Readings For February 7th

Posted: February 5, 2019 in Readings

I mentioned the Leo Steinberg essay in class. I forget though that we’d want to discuss Harold Rosenberg first. Here are both. Let’s stick to the first for Thursday and save the second for next week. Please let me know if you have any questions or concerns.


Jackson Pollock Makes A Painting



Harold Rosenberg
(1906 – 1978)
“The American Actions Painters” (1952)


Leo Steinberg
(1920 – 2011)
“Contemporary Art and The Plight of Its Public” (1962)

  1. Sevin Park says:

    I don’t understand this paragraph in page 7. Can you explain its meaning?
    “If the war and the decline of radicalism in America had anything to do with this sudden impatience, there is no evidence of it. About the effects of large issues upon their emotions, Americans tend to be either reticent or unconscious. The French artist thinks of himself as a battleground of history; here one hears only of private Dark Nights. Yet it is strange how many segregated individuals came to a dead stop within the past ten years and abandoned, even physically destroyed, the work they had been doing. A far-off watcher unable to realize that these events were taking place in silence might have assumed they were being directed by a single voice.”

    • Rosenberg is talking about the relationship between radical politics and the avant-garde. As we have seen, cutting-edge European painters before WWII were at least provisionally allied with Marxist politics. Many were deeply involved in political organizations and saw their art as part of a collective effort for social change. This was not as much the case with American artists, Rosenberg says. Rather than getting involved in outward political struggles, American artists have tended to turn inward and struggle with themselves instead of an external adversary. This was increasingly the case in the years after WWII. In hopes of cleansing themselves and their art of any external (political) influences, a number of these inward-looking Americans destroyed all their previous work. These artists hoped to make a clean break with the past and get a fresh start entirely on their own terms. While such a choice may have been the result of an inner moral struggle, Rosenberg nevertheless notes that a number of isolated individuals were all making this same choice at roughly the same time. A casual observer might have thought such concurrent acts of renunciation could only have been part of a new organized movement, a new ideology. However, Rosenberg rejects this idea, arguing that it is possible to be deeply in touch with the urgency of the times without having to pledge allegiance to any new flag or party.

  2. Aralia Ward says:

    I love this description presented of modern art. Modern art unlike other types of art, is not a style limited to a time period but something far greater. Modern art is art that is new to the individual. In my own life, it is easy to experience the value of modern art. In my drawing class, our art is only as good as its correct representations of the objects. We cannot paint “just to paint”. The art I produce in this class though has very little emotional value for me and I will have no trouble to throwing away these time intensive drawings. It will be extremely difficult though to discard my late night products of painting “just to paint” and my experience with the materials and not the image. “What matters always is the revelation contained in the act…” not the finial image.

    • I’m not sure of the source for your comments, but they seem to approach Rosenberg’s thoughts on painting. For him, painting is, first and foremost, about feeling, and about personally getting somewhere entirely new. While we could hardly say the same about Greenberg, we could say it about Eliot – though what Eliot and Rosenberg each mean by ‘feeling’ will be quite different things.

  3. Joanna Soh says:

    I feel as though there may be a disconnect in Rosenberg’s argument, as he explains act-painting as a part of the same “metaphysical substance as the artist’s existence” yet claims that the painting is not “psychological data” of the artist. While I understand his point about the “emotional and intellectual energy” of the artist that is put into the painting, I think that it can still show some parts of the psychology or thought process of the artist as well. If the artist’s existence is used in the efforts for the painting, why can it not be said that the painting can give insight into the artist’s psychological state of mind?

    • This is a very good question, I hope to address in class. Rosenberg’s point is these ‘action painters’ want their creative activity to be entirely free and authentic. To achieve this, their art must not be subject to any explanation by means of external cultural and political causes. Additionally, their art must also be free of explanation from any psychological or biographical causes. In a word, their art must not be seen as a ‘symptom’ of anything outside itself. I use the word ‘symptom’ because of the great interest in psychiatry in America at this time. In all areas of culture and society, experts and amateurs were seeking to diagnose the psychological causes of various phenomena, including abstract painting. Soon enough, such universal therapeutics proved, for many persons, to be not just annoying but positively oppressive. They did not want to get ‘better’.

