Unreal Nature

November 18, 2014

Numbed by Visual Representation

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:48 am

… To give the appearance of an object or a scene at a single moment in time is to shut out reference to too many of the other contexts in which it simultaneously exists.

This is from ‘Abstract Art’ (1944) found in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 1, edited by John O’Brian (1986):

… with Manet and Courbet Western painting reversed its direction. Impressionism pushed the faithful reproduction of nature so far that representational painting was turned inside out. Incited by a positivism borrowed from science, the impressionists made the discovery — stated more clearly in their art than in their theories — that the most direct interpretation of visual experience must be two-dimensional. The new medium of photography helped provide evidence for that. Sensations of a third dimension are not given by sight qua sight but by acquired associations with the experience of movement and touch. The data of sight, taken most literally, are nothing but colors. Notice, therefore, how flatness begins to creep into impressionist paintings, how close to the surface they stay, in spite of “atmospheric perspective,” and how openly the physical nature of the canvas and of the paint on it is confessed — by way, too, of emphasizing the difference between painting and photography.

The successors to impressionism have made all this more explicit. Painting, become anti-idealist, has surrendered itself once more to the literal plane surface.

… In any case, reality was not appearance. Naturalist art submits itself to appearance; if any dogma is involved it flows from appearance and appearance is assumed to be the true and the real. Today we know that the question what a corporeal object is can be answered in many different ways, depending on the context, and that appearance is only one context among many, and perhaps one of the less important ones. To give the appearance of an object or a scene at a single moment in time is to shut out reference to too many of the other contexts in which it simultaneously exists. (And have not science and industry dissolved the concept of the entity into the concept of process?) Instead of being aroused, the modern imagination is numbed by visual representation. Unable to represent the exterior world suggestively enough, pictorial art is driven to express as directly as possible only what goes on inside the self — or at most the ineluctable modes by which that which is outside the self is perceived (Mondrian).

-Julie

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