Monday, February 24, 2014

Ranciere, Greenberg, Whitman

I’m currently working on the third chapter of my book on Rancière and philosophy, part of which was recently delivered at the Aesthetic Experience conference here in Ottawa. As often happens, the final paper didn’t sound too much like the abstract. While I promised a reconsideration of Schiller, I ended up spending much more time on a reconsideration of Greenberg’s modernism—contrasted, at different points, with Baudelaire, Benjamin, Rancière, and Schiller (I also spend more time on Greenberg because, as it turns out, I'll be developing a reading of Schiller that responds to Kant, Fichte, and finally Schelling's concerns as I've outlined them in F&NSPA). The space I’ve dedicated to Greenberg in the third chapter (it’s about 2000 words or so) is warranted because Rancière claims, in a recent interview in Ranciere Now, that ‘the dominant modernist paradigm (the Greenbergian theorization of the avant-garde) is in fact a liquidation of the dominant tendency of the aesthetic regime, which is to abolish the boundaries between “mediums,” between high art and popular art, and ultimately between art and life.’

Untitled, 1957

In developing an interpretation of Greenberg, I found a passage that lends support to Rancière’s opposition between Whitman and Greenberg. (Not to mention that Greenberg is criticizing Clyfford Still, who was one of the first abstract artists I really appreciated--for reasons that might be entirely contingent, because several of Still's works are exhibited in the SFMOMA). In Aisthesis, Rancière argues that Greenberg’s modernism repudiates the ‘cultural democracy [of art] stemming from Whitman,’ and while the case is strong, he does not cite an explicit case where Greenberg castigates Whitman for being, at least in part, kitsch (though note that in ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch,’ Greenberg singles out John Steinbeck’s work as a hybrid of modern art and kitsch). However, later, in ‘“American-Type” Painting,’ Greenberg praises Still’s work, with the caveat that
Still’s uncompromising art has its own affinity with popular or bad taste. It is the first body of painting I know of that asks to be called Whitmanesque in the worst as well as the best sense, indulging as it does in loose and sweeping gestures, and defying certain conventions…in the same gauche way that Whitman defied meter. And just as Whitman’s verse assimilated to itself qualities of stale journalistic and oratorical prose, Still’s painting assimilates to itself some of the stalest and most prosaic painting of our time…the kind of open-air painting in autumnal colors…which has spread among half-trained painters only since Impressionism became popular.

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