The insistence on medium-specificity in the visual arts arose in the era of modernism has become associated with the art critic Clement Greenberg’s commitment to medium-specificity as a condition of artistic value. This was spelt out in the aesthetics essay in the Adelaide Art Photographers c1970-2000 book published by Moon Arrow Press (Adelaide, 2019). With postmodernism (1980-1990s) and the anti-aesthetic environment the idea of a specific medium became akin to toxic waste, and it was seen as just too ideologically loaded.
Yet photographers continue to make photos in the 21st century, and see themselves as working in a specific photographic medium. Is it then possible to still speak of photography as a medium after the demise of modernism? If so, how can we understand contemporary photography as a medium?
The concept of the artistic medium can be traced back to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s 1766 essay, Laocoon. Lessing dismantles Horace’s famous claim “ut pictura poesis” (as is painting, so is poetry), arguing that these media are inherently different, because while poetry unfolds in time, painting exists in space. He refers to the media as two equitable and friendly neighbours who should not overstep their respective domains. Lessing contended that an artwork, in order to be successful, needs to adhere to the specific stylistic properties of its own medium.
Clement Greenberg’s influential co-opting of Kant’s aesthetics to buttress modernism in the face of influence of Duchamp and the emergence of Pop, Minimalism and Conceptual Art picks Lessing’s idea of medium up and linked it to taste, aesthetic judgement and value. Modernism, for Greenberg, is a heightened tendency towards aesthetic value. He states that medium-specificity is a characteristic which distinguished Modern Art from the previous art forms. Modernism consists in the emancipation of art from its classical role of pure representation.
Greenberg then defends and celebrates abstract painting as achieving the perfect expression of medium-specificity and purity — purity being the ideal state of medium-specificity, the work as uncontaminated by the influence of other media. By escaping from the chains of recognizable subject matter, the abstract painter became free to focus on the materiality of the medium. Thus, painting became an autonomous force that communicated nothing outside of its own self-contained properties. Greenberg’s general idea is that it is by virtue of its medium that each art is unique and strictly itself, and that an artwork is defined by the qualities of the materials used.