"Where the Old Masters created an illusion of space into which one could imagine walking, the illusion created by a Modernist is one into which one can look, can travel through, only with the eye."
Clement Greenberg was probably the single most influential art critic in the twentieth century. Although he is most closely associated with his support for Abstract Expressionism, and in particular Jackson Pollock, his views closely shaped the work of many other artists, including Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, and Kenneth Noland. His attention to the formal properties of art - color, line, space and so forth - his rigorous approach to criticism, and his understanding of the development of modern art - although they have all been challenged - have influenced generations of critics and historians.
Clement Greenberg introduced a wealth of ideas into discussion of twentieth century art, elaborating and refining notions such as "kitsch," the "easel picture," and pictorial "flatness," and inventing concepts such as that of the "allover" paint surface and "optical space."
Strongly associated with his support for Abstract Expressionism, Greenberg fervently believed in the necessity of abstract art as a means to resist the intrusion of politics and commerce into art.
Although he championed what is often regarded as avant-garde art, Greenberg saw modern art as an unfolding tradition, and by the end of his career he found himself attacking what many others saw as avant-garde art - Pop and Neo-Dada - against the values he held dear in earlier modern art.
Most Important Art
Clement Greenberg Artworks in Focus:
Composition in Brown and Gray (1913)
Artist: Piet Mondrian
This early painting by Piet Mondrian is a wonderful precursor to abstraction. It's also a strong example of what Greenberg considers the avant-garde, or the opposite of kitsch. Here, Mondrian is playing with space, color and shapes in a new way, and therefore avoids painting something that is predictable. According to Greenberg, something like Composition in Brown and Gray is daring and esoteric (avant-garde), not mechanical or formulaic (kitsch).Read More ...
Clement Greenberg Overview Continues Below
Greenberg was born in the Bronx, the eldest of four children. His parents were first-generation Jewish Lithuanian immigrants who lived briefly in Norfolk, Virginia, but kept New York City their permanent home.
Greenberg's father was reportedly a difficult man to live with; emotionally distant and inflexible, he worked various jobs as a button-hole maker, candy store proprietor, and finally as the owner of a chain of clothing stores. Both before and after Clement's college years, his father repeatedly pressured him to enter the world of business, which for a time proved successful, but not for long.
Greenberg graduated from Syracuse University in 1930 with a degree in English Literature. After graduation, he wandered aimlessly through a series of jobs with newspapers and credit agencies. While on a business trip to California in 1934, he met and quickly married a local librarian. They moved in with her mother in Carmel, and two years later they had a son, Danny, but a few years later Greenberg was divorced and moved back to New York City, where he lived for the rest of his life.
Back in New York, Greenberg began making connections with various critics and writers, most of whom were Jewish Trotskyites who became known as the New York Intellectuals (Harold Rosenberg was also part of this group). He first established his reputation writing for Partisan Review, which at the time was the seminal publication for culture and the arts in the city, with offices near Astor Place in Greenwich Village. In particular he published "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," an essay which undertook an ambitious analysis of the relationship of modern high art to popular culture. But other essays during this time also put forth his views on modern European painting by the likes of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne, Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso.
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Post-World War II Years
After the war, Greenberg moved to Greenwich Village. By this time he was an associate editor at Commentary Magazine. He was also the art critic for the leftist magazine The Nation; during this time New York was beginning the phase that would see it outstrip Paris as a center for modern art. World War II and the atrocities of Nazi Germany had forced many artists, writers, and intellectuals to immigrate to New York, and many gravitated to Greenwich Village. Greenberg deeply loved the new modern art that was coming out of New York at this time. Artists like Arshile Gorky, David Smith, Willem de Kooning, and Jackson Pollock were all, in Greenberg's view, creating art that was far superior to that being created in Europe.
Greenberg's political views shifted greatly after the war. While he had been a strong supporter of Socialist ideas and anti-war sentiment prior to America's entry into the war, he soon became a staunch anti-Communist, and parted ways with The Nation in 1951. In 1950, Greenberg became a part of the CIA-sponsored American Committee for Cultural Freedom, of which Pollock was also a member. During the Cold War, this committee was designed to sponsor public intellectuals and create a forum for them, a forum which would be implicitly critical of Soviet Communism.
