Reorienting Art

January 18, 2015

While Clement Greenberg enjoins his famous essay on Modernism with a reference to the critical philosophy of Kant, he makes the crucial mistake of conflating the conceptual dimensions of experience (erfahren) with the perceptual dimensions of experience (erlebnis). This mistake leads him to the faulty conclusion that it is the critical stripping of art’s disciplinary norms in favor of a perceptual purity which is the realization of art’s own critical development:

“We know what has happened to an activity like religion, which could not avail itself of
Kantian, immanent, criticism in order to justify itself. […] The arts could save themselves from this leveling down only by demonstrating that the kind of experience they provided was valuable in its own right and not to be obtained from any other kind of activity.” (Greenberg, “Modernist Painting”)

This experience was, of course, nothing less than the experience of opticality itself:

“That visual art should confine itself exclusively to what is given in visual experience, and make no reference to anything given in any other order of experience, is a notion whose only justification lies in scientific consistency.” (Greenberg)

While Greenberg confined this operation to the categorical development of medium specificity, in particular, painting — later critics moved beyond this remit. Rosalind Krauss, in confronting minimalism, would reframe the limits of this critical gesture to encompass space and time, situating the experience of the viewer as the central facet of art’s exploratory gesture. Greenberg despised the minimalists for taking his dictats beyond the realm of painting into the realm of space. However, Duchamp had already gone far beyond the minimalists in realizing the limits of his teleos, both calling into question the norms of artistic practice and its contextual field. It is not hard to anticipate that the ultimate realization of Greenberg’s advocacy of pure color on a flat surface terminates in the readymade: the blank canvas is just another object without the proper framing.

Today, the Duchampian gesture is the gesture par excellence of Contemporary Art. At best, under contemporary understandings of art (shaped by Duchamp’s legacy), we have simply come to define it according to indeterminacy of nomination, and its negative mirror that whatever is not nominated as Art is not art. This definition, of course suffers from its own vicious circularity, for if anything can potentially be art, and all one needs to make it art is to say that it so, it becomes Art. This is unsatisfactory for several reasons, including questions of criteria, value, and politics. For instance, with criteria: if it is nomination alone that secures the status of art, what if two people disagree about that status of the nominated object? With value: how does one determine whether a work of art is good or worthy of attention? And politically: Who has the power of nomination, and what makes them worthy of this power? These questions, of course interlock, but without some understanding of the discipline of art, they become impossible to determine.

It would therefore seem to be useful to have a minimal definition of what the discipline of art is, how its criteria might be developed, and a means of adjudicating these claims. Of course, pragmatically, such means exist in the world, and are practiced every day by existing institutions and tastemakers, despite the lack of such a definition. This however, has severe drawbacks, at least as far as a politics of art is concerned. Art, as it is practiced in the Contemporary Art world is increasingly dependent upon power derived from economic, rather than aesthetic speculation. Without a clear understanding of art according to some normative discipline, and a means of asserting its value according to its own criteria, capitalist measures of value come to substitute for what otherwise cannot be judged.

It is my contention that this state is in part due to the initial confusion I have identified in Greenbergs formulation of art’s critical trajectory — that is, the conflation of Art’s perceptual and conceptual dimensions (erlebnis and erfahren) to the detriment of the conceptual and in favor of what Wilfrid Sellars calls “the given”. It is my intention to reorient our understanding of Art by examining the assumptions of the given in its present discourse.