Non-Modernist Formalism: Form instead of Material

So as far as conferences go, this year has been quite weird.

Last year I attended roughly nine or ten events, in about eight or nine places – this year it has been about eight events in three places, cramming four in March and four again in October. Although it is certainly efficient (it left me with an entire summer to write and write), I wouldn’t recommend the workload involved.

One of the side effects is that you forget stuff in-between the events, and that’s a problem: the whole point of this blog is to publish stuff, conversations, etc., in the aid of reminding myself – in writing up the thesis and subsequent papers – to capture how and what I was thinking. So with that in mind, this post is simply a update on a talk Graham gave to AIAS, Aarhus, a couple of weeks ago (of which I was the respondent) solidified by talking to Tim, who keynoted at performing objects Falmouth, last week. I can’t cover everything that went on in Aarhus, suffice to say that both Graham’s paper and my response will be published in the Nordic Journal of Aesthetics next year.

One of my worries with is that, quite often, ANT and New Materialism, are bundled into various streams of OOO literature, and usually employed to denote some sort of change in affairs. And that’s fine in one sense: not every paper needs to provide a prior disclaimer for distinguishing these positions for the sake of signalling a change in their disparate discipline: such ecology, architecture or the arts. But often enough, there are deep differences in how OOO or a new materialist framework might apply those ideas into practice, and moreover, how their close proximity might blur different practices irrevocably. This is not simply a framing issue with regards to terminology.

Nowhere is this change of practice felt in the difference between form and material in the visual arts. And this is important, because in my eyes, OOO is not a materialism, or a return to the material, but about the pluralistic endorsement of substantial and/or actual form. There are clear similarities between OOO realism and the materialist approach, not least their rejection of the transcendent privilege of the ‘human’, and the surprising, incomplete production of non-human things – but there are important differences too. This is especially pertinent in light of Levi’s repeated distancing of OOO towards an orientation of emergent physical objects/units of matter, rather than primordial discrete form.

Nowhere was this more clear than in Graham’s paper, ‘Materialism is not the Solution‘, in which he distances OOO from materialism (specifically, Bennett’s, Levi’s and Garcia’s) in a number of arguments. ‘Matter’ is rejected for something like ‘formalism’, but clearly this ‘return to form’ (excuse the pun) is entirely different from the crusty methods of formal analysis, historically replaced by a mechanistic understanding of organisation. Even deploying terms like ‘mechanism’ can be largely insufficient for describing the types of materialism espoused in new materialism, so one needs to approach this tentatively.

As many others have noticed, materialism is now an utterly confused term, entirely beholden to any trendy concept going. Matter can be applied to almost anything, if you work hard at it enough; cognition, strings, history, the Real, capitalism, process, dust, the social, time (even ‘deep’ time), field-systems, relations, praxis, context, networks, movement, duration, embodiment and (the most frustrating one, used indiscriminately in the arts) encounter.

But it doesn’t matter what sort of ‘matter’ is deployed in materialism, its deployment is always against form. For Graham, philosophy has historically managed ‘matter’ into two areas; it is either some ultimate ‘stuff’ or physical ‘structure’ upon which all derivative forms can be broken down, or else, matter lies in the absolute formlessness of primordial emergence, which spits out derivative forms within its endless differentiating movement. Graham calls this second one, the “amorphous reservoir”, of matter, focusing on Bennett’s indeterminate wholeness or a throbbing, pulsating movement of matter-energy. I prefer to call it an invisible framework.

The invisible framework of relations is many, and yet, form is not. Why aren’t invisible frameworks plural? Because they are shapeless. Anything which pertains to hold durability and autonomy, fails to approach ‘matter’ and only leans more towards form.  Why should an invisibly grounded framework approach a material excess of movement; because it is invisible? Or because it purports to be the impersonal holistic framework which explains movement and change?

Maybe then it might be useful to actually think of all these materialisms as productive outcomes: that there are so many types, buttresses Harman’s realist position: if we are faced with a choice of multiple materials to choose from, then OOO starts to get its teeth in rejecting the primacy of one type of material. And that’s not to reject these terms outright, but to account for why they become an issue. Why are these abstractions used to account for the changes of things, rather than abstractions resulting from things causing change?