Beginning in the early 1950s, Greenberg started a love affair with the artist Helen Frankenthaler, which ended in 1955. He had a reputation for womanizing and is said to have seduced several female students while teaching at Bennington College. In 1957 he was relieved of his duties as an associate editor at Commentary - supposedly due to his erratic temper. At this time he decided to return to writing art criticism, and he began revising many of his essays in order to publish an anthology of his work that later appeared in the book Art and Culture (1961).
His work in the 1950s took on broader topics like French art and collage, and in his essay "'American-Type' Painting" he also put forth one of the most influential readings of Abstract Expressionism. Throughout most of the 1950s he was also something of a personal coach to the artist Morris Louis, and is thought to have had a great influence on him. After Louis' death from lung cancer in 1962, Greenberg altered much of the artist's work, editing lines, stripes and even the size of some canvases. (This level of intrusion would not be the last, as Greenberg also removed the paint from a number of David Smith sculptures after the artist's death in 1965 and had them refinished in a uniform brown. Greenberg justified the alterations by insisting that Smith was not an important colorist, thus his changes were not hurting Smith's works.)
Greenberg's work as a critic slowed after 1960. Instead he focused his time on revising old essays to accommodate changes in the art world, as well as his own feelings about art. He also secured many speaking and lecturing engagements, and became an adviser to several galleries and museums.
In 1964, he curated a show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art titled Post-painterly Abstraction, a term he coined to showcase works by Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, and other prominent American artists whose work fell outside the realm of 1960s-era Pop art, of which Greenberg was critical.
On the Avant-garde
Among Greenberg's most important early essays was "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," which appeared in Partisan Review in 1939. It formed the foundation for much of his later thought.
In it he put forth a complex argument about the genesis of the avant-garde and its continued purpose. High art had once been the authentic purveyor of the values of the bourgeoisie, Greenberg argued, but as the position of that class had been weakened in the late nineteenth century and as their culture had become increasingly materialistic, artists had begun to break away and form an avant-garde. This avant-garde was still supported by the more progressive members of the bourgeoisie, and it acted, in essence, as the guardian and defender of their ideals. This, Greenberg believed, was the basis of the continued value of the avant-garde, and more particularly of abstract art; as mainstream culture became increasingly commercial, and as the cultures of regimes such as those of the Nazis and the Communists became increasingly repressive, the only hope for the continued survival of high culture itself was the avant-garde.
On the Origins of Modern Art
Greenberg first laid down his interpretation of the development of modern art in "Towards a Newer Laocoon," an essay published in Partisan Review in 1940. The ideas presented here remained foundational for his later writing, although "Modernist Painting," his later essay first broadcast on the radio in 1961, made some amendments to those opinions.
"Towards a Newer Laocoon" took its inspiration and its title from Gotthold Lessing's famous essay of 1766, "Laocoon: An Essay Upon the Limits of Painting and Poetry." Lessing's essay advanced an argument about the differences between artistic mediums and the rationale for those differences, and Greenberg extended that to examine the development of the arts since Lessing's time. Greenberg's "Laocoon" echoes the ideas of his previous essay "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," but it takes a longer historical perspective and seeks to find the moment when the various artistic media began to separate from each other - the origin, for Greenberg, of modern, abstract art.
Greenberg outlined the basis of his belief in the value and necessity of abstract art in early essays such as "Avant-Garde and Kitsch" (1939) and "Towards a Newer Laocoon" (1940). It was later, however, in essays such as "Abstract Art" (1944) that he began to elaborate his understanding by discussing artists' changing treatment of form and space since the Gothic period. Later parts of "Abstract Art" concentrate on modern art since the Impressionists, and argue that the drive towards abstraction must be understood as simply a facet of the era's reigning scientific spirit: "..in a period in which illusions of every kind are being destroyed, the illusionist methods of art must also be renounced." Greenberg returned to these ideas in the essay "Abstract and Representational" (1954).