  4. Kevin Nielson says:

    One of my favorite parts of Rosenberg’s work is the term “action painters” that he uses. I think this is the perfect term to describe the type of art they create. The term to me evokes and stresses the point that he makes that their art is a confrontation and a struggle with the canvas. This was very interesting to read directly after Clement Greenberg’s traditionalist criticism as it is really in stark contrast as Rosenberg is a supporter of these abstract expressionists breaking all traditional norms. The question I am left with is if this relates to some of our previous discussion of McCarthyism and the fear of communists in The United states. Was this Modern art considered considered a fringe leftist idea or even communist at the time to the common people or even to critics who thought like Greenberg?

    • I think you are right to bring up McCarthyism. Many artists prior to WWII were deeply committed to leftist politics, in particular Marxism. The McCarthy hearings sought to expose and convict such ‘subversive’ individuals. After the war Americans on the left became increasingly cynical about large-scale social movements and political organizations, thinking these did not bring real change but only more of the same old oppression under a different name. In fact, certain artists became cynical about virtually everything, including and especially the growing acceptance of modern painting. What was once avant-garde now began to appear academic and benign to them. As Rosenberg states, a number of rebellious painters felt a need to take action against this new conformism. But as they no longer believe in collective action, whatever radical action they would perform would need to take place not in public, but in private and on the canvas. Hence the term “action painting”.

  5. Sevin Park says:

    In “Contemporary Art and the Plight of its Public,” I thought it was intriguing how Steinberg noticed that Johns’ paintings all communicated a sense of “desolate waiting.” He describes the drawer waiting to be opened, the coat hanger waiting to receive someone’s clothes, the target waiting to be shot at. They’re waiting for something and never getting it because “their time has passed.”

  6. Aralia Ward says:

    Steinberg’s simple writing style helps to prove that artists are equal to the public. Artists seem to be the target audience of Steinberg’s work as he explains how they are a critical part of the “plight of the public”. It is often the artists themselves, not the critics, who are the first to condemn new works of art. Even though Steinberg’s target audience is artists, he doesn’t use deep and complicated language, like Rosenberg, to address them. Steinberg uses a language fit to address the public when speaking to artists. Steinberg belies that artists are in the same category as the regular man when it comes to viewing innovative art. Artist and public alike can feel the same sudden loss and exile when viewing a new form of modern art.

    • Steinberg had a very different personality from Rosenberg. I’m not sure Rosenberg’s use of language was complicated. It was rather rugged, indeed brutal, impulsive, allusive, elliptical, and unwilling to explain itself to the uncomprehending. I wouldn’t say this is the result of any sort of baroque attachment to complex rules of composition, but rather a refusal to follow any rules at all. In this, Rosenberg sought for his prose to be the written analogue to the savage ‘splash and drip’ paintings of Jackson Pollock.

      On the other hand, Steinberg definitely does, as you suggest, make a genuine effort clearly and sincerely to explain his thoughts to his audience. His is also aware that he may well not be understood, and that his ‘pandering’ to the public may even appear foolish to many of the experts he most respects. But he is unwilling to let these concerns deter him.

  7. Kenzie Crowley says:

    Steinberg writes an example of Jasper Johns experience as a painter. I thought it was very interesting how quick the criticism came before people made full coherent thoughts about the painting. They tried to fit the piece into historical schemes and failed.
    Steinberg’s experience reminds me of how quick we are to jump to conclusions and reject new things. Whether it be a new learning style, technology update, or even something resurfacing from the past, we try to fit into our schema of life and if it doesn’t fit, we reject it. Instead of being patient before making a judgement we voice our opinions and then wait for a change of heart to come.
    Steinberg waited to make a judgement until he had a clear thought and then voiced it when he could defend his arguement instead of reacting like his friends and being enthusiastic without being able to explain why Johns piece made them feel that way.

