In his famous text Collage, written in 1959, Clement Greenberg talks about the “shock value” of the technique. Somewhat shocking in itself, the remark harkens back to a time when mere artistic innovation could have the power to be troubling. Little did Greenberg suspect that the alarm was justified. By introducing fragments from the outside world to the surface of the painting – real things like bits of newspaper, or oil cloth – Cubist period Picasso and Braque helped to predict the demise of old world aesthetic standards, a protracted process that art continues to undergo to this day.
An avant gardist himself in his critical practice, Greenberg was contemptuous of the then commonplace idea that the extraneous elements used by the Cubists represented the necessary corrective of “reality” in the face of the growing abstractness of Analytical Cubism.” Scoffing at the suggestion that things glued onto a painting’s surface were any more “real” than those depicted within the picture plane, he went to all but extraordinary lengths to prove why this might be true, and invented a theory of modernism in the process.
At the time, Greenberg’s argument that the cubist technique of “depicting flatness” – a painterly method of self-cancelling 3D illusionism – represented the salvation of the medium did have some persuasive value. In the 1950s, the class divide between high and low regimes of taste was readily apparent. It was a cultural climate that gave credence to one of the American critic’s more outlandish ideas: the notion that medium-specificity adhered to rigorously enough could make painting immune to the influence of the wider culture. But as with any self-regarding elite, whether persons or art practices, an insularity practiced to this extreme is in itself a kind of death knell.
What I am referring to here is not of course that perennially popular– and maybe finally over – conversation about the Death of Painting, but rather the connected event of the death of necessary skill or technique in art practice.
This was the future that was augured by collage. After all, when Braque stuck, as Greenberg says, “a very un-cubist graphic depiction of a tack with a cast shadow” onto his 1910 painting Still Life with Violin and Pitcher, he was not only placing it there as a reminder of the medium’s illusionistic past, he had also discovered an entirely new category for the practice of art, one that would go on to almost swallow the discipline whole: the readymade.
Although Duchamp’s innovation in this respect was roughly contemporaneous – and it was the French artist who made the possibility explicit – the Cubist choice of the still life as the genre best suited to their radical form of artistic experimentation looks, from the perspective of today, like nothing so much as the readymade’s foreshadowing.
Contrary to Greenberg’s argument, so elegantly rendered, about continuity of the aesthetic ideals that his version of modernism ensured, collage represented the first puncture hole in the visual arts’ commitment to the principles of classical culture. The moment of deflation that is collage, the implications of which Greenberg tried so hard to resist, was nothing so much as the noise of real life rushing in. Listen for it now and you can still hear the whooshing sound.
By Rosemary Heather
This text was commissioned for Fleur du Mal, 2007 (Daddy III. A project of Peres Projects, Berlin). Guest edited by Kirstine Roepstorff, Fleur du Mal can be purchased here.