Critic Comparison: Greenberg vs. Rosenberg - Abstraction vs. Action
An evolution can be discerned in Greenberg's attitude towards Cubism. In "The Decline of Cubism," published in 1948, he calls it "still the only vital style of our time, the one best able to convey contemporary feeling, and the only one capable of supporting a tradition which will survive into the future and form new artists." It was, he believed, the great artistic expression of the modern age of experiment, but it had declined in the hands of French artists since the 1920s. In part, this attitude reflected Greenberg's growing chauvinism in the late 1940s; he remarks that "the conclusion forces itself.. that the main premises of Western art have at last migrated to the United States." Though it may also reflect an uncertainty which is cleared up in his later essay "'American-Type' Painting," in which, while arguing for the superiority of Color Field abstraction over action painting, he asserts that "we can realize now.. how conservative Cubism was" in its return to Paul Cézanne, and to modeling space using shades of light and dark.
'The Easel Picture' and the 'all-over' picture
Greenberg's essay "The Crisis of the Easel Picture" (1948) is notable for his introduction of the term "all-over," to describe a manner of handling pictorial space and surface in paintings, an approach he sees as an emerging tendency in American abstract art. The term soon became widely popular as a means to discuss the appearance and rationale behind work by artists such as Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman.
Greenberg begins the essay by praising the "easel or cabinet picture - the movable picture hung on a wall - [as] a unique product of Western culture." Its distinguishing feature is that it "cuts the illusion of a boxlike cavity into the wall behind it," and organizes within this an illusion of the world. However, this tradition has been threatened, Greenberg argues, by the advent of modern painting, and "the evolution of modern painting from Manet has subjected [it] to an uninterrupted process of attrition," as artists have striven to flatten out the picture space and emphasize the flatness of its material support. This has led, Greenberg argues, to the emergence of a new mode of painting: the "'decentralized,' 'polyphonic,' all-over picture which, with a surface knit together of a multiplicity of identical or similar elements, repeats itself without strong variation from one end of the canvas to the other..." The picture was dissolving into "sheer texture, sheer sensation." Greenberg argued that this answered to "something deep-seated in contemporary sensibility. It corresponds perhaps to the feeling that all hierarchical distinctions have been exhausted, that no area or order of experience is either intrinsically or relatively superior to any other."
On Abstract Expressionism
Greenberg's fullest response to the phenomenon of Abstract Expressionism can be found in one of his most important essays, "'American-Type' Painting" (1955).
In some respects "'American-Type' Painting" was prompted by Greenberg's desire to counter the increasing popularity of the ideas that Harold Rosenberg had launched with "The American Action Painters" (1952). The essay represents one of Greenberg's central statements about the development of modern art. It tackles the development of Abstract Expressionism; it argues for the radicalism of Color Field Painting - relating it to Impressionism rather than Cubism; and argues that modern art evolved while pursuing ever-greater pictorial flatness. Google Books: Text of "'American-Type' Painting"
Greenberg cannot be summed up in a single phrase because he never did likewise with his subjects. The only things worth writing about, he believed, were the things that couldn't be easily solved, or solved at all. Puzzles are what fascinated him, and he believed that all great art can be experiential - it's an experience not only of what consumes the canvas, but what consumes the artist, and no truly great artist lives in a vacuum. Great art, and the artists who create it, are living and breathing vessels of the art that came before them. To experience great art is to experience the greatness of civilization.
Greenberg's analytical approach to art lent art criticism a degree of rigor that it had not previously enjoyed. While many of his ideas have been abandoned in contemporary criticism (no longer does popular art criticism make such a harsh distinctions between high art and kitsch), his objectivity and literary breadth have unquestionably influenced criticism.
Exhibit A: Clement Greenberg - Changing the Way We See - part 5
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The fifth in our series on art books and essays which have changed the way we see and understand the visual arts, today focusing particularly on Clement Greenberg's influential essays 'Avant-Garde and the Kitsch' (1939) and 'The Plight of Culture' (1953), both of which were republished in the 1961 Art and Culture: Critical Essays.
Arguably the most influential American art critic of the second half of the 20th century, as a champion of the post-war American abstract modernist art which flourished in the 1950s (and most particularly for his promotion of Jackson Pollock), Clement Greenberg was also the most vilified. 'Clembashing', as it came to be known, dates from his refusual to back the new pop art, conceptual art and minimalism of the 60s -- and later, postmodernism.
