Unreal Nature

May 8, 2017

A Negotiation with Whom?

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:38 am

… he is more alert, more alarmed, perhaps more panicked by the indeterminacy of his addressee.

This is from the essay ‘Silences in the Doctrine’ found in Clement Greenberg: Between the Lines by Thierry de Duve (1996, 2010):

… In any civilization whatsoever, the artist’s trade obeys conventions. The latter are technical rules that lend body to the know-how of a specific profession or guild, but also aesthetic rules partially imposed on artists from the outside, by the part of society that supports them and commissions their work.

[line break added] An artistic tradition is stable when the artists willfully submit to the taste of their patrons and when the latter cultivate respect for the artists (court art is paradigmatic here), that is, when artistic conventions are what all conventions should be: a pact, a tacitly or explicitly signed accord between two parties who are familiar with each other, who know who they are and what they want. The avant-garde is born — can be born, is bound to be born, I’d say — when these conditions no longer exist. As Greenberg says in “Avant-Garde and Kitsch”:

A society, as it becomes less and less able, in the course of its development, to justify the inevitability of its particular forms, breaks up the accepted notions upon which artists and writers must depend in large part for communication with their audiences. It becomes difficult to assume anything. All the verities involved by religion, authority, tradition, style, are thrown into question, and the writer or artist is no longer able to estimate the response of his audience to the symbols and references with which he works.

Such a situation, Greenberg adds, leads generally to Alexandrianism: the artists turn in on themselves, forming a caste of clerics cut off from society, churning out infinite variations on a withered tradition.

… By breaking the convention (the rule), avant-garde artists provoke the public into taking stock of the fact that since the convention (the pact) is uncertain, it is in practice already broken and must be renegotiated, case by case. Conversely, by breaking the convention (the pact), avant-garde artists make the conventions (the rules) of their trade into the site of a negotiation. A negotiation with whom?

… A pictorial convention is indissolubly an aesthetic-technical precept and a social pact; one can no more separate the social from the aesthetic-technical than one can keep the same coin from having two sides.

The academic painter knows where his immediate social interests lie, and subordinates his technical and aesthetic means to them. He targets or believes he targets a clientele or — less cynically but less intelligently — he believes he is serving eternal or universal values while in fact he is unconsciously bending to the taste of those who bring him honor or material advantage.

[line break added] He treats his medium as though it were transparent, Greenberg would say, and thus it becomes a means — that’s the definition of medium — in the service of an end which is to reach the public, with whom the pact is sealed in advance. His strategy of address is selective, even and above all when he cloaks it in a universalizing discourse. The other is a receiver at the end of a chain of communication.

[line break added] The avant-garde painter is more sensitive to the fragility of aesthetic pacts, but infinitely more ambitious concerning their extension; he is more alert, more alarmed, perhaps more panicked by the indeterminacy of his addressee. He addresses his medium as though it embodied the addressee. For him, the other is not at the end of a chain of communication, and the medium is not a channel or a means. (Which does not imply, despite what Greenberg sometimes hints, that it is an end in itself.) The medium is the other. It embodies and materializes the otherness of the addressee.

-Julie

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