Importance of Flatness in Paintings

In his essay ‘Modernist Painting’, written in 1960, Clement Greenberg presents another way of understanding visual culture in formal terms. For Greenberg, modernity begins with the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, In the 18th century. Kant is the first modernist philosopher because he uses reason to establish the limits of reason. He uses the concepts and procedures of the mind to establish what the mind may legitimately be said to know. Greenberg thinks that this way of using the distinctive methods of a discipline to establish the limits of that discipline is what characterizes modernity. Following Kant’s work, all the arts had to undergo this ‘immanent’ criticism according to Greenberg. They had to establish what their distinctive methods and procedures were, what was peculiar and special only to them, in order to be in the more secure possession of those methods and procedures. Each art had to eliminate every effect that was shared with or borrowed from any other art so that each art form could establish it’s purity. This notion of purity could then be used to set standards of quality and guarantee each art’s independence from other arts. What painting ‘shared with no other art’ was what Greenberg called ‘Flatness’. Flatness is to do with the two-dimensionality of the picture’s support. For eg.- Painting shared color with theater and it shared sculptural form with sculpture but there was no other art form that shared ‘Flatness’ with painting.

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