Modernist 'Purity' & Avant-Garde Film

story © Michael Betancourt, September 18, 2011 all rights reserved.


Clement Greenberg’s essay, Modernist Painting, appearing as a Voice of America pamphlet in 1960, then reprinted in 1966, implicitly conditions how artists understood the idea of ‘formal’ during the beginning of the institutional period for the avant-garde film. His basis in philosopher Immanuel Kant’s self-critical approach tempers the construction of Modernism:

The essence of Modernism lies, as I see it, in the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence. Kant used logic to establish the limits of logic, and while he withdrew much from its old jurisdiction, logic was left all the more secure in what there remained to it.
[Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting” in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Volume 4 ed. John O’Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993) p. 85.]

In this “self-critical” procedure Greenberg proclaims Modernism to be a historical development of painting as a continual purification of the art, stripping away all excess conceptual baggage. In motion pictures (film), this purity appeared as the conception of that medium as a fundamentally photographic art—emphasizing the procedures of photographic reproduction of the visible world. (It is a formalist translation of the realist strands of film aesthetics—Bazin, Kracauer, Cavell—to the avant-garde film, at the expense of all other conceptions.) Film historian P. Adams Sitney’s description of structural film based on four formal characteristics had an important role in the emergent canon of “experimental film”; his designation of “structural film” was based in a physical engagement with the material basis of film as a photographic process in a transposition of Greenberg’s Modernist aesthetic to film:

fixed camera position (fixed frame from the viewer’s perspective), the flicker effect, loop printing, and rephotography off the screen. Very seldom will one find all four characteristics in a single film, and there are structural films which modify these usual elements. [emphasis added]
[P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde 1943 – 1978 (Second Edition), (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979) p. 370.]

This is a description that makes the differences between film and video essential to the definition of ‘structural film.’ It is an organization where the actual, visible content of the images is less significant than the ways that content has been transformed on film through production, post-production and exhibition. While this designation, and its historical pedigree, were a contested subject of during the 1970s, it enabled a breach between commercial production, television and video that distinguished art films from other media productions. This formal range emphasized the materiality of the photographic basis of film, and emphasized the specific technology of film as distinct from the electronic medium of video, thereby distinguishing the work of Michael Snow, Hollis Frampton, Paul Sharits, Tony Conrad, Ernie Gehr and other American structural filmmakers from video art that was being produced in the same period. This is Greenberg’s self-critical model, one where the essential features of film selected as the “pure” elements—the four features of Sitney’s designation—focused on the same element: the intermittent projection of frames, and their photographic reproduction, i.e. the photo-chemical dimension of film rendered via optics. Within this construct, there is only limited potential for abstract, hand-painted and electronic hybrids of film and other media.

The periodic 'return' of discussion of medium-specific effects are "echoes" of this Greenbergian concern with the formal purity of a medium. What is neglected in these discussions, however, is a consideration of the assumptions which guide this flight to purity, almost always proceeding from a foundational desire to define the new work as somehow breaking with past experience and previous work; this vestigial avant-guardism is precisely that: an ideological position being assumed without consideration of what adopting such a position entails. It is less a rupture with the past than a reiteration of it, using new technologies. The movement into and then through such reductive engagements, while useful as a studio exercise, should not be confused with a radical departure—this process is a well-traveled route in media art.

See also:

The 3 Periods of Abstract Film & Video in the US

Abstract Film & Video: The Contemporary Period

Copyright © Michael Betancourt  September 18, 2011  all rights reserved.

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