So this week I learned about Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg, 20th century art critics. I already knew about Clement Greenberg and had read his work but I really did not understand. Someone said that an art movement needs three things an artist, a poet and a critic. I am just throwing that out there.
So Greenberg and Rosenberg were writing about the abstract expressionists, or that is what I am writing about what they are writing about. Rosenberg called it action painting. What the heck is an abstract painting?
For Rosenberg the painting is a record, it is the record of an event or a process. We can see how this leads to all sorts of things such as conceptual art, or happenings, or the archive as art, or even curator as artist. With this POV an abstract expressionist painting is different from say a Titian portrait. The Titian portrait is obviously in service of the final object, we look at the final object and it succeeds and fails based on the final object. An abstract expressionist painting, although can be visually successful or unsuccessful is a result of a process, that what is comprehensible.
You can see that perhaps Rosenberg is approaching art from an intellectual perspective, or a rational perpsective, rather than an aesthetic perspective. He is trying to understand the work rather than perceive the work. When I look at a titian painting I can understand it. I can engage in a sort of literary hermeneutics. It is a story in pictorial form. When I look at an abstract painting, it has meaning, but I cannot tell a a story about it. It is not narrative.
The only way to understand an abstract painting in this way is to create narrative, and the narrative becomes the result of a process. So the making of the art becomes the story and the end result is the record. Rosenberg was a marxist. Marx is all about other ways of understanding beyond reason – understanding via praxis – understanding via action. (also you can see what I have written about the hermeneutics of suspicion).
There is something very appealing about this. Praxis has meaning. Process has meaning. The narrative is action. But really conceptual art and process art -although it is clever and interesting and I do like it – is actually not revolutionary. It is still narrative. I see now what some of these writers were trying to do, Stein and Joyce, to break out of narrative with words… but we still try and find the hidden story.
But we have an opportunity to go beyond this with abstract art. What if art has no story. If the picture has no story.
It is what it is – the paint on the canvas. This is radical. This is radical presence. It is the result of a process as everything is, but it is not there to educate you on process on the narrative. We have already been through that. Instead it is to bring you into the present.
It is easy to dismiss this as product over process, ends justify the means, and we can reduce this to all sorts of commercialism and capitalism and corner cutting. But that is not what I mean. The question is what does abstract art do that other art does not do.
To say that it makes us think about process is to say that what is on the canvas is meaningless, it is so bad that we can only think about the process. This is a sort of nihilism.
To take the painting as it is, without a story… as perhaps source or “being” as Jean Gebser talks about is a more radical interpretation. An abstract painting in its true materiality shows us something about our source from which process flows not the end of process.
For Greenberg the painting is about the painting, it is about the paint, the canvas, the thing you see, not the thing you interpret or project or narrate.