And these are the Leibnizian problems which OOO challenges; how does materialism account for entities which aren’t grounded into the formless apeiron, from the very start? Why are discrete regions of ontology, not left as discrete regions? Why is the invisible structure of materialism simply asserted rather than accounted for? Why should the indeterminate wholeness be formless anyway?

How does a materialism account for a form’s durable independent basis, yet not reducible to a physical, natural structure. Why is it incapable of offering a better account for the status of immaterial things, rather than to eliminate them outright in favour of the material? In other words, how do we approach excess? In materialism, there is always an undermined (substance), or overmined (correlated) abstract formless excess which gives rise to forms, but in OOO, the abstract excess itself is always formed by the substantial discrete thing.


Moving quickly, how might one begin to approach form, or formal analysis in artistic practice, without being quagmired into the historical rejection of the morphological (I’m thinking here Joseph Kosuth’s Art After Philosophy)? How might contemporary art be understood, not by understanding its production through an impersonal, invisible framework, but through its own form, and experimentations with that form?

One way of approaching this is to ask what a non-modernist formalism might look like. It might not look like anything. It might be utterly impossible even. And if it was conceivable, how might it adopt certain OOO-ish features? How might it fail in doing so? What would formalism look like in art praxis, if the separation of culture/nature were applied: that is to say, the removal of modernist teleological commitments?

I’ll finish by sketching out some, very heuristic points (I’m writing this largely ad-hoc, as I’m heading out the door)

  • Non-modernist formalism may not, in any method, claim that forms can be known or self-mastered.
  • Formalism is about the tension and incompleteness between autonomous forms, as well as the forms themselves.
  • It might not privilege a purity of form, nor an allocation of the artist (or critic) as a sole bearer or attainer of that form. Thus form is different to ‘structure’, and should not be tainted or overwritten with structuralism, as it was in the 40s.
  • Formalism shall no longer be mired with the ‘explore the nature of the universe’ twinge. Instead non-modernist formalism might approach the exploration of things, not nature.
  • If there is no pure form, then form exists as a tension within the existent of the determinate thing. There is no ‘form’, only ‘the forms’.
  • There is no difference between a thing’s inner, essential, ‘actual’ form and its ‘significant form’ (contra Fry)
  • Forms are not platonic, but their constructed effect appears deceptive and will remain so. The work may not depend on the output, or the result, but neither is materialism smuggled in through the back door with unhelpful pangs of ‘process’ – instead forms are just banal configurations unified into a durable unit of cause.
  • Forms are timeless, not in old-fashioned sense of ‘grace’, or whatever: instead they are timeless, because the abstraction that is arrived by encountering them produces time, as opposed to time producing forms.
  • Non-modernist formalism might not dispense with artist intentionality, or the social production pertaining to it, but then again, it does not privilege it either: not in the form of speech or performance, nor of politics. All forms are relevant, and are built from many different types, and require different approaches in different configurations. If praxis is only reducible to an invisible framework of material, then it remains unclear how change and rupture is attained in the first place.
  • Forms are discrete and non-relational, but aesthetic value is not.
  • There is no predetermined path using forms, only ruptures in various disciplines, and those ruptures are products of the forms themselves.
  • The appearance of forms is never literal, only metaphorical.
  • Following Greenberg, the role of artists is to ‘test’ certain forms and find out what is essential/non-essential, but in the absence of privileging human intentionality, this is a decentralised understanding of ‘testing’ – form-to-form, object-to-object. Like some scientists, artists test things in order to be surprised by forms, not to ‘know’ them.
  • The relationship between beholder and object is a temporary absorption between two or more forms, forming a new actual object or performance.
  • The role of ideas within forms, are perhaps marks of translations and transcriptions between different forms and the decisions and judgements that take place. An artist can trans’form’ something according to a principled ideal, but therein, so too can an inanimate form trans’form’ the artist and beholder in turn. Ideals, concepts and decisions must be accounted for in this realism/formalism, and not drained to the dregs with matter (perhaps being speculative, how does a realism account for ideas, without becoming idealism?).


