Organicism against itself: Cubism, duchamp-villon and the contradictions of modernism
In the opening pages of her book The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (1985) Rosalind Krauss singled out the organicist metaphor as a key — and reprehensible — modernist myth.1 Krauss identified concepts of organic form as part and parcel of modernist discourse, and declared their usage by contemporary art historians to be antithetical to the rewriting of art history from a structuralist or poststructuralist perspective. Citing as quintessentially modernist Clement Greenberg's identification of ‘flatness as a pictorial essence or norm,’ she claimed that Greenberg labelled paintings ‘universal, transhistorical forms,’ dependent ‘upon constant renewal, not unlike the living organism.’2 According to Krauss, art historians immersed in modernist assumptions draw an analogy between the work and its maker, and organicist metaphors link art forms to characteristics of the human organism. Greenberg and others of his persuasion attributed to the art object ‘conditions of surface and depth, inside and outside’ as well as ‘those formal features that preserve and protect the life of the organism, such unity, coherence, complexity within identity and so on.’ The ‘call for [pictorial] wilty’ announced by modernist critics assumed ‘that it is possible to draw boundaries around the aesthetic organism’; further it was assumed that such unity should be evident throughout an artist's oeuvre.3 In Greenberg's organicist teleology, ‘modern art develops out of the past without gap or break,’ with the result that it is only intelligible ‘in terms of the continuity of art.’4 In her structuralist critique of Greenberg's historicism, Krauss dismissed any notion that a work of art possessed an integral essence, relatable solely to inspiration or conceived of as the product of ‘stylistic’ evolution. Rejecting the organic metaphor, Krauss defined art as a structural form, a system of differences devoid of a positive essence or ‘origin.’ Citing the example of Picasso's collages, Krauss replaced organicist metaphors with those derived from Ferdinand de Saussure's structuralist linguistics, arguing that the ‘continual transposition between negative and positive form’ in Cubist collage instituted a ‘systematic play of difference’ wherein ‘no positive sign could exist without the eclipse or negation of its material referent.’5 On this basis Krauss concluded that the rhetoric of organicism, and its art historical correlate in the realm of biographical explanation, could not account for the structuralist dimension of Picasso's collage aesthetic. © 1996 Taylor and Francis Group, LLC. All rights reserved.
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