Rethinking Modernism, Somewhat

The new issue of Speculations (#5) is now out, dealing with speculative realism and aesthetics. It includes an article of mine, which is really a preview of a section of my forthcoming book, The Universe of Things. But the whole issue is interesting, with articles by, among others, Graham Harman, N. Katherine Hayles, Jon Cogburn and Mark Allan Ohm, Matija Jelaca, Miguel Penas López, and others.

But I wanted particularly to make a short comment on Robert Jackson‘s article “The Anxiousness of Objects and Artworks 2” (part 1 appeared in a previous issue of Speculations) — or rather on one part of the article, since it is a rich, complex and long one. Jackson is interested in the ways that speculative realism is related to modernist aesthetics. Specifically, he writes about the art critic Michael Fried. In the 1960s, Fried (an inheritor and reviser of Clement Greenberg) famously wrote about art works and/as objects, and made a fundamental distinction between “absorption” and “theatricality.” Fried’s concern was to uphold the modernist tradition in painting and visual art that had previously been defined by Greenberg, and to defend this tradition against the new (at the time) avant-garde strategies of minimalism and conceptualism. Fried (allied in this with Stanley Cavell) gave an account in which great modernist artworks absorb us, and show forth as present to us, precisely by receding from our efforts to capture and contain them. Jackson notes that this is very close to Harman’s aesthetics of “allure,” in which objects attract us precisely by receding from all our efforts to contain and comprehend them — we can only allude to them, metaphorically and indirectly. (Harman’s love for Clement Greenberg’s media-specific self-reflexive formalism makes sense in terms of this aesthetic stance). The opposiing term of “theatricality,” which Fried disparages and sees as the aesthetic failure of minimalism in the 1960s, has to do with the way the literal presence of the object is completely blank and empty — so that the “art” happens exclusively in the mind of the observer. Self-referring modernist works force the contemplating spectator to go outside herself, as part of the impossible task of reaching the receding artwork; minimalist works are simply “there,” with a thereness that precludes any such movement.

Jackson notes that both sides in the dispute mapped by Fried are anti-anthropocentric, in the ways maintained today by speculative realism — they both concern the way that objects escape from correlation with our perceptual categories. He suggests that the two artistic movements are therefore analogous to the two major tendencies of speculative realism. Minimalism has a strategy of what Jackson calls Demonstration, the strategy of Meillassoux and Brassier: “a passive, inert material reality can be epistemologically demonstrated through the formal, inferential properties of thought and an extrinsic principle of the fact, so that thought becomes radically divorced from a non-anthropomorphic being.” The modernist works championed by Greenberg and Fried adopt a strategy much like that of what Jackson calls Description, operating in Harman and other OOO thinkers, and also in a different way in Grant’s neo-Schellingian version of speculative realism: “reality is composed of fundamental entities, objects, things, forces and powers which exist in their own right; the relations of which, in their specific limitations or groundings, are no different in kind from the epistemological limits of cognition. This is an intrinsic principle of the thing. The limitations of the correlation between thinking and being are radicalised and hypostatised such that they are turned into the characteristics of relationality in general.”

I found Jackson’s analysis to be powerful and useful, although my knowledge of art historical discourse, and in particular of the theories of Greenberg and Fried, is quite limited. (For which reason, I am not sure how accurate my brief summary of Jackson’s article is. My apologies to him for any misapprehensions). But what I wondered about is this. What happens when we consider other sorts of 20th & 21st century image production, which are not contained within high art traditions? Jackson notes how Fried has recently, and belatedly, turned his attention to contemporary multimedia and new media art works, thus extending his theoretical musings beyond just painting. But these are still High Art works that are mostly situated in galleries.

What I would like to think about is, how the tradition of aesthetics traced by Jackson through the theorizations of modernist (and even postmodernist) art historians relates to other forms of visual (and audiovisual) production? I am thinking here of cinema and post-cinema, but also of things like comic books. At one point, Jackson quotes Stanley Cavell’s distinction between painting on the one hand, and photography and cinema on the other: “To maintain conviction in our connection with reality, to maintain our presentness, painting accepts the recession of the world. Photography maintains the presentness of the world by accepting our absence from it. The reality in a photograph is present to me while I am not present to it…” Jackson goes on to speak at length about Cavell’s Friedian formula for painting, as an art in which we are present but the world recedes from us. I’d like to think, however, about the other half of Cavell’s formulation, which has become a crucial principle in film studies: the way in which cinema renders the presence of the world, but with ourselves being absent. How would this affect our discussion of speculative realism?

An even better example of what I have in mind is Burke Hilsabeck’s brilliant article “Accidental Specificity: Modernism from Clement Greenberg to Frank Tashlin.” Hilsabeck gives a bravura comparison between Clement Greenberg’s famous essay “Art and Kitsch,” and Frank Tashlin’s 1955 film, starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Artists and Models. Hilsabeck notes that “Artists and Models begins by framing the same problem [as that posed by Greenberg], that of medium-specificity and the conflict between avant-garde and kitsch, while reaching a dramatically different set of conclusions.” Tashlin’s film, and even more the “painting” that Lewis accidentally makes within its storyline, is “widescreen, composed somehow of both depth and an overweening superficiality, aglow in garish Technicolor.” It systematically opposes all the aesthetic values championed by Greenberg: flatness, automony, purity of design, etc. (Again, I am oversimplifying a complex argument). But the point is, that Tashin’s shamelessly decorative, externally referential, and self-consciously obvious aesthetic is as big and important a part of what happened to images in the 20th century as either the works championed by Greenberg and Fried, and those they disparaged. This is part of a larger question — can we give an account of mid-20th century visual production that takes, say, Jackson Pollack and Jack Kirby equally seriously? What would it look like to theorize art in a way that had as much room for comic-book pictorialism as it had for abstract expressionism? What would happen if we then extended this history, and this theorization, to the present day? And how would this broader understanding of visual culture relate to the philosophical questions raised by speculative realism?

I have no answers here, only questions raised by Jackson’s brilliant — but to my mind incomplete — formulations.