socialist leanings, it would be considerably more surprising if he did not accept a theory of progress at some level. After all, progress, and a belief in it, has been perhaps the single most defining feature of Western culture since it emerged from the work of Bacon, Descartes, and the intellectual climate of the 17th century.
That new knowledge about the world can be acquired and put to use, that the current state of affairs represents a material advance over the past, and that the future might be better than the present, may have been taken as a given in 1950, but in the 1600s, this was a radical idea.
Classical thinkers conceived of history’s motion as being essentially cyclical in nature, born of their observations of celestial movement. While the Christian era’s introduction of Judgment Day and its emphasis on the afterlife laid the groundwork for a linear conception of time with not just a beginning, but also a middle, and for the righteous, a glorious end. In repudiating these worldviews – the authority of antiquity as well as the doctrinal finality of the church – Enlightenment thinkers established the modern age, and its life-blood was the open-ended, perfectible future and a belief in progress towards that end.
Seen in this light, Yau’s castigations of Greenberg for bequeathing a legacy of historical progress is widely off the mark. Instead, his argument is with a cultural theory of progress that has its origins hundreds of years before the critic’s birth. Greenberg is merely the inheritor of a Western tradition particularly prominent in the American experience, but by no means limited to it. While American conceptions of progress are traditionally conservative, underscoring incremental change over time, European formulations typically revolve around the idea of progress as a revolutionary act, as a moment or movement intentionally set in opposition to the dominant paradigm. Sound familiar?
Greenberg’s emphasis on modernism’s continuity with the best art of the past (“Modernist Painting”), reveals him to expound an almost quintessentially American conception of progress. Contrast that view with more radical ‘European’ notion of progress expressed by critic Harold Rosenberg who describes the new American painting as having “broken down every distinction between art and life” (The American Action Painters”). As an art critic, Greenberg may accept historical progress a priori, but he is by no means the only one, nor is he solely responsible for its ramifications.
The truly interesting questions that remain are: does historical progress in the visual arts actually exist? If modernist progress is an illusion, where does that leave Greenberg, or any other mid-century thinker for that matter? In order to examine the validity of progress in the visual arts we need to understand the character of its meaning and usage in the broadest possible terms.
“Progress” implies several important concepts. First is that the term is inherently optimistic, if it is not, then it is regress. Secondly, progress requires a belief, however hazy, in a future state of perfection or in the perfectibility of things. At the very least, it necessitates a continuous forward process which may someday arrive at its intended destination. A theory of progress also suggests that the present is more advanced, and thus demonstrably better, than the past either spiritually, materially, socially, intellectually, etc.
As it stands, a theory of progress is pretty easy to support in a scientific discipline like astronomy. We no longer believe that the sun and stars revolve around the earth or that our planet is only 4000 years old. New knowledge has supplanted old assumptions and this process has fundamentally changed the way we view ourselves and our relationship to the universe. There is no reason to suspect that in the future, our understanding of the universe and of mysterious forms like dark matter will not be greatly improved over our understanding of it today. The potential for knowledge’s perfection exists.
Visual art is another matter. To support a theory of progress, we would have to posit the perfectibility of forms, and demonstrate that our knowledge of visual experience and its practical application in the creation of visual art is superior to that of the past. Surely we can all point to a few achievements here and there, such as linear perspective, which have enhanced our knowledge and added to our ability to create augmented fidelity to life. But the mimetic properties of Greek and Roman sculpture are as good as any figurative sculpture created in the 21st century, and in many cases they’re superior.
A first style Roman wall painting from Pompeii, Malevich’s “Red Square” of 1915 and Mark Rothko’s “No.3/No. 13 1949” all share remarkably similar structures, forms, and coloration. But are Rothko’s colored squares more perfect than Malevich’s? Do they represent a significant formal advancement over Roman wall decoration? Not that I can tell. Rothko’s work appears progressive only to the extent that the social elite of the 20th century were willing to accept it as being more akin to something by Titian than a product of a work-a-day wall painter. That Rothko’s work is art however, is not in question, only whether it is advanced is.
Western art history is more indicative of a cyclical model development, rather than a linear model of open-ended progress. Forms crop up, become highly valued, and then fade away as cultural tides shift. Byzantine icon painting was concerned with the depiction of saints in heaven, not mimesis, as such their forms privilege stylization and expression. Their ancestors, on the other hand, wanted realism in their sculpture, and perhaps, as the Fayum funerary images suggest, their painting as well. French Impressionists, mirroring developments on the political front, set their work in opposition to the dominant trends of the day, elevating the freedom and spontaneity of the ebauche to the level of finished artwork. Meanwhile, Cézanne looked all the way back to Poussin.
The Modernist illusion of progress is in effect a historical accident brought on by a cultural belief in a theory of it, supported by advances in science, navigation, astronomy and economics, and transposed to the arts. What looks like the empirically verifiable progression from representation to abstraction, is simply a reflection of a cultural attitude that comes to expect progress in all walks of life. Progress becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The reality is that the look of 20th century painting merely reflects cultural changes in the same way Byzantine icon painting represented a cultural shift in the 12th century. No more, no less.
So where does this leave Greenberg?
If all you’ve ever read are polemics like “Modernist Painting” or “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” he might start to look like damaged goods, or at the very least, a product of his times. However, a sustained engagement with the breadth and depth of his thinking reveals a significantly more nuanced – and accessible – approach to art, aesthetics, and the cultivation of taste that stands to this day. Even some of Yau’s most prescient concerns, particularly about the art-world’s penchant for abusing the myth of the historically “new” as a way to divide the important from the unimportant, were presaged by Greenberg.
In his 1971 essay “Counter Avant-Garde”, the critic describes the creation of “avant-gardist” as a distinct category of art. Avant-Gardism, Greenberg relates, “envisages newness as an end in itself.” And has “demonstrated that the look, at least, of the unconventional, the adventurous, the advanced, can be standardized…” While Greenberg here still clings to the notion of progress, he is aware by the 1970s, at least peripherally, of the problems that belief entails, and the misuses it can be put to.
So when Yau chides Raphael Rubinstein for touting a version of progress theory to justify his own interest in provisionality he’s right to do so. Rubinstein should by now have sufficient visual perspective on art history to know that both what he seeks and what he observes are manifestations of the cyclical nature of art, not a continuation of a historical process. But it’s crucial to remember that this state has been brought about by the ascendancy of those who, for the past four decades, have built careers upon a rejection of Greenberg, and his insistence on taste and standards of quality. The lingering legacy of historical progress is a vestige of modernism we’d all be better off without, but it’s an albatross too big for one man to bear.