The key to understanding Greenberg’s argument about cubism and collage is to center on one or two fundamental concepts – medium specificity and dialectical development.
By medium specificity we mean that each artistic medium, the physical material out of which art objects are produced, is by its very nature, capable of achieving effects which are possible for it alone. Just as science will argue that their are strict limits imposed by nature on what water or helium can and cannot do – each is only so elastic, or not elastic at all – so there are natural limits to what a given artistic medium can and cannot do. And the attempt to transgress these limits invariably produces confused and clunky objects whose principle aim is not to accept, explore and enjoy the specificity of the physical – according to the genuine potential it really contains – but rather to reject this world and instead attempt to escapes into a realm of fabricated fantasies – something which Marxists like Greenberg would call ideology. The proper direction of art in history, according to Greenberg, is not to follow any pre-established course (because this would smack to much of idealism’s theory of a transcendent Spirit guiding world history), but instead to investigate thoughtfully the capacities a various material mediums, and progressively to cleanse each of them of effects borrowed from other forms of art.
As for dialectical development, this is the idea that progress is inescapably linked to the conflict of opposing forces, and that in the struggle to defeat one another, each force will necessarily undergo a fundamental transformation and, in a moment of complete reversal, become the very opponent it at first wished to defeat.
If we can understand these two principles, it will become possible to understand what is at stake in Greenberg’s presentation of the development of cubist collage. Braque and Picasso, the initiators of Cubism, understood that painting, because of the very nature of the medium, was essentially the production of marks on a flat surface. Further, they understood that the production of marks on a flat surface necessary produced an effect of depth, that there was some kind of illusionist space which opened up behind the surface of the canvas. Painters, over the course of the centuries prior to Braque and Picasso, had become increasingly aware of the conflict between real superficiality and apparent depth, and had attempted to find ways to master that conflict, to create images in which the illusion of depth did not entirely overwhelm the reality of the painting’s surface. What we find in the work of the two Spanish painters in question is an especially acute awareness of the entirely arbitrary relation which, up to their own day, continued to exist between the surface up a painting and the illusion of depth which the marks on the painting created. This arbitrary relationship, according to these painters who worked in a way we might legitimately call quasi-scientific, needed to be converted into a necessary relationship.
The task that Braque and Picasso set for themselves, then, was to gain complete control of the disparity between surface and depth in painting. If a majority of the pieces known as cubist look randomly and hastily made, this is not because the artists were simply led by whimsy and made no attempt to produce serious art. On the contrary, they were taking their art extremely seriously. They were so serious in fact that they would not settle for any results which had been achieved previously in the work of other painters. Each new cubist painting and collages must be seen, then, as a experiment designed to discover something new about the very nature of painting and to direct that discovery toward the final production of a mode of painting wherein the illusion of depth and the fact of surface would be perfectly integrated, each presupposing and supporting the other. All the various innovations Greenberg describes in his essay, “The Pasted-Paper Revolution,” represent various attempt to establish this perfect fusion of surface and depth, and each new addition – adding text, wallpaper, sand, etc. to the canvas – show the resistances Braque and Picasso encountered in working toward a perfect synthesis of surface and depth, insofar as each solution opened up new problems.
For all that the details may be complex, the fundamental achievement of Braque and Picasso should nevertheless be clear enough. Greenberg describes Picasso and Braque as discovering a way “dialectically” to “turn painting inside out.” If the flatness of painting was the result of its two-dimensional surface, and if depth was the illusion that forms existed on the other side of the flat surface of the painting, then the crucial breakthrough in the history of Cubism was, for Greenberg, the moment when Picasso radically, in a moment of stunning reversal, pulled the three-dimensional illusionist space out from behind the surface of the canvas and set it directly in front of the viewer, while simultaneously thrusting the two-dimensional flatness of the painting’s surface into the background where the illusion of depth formerly had been.
The result is a kind of bas-relief effect, though one which is still painterly as opposed to sculptural, insofar as the figure made present to the viewer is not carved but rather positively built up, “constructed”, out of avowedly flat surfaces.
The piece which Greenberg identifies as marking this revolutionary transition from recessive to “processive” art is Picasso’s Guitar, of 1912. This piece not only marked a crucial insight for Picasso, but it also had a tremendous impact on artists from other countries, in particular Russia. Artists such as Vladimir Tatlin came to Paris specifically to meet Picasso and study his radical experiments in the production of a new form of art which reflected a fundamentally new way of considering the existence of objects in space. Obects where no longer material things which happened to occupy a pre-existing space which everyone could take for granted as being the same at all times and in all locations. Rather, space was not a natural reality so much as an effect which was constructed through very specific technical. It suddenly became possible for artists to believe, along with scientists living at this same time, that the world, or reality, was not simply something we had to accept as given and unalterable. Rather, the world, or reality, was something we now had the power actively and consciously to create for ourselves, according to our own needs. The attempt to apply the principles discovered by Braque and Picasso toward the solution of problems in everyday social life, toward the radical remaking of daily life, led to a powerfully influential, if short-lived, movement in the Soviet Union known as Constructivism.
And it is precisely of Constructivism that Greenberg is thinking when, in his “The Plight of Culture” (1953), he calls for the revitalization of a sick society not through a conservative return to the Middle Ages (which T. S. Eliot suggested) but rather through a complete transformation of society into an unprecedented form through continued industrialization. Is is tempting here to think of all the problems which industry has created since Greenberg made his statement. Consider though that the devastation and pollution wrought be industry is industry of the old, capitalist order, a system run entirely in laissez-faire terms. Greenberg’s intention is not that capitalism – or the mirror image of it which emerged in the Stalinist Soviet Union – be given free reign to develop as massively as possible. Rather, Greenberg is envisioning a form of industry in which an integrated process of design and planning guide growth at every level. Here, Greenberg would have been thinking not of the Soviet Union so much as other European countries whose understanding of art had also been fundamentally altered by the pasted-paper revolution. In particular, Greenberg would have been thinking of the design school created in Dessau, Germany, know as the Bauhaus, as well as the school of visual art and practical design, centered in Holland around Theo van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian, known as De Stijl. Anyone wanting to take up a career in architecture, design or planning ought to become thoroughly acquainted with these are related movements in modern art history.