Born in 1909 in the Bronx, with a Lithuanian Jewish background, politically, the young Greenberg belonged to the leftward side of humanity and in particular to American 'cultural Trotskyism'. Belonging to the generation that produced Abstract Expressionism (he was arguably the first champion of Jackson Pollock), Greenberg saw in that artist�s personal tragedy a metaphor for the disasters of American life and art, in which people were alienated from real culture, were being forced to live off kitsch culture ('one of faked sensations' ... 'because it was turned out mechanically') and he was resigned to the fact that at the other extreme, the so called avant-garde had taken off in another direction which was producing art for art's sake for themselves and the cultural elite.
Paradoxically, he came more and more to think that for art to survive it needed to move more and more into clear, open, abstract painting - or formalism � independent of any subject matter.
By the mid-seventies, opposition to Greenberg had grown to the point of demonisation. He was accused of manipulating reputations, and of telling artists what to paint. He died, aged 85, in 1994. Never utopian in his ideas about the value of art, he once said in a radio broadcast, 'I say if you have to choose between life and happiness or art, remember always to choose life and happiness. Art solves nothing, either for the artist himself or for those who receive his art. Art shouldn�t be overrated.'
Details or Transcript:
Julie Copeland: Welcome to Exhibit A on Radio National's Sunday Morning. I'm Julie Copeland with the fifth in our series on art books and writing which have changed the way we see and understand the visual arts. Last week it was John Berger's 1970s book and TV programs, Ways of Seeing, which inspired this series. Our John Coltrane jazz theme is most appropriate for today's Exhibit A, the New York art critic Clement Greenberg. And we're focusing particularly on Greenberg's essays, 'Avant Garde and the Kitsch' and from 1953, 'The Plight of Culture', both republished in the 1961 Art and Culture: Critical Essays.
Arguably the most influential American art critic of the second half of the 20th century, through his writings Greenberg championed the post-war American abstract modernist art which flourished in the 1950s. And most particularly, Jackson Pollock.
Clement Greenberg was also the most vilified. 'Clem-bashing', as it came to be known dates from his refusal to back the new, more playful pop art of the 60s�and later postmodernism. So he was seen as elitist. And, as I experienced when I interviewed the New York guru during his brief visit to Australia in the late 1970s, he had a very dogmatic and often abrasive manner. From ABC archives, here's a sample of the Clement Greenberg style when asked, as he often was, to define modernism.
[archived recording of Clement Greenberg: Modernist is not something to be defined that readily. It's not that handy a classification. But when you say postmodernist, I rear up. I think the term itself is illusory. We're still modern. It's like postindustrial. We look out the window here and say, wow, look at that� And is the age of industrialism over? Just look out the window.Clem Greenberg. And if you've seen the biopic about Jackson Pollock, you'll realise that the art critic was very much part of that New York generation that produced abstract expressionism. And he saw Pollock's personal tragedy; his drinking, violence, his early death in a car crash, as a metaphor for the disasters of American life where people, alienated from real culture, were being forced to life off kitsch culture�off faked sensations which were turned out mechanically.
And in reaction to this pop kitsch, Greenberg argued that the so-called avant garde were producing art for art's sake which talked only to themselves and to the cultural elite. And so begin his arguments in the essay 'The Avant Garde and the Kitsch.'
[Reading from 'The Avant Garde and the Kitsch, by Clement Greenberg] Losing their taste for the folk culture whose background was the countryside and discovering a new capacity for boredom at the same time, the new urban masses set up a pressure on society to provide them with the culture fit for their own consumption. To fill the demand of the new market, a new commodity was devised�ersatz culture; kitsch�destined for those who, insensible to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the sort of diversion that only culture of some sort can provide.Richard Buckham, reading from Clem Greenberg's polemic in 1939, 'Avant Garde and the Kitsch'.
Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money. Not even their time. The precondition for kitsch, a condition without which kitsch would be impossible, is the availability close at hand of a fully matured cultural tradition whose discoveries, acquisitions and perfected self-consciousness kitsch can take advantage of for its own ends. It borrows from its devices, tricks, stratagems, rules of thumb, themes�converts them into a system and discards the rest.
