Struggle Over the Modern: Purity and Experience in American Art Criticism 1900-1960
Dennis Raverty

About the Author :
Dennis Raverty is an Assistant Professor at New Jersey City University, where he teaches modern and contemporary art history, theory, and criticism. He has published articles in Art Journal, Art Criticism, The International Review of African American Art, The New Art Examiner, Art Papers, Prospects: An Annual of American Studies, and Source: Notes in the History of Art. His criticism has appeared in Art in America, The New Art Examiner, and Art Papers, where he is a contributing editor. An award-winning teacher, he lives in New York City.




In Struggle Over the Modern, Dennis Raverty argues that there was not one, but two, competing “modernisms” vying for dominance of the critical field in American art during the first half of the twentieth century.

The most familiar strain of the debate to us today is formalism, which emphasized “purity” in art and culminated in the writing of the influential late modern critic, Clement Greenberg. The other critical position, he contends, is not as familiar to us today, partly because it was so overshadowed by formalist thought in the postwar period. This position emphasized the importance of “experience” over formal purity and is evident in the writing of Greenberg’s rival, Harold Rosenberg, as well as in a number of American writers and critics from the first half of the century. Struggle Over the Modern reconstitutes this neglected yet important dimension of the avant-garde debate in American art criticism decade by decade.

Far more than an obscure aesthetic dispute, this was a battle over the very terms and limits appropriate to art, a competition – stretching all the way back to the turn of the twentieth century – to define art either narrowly as an exclusive self-referential endeavor, or broadly delineating the boundaries between art and experience in a more inclusive manner.

Examined historiographically, critical writings can yield important information because, beyond their immediate functions of explanation and evaluation of contemporaneous art, these writings imply an unspoken strategy for capturing and dominating the field of critical discourse, thereby influencing the way people think and talk about art. The history of critical thought in twentieth-century American art is also the history of this struggle for critical dominance, a struggle within the avant-garde, over which ideas would define the era for future generations. In a sense, it was a battle for the very soul of modern art.

Dominance of the critical arena was so important during the era of the emergence of modernism in the United States because the parameters of the critical discourse, once established, would also mark the limits of the art market and thereby influence profoundly the direction of subsequent art and even the very definition of the modern era for posterity. Dr. Raverty examines both the formalist and the experiential strategies as strategies, tracing their development over time and thereby restoring to the era significant dimensions of its polemics on their own terms.

This, then, is a historiographic investigation into the struggle for critical dominance in defining the meaning of the “modern” in twentieth-century American art during the period of its emergence.

ISBN 0-8386-4021-4




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