Sunday, September 18, 2011

Week 2: modern, modernity, modernism, Modernist

I began my reading for this week with the Charles Harrison reading, "Critical Terms for Art History."  Harrison begins by giving three senses of the word "modernism."  In the first and most widely used sense, he states "modernism is used to refer to the distinguishing characteristics of Western culture from the mid-nineteenth century to until at least the mid-twentieth: a culture in which processes of industrialization and urbanization are conceived of as the principal mechanisms of transformation in human experience....  as thus understood, modernism may be vividly exemplified through the stylistic and technical properties of works of art, but it will also be recognizable in certain social forms and practices and in the determining priorities of certain institutions, such as museums, or universities, or financial markets."  In this first sense, "'modernism' is the substantive form of the adjective 'modern,' while the condition it denotes is virtually synonymous with the experience of modernity.'" 

According to dictionary.com, "modern" means "of or pertaining to present and recent time; not ancient or remote."  In this regard, the idea of modernism in a work of art relates to its engagement with the current practices of the time, both socially and technically.  

Harrison uses Edward Manet's painting "Olympia" to illustrate modernism through painting.  In the first sense of the term modernism, Olympia "might count as a work endowed with modernism by virtue of the figurative term in which it rewards the classical precedent it invokes: the type of the reclining Venus as painted by Giorgione and Titian."  Harrison claims that because the painting seeks to place the viewer in the position of a prostitute's client, it is making a statement about the nature of love in a modern world.  "In the language of modernism the classical 'goddess of love' becomes translated into 'a prostitute.'"  In the first sense of modernism, Manet's painting could easily fall within this category because of its social relevance and inclusion of issues important to contemporary life.  

Edward Manet's painting "Olympia"

In the second sense of the term, Harrison differentiates "modernism" from "modernity" by saying that "the point becomes clearer the more the concept of modernism is distinguished from its partial synonym, modernity.  Modernity is a condition that the work of art both distills from and shares with the encompassing culture, which must include what Greenburg called kitsch.  In its second form of usage, on the other hand, 'modernism' implies a property that must be principally internal to the practice or medium in question."  


Harrison expands on this idea by pointing out how Manet's painting "Olympia" is referencing the medium of painting itself and is not modern simply because of its subject matter.  Manet's "Olympia" contrasted significantly in style to Old Master painting, which was meant to transport the viewer seamlessly into a scene and completely conceal the hand of the artist, while Manet chose to consciously use the two dimensional surface and the inherent flatness of painting to make a statement about painting as a medium.  Harrison states that for Clement Greenburg, "Manet's paintings 'became the first modernist ones' not primarily by virtue of their picturing of circumstances redolent of modern life, but 'by virtue of the frankness with which they declared the surfaces on which they were painted.'"  According to Greenburg, flatness was the only quality that painting shared with no other art form, and Harrison states that "the frank ackowledgment of surface becomes the condition to which the self-critical modernist painting must tend."  In the second sense of modernism, the technical and aesthetic aspects of a work of art are more important than the subject matter.


Harrison states that "this third sense of 'modernism' is distinguished from the second not so much by a difference in field of reference as by a a distancing from the terms in which that field is represented...  In this last sense, 'modernism' stands not for the artistic tendency it designates under the second usage, but rather for the usage itself and for a tendency in criticism which this usage is thought to typify."


While Harrison has pointed out that the first use of modernism focuses on the social and cultural implications of a work and the second focuses on a self-referential questioning of or interplay with the medium, he continues to describe Manet's "Olympia" in the context of the third use of modernism, saying "in the deep space of 'neoclassical and thus unmodern' fantasy such as this the represented woman is left undistinguished by the signifiers of class, which is to say she is available to serve as an ideal.  In this world there are neither prohibitions or prices.  The space of Manet's painting, on the other hand, is the space of 'modern' imagination...  Olympia's world, that is to say, is a world in which actions have imaginable consequences and pleasures are paid for, in which flesh bruises and others also have minds."  


I found the article by Harrison to be informative but fairly dense.  "Modernist Painting," by Clement Greenburg proved to be a more accessible read, though because I read the Harrison piece first, I felt that I had already wrapped my head around many of Greenburg's concepts.  


The articles by individual photographers were interesting also.  Lewis Hine clearly fits within the first type of modernism, as his images of the working class and child laborers were important political issues of his day.  He aimed to address social problems through the use of photography, going so far as to advocate the use of cameras by members of the working classes in order to more accurately document their conditions and call for social change.   Below are two images by Lewis Hine:






Paul Strand, by contrast, was interested in the inherent qualities of the medium of photography and advocated for high focus, detailed imagery.  "Strand's stylistic contention with soft-focus work, in general, stemmed from his belief that photography's strength lies in its capacity to depict detail clearly."  In this vein, he believed that any attempt at mixing photography with hand painting or more organic processes would result in a dead end.  He wrote, "the introduction of hand work and manipulation is merely the expression of an impotent desire to paint.  It is this very lack of understanding and respect for their material, on the part of photographers themselves which directly accounts for the consequent lack of respect on the part of the intelligent public and the notion that photography is but a poor excuse for an inability to do anything else."  

Paul Strand's "Abstraction, Twin Lakes, Connecticut, 1916

Lastly, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy was interested in the ways our cameras could see things that the eyes could not.  He wrote, "the photographic camera can either complete or supplement our optical instrument, the eye."  He continued to speak about "faulty" photographs, meaning photographs taken from views that our eyes cannot see accurately or comprehend visually- photographs from above, below, etc.  "The secret of their effect is that the photographic camera reproduces the purely optical image and therefore shows the optically true distortions, deformations, foreshortenings, etc., where the eye together with out intellectual experience, supplements perceived optical phenomena by means of association and formally and spatially creates a conceptual image."  I found this last idea to be especially fascinating, both as it relates to issues of modernism and as it related to my current practice of picture making.


Photogram by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy

(the above image can be seen with more information on the Harvard Art Museum website).



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