Modernism = "Cinema"

story © Michael Betancourt, February 12, 2018 all rights reserved.


“Cinema” has always been linked to Modernist aesthetics: the definitions of commercial film, the avant-garde film, and video art as autonomous, independent and entirely separate from each other argues against their contextual influences and the hybrid crossings between them. The historical organization of “cinema” as a serious art form in the 1960s and 1970s linked the earlier selections of “great films” to an explicitly Modernist conception of motion pictures as an essentially realist, narrative form whose connections to the American art critic Clement Greenberg’s teleological “purity” was revealed by the parallel articulation of the “structural film” in the avant-garde cinema by P. Adams Sitney. This Modernist heritage shapes the debates over “postcinema,” a reflected in the “great films” re-used as foundational axioms. This conception of “cinema” makes the contemporary challenge by digital technology emergent in “postcinema” inevitable as this model requires a denial of the convergences created by computer technology.

American philosopher Stanley Cavell’s book on cinema, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film, is unusual—it makes the Modernist ideology a central part of its theorization, establishing “cinema” as necessarily a reflection of art theory. The formulation he proposes links the realist, narrative forms common to commercial cinema to Michael Fried’s conception of formalist art derived from the proposals of Clement Greenberg. This ratification of cinema in these specific terms denies hybrid forms and validity, and rejects the avant-garde’s challenges to the established conventions of “dominant media.” This approach is reductive, proceeding from a priori limits:

The requirement for a certain indiscriminateness in the accepting of movies (I don’t say you have to appreciate Singing Cowboy or Comedy Horror movies) has its analogues in the past of the established arts: anyone who is too selective about the classical composers whose music he likes doesn’t really like music; whereas a distaste for various moments or figures in literature may be productive. But this requirement not merely is unlike the case of the other arts now [in 1971], it is the negation of their very condition: for it can be said that anyone who cultivates broadly the current instances of music or painting or theater does not appreciate, and does not know, the serious instances of those arts as they occur. This condition of modernist art has been described by Michael Fried as one in which an art leaves no room, or holds no promise, for the minor artist: it is a situation in which the work of the major artist condemns the work of others to artistic nonexistence, and in which his own work is condemned to seriousness, to further radical success or complete failure. [...] Art now exists in the condition of philosophy.

Cavell, S. The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film (Enlarged Edition) (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979) pp. 13-14.

A narrowed scope of consideration is the precondition for “important art.” Cavell’s book The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film (published 1971) makes connections Modernist theory proposed by Clement Greenberg (via Michael Fried) an explicit part of his discussion, connecting Greenberg’s formalist “purity” to the development of “cinema,” a limitation that justifies his logic of selection: only those works typically shown in the black box theater are considered, but this limit does not include or overlap with the “avant-garde film,” or with the media of the “art world” shown in galleries or museums. Greenberg’s framework creates the illusion that their selections are the only possible ones, the only “serious” ones, since the works excluded are determined a priori to be irrelevant to analysis; a teleology where “historical progression” is necessarily one of medium-specific reduction and exclusion. This elimination of externalities leaves no allowance for hybridity or changes in media. The contemporary crisis identified as “postcinema” has been inevitable since the 1990s, as technological change and the convergence of digital media makes the "purity" so essential to Modernism a pale fantasy. What is strange about postcinema is not that it has emerged, but that it has taken so long to emerge....

Copyright © Michael Betancourt  February 12, 2018  all rights reserved.

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