Born in 1909 in the Bronx, with a Lithuanian-Jewish background, politically the young Greenberg was attracted to Marxism, and in particular to American 'cultural Trotskyism'. Greenberg wrote for the Partisan Review, a left magazine which apparently Trotsky believed was concerned far too much with culture and not enough with mobilising the Revolution. Another of America's distinguished art critics, Donald Kuspit, was a friend of Greenberg's, and was his biographer. Donald's talking to me from our New York studio.
Donald Kuspit: Yes, I think it's important to see the essay 'Avant Garde and the Kitsch' in the context of its time, 1939. In the thirties the dominant mode of American art was so-called social realism or American scene painting, regionalism� It was from Greenberg's point of view a provincial, narrow art. It was also an art which was meant to have popular appeal. And he saw what was happening in Europe. He thought this was 'more advanced' art�that is, the development of abstraction in all its permutations. And he became an advocate for that abstraction. And 'avant garde' means abstract art, for him. He sets up this sharp dichotomy between avant garde and kitsch where kitsch is essentially mass-produced for a collective public with very little differentiation or individuation in it; in contrast to a profounder, more individualistic art such as avant garde art.
I think the basic distinction that he makes right at the beginning of the essay in the first paragraph is between a poem by TS Eliot and a poem by Eddie Guest�or Edward Guest (I think it's a little condescending to call him 'Eddie Guest')�who was a popular poet, interesting poet, but not somebody who so to say advanced culture, gave us something subtle to think about; instead, somebody whose work was right on the surface. Or again, he makes a comparison between a painting by Braque, presumably a Cubist painting, and a Saturday Evening Post cover.
Julie Copeland: And kitsch is also a commercial culture, of course. It's all about the market. It's getting people to buy things, as he says. He also raises the question of the individual's judgment and taste; how we assess the difference between, say, a TS Eliot poem and a pop poem or a pop song. Is that the first time that somebody talked about the subjective way that the individual makes value judgments?
Donald Kuspit: I think what you're saying is important because kitsch does not engage the aesthetic, which has a subjective dimension of taste�although interestingly enough, Greenberg always claimed that taste was objective in the sense that eventually there would be a consensus, as he explicitly said in later essays, a consensus of people who are in the know about art, who take it seriously, who would agree what art or artists are important, and who have a very subtly differentiated judgment of taste about�a disinterested judgment of taste. He believed that it was possible to have that. It wasn't just arbitrarily subjective.
[archived recording of Clement Greenberg: There is such a thing�and I've written this�as a consensus of taste that comes over time; that the people who pay the most attention to art, who try hardest and so forth, end up in the long run agreeing.Greenberg at bottom had an elitist notion that art was for the happy few, as it were, who have the perception and understanding to truly appreciate it and evaluate it. And he was trying to create a sort of realm or space for the development of this art apart from public space, as it were, and from the mass audience. He felt that the very idea of thinking of art in terms of appeal to a mass audience was beside the point of what was significant in art.
[archived recording of Clement Greenberg: The Metropolitan Museum is no longer easy to visit. It's so crowded on weekdays. It used to be so delightfully empty. Maybe that sort of thing isn't so good for art. I'm sounding like an elitist, as I am. You can't get out from under that. The fact that the best art under urban circumstances, since the founding of the first cities in Eastern Turkey, or Mesopotamia, the best art has been protected by those have the dignified leisure.Julie Copeland: But the alternative for societies in decay, as he calls them, was to just mechanically repeat the forms of the old masters, to repeat sculpture in the form of the Laocoon classical sculpture or neoclassical architecture. He supports the notion of this progressive art. It has to move forward.
Donald Kuspit: He does distinguish between 'Alexandrianism', as he calls it, in high culture, in contrast to avant garde art which moves. And Alexandrianism, as he correctly said, is a kind of decadent repetition of, shall we say, what had been previously the highest standards of art but eventually become thinned down and academicised in the most conventional way. And it's true, he makes that distinction within, say, high art, between the Alexandrian mode which is decadent and then the avant garde mode which advances art. And the key difference for him�this leads into his idea of modernist art�is that the Alexandrians have forgotten, as it were, the medium; whereas the avant gardists are engaging with their medium, refining it, in some sense articulating it as a phenomenon in itself. And so we get the idea of the tendency towards, or the push towards purity, as he has called it. I remember talking with him about that and he said, well, it was not absolute and was hard to realise, but indeed it was there, and it's what kept the avant garde advancing; this kind of self-criticism of its own relation to whatever medium it was operating in, be it painting or sculpture. It was not trying to make some general kind of art.
