Painting, aesthetics of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M048-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 15, 2020, from

3. Answers stressing configuration

Although many paintings represent, it is at least not obvious that all do. One very natural way to understand abstract pictorial art is precisely as art that foregoes representation. So understood, abstract paintings will have a configurational aspect, since they are marked surfaces, but not a representational one. Anyone determined to stress the distinctiveness of painting as an art form, but also determined to give a central place to abstraction, is thus under pressure to concentrate on the configurational aspect of pictures. The clearest expression of these tendencies is in the work of Clement Greenberg.

Greenberg thought that painting had often succumbed to ‘the confusion of the arts’, importing values which properly belong in literature. The true purpose of painting is the exploration of the ‘flatness’ of the marked surface. What it uniquely offers is the opportunity to draw attention to the two-dimensional pattern of marks on the canvas, emphasizing their status as such, and exploring the opportunities for stimulation, commentary and surprise which such emphasis affords. Painting can do this while representing, but that representation is essentially irrelevant to its pursuit of this, its proper task. Greenberg saw the history of art in terms of the prominence or recession of this central preoccupation, citing Ingres’ portraiture, for instance, as work which, while representational, stresses the picture plane. But it is only with abstraction that this tendency reaches its purest, and most elevated, form. For, while Greenberg allows that even most abstract paintings are not completely ‘flat’, they are the paintings where there is least to distract from the investigation of flatness. Abstract pictorial art is thus not just properly part of painting, but the purest embodiment of its ideals.

‘Greenberg’s writing provides a crude but powerful formulation of themes of more general import. One is his emphasis on painting as a tradition, as a historically extended activity working through a common problematic. Later exponents of the art draw on and react to the achievements and failures of their predecessors, and their work cannot be understood properly except as part of that ongoing, practically embodied, discussion. Another is Greenberg’s stress on features of form, rather than content, as central to proper appreciation. The notion of form is very elastic, and in consequence ‘formalism’ names not one position but many (see Formalism in art). Not all of these positions exclude representation from the realm of the aesthetically significant. However, Greenberg is not alone in rejecting the relevance of representation; even if, in concentrating exclusively on painting, his claims apply far more narrowly than some formalist views.

‘Nonetheless, in the end Greenberg’s position is unsatisfactory. A great part of the history of painting has been concerned with extending its powers of representation, or at least realistic representation. Indeed, it is possible to see these efforts as the fulcrum around which the history of Western pictorial art turns. Greenberg is forced to construe these efforts either as the pursuit of something other than painting altogether, or as misdirected fire which, somehow, nonetheless hits the real target, that of emphasis on the picture plane. He thus marginalizes what has some claim to be central, and which looks distorting. If there are other better ways to deal with abstraction, and less one-sided ways to identify distinctive pictorial values, they merit our attention.

Citing this article:
Hopkins, Robert. Answers stressing configuration. Painting, aesthetics of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M048-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2020 Routledge.

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