    • Yes. This is something I’ve been trying to address in my IT1 class as we discuss tragedy. It’s extremely common for persons to believe that being intelligent and perceptive entails immediately recognizing the nature and quality (or lack thereof) of any new object. Tragedy, I’ve suggested to students, is an art form which resists easy identifications, interpretations, and evaluations, and it is more satisfying as art because of its refusal to confirm all our expectations and prejudices. Steinberg seems to be saying something which similar about contemporary art. Not that he doubts that many very bright persons will rush to judgement when confronted by an utterly new form of art. His essay offers personal anecdotes about observing just that. But his thought is such rash pronouncements are not a sign of intelligence but of insecurity.

  8. Lillie Orlando says:

    I thought it was interesting the way that Steinberg found a connection between the public and artists during this time. To him the public does not comprise of any one group of people, but rather a role played by people. He describes how no one art style remains uncomfortable within the public for a very long period of time, which eventually leads to the acceptance of something within art that once seemed unfamiliar. He describes that for an artist “new art upsets those that don’t feel a part of it”. Even Steinberg had initial feelings of discomfort towards Jasper Johns but eventually comes to his own conclusion as to the meaning of his works. He states that it is up to the individual to criticize works of art, and through “self-analysis” and “anxious uncertainty” one must come to a decision. Through his essay, he speaks about the processes that lead to the adoption of new art. However, I can’t discern whether or not he is condemning the rejection of new art, or saying that initial rejection is just one step in the process of becoming a widely accepted form of art?

    • Your observations here seem pretty accurate. I’m not sure why the ultimate uncertainty. While Steinberg does not champion the initial ‘overreaction’ to new art, he doesn’t think this is something that can or should be avoided. It is, as you say, an essential stage in the process of reception, and an essential aspect of what it means for us to be ‘modern’.

  9. I found Steinberg’s commentary in “Contemporary Art and the Plight of its Public” very interesting because he focused on actually defining the public and what their plight actually is. In our other readings, I feel like the authors didn’t define exactly who the public was that they referred to.

    The notion of the public as a role rather than a group of specific people was interesting, but I find the ending of his definition to be the most compelling. Steinberg states “…Only those who are beyond experience should be exempt form the charge of belonging to the public.” This implies that no one is above or exempt from being part of ‘ the public’ at some time or another. He goes on to later say “…sooner or later it is everybody’s predicament…” which makes the idea more concrete.

    I feel like someone saying that the issue of modern art isn’t neatly dichotomized between ‘intellectual artists’ and philistines is important. I think it takes away the distracting polarization of the subject and opens it up to more thoughtful/insightful discussion.

    • You’ve read this essay perceptively, and I’m pleased to see that. It’s understandable that you would think that earlier critics were not able to define the public. However, I think it’s not that they couldn’t define the public so much as they wouldn’t define the public. It was simply beneath their dignity, or not worthy of their time, to explore at any length the nature of the masses or their tastes. Admittedly, Greenberg does write at great length about the rise of Kitsch, and he carefully explains the social causes for the existence of cheap and dreadful art. He does not blame the masses for their deep investment in junk they can’t help but crave. Nevertheless, he does consider their plight to be very real, very lamentable, and restricted to a very specific group of persons. Steinberg, on the other hand, uses all these terms more flexibly, and with more clemency that Greenberg. Nobody is branded as either ‘in’ or ‘out’ by nature. Rather, the production and reception of art is a complex and ongoing sociological process in which we all participate. As you observer, only the person ‘beyond all experience’ is exempt from it.

  10. Nick Fontaine says:

    Steinburg reveals an unsuspected and perhaps ironic connection in that good contemporary art encourages us to applaud the destruction of values which we still cherish. At first, I had a hard time wrapping my mind around why we might find intrigue in “perpetual anxiety and unease”. I reflected on film and anti-heros that I have encountered in the last year and in line with Steinbjrg, these are the individuals that I remember the most. He portrays modern art as a challenge to audience to reflect among the image while restraining one’s own inner desire to mark it off as destructive painting. I believe that this challenge could encourage deeper reflection than other forms of art. If the audience doesn’t immediately dismiss it, the audience is inspired to ponder and look deeper through a desire to understand the irrational. From our last discussion, I also think this art intrigues the audience including me because its freedom of expression. I might be trying to draw connections that don’t really exist but I was wondering if America’s cultural values around freedom of expression encourage abstract art among the public to a greater extent than within Europe?

