Against Content

Greenberg studies a Kenneth Noland

What is the proper way for an essay to begin? What if it’s short, without sources, and on a blog? What if it has a lede?

Clement Greenberg was an art critic and thinker working in the Unites States in the middle twentieth century, and I bring his name up because of the idea he helped foster known as medium specificity, which stresses the accountability of a work according to the characteristics of its given medium—for instance, that a painting should exhibit skills and awareness of the two-dimensional plane, of color, maybe, rectilinearity. Equally, in which case, a painting should not rely on the characteristics it shares with any or all other mediums—say, story. It is an idea that compels the rise, in painting, of Abstract Expressionism, abandoning representation of three-dimensional objects (people, streets, birds, flowers, etc) and, altogether, the three-dimensional plane, in favor of emphasis on flatness, line and color. A painting should not have a subject other than itself, one might say.

Greenberg described this notion as it was situated historically in his essay “Modernist Painting,”which I have taken from Art in Theory: 1900-2000, ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood:

“Realistic, illusionist art had dissembled the medium [of painting], using art to conceal art. Modernism used art to call attention to art. The limitations that constitute the medium of painting—the flat surface, the shape of the support, the properties of pigment—were treated by the Old Masters as negative factors that could be acknowledge only implicitly or indirectly. Modernist painting has come to regard these same limitations as positive factors that are to be acknowledged openly…
…The Old Masters had sensed that it was necessary to preserve what is called the integrity of the picture plane: that is, to signify the enduring presence of flatness under the most vivid illusion of three-dimensional space. The apparent contradiction involved—the dialectical tension, to use a fashionable but apt phrase—was essential to the success of their art, as it is indeed to the success of all pictorial art. The Modernists have neither avoided nor resolved this contradiction; rather, they have reversed its terms. One is made aware of the flatness of their pictures before, instead of after, being made aware of what the flatness contains. Whereas one tends to see what is in an Old Master before seeing it as a picture, one sees a Modernist painting as a picture first. This is, of course, the best way of seeing any kind of picture, Old Master or Modernist, but Modernism imposes it as the only and necessary way, and Modernism’s success in doing so is a success of self-criticism.”

The applications of this thinking to poetry are myriad and profound, ranging from a defense of the rejection of narrative to the experimental use of word placement on the page, but I wish to apply this idea to something a little broader and more ambiguous, which is our contemporary state of curatorship.

To be sure, I am speaking of the media deluge through which we swim and, more specifically, our behavior within that deluge. On an individual level, the media landscape can take many different forms, weighted toward densities of and emphasis on different types of media. For one person, the deluge is full of news. For another, funny videos. Another, recipes. And for most us it exists behind all of that in advertising, in a murmur of Helvetica and The Rule of Thirds, from which there tries to jump something that wants to ride your mind back into significance.

While these agents have arrested our attention for a long time, what is new is their sheer abundance, the technologies and motivations we have toward recording, collecting and delivering them. History is no longer something to remember but something to simulate. Or more importantly, it is something to organize.

The burden of this task is answered in the immediate by the concept of medium specificity. As I said, I believe this burden is new, and part of the excitement in the information age, in the industries that have sprung up within it, is the feeling that all the worlds treasures have just washed up on your own private shore. The first thing we must do is name its constituents and parts, and we do that by understanding kinds and the characteristics that define them. We put the rings in a box and hang the necklaces on a branch. If it were a painting, we would decide so because it is flat, rectangular, and with line and color. Our first act is a metaphysical one, a categorization. Our second is evaluation. We choose our finest of each.

We are surprised into these tasks, but even in this beginning stage come under threat. We do not know what characteristics are true definitions, and, I think we err. After awhile we begin to see, not forms, but themes, and the themes become seductive, in the end, the exclusive reason we choose to watch, read, listen to, or look at something.

Let me tell you something about me. I like giraffes. I think they are funny looking. I have several figurines in my house. I have a documentary. I have shopped for giraffe stuff. Such behavior, in moderation, is an amusement of the privileges we have. But it has an insidious force. When I am shopping for giraffe things, when I see them in shops, I do not see the real objects of the world. I see a giraffe. I am no longer capable of proper judgment.

There is a reason we have this inclination. The tension between theme and form is a tension precisely between the mind and the universe. The mind finds form too pixelated. There are simply too many forms in the universe, and it overwhelms our ability to assemble a plan. To help ease the data load, the mind creates themes, personal relevance, narrative. I like giraffes not because of their form, but because of there place as part of my identity—they are something I express about myself, and that is a theme. Perhaps the theme.

This is the environment into which the media deluge swims, and the media deluge is the inhabitant that most demands our ability to see its forms. That we wish to order things according to who we are, what we say we like, what we support as politics or ideology, even what we support as aesthetics, is natural and not without its virtue. But such themes make the qualities of a form less present to us, and we lose our rigor. We lose the capability of judging a piece of media, a message, by its quality, by the seriousness of its attempt, by its legitimacy within a field, its appropriateness. We stop seeing that it is a message at all.

The true danger of this oversight is that we relinquish control. We are set to amass in demographics, regions, in audiences and trends. We react softly to the deluge and let it shape us so long as it promises to show us who we are. Perhaps it will take us somewhere good. But we won’t know, because we won’t be able to see it.