Medium Specificity and Flatness
Summary of Medium Specificity and Flatness
Since the Enlightenment era, philosophers and art critics alike have ruminated on the unique aspects that separate the arts from each other. For some, the shared qualities of painting, sculpture, literature, and theater diminished the singular power each potentially held. Advocates for medium specificity demanded that each art concentrate on that which made it unique. In painting's case, it was its "flatness" that made it distinct from the others.
While ideas of medium specificity circulated among modern artists and critics alike, it was the American critic Clement Greenberg who gave a prominent voice to these ideas. In Greenberg's estimation, the postwar movement of Abstract Expressionism, and later Post-painterly Abstraction, was a further culmination in painting's self-analysis that began with Édouard Manet, bringing the viewer's attention to the surface of the painting and its material support.
- Beginning in the second half of the 19th century, many artists and critics felt that for painting to be relevant to modern life, it needed to throw off the tradition of illusionistic depth and historical narrative and instead re-establish the flat surface of the canvas. Painting was no longer an illusionistic window to look through but an announcement of its construction out of canvas and paint.
- Greenberg did not consider abstraction to be an artistic style, but the specific nature of painting itself, as the artist emphasizes the two-dimensional flatness of the canvas and the paint represents nothing other than paint. He felt that a painting that included narrative content or figuration had been invaded and weakened by literature or sculpture.
- Greenberg argued that painting required an "escape from ideas," to maintain its medium specificity. The artwork and the critic were required to reject or dismiss biographical connection, social and political purpose, and cultural or philosophical associations.
- Greenberg's style of criticism - focusing on the formal aspects of the work of art - has its source in Enlightenment-era thinking and owes much to the teachings of Hans Hofmann. Subsequently, Greenberg's insistence on attending to compositional arrangement and relationships and not on biography or cultural context was widely influential for younger critics, although many critics and historians have questioned the narrow focus.
Overview of Medium Specificity and Flatness
The debate about the limitations and defining character of art media originated in the 18th century, when German philosopher, art critic, and dramatist Gotthold Ephraim Lessing published Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry in 1776. The title referenced the famous classical sculpture Laocoon and His Sons (27 BCE-68CE), which depicted the myth of Laocoon and his two sons, killed by giant pythons sent in punishment by the gods. In his essay, Lessing viewed poetry as extending itself in time while painting extended itself in space. He wrote, "It is an intrusion of the painter into the domain of the poet, which good taste can never sanction, when the painter combines in one and the same picture two points necessarily separate in time." Lessing felt that because painting and sculpture were static, material objects, they could not truthfully represent narratives that happen over time. Clement Greenberg noted Lessing's work as being the first to recognize "the presence of a practical as well as a theoretical confusion of the art."
The Most Important Art in Medium Specificity and Flatness
Clement Greenberg came to prominence as a critic during and after World War II as he was championing the Abstract Expressionists and, in particular, Jackson Pollock, who in 1947 embarked on his infamous drip paintings. In his 1948 essay, "The Crisis of the Easel Picture," Greenberg introduces the term "all-over" to describe a manner of handling pictorial space and surface in paintings, an approach he sees as an emerging tendency in American abstract art. For Greenberg, Pollock's drip painting were the epitome of the all-over technique, which continued Modernist painting's evolution toward flatness and its emphasis on its material support. According to Greenberg, the "'decentralized,' 'polyphonic,' all-over picture which, with a surface knit together of a multiplicity of identical or similar elements, repeats itself without strong variation from one end of the canvas to the other..." The picture was dissolving into "sheer texture, sheer sensation." Greenberg argued that this answered to "something deep-seated in contemporary sensibility. It corresponds perhaps to the feeling that all hierarchical distinctions have been exhausted, that no area or order of experience is either intrinsically or relatively superior to any other."
Pollock created a web of paint skeins that extend over the entirety of the canvas. No single area is highlighted as more interesting than any other, and the viewer's eye roams over the whole surface. While there are discrete areas of interest found amidst the composition - nails, tacks, buttons, cigarettes, etc. - the overall effect was of utmost importance to Greenberg. The immediate sensation of the texture of the painting, of its seemingly infinite repetition - that it could continue beyond the edges of the canvas - constituted Pollock's breakthrough for Greenberg.
This abstract painting shows uneven shapes of blue, brown, and gray, punctuated by red and green, against a pale blue and pink background that is opaque and yet atmospheric. The gestural and visible brushstrokes and the slashes of red and green create a sense of movement and, simultaneously, make the irregular shapes seem like a crowd of figures glimpsed on a street, the setting hazy behind them. Subtly, Guston undercuts both the flatness of the pictorial plane and its medium specificity, as the abstract work nonetheless suggests forms materializing out of something like a landscape, even as the physicality of his painting, the pigment applied from different directions, emphasizes the surface and plane of the canvas itself.
While Greenberg had championed Abstract Expressionism, by the mid-1950s he felt that the artists had gone astray, citing what he called "homeless representation" in the works of Pollock, Guston, and, particularly, Willem de Kooning. For Greenberg, the representational and quasi-representational compositions defeated painting's specificity by suggesting narrative content, which Greenberg had deemed anathema.
Eventually abandoning abstraction altogether, in the late 1960s Guston began creating figurative paintings that were more cartoon-like and teemed with humor, unrest, and disjunctions. Emphasizing his artistic independence, Guston directly challenged the concept of medium purity, then saying, "There is something ridiculous and miserly in the myth we inherit from abstract art: That painting is autonomous, pure and for itself, therefore we habitually analyze its ingredients and define its limits. But painting IS 'impure.' It is the adjustment of 'impurities' which forces its continuity. We are image makers, and image ridden."
In this abstract painting, color itself becomes "the conjurer," as irregular forms materialize energetically in the spatial relationship between intense primary colors and white and black. Profoundly influenced by Hofmann's teaching and artistic practice, Clement Greenberg noted the "intensity of color" in his work, which he saw as the exemplar of what he called "American-Type Painting." In his essay of the same name published in 1955, he wrote, "By tradition, convention, and habit we expect pictorial structure to be presented in contrasts of dark and light, or value. Hofmann, who started from Matisse, the Fauves, and Kandinsky as much as from Picasso, rejected value contrast as the essential building block," in favor of color, creating "a fully chromatic art."
Hofmann was a formative influence upon Greenberg. The artist's belief that "each medium of expression has its own order of being" was foundational for Greenberg's insistence on medium specificity. Equally important was Hofmann's concept of "recreated flatness." Acknowledging that the application of paint disturbed the flatness of the surface, Hofmann felt that the artist's challenge was to achieve what he called "recreated flatness," as texture, form, and color created, interdependently, a spatial "push and pull." Importantly, this "push and pull" created an optical space, not an illusionistic space that one could imagine inhabiting. Greenberg acknowledged the artist's importance in 1955, when he wrote, "Over the past fifteen years, a body of painting has emerged in this country that deserves to be called major. Hans Hofmann's art and teaching have been one of its main fountainheads of style.'
Useful Resources on Medium Specificity and Flatness
- Art and Culture: Critical EssaysBy Clement Greenberg
- Art and Objecthood: Essays and ReviewsBy Michael Fried
- Abstract ExpressionismBy David Anfam
- To See a Picture "as a Picture" First: Clement Greenberg and the Ambiguities of ModernismBy Jeanette Bicknell
- Modernist PaintingBy Clement Greenberg
- The Crisis of Easel PaintingBy Clement Greenberg
- Towards a Newer LacoonBy Clement Greenberg
- Gotthold Ephraim Lessing published Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry
- Art and ObjecthoodBy Michael Fried