    • While not everyone is always up for one, Steinberg seems to suggest that we, as moderns, crave a substantial challenge from life. Once upon a time we didn’t need to seek challenges, as nature and the quest for mere survival was sufficient to afford that. Now that modern industry sees to must of our basic needs we must seek the struggle we crave not in nature but culture. New art provides us with this opportunity. But it can’t do that job properly if the challenges are only fake and not real ones. Consequently, a great number of persons will be outraged at what tries to pass itself off a ‘art’. As you say, it takes time for society to work through the challenges presented by radically innovative art works. And before that working through is completed, there we arise all sorts of premature pronouncements about the arts quality and significance.

      The paradox or contradiction which most strikes me in all you observe is the American tendency to celebrate its own deep commitment to freedom, and simultaneously to take an extremely dim view of anything which appears radically free or innovative. Americans seem to love very obvious and dramatic depictions of familiar persons and types being free, but seem to hate actual persons doing anything even vaguely eccentric or disruptive. Much of the excitement of studying modern American art comes from seeing how brazen and unapologetic artists such as Pollock and de Kooning were. Europeans saw and admired this greatly, while the average American looked on in bewilderment. Steinberg’s essay discusses the interval, social and chronological, separating those who do and those who don’t ‘get’ modern art.

      Something else worth noting here is another and more insidious form of American hypocrisy. Recent historical research has revealed that at the same time key authorities in the States were expressing dismay over the decline of the arts and the possible tie to subversive movements, these same authorities were bombarding Eastern European countries with the most advanced visual art, literature, and music, knowing that oppressed peoples craved this sort of material and the freedom it represented. The thought of persons in the CIA and VOA was that the very ‘worst’ of the American avant-garde was the precise weapon we needed to create an insurrection in the Soviet Union.

  11. Aleah Griffin says:

    Steinberg makes a point that the people most likely to be playing the role of the “public” are the artists themselves, and his reasoning is that they are the most engaged. They care the most and they’re more invested in art than the average person on the street. It feels to them as if their personal culture and experience is being attacked, almost “leaving them exposed to spiritual destitution.” As a result, being the first to criticize a new, unfamiliar work of art isn’t a sign of an amateur, but an academic. Steinberg states that “There are few things so maddening as insubordination or betrayal,” especially of your own values. I find it interesting that this seems to be a theme in life: those who care the most are the ones who have a tendency to make the most mistakes. I read a book last semester called “Whistling Vivaldi” that explains the psychology of how someone’s performance is negatively impacted when they are aware and thinking of a stereotype that says they aren’t good at something. However, this only applies when the person cares about whatever they’re doing; caring is what makes them make mistakes. In the case of Steinberg’s example, artists are the quickest to jump to the conclusion that new, strange art isn’t good, which is often not true, simply because they are the most invested.

    • This is a very clear paraphrase of Steinberg’s argument, or at least a large portion of it. One of the important points you identify is Steinberg’s rejection of an us/them attitude. His thought is that, whether we are aware of this or not, we are all in this together – though some more than others.

      The seemingly obvious, though nevertheless profound subject you address, care, is actually a major theme of 20th century philosophy. A number of schools of thought, and members of those schools, fought over whether care was a good or a bad thing, and whether it could be overcome or not. It hadn’t occurred to me, before you raised the issue, to think of it at all. So, thank you for giving an opportunity to learn!

      Another important topic you’ve caused me to consider is the dialectical opposition between self and other, which was also the subject of major debate in 20th century philosophy. I won’t say much here, but it’s interesting to compare Steinberg’s remarks with the ideas of Martin Buber, a famous Jewish philosopher of the time. Buber was interested in the erosion of respect for the ‘other’ in the significant shift from the ‘shifter” Thou to that of You. The first implies a relationship and reciprocity, and especially receptivity, which I mentioned in class today. It seems to me Steinberg believes that for too long the public has been treated as a You rather than a Thou, and he seeks to correct that problem. In so doing, he risks being sacrificed by his elite artist and critic friends, who can’t keep up with the pace of his sacrifice. But what, again, is Steinberg sacrificing?

      His privilege.

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