Conceptual Antagonist

The following remarks by Clement Greenberg, from 1971, give the most astute definition of conceptualism, or at least of the kind of conceptualism worth paying attention to:

“…art, put to the strictest test of experience, proves to mean not skillful making (as the ancients defined it), but an act of mental distancing—and act that can be performed even without the help of sense perception.”


Robert Smithson, Corner Mirror with Coral 1969

Greenberg couldn’t recognize the aesthetic pleasure to be had from such a mental act, nor could he see the necessity of that development—the way that it is already present in Matisse for example, as quoted in the previous post. But those of us who want to affirm the material, factual and sensual basis of art and of aesthetic pleasure today, in the era of universal conceptualism, have to start from precisely there.

But maybe that last point is too conventionally critical. The problem of how to make a painting, for example, won’t be solved conceptually. It has to do with the history and potentialities of the medium—a strictly internal affair. If painting is weak in the face of global conceptualism that is the fault of painters entirely. Maybe the de-materialized sort of art has to be seen as a new genre. Following from my earlier posts about backstory, that is how I would treat it. Smithson’s work wouldn’t fit—too close to painting.

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