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c h a p t e r 7 Modernism and the Medium: On Greenberg and Weber Andrew McNamara For all the talk about feeling, pleasure, and beauty, the aesthetic remains at its root a proposition, and a ‘‘disturbing’’ one at that. Admittedly, what is disturbing also has a strong allure; and it is this allure, this critical provocation , that proves most disturbing. Yet when Kant proposed considering the aesthetic as an idea, he did not aim to limit it to a cognitive proposition. Instead, he highlighted how the aesthetic poses a more general consideration : How does one come to terms with the aesthetic? While Kant argues that the aesthetic can legitimately be considered an idea, he complicates it by questioning the adequacy of any approach to it: according to the Critique of Judgment, an aesthetic idea amounts to ‘‘a presentation of the imagination which prompts much thought, but to which no determinate thought whatsoever, i.e., no [determinate] concept, can be adequate, so that no language can express it completely and allow us to grasp it.’’1 Kant makes clear that the aesthetic does possess discursive significance even though it cannot be adequately grasped by language or concepts. To be sure, an entire armory of intricate elaborations is erected to keep its critical momentum afloat, yet it holds a distinctive position insofar as this idea eludes thought. The subtle, but precarious delineation of the aesthetic idea came to a head later with the advent of modernist abstraction in the twentieth PAGE 159 159 ................. 16645$ $CH7 10-10-07 15:01:28 PS 160 Andrew McNamara century. At once, the fine line between modern abstract art and design patterns or ornamentation appeared to have become frayed—meaning that the fine line between autonomous, purposeless art and purposeful design was not always readily apparent. At such moments, the recourse to Kantian formulations became quite pronounced in criticism, even though Kantian philosophy was rarely examined in any detail. A crucial moment is that of mid-twentieth-century American formalist criticism. In a general survey of art of the 1960s, Thomas Crow asserts that the vital issue for formalist accounts of art was the assumption that abstract painting—in contrast to design or ornamentation—constitutes an ‘‘expressive communication’’ between an artist and a ‘‘contemplative spectator.’’2 Because he does not feel particularly compelled to defend the formalism he is discussing, Crow merely mentions this pivotal distinction in passing, as though it represented an unimpeachable founding proposition that did not require any further elaboration. This enigmatic formulation is pivotal to other considerations equally central to the modernist visual arts, such as the medium, representation, identification, and self-referentiality. Although it does not emerge from an art history or visual arts background, Samuel Weber’s work focuses upon the same considerations as well as the riddle of the Kantian aesthetic legacy. One claim sets Weber’s analysis apart from art-historical analyses of modernism, and that is his assertion that ‘‘self-referentiality’’ is ‘‘perhaps the distinctively modern form of reference.’’3 This is significant because it collides with Clement Greenberg’s enduring definition of modernist art practice as self-critical or self-referential. Toward the end of his essay ‘‘Upsetting the Setup,’’ Weber explicitly implicates modern art within this mode of reference: ‘‘Whether in economic practice or modern art, objects are de-objectified by becoming increasingly subject to the calculations of a subjective will struggling to realize its representations and thereby to place itself in security [sich sicher zustellen].’’4 Weber suggests that modernist self-referentiality is the predominant way of grasping knowledge and of understanding our orientation to the world. It is not a recent development, nor an avant-garde innovation. In fact, the modernist avant-garde stance may simply constitute a late phase in this ongoing process, not its radical threat. This chapter maintains an oddly nuanced ambition in regard to Weber ’s argument about ‘‘self-referentiality.’’ On the one hand, it welcomes the challenge the latter poses to familiar conceptions of modern art. In addition, it asserts that Weber’s incisive examination of issues such as the medium, representation and identification, as well as the Kantian aesthetic PAGE 160 ................. 16645$ $CH7 10-10-07 15:01:29 PS 161 Modernism and the Medium: On Greenberg and Weber legacy, allows a better recognition of the apprehensive aspects of aesthetic inquiry, which many otherwise extremely robust art-historical analyses tend to downplay. On the other hand, it will...


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