[Reading from 'The Avant Garde and the Kitsch, by Clement Greenberg] Retiring from public altogether, the avant garde poet or artist sought to maintain the high level of his art by both narrowing and raising it to the expression of an absolute: art for art's sake and pure poetry appeared. And subject matter, or content, becomes something to be avoided like the plague. It has been in search of the absolute that the avant garde has arrived at 'abstract', or 'non-objective' art�and poetry, too. The avant garde poet or artist tries in effect to imitate God by creating something valid solely on its own terms. Content is to be dissolved so completely into form that the work of art or literature itself cannot be reduced in whole or part into anything not itself.Donald Kuspit: Yes, you've got to realise that Greenberg was working for Partisan Review, which was a leftist magazine, at the time. In '39 the Depression was still going on in the United States. He was disillusioned with Stalin, with the communist left. He acknowledged that he'd been a Trotskyite but he was getting disillusioned with politics altogether and turning towards art almost as a kind of sanctuary, I would argue.
Julie Copeland: Pretty unusual for an American art critic at that time to have been a Trotskyite, wouldn't it be? He would have been very isolated.
Donald Kuspit: Extremely unusual. But he also did believe that capitalism was in decline. He uses that term. Of course it's been in decline for a long time and that was a conventional communist belief, which had been around at least since the 19th century. And the question is, how art could survive during this capitalist decline. It's very interesting to think that the narrowing of the focus of art to its medium can be understood as a sort of defensive position within the venture that capitalism made possible for art. He does acknowledge that avant garde art is a late capitalist phenomenon. That's one side of his argument, the social side. The other side of his argument, it's been inevitable in art all along, the tendency to purification of the medium, articulating the medium for its own pure sake, as it were, we've been there all along. So at one point in his writing he actually says that Titian was the greatest painter in 400 years of painting, by which he meant, I think, that there was no painter who was quite as sensitive to the medium�to surfaces, to pigments, as Greenberg says, to what he called the material medium�as Titian. So it's a double-sided argument, as it were. On the one side, a general, universal argument; and on the other side, very culturally and socially particular.
Julie Copeland: And elite. There is a paradox there, isn't there�very contradictory�
Donald Kuspit: Very elite, yes, there is a paradox�
Julie Copeland: �in the essay called 'Plight of Culture', which I think you were referring to there, Donald.
Donald Kuspit: Yes, you're absolutely correct. There is a contradiction there which I'm not sure that Greenberg ever resolved. He on the one side was interested in an art that resonated as, let's call it, in the society. But only kitsch did that, and so he in some sense gave up on the possibility of having a high art that would resonate in society and simply, as you say, pursuing art for the sake of art. And he also interestingly connects this up with the specialisation that develops during industrialism. So you become a sort of specialist in painting or specialist in sculpture. He talks about 'moving art away from leisure and [placing] it squarely in the middle of work.' I'm quoting in the American edition near the end of his essay 'The Plight of Culture'. But it's sort of absurd, because the work he's talking about is a work that depends indeed on the assumption that artwork is different from other kind of work. I think he later on breaks out of it perhaps too easily by dismissing the issue of the relevance of art to society and simply pursues art as a phenomenon in itself. And I think those essays, the one in '53 is later, but they both signal his abandonment of shall we say the social dimension of art except insofar as it filters through in a kind of generalised social attitude in the arts. So he speaks of Leger's work developing on what he calls a 'wave of materialistic optimism.' He speaks of the 'existential pessimism' of Pollock. But he doesn't go on and explain exactly what these mean, and I think that's a shortcoming of his position but in a sense it's not�what he's suggesting in art is that the culture exists as a kind of mood, as it were, rather than as something that's specifically engaged.
