Flatlands - VIP

Jonathan P Watts


Anglo-American art and its history survived flatness. This particular flatness is by now canonical, rendered flat, even. In 1986 Arthur C. Danto called time on the critic Clement Greenberg’s causal, developmental narrative of art history based on painting’s inevitable purification, its reduction to the “unique and irreducible features of its medium”.


Greenberg argued a path of historical development for art that evolved out of the past without gap or break so that “wherever it ends up it will never stop being intelligible in terms of the continuity of art.” Underlying this continuity was an ongoing process of self-purification; engaged in a dialogue with their own past, the artist is a formal critic: reflexive, self-critical or self-referential, striving to make the conventions of the medium opaque. Each of the arts were to be “hunted back… isolated, concentrated and defined”. The picture plane, that surface upon which for centuries painters hollowed out an illusion of three-dimensional space, was the modern painter’s site of concern. For Greenberg (and Michel Foucault in Manet and the Object of Painting) the history of painting from Manet through Cubism and into Abstract Expressionism followed a path towards abstraction, gradually revealing the material support of the canvas and foregrounding its quality as an object (at the apotheosis of this Pollock’s canvases pitched from verticality to horizontality). In perspective theory the picture plane corresponds to the material surface of the picture. We look into it as a “proscenium into a stage”, yet it’s a physically opaque surface, assimilated by convention into an imaginary transparent plane of glass, that slices the visual pyramid perpendicular to the gaze of the painter or viewer. The modern painter’s renunciation of depth rendered the stage shallower and shallower in a progressive foregrounding of the flatness of the painting’s support. No longer did the viewer look into the surface, but at it. The flat painting is literalist, a more physical and less imaginative kind of experience; it occupies the same order of physical space as our bodies.


In the absence of three-dimensional narrative scenes every element and area of the picture became equivalent in accent and emphasis. Greenberg calls this work “all over” or “polyphonic” painting, which “relies on a surface knit together of identical or closely similar elements which repeat themselves without marked variation from one edge of the picture to the other.” Surface qualities of relations between dark and light, colour and form placed emphasis on a purely visual experience, on “opticality” divorced of other senses. (Abstract Expressionism, wrote David Sylvester in the early ‘60s, is a “puritanical approach to painting, which seems concerned to find out how much of the traditional apparatus of art can be eliminated from painting without eliminating art; it’s like a test of art’s powers of survival in the face of a denial of its comforts”.) It follows that a modernist work of art must, in principle, avoid dependence upon any order of experience not given in the most essentially construed nature of its medium. If purification of the medium foregrounded the visual nature of experiencing painting, of the perception of surface differences of light and colour, pigmentation or the weave of the canvas, correspondingly artworks could be intuited and judged in terms of increasingly discrete sensory inputs. “Greenberg’s conception of medium-specificity,” writes the aesthetician Diarmuid Costello, “attempts to align a broadly empiricist notion of cognitively uninflected sensation with specific artistic media, as though the sensory impression made by a work of art were a simple correlate of the intrinsic material properties of its medium, from which it could therefore be directly read off.”


By pronouncing The End of Art in 1986 Danto, paradoxically, celebrated new life. While art was apparently ending for most artists studio practice continued as normal. Rather, Danto’s proclamation belonged to an academic battle of ideas and signaled a vital shift in the historical imagination. What actually had come to an end was a privileged vehicle of art-historical narrative. What was supposed to happen next? “Nothing was supposed to happen next,” Danto wrote after the end of art, “because the narrative in which next stages were mandated had come to an end.” Art after the end of art comprised painting, but the painting in question was no longer driving the narrative forward. Instead, art after the end of art was characterised by an unprecedented pluralism; a liberating dedifferentiation between media and forms. A new quality of flattening out.


Writing of the new pluralism in ’82 the Italian critic Achille Bonito Oliva proclaimed painting now free to pick over painting styles “as a sort of objet trouvé, detached from their semantic references as from every metaphorical association. They are consumed in the execution of the work, which becomes the crucible in which their exemplarity is purified. For this reason, it is possible to renew references that are otherwise irreconcilable, and to interweave different cultural temperatures... [producing] unheard-of hybrids and different dislocations”. In the absence of ideological fixity was “multidirectional digression”. Impure painting reveled with “uninhibited superficiality” in the vast image pool, its deeds separated from its convictions: “Surrealism without the Unconscious” Fredric Jameson called it.


Prophetically, in his painting Flatlands (1970), survivor of Abstract Expressionism Philip Guston reveled in the new planar territory. For Guston, this canvas was a dumping ground for characters and motifs, a dispersed disposition of discrete events, an inter-net of things. This painting renounces the plane of abstraction (what do you do after flatness?) in favour of a truly non-hierarchical, fluid space. It is a quality of space Michel Foucault recognised in Raymond Roussel’s writings that he called “tropological”: the tropological is a flat space, without thickness or depth, in which words and figures rotate indefinitely, with neither beginning nor end; a space “wholly subject to the infinitely glittering effect of meaning, in the definite absence of all meaning”. It was the flat linguistic adventure of George Bataille’s Story of the Eye that Roland Barthes celebrated in his essay The Metaphor of the Eye. For Barthes, Bataille’s story is less about the sexual accomplishments of the unnamed narrator and Simone, as metaphoric transformations of the objects on which they fetishistically focus. In the story the series of metaphoric transformations connected to the eye itself, which becomes eggs, testicles, and the sun, is its significance. According to Barthes, writes historian Martin Jay, none of these terms is given privilege, none has any foundational priority:


It is the very equivalence of ocular and genital which is original, not one of its terms: the paradigm begins nowhere... Everything is given on the surface and without hierarchy, the metaphor is displayed in its entirety; circular and explicit, it refers to no secret. “Thus,” Jay writes, articulating Barthes, “the time-honoured function of the penetrating gaze, able to pierce appearances to ‘see’ the essences beneath, is explicitly rejected.”


“Everything is flat and that is good,” reassures Gerald Raunig in his recent text Flatness Rules. “When the lack of depth in contemporary thinking is brought up in the art industry or magazines, this usually involves an old topos.” He continues: “The recurrent complaint about how superficial the world is, which facilitates a tendency to mediocrity, is nothing older than the dull repetition of a cultural-pessimistic figure, which persistently affirms the old elite or desires new elites.” Perhaps, in the course of postmodernism, the liberating play of flatness, celebrated by the likes of Guston, Barthes and Foucault, to name but a few, unfolded into a stultified pessimism in culture at large? At some point the adventurous free play of signs in the project of the self ossified into ennui and despair. In mass visual communication - mediated by the screen - deeds separated from words and multidirectional digression reached nihilistic pitch in Jean Baudrillard’s assertion that the Gulf War did not happen. For Baudrillard reports on the conflict were less based on the event than the infinite return of live action television. “It matters little what it ‘informs’ us about,” he argued, “its ‘coverage’ of events matters little since it is precisely no more than a cover: its purpose it to produce consensus by flat encephalogram.”


Today the infinite, ambient return of the Internet is like a vast web laid over the surface of the earth. Its image is of a flat weave, a deterritorialised and dispersed non-hierarchical structure. The laptop screen is both proscenium onto a stage, flat surface and mirror. It offers “multidirectional digression” to conceal that the Utopic moment passed long ago.


An encephalogram is an x-ray.