Form and Formalism

From a Lecture on Greenberg….

Form – content/meaning, this might be material or immaterial (online) and these all impact on the way meaning is set up. Relationship between form and content is always spoken about as separate but form and meaning have to be together.

Formalism –  study of art based solely on its form (eg how it’s made and it’s aesthetic)

Clement Greenberg’s position is ‘formalism’. To him, form IS the content and the meaning. Form is always involved because between the artist intention and the reception of the viewer. But he was controversial! A reaction against Greenberg would be John Latham ‘Study for Art and Culture’. Latham (a tutor at CSM) invited his students to a dinner party and then got everyone to eat pages of the book, the pulp he then gave back to the library which he took it from. Latham disagreed with Greenberg’s emphasis on formalism and struggled with criticism that British art was too aesthetic.

John Latham ‘Study for Art and Culture’ 1966-69

The Modernism movement in the early 20th Century attempted to reject historical styles of working and experiment with form and material to better reflect early 20th century:

  • Constructivism (Russia)
  •  de Stijl (Holland)
  • Bauhaus (Germany)
  • Cubism (France)
  • South American modernism
  • Latin American modernism

In euro schools like Bauhaus, there is an interconnection between art and more functional disciplines becomes blurred.— eg paul klee. These are different ways of thinking about formalism as these works ask what art does to contribute to society. However, Greenberg were purely concerned with fine art in terms of its visual contribution.

Avant-Garde and Kitsch  1939 is a heavily criticised  ESSAY. Greenberg started to discuss the concept of art being categorised into high art and low/ folk art (based around popular culture). The context to his essay is the rise of the Nazi party in 1937. During that time the ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition 1939 was displaying all the art censored by the Nazis.  Works by contemporary artists such as Matisse, Paul Klee and Mondrian were labelled as ‘degenerate’. The Nazis were concerned with displaying art which reflected the values/ ideas they wanted for their own society. Adolf Wisse; ‘farming family in the third Reich’ 1939 was displayed as a work which reflected this desire. This is a conservatives on two levels; as the subject and also as a realistic painting. This is what Goldberg is thinking about in his essay.

Adolf Wissel ‘Farming family in the Third Reich’ 1939

At the same time in history- there is a constructivism movement but also a growth of socalist realism. Goldberg is also concerned about the rise of consumerism culture and becomes worried about how capitalism is impacting us. Goldberg says that ‘Kitch’ (popular culture and consumerism culture) is described as ‘vampiric’,  by taking the realities of life during a period of time, which have a genuine meaning, to a system of avertisment etc. The word ‘Vampiric’ is used to describe the process of ‘sucking the blood/life out of things’. Greenberg is worried about lifting things such as punk culture which was a form of self expression and art and using it as a fashion trend whereby all the meaning is lost.

Greenberg futures his opinions on formalism by comparing the Ilya Repin’s ‘Procession in the region’ and Picasso’s ‘Guernica’. He is concerned by the realism of Repin’s painting as he fears there is no separation between life and the art and therefore can be dangerous in showing us the truth of the world. He’s discussing how some work is pre-digested for the viewer and therefore doesnt make us thing twice that what were presented with might have a political agenda. We view the work as a reflection of how we should be within society and therefore we can become trapped in the thoughts of a political group. Repins work is compared with Picasso’s, which required more effort to take information from. Greenberg wants art to be more difficult because he wants us the think about what were looking at and to reflect. If we think that what were presented with an image which reflects reality, we start to accept it as truth. It being painting realistically makes us think its transparent.

Ilya Repin ‘Easter Procession in the Region of Kursk’ 1880
Picasso ‘Guernica’ (detail) 1937

Medium specificity: “Toward a new Laocoon’

“It is by virtue of its medium that each art is unique and strictly itself.  To restore the identity of an art, the opacity of its medium must be emphasized.”

(Greenberg, ‘Towards a new Laocoon’)

Greenberg starts to discuss that through time the medium matters more. Eg through time the medium declares itself as the point of painting. Were not trying to present that something is what its not. Something shouldn’t be illusionistic but there should be ‘Integrity of the picture plane’. The medium is no longer a vehicle  for stories or illusions but can only be used as a medium. Goldberg thinks THE FORM IS THE CONTENT. It is no longer a mediator.

Form= Content

So for him, if the work isn’t about the medium then it isn’t pure enough. We can see sense in this thinking but Goldberg starts to dictate what art should be. Looking at a painting… he will ask what belongs to painting alone? What is art for? It looses it representational role because of photography and film. Therefore Greenberg justified the need for painting to be around medium.

‘Modernist Painting”

Goldberg is arguing that painting should be about visual experience only! Eg Jackson Pollock’s ‘Lavender Mist’. Is a good example for what painting should be because you can only get what’s communicated through painting. There should be nothing to do with imaging ourselves in a space but should only be able to see it optically. Therefore he believes that painting should be completely AUTONOMOUS. It should be SELF SUFFICIENT. This idea was around 1913 as Abstraction doesn’t need any prior knowledge. It could be cross cultural and anyone could experience it in the same way because it has an international language.

Notion of Reflexivity

The Avant-Garde modernist artists reflects on the medium itself. The from is the content for Greenberg. Reflection on the means of expression is celebrated by James Joyce ‘Finnegans Wake 1939′ where the words and language itself become the art work. Likewise On Kawara plays with language’s character of delay in his piece  ‘I am still alive 1973” because as soon as he writes ‘im still alive’ we don’t know if thats still the case when we receive the letter/ the moment after it is written.

Despite Greenberg having a promotional attitude toward the Avant-Garde,  towards the end of his career he was very against Dada and Pop Art movements which conflicted with many of his theories. His work seems to contradict itself and therefore I struggle with Greenberg’s restriction to the limit/ role of art aswell as his inability to have continuity through his arguments.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.