Unreal Nature

January 20, 2015

Uninspired Calculation

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:55 am

… as though taste might not be able to follow that far down. And also as though boredom did not constitute an aesthetic judgment.

This is from ‘Counter-Avant-Garde’ (1971) found in Clement Greenberg: Late Writings, edited by Robert C. Morgan (2003):

… As we know, the production of art in the West divided itself over a century ago into advanced or avant-garde on one side and academic, conservative, or official on the other. All along there had been the few artists who innovated and the many who didn’t. And all along the highest qualities of art had depended in critical part on the factor of newness or originality. But never before the 1860s in France had the difference between decided newness and everything else shown itself so strikingly in high art. Nor had innovation ever before been resisted so stubbornly by the cultivated art public.

That was when the present notion of the avant-garde was born. But for a while this notion did not correspond to a readily identifiable or definable entity. You might paint in imitation of the impressionists or write verse like a symbolist, but this did not mean necessarily that you have joined something called the avant-garde. It wasn’t there definitely enough to join. [ … ] It was only after fifty years that the notion of it seemed bo begin to correspond to a fixed entity with stable attributes. It was then that the avant-garde came into focus as something that could be joined. That was also when it first began to look like something really worth joining; by then enough people had awakened to the fact that every major painter since Manet, and every major poet since Baudelaire (at least in France), entered the maturity of his art as a “member” of the avant-garde. At this point, too, innovation and advancedness began to look more and more like given, categorical means to artistic significance apart from the question of aesthetic quality.

… With avant-gardism, the shocking, scandalizing, startling, the mystifying and confounding, became embraced as ends in themselves and no longer regretted as initial side effects of artistic newness that would wear off with familiarity. Now these side effects were to be built in. The first bewildered reaction to innovative art was to be the sole and appropriate one; the avant-gardist work — or act or gesture — was to hold nothing latent, but deliver itself immediately. And the impact, more often than not, was to be on cultural habits and expectations, social ones too, rather than on taste.

… Conscious volition, deliberateness, plays a principal part in avant-gardist art: that is, resorting to ingenuity instead of inspiration, contrivance instead of creation, “fancy” instead of “imagination”; in effect, to the known rather than the unknown. The “new” as known beforehand — the general look of the “new” as made recognizable by the avant-garde past — is what is aimed at, and because known and recognizable, it can be willed. Opposites, as we know, have a way of meeting. By being converted into the idea and notion of itself, and established as a fixed category, the avant-garde is turned into its own negation. The exceptional enterprise of artistic innovation, by being converted into an affair of standardized categories, of a set of “looks,” is put within reach of uninspired calculation.

[ … ]

… to adapt that saying of Horace’s again: you may throw taste out by the most modern devices, but it will still come right back in. Tastefulness — abject good taste, academic taste, “good design” — leaks back constantly into the furthest-out as well as furthest-in reaches of the vacuum of taste. The break in continuity gets steadily repaired.

… The inexorability with which taste pursues is what avant-gardists art in its very latest phase is reacting to. It’s as though conceptualist art in all its varieties were making a last desperate attempt to escape from the jurisdiction of taste by plumbing remoter and remoter depths of subart — as though taste might not be able to follow that far down. And also as though boredom did not constitute an aesthetic judgment.




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