To the artistically uneducated eye, Barnett Newman’s Black Fire I is presumably absurd. Philistines and art dilettantes would say the painting is unworthy of being labelled as art, especially when compared with the grand creations of the pre-modern era. It’s even more absurd considering that it was sold for approximately 85 million dollars. “I could’ve done that,” is a phrase that often circulates discussions, hinting at the progressive degeneration of skillful, immaculate painting that has accompanied the rise of modernism. This conservative approach rises from the residue of the traditional belief that art must depict something in order for it to be of worth.

Barnett Newman, Black Fire I, oil on canvas, 289.5 x 213.3 cm, 1961 (www.christies.com)

This belief was contested in the late 19th century, when in an attempt to break free of the limitations that had been imposed on artists in a pre-modern era, painting took a dramatic turn. Avant-garde artists wished for themselves and for their art to become autonomous, not confined by any form of superior command. But if we trace this endeavour of achieving autonomy, we can conclude that there is no such thing as “pure” art. Autonomy exists only relatively and not as an absolute, all-encompassing condition of an artwork.

Modernism came to be out of a lot of reasons. Prior to that movement, art existed for centuries in the servitude of theological and political ideologies, commissioned by elites in order to reaffirm the power that their dominant institutions held at the time. Artists were few and supplies were scarce. Art was not viewed as art, but rather as a means to an end. The renaissance ruptured that tradition with the introduction of humanism, the idea that people, and not God, held agency over their own lives. The French revolution symbolised the possibility of challenging the hierarchy of power, mobilizing the masses to question the order of authority. Secularism proliferated, stripping the church of its power. The industrial revolution marked an emphasis on a false sense of individualism within a society where mass culture was taking over.  The advent of the camera created a method that depicted reality far better than painting ever had.

Art went into an existential crisis, lead by the hands of revolutionary philosophers of the time. As aesthetics were established in the 18th century as a philosophical discipline that existed independently from a rapidly-growing bourgeois society, art became conceptualised as non-purposive, as “divorced from the totality of social activities…[coming] to confront them abstractly,” as Peter Bürger put it. In his Critique of Judgement, German philosopher Immanuel Kant relocated art outside the sphere of profit maximization as a field unwilling to adhere to the capitalist pressures of its time. Artists no longer had a higher purpose to abide by.

Casper David Friedrich, Moonrise over the Sea, oil on canvas, 55.0 x 71.0 cm, 1822, Berlin (artsandculture.google.com)
Raphael, School of Athens, fresco, 579 × 824 cm, 1509-1511, Vatican City (www.artsy.com)

In order for art to become fully separated from the praxis of life, it had to become fully self-sufficient. In Clement Greenberg’s essay Towards a Newer Laocoön, he discusses how literature was the dominant art form during 17th century Europe. Due to its supremacy, subservient arts attempted to imitate it through negating their own mediums into near-nonexistence. In the case of painting, the artist placed absolute emphasis on the subject-matter and none on the medium in an effort to replicate the narrative and poetic effects of literature. This explains the nature of romantic painting, the aim of which was to mediate what an artist was feeling to the audience so powerfully that the painting itself would seem insignificant, a mere vessel through which a much more striking force was at play (see: Moonrise by the Sea). This also explains painting’s surrender, during the renaissance, to dominant institutions of that age (see: School of Athens). When one examines these types of painting, one does not see the canvas, the paint, the flatness. One sees a continuation of one’s own line of sight, a seamlessly constructed illusory space, recognizable landscapes and figures that denote a world much larger than the one confined by the canvas.

Claude Monet, Impression Sunrise, oil on canvas, 48 cm × 63 cm, 1872, Paris (www.claude-monet.com)

Art gradually shed away from representation. This was instigated primarily by the Kantian logic of self-criticism from the inside, the path of which painting had to follow to avoid being reduced to nothingness, as Greenberg said in On Modernist Painting. Each art had to prove its own value using the very aspect of itself that was not borrowed from or inspired by external factors, “not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence.” In Laocoön, Greenberg provides the example of music. Its unique trait that distinguished it from all other art forms was the organisation of sound to evoke feeling. Music did not need narrative, words, or visuals to accompany it in order for it to fulfill its purpose of transferring emotion. For painting, the road to achieving that was by celebrating that which was exclusive to it: the nature of the medium, i.e. the flatness, the paint, the shape of the canvas. This was referred to as l’art pour l’art, art for art’s sake, art that was not in command of a higher purpose; autonomous art.  

Mark Rothko, No. 12, 1945 (www.art.com)

In a somewhat flattened version of the history of modernism, it began with Gustav Courbet, who relied on depicting not divine representations or supernatural elements but rather truthful scenes one could come across in real life, i.e. realist art. Followed by him were the impressionists (see: Impression, Sunrise), who still painted scenery and people but with the overarching stress on the  materiality of the painting, the fact that it was created from paint on flat surface, aspects which should not be overlooked. Gradually, a shift occurred from emphasis on content to emphasis on medium, until it reached a point where content could not be linked to anything external anymore. Jackson Pollock’s paintings lacked a vanishing point, leading the eyes to stray back and forth between abstract splatters of paint on canvas. Mark Rothko’s paintings exemplified this supposed “purity” in art. If one were to look at No. 12, one could sense the same emotions that Moonrise by the Sea had attempted to evoke. These are the same emotions that Impression, Sunrise sought to achieve with its departure from traditional realistic representation. But Rothko does it best, using nothing other than the distinctive characteristics of painting to evoke this sense of the sublime.

