- Since 1950: art and its criticism
Since 1950: art and its criticism is a collection of essays written since the mid-1980s by British art historian Charles Harrison, who passed away in 2009. Together this selection of lectures, commissioned book chapters, and exhibition catalogue essays, (many published for the first time) confirm Harrison's position as one of the most incisive, if troubled, voices in modernist studies. These essays contain an acute and perceptive analysis of the disintegration of Clement Greenberg's modernist art theory since the late fifties written from the point of view of engagement and disappointment rather than wholesale rejection, as Harrison carefully weighs its main tenets throughout. Each of the twelve chapters—on subjects as diverse as Ben Nicholson, Roger Hilton, Morris Louis, and nineteenth-century British stained glass—clearly articulate the deeply felt political and ethical as well as aesthetic commitments that, for Harrison, were at stake in the demise of modernist theory. This is not to say that Harrison necessarily believed in, or even celebrated this unraveling of modernist discourse. Rather, what is so striking about this book is the extent to which modernism—with all its shortcomings—continues to matter to Harrison, shaping how the author thinks about art produced since 1950, pedagogically and aesthetically as well as politically. Rather than simply bid modernism farewell, Harrison continued to worry away at its premises, critiquing its claims, its utopian promises, and its ultimate failings in significant and productive ways. Harrison's account of his 1969 visit to the André Emmerich Gallery to see Morris Louis's "bronze veils" in "The Power of Modernism" captures the young writer's moment of disillusionment with modernist painting, and Greenberg in particular, with refreshing honesty and insight. Harrison's recognition that he no longer believed in Louis's work coincided with the publication of Harrison's glowing review of Louis's work, written in obediently Greenbergian prose, copies of which Harrison noticed on the counter of the gallery as he fled the scene of his "humiliating and confusing" realization (131).
Harrison's voice has been important within art history since the seventies, due in no small part to his unique career trajectory: both as a member (since 1970) of British conceptual art collective Art & Language, and, since the late seventies, as one of the core academic members of staff at the Open University in the UK. The OU provides a distance-taught degree whose primary course materials at that time comprised publically broadcast television and radio programs and annual summer schools, and illustrated textbooks published by Yale University Press (Harrison is the co-author of several).
While to an extent the content of A315 Modern Art and Modernism: From Manet to Pollock (which Harrison co-wrote in 1983) might today resemble any number of introductory art history courses on modernism, at the time the radical mission of A315 to dismantle the previous tenets [End Page 702] of "High Modernism"—that is, the Greenbergian formalism that had dominated the reception of American and European Modernism since 1945—caused something close to a public outcry. It led, for instance, to questions being raised in the British parliament and an unsigned letter to the OU from a number of Members of Parliament accusing the course of a subversive Leninism. Harrison outlines this debacle in some detail. Through an investigation into the ideological structures governing the production, dissemination, and reception of avant-garde art since the late nineteenth century, the political, gendered, and psychic underpinnings of modernism were put under academic scrutiny. This led to modernism's pivotal status within the then-burgeoning domain of what became known later as "the new art history." Since then, the "new art history" has come to shape how art history is taught in universities in various ways. However, as Since 1950 demonstrates, problematizing extant theoretical models for thinking about art (whether Marxist or modernist, as Harrison notes), does not mean the outright rejection of a formalist approach. Rather, Harrison goes to great and convincing lengths to argue for a...