Graham’s thoughts on art and SR

Graham’s weighed in with a few thoughts on some of the SR/art conferences / speculative themes going on at the moment (of which one, D.U.S.T’s Weaponizing Speculation, is still going as I speak).

I think he’s spot on of course, but what some readers may not know is that I have a 10,000 word essay on Fried and Harman (yes, another one) yet to be published. So I’ll be brief. This is something I’ll probably speak about tomorrow for the NCAD talk with Francis. The talk yesterday, was linked but not explicitly.

Basically, my opinion is that, like Fried and Greenberg, the artwork is altogether human limits. There isn’t anything innately wrong with Anthropomorphism, in fact we need more of it. What is innately correlationist is anthropocentrism. That the beholder and the artist are only the central limits of ontology and aesthetics. So yes, it isn’t against speculative realism to throw away beholding entirely (in fact I consider this to be impossible), rather beholding may not be a unique human trait or ability.

There is one added ‘Fried’ element that I would argue should be included: the beholder’s experience is not the artwork, as the post-formalist would have it. This sounds contradictory to the above, but it isn’t. Rather for me, I think that the artwork is some sort of determinate mechanism which imposes or infiltrates the beholder, and operationalizes their involvement. And of course in Harman’s system, this creates a brand new object, one that absorbs the two or more objects into a new unified unit.

But the basic point is this, the most illuminating artworks are the anti-literal instances. You can’t escape the correlationist circle by appealing to literal things in a situation, you have to render the implicit morphized traits of a finite entity (human or otherwise) into another. Conviction is asymmetrical.

Homemade Philosophy: Bogost’s Carpentry and Greenberg

There’s a link there. There really is.

Ok, granted Bogost’s Carpentry (as Bogost defines it in Alien Phenomenology and elsewhere) isn’t aesthetics per se – it’s more of an ontographic tool implemented for weaselling out and characterising the diversity of being. He’s right to differentiate carpentry from aesthetics in the broader sense: ‘doing’ carpentry by this standard does not necessarily mean one is constructing an artwork – it’s a broader philosophical imperative. One of exposing and illumining the perspectives of objects.

But Bogost’s wieldy tool-box of being besides, it confirms – to me at least – the continuing similarities between OOO and Greenbergian / Fried formalist criticism. I doubt bringing together OOO and Greenberg’s aesthetic theory will bother winning many over, considering how much Greenberg is hated nowadays (expect swathes of criticisms following David Berry’s bizarrely unnecessary ‘conservative’ jibe): but the link is clearly there, and in my mind, one must uncover these surprises by readily picking the low hanging fruit available. The job of carpentry then, is experimentation and construction rather than committing to the professional mainstays of writing and speaking.

Graham has already expressed his esteem for the Greenbergian corpus, but it’s my view that this will be taken further – much further into the field of philosophy than is realised. Greenberg made no claim to be professionally involved with philosophy and in fact described his aesthetics (or esthetics) as “Home-made”. It’s this sheer anti-professional stature which should cajole philosophy into doing something beyond the odd conference debate and journal publication here and there. “Home-made” is a perfect name given to illuminate the carpentry of things – it shreds any distinction between ‘what professionals do” and “what everyone else does”, but also privileges the construction of craft and trade, rather than institutionalised knowledge (one is reminded of Latour here – that knowledge does not exist, and despite all claims to contrary, crafts hold the key to knowledge). Can we speak of a ‘home-made’ philosophy and take it seriously for once?

For sure, Greenberg got a lot wrong (supporting Vietnam anyone?), but he got a lot wrong through honesty, style and creative conviction. He put himself out there, and has been rewarded with poorly understood criticism and generational jabbering. For the record, I’m not suggesting that an OOO-ish artwork should prefer the type of aesthetics Greenberg celebrated – this is a wider issue.

So here are four areas where I’ve noticed some very broad and interlinked similarities.

