Sunday, August 5, 2007

Clement Greenberg on What Is Modernism

"What can be safely called Modernism emerged in the middle of the last century. And rather locally, in France, with Baudelaire in literature and Manet in painting, and maybe with Flaubert too, in prose fiction. (It was a while later, and not so locally, that Modernism appeared in music and architecture, but it was in France again that it appeared first in sculpture. Outside France later still, it entered the dance.) The "avant-garde" was what Modernism was called at first, but this term has become a good deal compromised by now as well as remaining misleading. Contrary to the common notion, Modernism or the avant-garde didn't make its entrance by breaking with the past. Far from it. Nor did it have such a thing as a program, nor has it really ever had one -- again, contrary to the common notion. Nor was it an affair of ideas or theories or ideology. It's been in the nature, rather, of an attitude and an orientation: an attitude and orientation to standards and levels: standards and levels of aesthetic quality in the first and also the last place. And where did the Modernists get their standards and levels from? From the past, that is, the best of the past. But not so much from particular models in the past -- though from these too -- as from a generalized feeling and apprehending, a kind of distilling and extracting of aesthetic quality as shown by the best of the past. And it wasn't a question of imitating but one of emulating -- just as it had been for the Renaissance with respect to antiquity. It's true that Baudelaire and Manet talked much more about having to be modern, about reflecting life in their time, than about matching the best of the past. But the need and the ambition to do so show through in what they actually did, and in enough of what they were recorded as saying. Being modern was a means of living up to the past.

But didn't artists and writers before these two look to the past for standards of quality? Of course. But it was a question of how one looked, and with how much urgency.

Modernism appeared in answer to a crisis. The surface aspect of that crisis was a certain confusion of standards brought on by romanticism. The romantics had already looked back into the past, the pre-eighteenth-century past, but had made the mistake in the end of trying to reinstall it. Architecture was where this attempt became most conspicuous, in the form of revivalism. Romantic architecture wasn't all that slavish, it wasn't the dead loss it's supposed to be, but still it didn't sufffice; it may have maintained a look of the past, but not its standards. It wasn't revised enough by later experience, or revised in the right way: as Baudelaire and Manet might have put it, it wasn't modern enough. There ensued finally an academicization of the arts everywhere except in music and prose fiction. Academicization isn't a matter of academies -- there were academies long before academicization and before the nineteenth century. Academicism consists in the tendency to take the medium of an art too much for granted. It results in blurring: words become imprecise, color gets muffled, the physical sources of sound become too much dissembled. (The piano, which dissembles its being a stringed instrument, was the romantic instrument par excellence; but it is as if precisely because it made a point of dissembling that it produced the wonderful music it did in romantic times, turning imprecision into a new kind of precision.)

Modernism's reaction against romanticism consisted in part in a new investigating and questioning of the medium in poetry and painting, and in an emphasis on preciseness, on the concrete. But above all Modernism declared itself by insisting on a renovation of standards, and it effected this by a more critical and less pious approach to the past in order to make it more genuinely relevant, more "modern." It reaffirmed the past in a new way and in a variety of new ways. And it belonged to this reaffirming that the balance was tipped toward emulation as against imitation more radically than ever before -- but only out of necessity, the necessity imposed by the reaffirmed and renovated standards."


"I haven't finished with my exposition and definition of Modernism. The most essential part of it comes, finally, now. Modernism has to be understood as a holding operation, a continuing endeavor to maintain aesthetic standards in the face of threats -- not just as a reaction against romanticism. As the response, in effect, to an ongoing emergency. Artists in all times, despite some appearances to the contrary, have sought aesthetic excellence. What singles Modernism out and gives it its place and identity more than anything else is its response to a heightened sense of threats to aesthetic value: threats from the social and material ambience, from the temper of the times, all conveyed through the demands of a new and open cultural market, middlebrow demands. Modernism dates from the time, in the mid-nineteenth century, when that market became not only established -- it had been there long before -- but entrenched and dominant, without significant competition.

So I come at last to what I offer as an embracing and perdurable definition of Modernism: that it consists in the continuing endeavor to stem the decline of aesthetic standards threatened by the relative democratization of culture under industrialism; that the overriding and innermost logic of Modernism is to maintain the levels of the past in the face of an opposition that hadn't been present in the past. Thus the whole enterprise of Modernism, for all its outward aspects, can be seen as backward-looking. That seems paradoxical, but reality is shot through with paradox, is practically constituted by it."