Julie Copeland: Yes, which is a strange thing for a Marxist�or even a lapsed Marxist�to say. I think that's a good place, Donald, to turn to Clement Greenberg's arguments about abstraction versus representational art, because that's really the core of his influence, isn't it, his arguments about abstract versus representational and his ideas therein. And I'll start with a quote: 'The presence or absence of a recognisable image has no more to do with value in painting or sculpture than the presence or absence of a libretto has to do with the value of music.' In other words, there's no doubt that a recognisable image is easier to 'read' in a picture but it's got nothing to do with the quality as work of art.
Donald Kuspit: What you say is correct. That's the perfect quote. He dismisses the libretto, the imagistic character of a work, as what he called literature as distinct from the visual. It's a distinction that goes back to Lacune. the point he's making, in a certain sense, is obvious and I think it's correct. In other words, he's asking what's the visual difference�visual art is not about storytelling, narrative, et cetera, at least according to him, or if it does involve it that's incidental to the execution of the artist. I have another quote which I always thought was very much to the same point, where Greenberg is talking about Rembrandt and then suddenly says, well, you know, the so-called 'spirituality', he puts that in quotes, of the old master really has nothing to do with spirituality. It is about a matter of the handling of the pigments of the paint; their metier, their response to the medium. And we get a 'spiritual' effect, if you want. But there's no idea that there's something spiritual about Rembrandt that makes him such a great painter of religious imagery. It's all in the handling, in other words, Greenberg says.
Julie Copeland: The passages of paint, as he said once.
Donald Kuspit: Yes, the passages of paint. That's exactly correct. I think it's a key argument. One of his last pieces that he wrote was called 'To Cope with Decadence'. And he calls himself explicitly a 'formalist'. And he describes a trip he'd made to Asia, particularly to Japan, and he's going through a museum. He says he knows nothing about the history of Asian art except a certain amount of basic things that anybody in art history would know from an introductory class. But he goes through and he points out this work, that work. He says, 'Those are the best works.' And then he goes and talks with a scholar and he says, 'Yes, we agreed.' And so his argument is that the historical context in which these works were made and whatever particular social, cultural or political meaning they would have had at the time has faded away. What remains is the visual image and its effect, that is, the handling and its effect. And somebody who is a connoisseur�and I think in the end Greenberg was a formalist connoisseur�can immediately pick that up, cut through all the other things. And he also implicitly is implying that it's a-historical. So you go to Japan, or he goes on to India as well, and come back to New York or go to Europe and look at Matisse. It doesn't matter. What matters is the purely aesthetic values which can be perceived by a connoisseur in pure experience.
I'll tell you a funny story which I think confirms this. I was once going with him in the Boston Museum of Fine Art with Kensworth Malfit who was the chief curator at the time. The three of us were going through an exhibition of Chardin. He's not a modern or contemporary painter, he is an 18th century French painter and Chardin's work goes through various phases. He starts making figures and there're all kinds of social and economic reasons he does this, and go to other phases. And I said, well, what do you think of this, Clem? And Malfit was asking him also. And he said, 'Just look at the colours. Just look at the colours.' I said, 'But there's much more than the colours here.' What I'm trying to say is that Greenberg was interested in the quality of paint. He couldn't care less about the subject matter. for example, the still-lifes that make Chardin so famous; later on scenes of figures and then another kind of still-life, very complicated construction�he's just interested in what he would call the formal values, the quality of line, of colour, of touch and so forth. This is what interested him. And then the way these all came together in what he called the 'unity'. What he called the aesthetic unity was absolutely crucial. He sometimes called it the decorative unity. That it all worked together in this kind of aesthetic harmony. That's all that interested him, at least officially. He once said, 'Well, yes, I enjoy some realist works but I know it's not particularly important aesthetically.'
Julie Copeland: That Chardin story is a good one. So we're talking about formalism. Well, his idea of formalism. He'd said that 1912 was perhaps the most beautiful date in the history of French painting. That is, it was a great year for Cubism. And so he's talking about Braque and Picasso who are joined by Leger and that they both were celebrating this mood of what he calls secular optimism. So it's interesting that he then goes on in his essay about Picasso. And I remember when I met him, when he was in Melbourne, he was saying, in his inimitable style, 'Picasso lost his stuff in the late 1920s.' By which he meant (and that Leger had, too) they'd returned to the illusion as he said, recognisable objects, figures and shapes. And he thought they'd lost it, by then. Because he saw Cubism as naturally progressing towards abstraction. So he's talking about abstraction, isn't he.