Frank Stella, Jill, enamel on canvas, 229.55 x 200.03 cm, 1959, New York (www.albrightknox.org)

But as far as Greenbergian autonomy goes, none other than Frank Stella’s Jill fully embodies his argument as to what constitutes a modernist painting. Stella’s piece is so self-restricted, so bereft of any influences except for those which already exist within it – the canvas, the paint, the flatness – that it might appear to be “pure”. As Greenberg put it, “purity in art consists in the acceptance, willing acceptance, of the limitations of the medium of the specific art.” But to what degree does Jill accept – or rather abide by these limitations? The painting is simple; it can be said to be divided into four squares which derive from the size of the canvas itself. It is created by equidistant black stripes separated by white stripes of bare canvas, mirrored in each of the four squares to create a geometric shape. The purported purity, however, is broken, once it is realized that the distance between the white stripes is equal to the thickness of the canvas. This reference to the three-dimensionality of the canvas destroys the illusion of flatness as it acknowledges the painting as an object existing alongside our selves, occupying volume. This associates it with sculptors as much as it is associated with painting, rendering the piece “impure” as it contains an intermingling of different art forms.

Donald Judd, Untitled, steel, aluminium and Perspex, 101.6 x 22.9 x 78.7 cm, 1980, London (www.tate.org.uk)

Another example that ruptures Greenberg’s theory is the work of Donald Judd. Although he rejected the label minimalist – because it denoted lacking – he was nevertheless classified as one. Untitled features aluminum blocks organized in a line above each other. Judd took a similar albeit bolder step towards the merging of art forms, and his work was strongly refuted by art critic Michael Fried, who was a firm advocate of Greenberg’s view on modernism. Fried criticized minimalists such as Stella and Judd because they did not accept the limitations of painting but rather went beyond them with their emphasis on the three-dimensionality of their medium. This placed them outside the narrative of modernism, according to Fried. This brings a paradoxical tension to the concept of autonomy. It can be said that the autonomy of an art piece comes at the cost of the autonomy of the artist, and vice versa. Modernism did not necessarily free artists of limitations but rather imposed new ones, originating from within the practice of painting rather than the outside.

Marcel Duchamp, Urinal, ceramic, 61 cm x 36 cm x 48 cm, 1917 (www.artsy.com)

In relation, Bürger introduces a larger paradox concerning autonomy in art. He opens his essay, On the Problem of the Autonomy of Art in Bourgeois Society, with the contradiction that autonomy embodies: “art’s apartness from society as its ‘nature’ means involuntarily adopting the l’art pour l’art concept of art and simultaneously making it impossible to explain this apartness as the product of historical and social development.” Art existing independently of society and history is not possible because the entire notion of autonomous art came to rise due to the social and historical factors. Henceforth autonomy is merely an illusion that exists within the artist’s head. He suggests an alternative to that concept of autonomy, focusing on the role of industrialization. Initially, he entertains the idea that an autonomous artist is one that has seemingly evaded the division of labor, maintaining authenticity through his or her absolute “handicraft” control over the final product. But even this idea can be refuted when one examines Marcel Duchamp’s famous urinal. Duchamp had not created his work but rather signed a mass produced object, thereby provoking the notion that art must be produced by the same person who takes credit for it. A disparity arises between means of production and an artist’s signature on mass produced objects.

Although Duchamp exploited the capitalism of his time to create art on purpose, this brings into question the degree to which artists who create their own work can truly be called authentic and subsequently autonomous of the world surrounding them. There are issues of where the materials used for the creation of the painting were obtained from, along with the means through which artists exhibit their work, possibly falling into the Marxist perception of commodity fetishism whereby the value of art is determined by its price in a market.

Ilya Repin, Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan, oil on canvas, 199.5 cm × 254 cm, 1885, Moscow (http://allart.biz)

This tension is resolved to a certain degree by Thomas Crow in his essay Modernism and Mass Culture in the Visual Arts, in which he states that “modernist practice sustains its claim to autonomy by standing…against the empty diversity of the culture industry, against market expediency, speculative targeting of consumers, and hedging bets. But it has achieved this contrast most successfully by figuring in detail the character of the manufactured culture it opposes.” Although modernism has not always managed to maintain this stance, what he is referring to is the fact that the avant-garde had essentially grown out of a proliferating system of capitalism which was already attempting to absorb art into its consumerist culture. Kitsch was one outcome, a mass produced imitator of pre-modern high culture art that did not require much thinking or consideration in order to grasp (see: Tsar Ivan). It was produced for those who had migrated from the country to the city due to industrialization as a means of “dumbing down” the masses and for propaganda. This created a social schism that had risen out of “the surrender of the [art] academy to the philistine demands of the modern marketplace.” According to Greenberg in Avant-Garde and Kitsch, the avant-garde had risen in contrast to kitsch. But because it depended on an existing knowledge in art and a luxury of allocating time to the contemplation of modernist art, it could only appeal to high culture, only furthering the distance between high and low culture. Greenberg emphasizes that “no culture can develop without a social basis, without a source of stable income. And in the case of the avant-garde, this was provided by an elite among the ruling class of that society from which it assumed itself to be cut off, but to which it has always remained attached by an umbilical cord of gold.”

It must be agreed that Greenberg does have a point in saying that a movement such as the avant-garde cannot possibly be autonomous in the sense of entire detachment from society. It must also be conceded that a piece of art is not capable of employing absolute independence from exterior influences. Autonomy itself is impossible. But as Thomas Crow puts it, “modernism exists in the tension between [negation and accommodation of the culture it opposes]. And the avant-garde, the bearer of modernism, has been successful when it has found for itself a social location where this tension is visible and can be acted upon.” And that is the most autonomous an artist can hope to be within society.  

Essay was originally written for  a university course in 2015, slight edits have been made to adjust to artmejo house rules.

All image courtesy indicated in captions.