Reading Response: Schwabsky on Mannerism

Pontormo's The Deposition from the Cross (1528)
Pontormo’s The Deposition from the Cross (1528)

Mannerism has long been an art-historical football. And here’s a recent effort to kick it in a new direction. The Nation‘s Barry Schwabsky argues (contra Clement Greenberg) that Mannerism passes the avant-garde “test” because a) Mannerist painters aimed to “expose the inadequacy of established taste” and in doing so they b) developed a kitschy approach (i.e., the paintings show the desire to “clutch at the viewer’s heartstrings, the sense of what Keats called a ‘palpable design’ on the beholder,” to “overload his subjects’ eyes with expressiveness”), and in this way these painters challenged the then-dominant religious function of painting. (Footnote: this comes in the context of an essay-review of a show currently on at the Palazzo Strozzi in Firenze–a show that also features Bill Viola’s video installation, The Greeting (1995)). 

I personally believe that the case for an avant-garde needs to be more robust than one of stylistic and social “bad behavior.” An avant-garde will challenge established artistic and even political institutions and create their own, as well as a new taste culture and even a new “champ lexical,” all of which result in a parallel, (semi-) independent “market.” Did Mannerists do this? Schwabsky never asks the question.