Donald Kuspit: Yes, that's absolutely correct. He thought they had regressed or given up their efforts or were reluctant to move forward. If you recall the end of the Picasso essay he quotes, Pollock was just making work like an ink blot and he could not understand the movement towards total abstraction. And I think right there you have the reason why he finally came to celebrate American art over European art. the ball had moved, the baton, if you want, had moved from Europe to America because Europe remained stuck with a certain kind of Cezannian Cubism and did not go forward towards pure abstraction. The remark that I have in mind, it's really quite marvellous, is indeed at the very end of the Picasso essay, and he says, 'Time reports that he [that is Picasso] believes a work should be constructed and is distressed by the work of many abstract expressionists�once grabbed an ink-stained blotter, shoved it at a visitor and snapped, "Jackson Pollock". The term 'constructed' was the slogan under which the Cubists set out 50 years ago to repair the supposed damage done to painting by the impressionists.' And he stops right there because he knows that Pollock is going to in some sense pick up on impressionism, at least, however awkwardly, by way of automatism. So Pollock moves to total abstraction, sort of 'breaks the ice' as De Kooning famously said, and Picasso couldn't follow. And in fact Picasso, as we know, said that pure abstraction was impossible, one always had a residue of feeling and experience that was invested in the object, however distorted, strange, or absurd the object may have seemed.
So Picasso didn't fit into his paradigm. And here we see something very important about Greenberg. He became very narrow. He was so insistent on his paradigm of the development, that when an artist's creativity took him somewhere else, Greenberg had no tolerance for it. He was absolutely not just indifferent, but dismissive. He said, 'No, this is a wrong turn.' And I think if you read him carefully he had the sense that there were these sort of short-lived spurts of creative innovation in relation to the medium, and that was it, for an artist. And then moved on somewhere else. So the modern idea of the breakthrough�but in Greenberg's sense, a breakthrough in relation to the medium�and then somebody else picks it up and goes somewhere else.
Julie Copeland: So just to sum up, are Clement Greenberg's ideas about formalism, the progression of art, the avant garde�still read today? Is Greenberg�and these essays particularly�still taught in art schools?
Donald Kuspit: Yes. But they're taught as a sort of historical phenomenon. The art that they advocate has been bypassed, replaced by more of a conceptual orientation. I think Greenberg would be very unhappy. But he is recognised as a major figure, even though a figure that people like to attack and hate. But he and Rosenberg are acknowledged as the two major critics of the heyday of abstract expressionism and they're still read wherever there is an interest in abstract art and in abstract expressionist art in particular. He is still acknowledged as a force to be reckoned with, if only by stepping out of his way or dismissing him as obsolete or even narrow-minded in his own day.
[archived recording of Clement Greenberg: Good art is no more to be defined than art itself. People have tried to define art. Better minds than mine. And haven't succeeded. Aesthetic experience�well Kant did say, 'The free play of the cognitive faculties.' My own experience bears him out, and that's the most I can do. Heightened cognitiveness, without cognition. Cognitiveness without cognition.'Julie Copeland: From the ABC archives, Clement Greenberg, who died, aged 85, in 1994. And we should note that much earlier, by the mid-70s, opposition to Greenberg had grown to the point of demonisation, as the critic was accused of manipulating reputations and of telling artists what to paint. Never idealistic about the value of art, he once said on American radio, 'If you have to chose between life and happiness or art, remember always to chose life and happiness. Art solves nothing.'
And in this week's Exhibit A we were reviewing Clement Greenberg's Art and Culture: Critical Essays, and particularly his 1939 essay, 'The Avant Garde and the Kitsch', with the prolific New York art critic, Donald Kuspit, author of the End of Art and one of Clement Greenberg's first biographers.
Producer:Rhiannon Brown & Debra McCoy
Guests on this program:
Art critic and a professor of art history and philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. An author of numerous articles, exhibition reviews, and catalog essays, Kuspit has written more than twenty books, including Redeeming Art: Critical Reveries, Idiosyncratic Identities: Artists At The End Of The Avant-Garde, The End of Art and Clement Greenberg, Art Critic.