1.) The abandonment of discursive or rational explanation. Greenberg hated the idea that artwork could be explained through rational deduction or cultural commentary. The power of an aesthetic experience lay in a “heightened cognitiveness without cognition” as he called it (here he was influenced by Croce and Collingwood). Art for Greenberg must be felt on an involuntary basis, not something deduced or demonstrated by knowledge. Greenberg’s appreciation of aesthetics could only operate on an involuntary basis, not a self-critical one. In one startling passage, written in “Intuition and the Esthetic Experience” (p. 7 of Homemade Esthetics), he remarked, “You no more choose to like or not like a given item of art than you choose to see the sun as bright or the night as dark,”. Reason, nor knowledge have any part to play here – in the same way that one cannot reduce objects in OOO to any form of discursive relationship or rational rule. Artworks operate on their own terms: their own rules. This is why Greenberg dissociated himself from any professional philosophical influence, he followed the form of surprise in looking at the formal work – not from an already existing system of thought. The bizarre element of this – far more common than one assumes – is that when I’ve asked other academics what they find fascinating about a particular work, they often give guilt ridden notions of ‘just liking it’, or ‘I have no reason’ without realising that Greenberg developed an entire system to allusively capture this admission.

2.) The willingness to let withdrawn qualities be withdrawn. Greenberg never believed that the content of an artwork could be bequeathed so literally to a viewer’s presence. Often enough he described content under such terms as indefinable; such that it could never be specified or discussed. In fact, for Greenberg if art ever ended up at a stage where its content could easily be discussed, it failed to operate as art for this reason. The source of inspiration was for him “a mystery” – and for the sake of aesthetics, that allusive quality should remain a mystery. Following Kant, aesthetic judgement was unprovable. Even cognition never accessed it; “There can be no objective rule of taste that would determine what is beautiful through concepts.”

3.) The experience and value of quality. The experience of art and the judgement of taste is bound up with the experience of quality. It’s no surprise that Graham predominately focuses on the qualities of sensual and real objects, the sensual ones, somehow shining through the blocked facades of an object’s phenomenological screen. Crucially for Greenberg, taste is a universal quality available to everyone with a universal faculty of judgement (Greenberg even thought at one point that he went ‘one better’ than Kant, by specifying taste as ‘objective’ rather than potential – I’ve written about this elsewhere, but won’t go into details).

4.) Damn good writing. It’s no coincidence – to me at least – that those who are studying and adding to OOO right now are damn good writers: clear, persuasive, littered with rhetorical flair. Indeed Greenberg is also a damn good writer, one of the best, if not THE best of the 20th Century. But when you’re dealing with abstract transcending notions, creative words have to be allusive. You cannot name nameless things without first having the capacity to allude to those nameless things. Once knowledge is surrendered, creativity leaks into the crevices.

Late Greenberg on Duchamp’s “Advanced Art” (a longer rant)

From the same seminar (No – 6) Convention and Innovation (1976) -(p. 49 in Homemade Aesthetics, 1999). Again when he refers to ‘advanced’ art – Greenberg is effectively having a go at pretty much everything inspired by the ‘theoretical demonstration’ of Duchamp.

“Most of what I’ve just said is not new. but the emphasis I’ve put on decision or choice may be. If so, that would be thanks to what’s happened in art itself in recent years. It’s the boringness, the vacuousness of so much of the purportedly advanced art of the past decade and more that has brought home—at least to me—how essential the awareness of decision is to satisfying experience of formal art. For the vacuousness of “advanced” art in this time is more like that of “raw,” unformalized art or esthetic experience, which vacuousness derives precisely from the absence of enough conventions and the want of decisions made or received under the pressure of conventions.

[…] Bad, inferior art is not necessarily boring or vacuous. What is relatively new about the badness of recent “advanced” art— new, that is, in the context of formal art—is that it is so boring and vacuous. This, because of the large absence of decisions that could be felt as “meant,” as intuited and pressured, and not just taken by default. That’s just it: that so many of the decisions that go into the supposedly newest art go by default, become automatic, and by the same token arbitrary, decisions.”

If I had a sixth of Greenberg’s stylistic traits – I’d die a happy academic (not that Greenberg admired academics).

The late Greenberg on Duchamp

Here he is – in Seminar Six.

“Yet Duchamp and his sub-tradition have demonstrated, as nothing did before, how omnipresent art can be, all the things it can be without ceasing to be art. And what an unexceptional, unhonorific status art as such—that is, aesthetic experience—really has. For this demonstration we can be grateful. But that doesn’t make the demonstration in itself any the less boring.”

“Why would you want to end your career like this?”

That’s what someone said to me earlier today, when I talked about the importance of Greenberg. Not unexpected of course – but it makes no sense to be ignorant about him. When I asked for the reason behind this opinion, the smug self-satisfaction of ‘you don’t understand’ and ‘we’re past this’ comes to the fore; the rolling of the eyes, the satisfaction of defence in group discussion and so on…

Well ignore me then. I don’t defend Greenberg to be radical for the sake of being some sort of radical hipster – there is a genuine applicability there, even now in computation. In short; ‘Context’ is not a particularly helpful way of articulating novelty in expression.

Misconceptions can be avoided if you just read the material and be honest about it. Incidentally, the same can be said of Wolfram in fact: everyone who vaguely knows his work has in reality hardly read the 1,200 page book from cover to cover. “Wolfram harbours an idealist agenda of religious metaphysics”. Yeah, he kinda does, but that’s a really bad reading that understands one aspect and assumes everything else follows it. Same with Greenberg.

Actually read it please –  Do it. Spend the time. Learn things. Be surprised.

(Someone actually asked me earlier exactly how much time one should put by to read and digest Wolfram’s NKS in full. I’ve been reading it since 2004, but realistically… 4 months I’d say. 1 month for the main text – the next three for the notes).

Greenberg’s Bogostian moment.

One of my favourite lines from Greenberg’s ‘Modernist Painting’ in Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology. ed. Francis Frascina and Charles Harrison, 1982. Why is it Bogostian? It’s not something I have time to put into words, but notice the technicality of language Greenberg uses; procedure, operation, competence.

“Modernism criticizes from the inside, through the procedures themselves of that which is being criticized.”

“Each art had to determine, through its own operations and works, the effects exclusive to itself. By doing so it would, to be sure, narrow its area of competence, but at the same time it would make its possession of that area all the more certain.”

Greenberg on Jackson Pollock

To give you an idea of how the man operated in interviews, here’s an Open University interview with Greenberg by T.J Clark in 1983. Most scholars in the arts detest Greenberg (and I cannot emphasise the word, ‘detest’ enough), on account of being overly fussy and elitist. But does this come through on the interview, not in my eyes.

Embedding is disabled, so here’s the links.

Part 1: HERE

Part 2: HERE

Part 3: HERE



Harman on Greenberg

As is known, Graham has been blogging a good number of posts on Clement Greenberg. He mentions me on a couple of times, as in previous email correspondence, I have mentioned that – in my opinion – he is the most powerful, if not the greatest writer of the 20th Century.

And yes I do still think that. The problem of course, is that whilst he is undoubtedly influential today and will continue to remain influential for a good while yet, his work is almost-always subject to the opposing side of influential hostility. Most critics of a young age, continue to single out Greenberg/Fried/Krauss as relics of a by-gone era of oppressive authority, elitist high standards, smugness and a ‘stuffy’ purity of form. Most do not remember Greenberg’s actual project, but the stuffy-ness of being enlightened through modernist critique.

If you believe his conclusions and not his words, then no wonder. It would hard to agree with a critic that dismissed the public’s initial revulsion towards Abstract Expressionism as ‘a symptom of cultural and even modern decay‘. But again, that’s his conclusions, not his project. The important element that needs to be retained in the formalist project, is the basis for understanding how an art object works, and how it – in turn – determines subjective experience, leading to the transcending of the viewer. It is a legitimate study into the truth of artworks.

The problem with art critics, (as much as any critic in fact) is that they are trying to put into words, that which cannot be put into words. This is why Greenberg is so powerful, he had to condense the complex, confrontation of artworks in nothing more than dozen paragraphs.

How can anyone convey the truth of artworks through writing? You make the writing better and more alluring – the better the writing, the better the style – and Greenberg was all about style, both in criticism and in taste.