15 Bytes | Personal Essay | Visual Arts

On Greenberg (Part 1 of 2): Dispelling Miscomprehension

In “Criticism in the Moment” (January edition), Geoff Wichert provides one critical perspective on the state of today’s art criticism. The essay is thought-provoking, and I rather enjoy Wichert’s prose. However, though his focus is LACMA’s exhibition Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images (through March 4, 2007), and the writings of Frederick Crews and Thomas McEvilley, Wichert begins with gratuitous “Clem-bashing” — the heavy-handed criticism of Clement Greenberg considered mandatory for Baby Boomers in the art world by the 1970s. When Greenberg fell out of favor and passed away (1994), Wichert seems to have experienced an immediate sense of liberation from the authoritarian father of American High Modernist abstraction.[1]

As a member of the generation raised with MTV and the Internet, and for the DDR and iPod generation, Greenberg is an historical figure. I’m not an apologist for Greenberg, as those who know me can attest; yet, having read Greenberg’s writings — with a critical eye and an open mind — I see his contributions have not lost their relevancy. Greenberg’s writings should be studied for his aesthetic posture the same way as we study Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke, Benedetto Croce and R.G. Collingwood, and numerous other aestheticians.

This essay, Part 1 of 2, will take a look at the three main miscomprehensions about Clement Greenberg and his writings — some drawn from Wichert’s essay, some from other writers. [“Miscomprehensions” is appropriate as far too many read Greenberg’s acknowledged subjective viewpoint from their unacknowledged subjective viewpoints!] Part 2 of 2, to appear in next month’s issue of 15 Bytes, will focus on Greenberg’s silver lining, writings and perspectives not to be ignored by artists of the 21st century.

The FIRST misconception is that Greenberg rendered judgments subjectively and unfairly – without any proof that validated his judgments and without any change in opinion. But this is reflective of reader’s perceptions, after filtering by art critics/theorists of the 1980s and 1990s, like noted art critic Adam Gopnik, who described Greenberg – a man he likely did not know — as a “dictator-critic.”[2] We see this in Wichert’s take on Greenberg as dogmatic: “The power of any unitary theory [is] that it is all or nothing.” However, I’ll take Karen Wilkin’s opinion as greater authority and more believable as she is not only a respected art critic and curator, but was an acquaintance of Greenberg. As Wilkin writes: “Whether you share Greenberg’s conclusions or reject them, the one irreducible constant in his approach was not his adherence to theory, but his reliance upon direct, unmediated encounters with works of art.”[3]

We live in a culture of unconditional praise, so often reserving or avoiding negative judgments about choice of subject, technical competency, or matters of taste to avoid hurt feelings and low self-esteem in family, friends, and colleagues. The critic of yesteryear — Julius Meier-Graefe, Roger Fry, Clement Greenberg — took for granted the primacy of value judgments. For these critics (and others), they were undaunted in issuing value judgments seen as the perceived truth at that time. These value judgments were based on empirical looking and seeing specific artworks and, to quote Greenberg:

Through my taste which is intuitive and may be wrong. But as Kant said “you can’t demonstrate an aesthetic judgement the way you can demonstrate that two plus two equals four, or a scientific proposition.” You can’t verify it, because taste is subjective. But as Kant said again “it’s also intersubjective.” Somehow there’s an amazing amount of agreement over the course of time about the good and the bad. It’s amazing, given how subjective taste seems to be.[4]

At some future date, the critic’s perception — hence the critic’s judgment — might change![5]

Unfortunately, today’s newspapers and magazines do not contain criticism; rather, judgments are reserved or avoided, in many cases because the writers are not as well-versed with art-making techniques and art history. In Greenberg’s words:

Look at the magazines devoted to contemporary visual art and see how more and more of the articles that fill them are scholarly or would-be scholarly, would-be high-brow in the academic way: explicative and descriptive, or historical, or interpretative, but hardly at all judicial, evaluative. Notice the proliferation of foot and tail notes, and how they attest to recondite reading, most of which has nothing to do with art. … Aesthetic quality is no longer enough to warrant praise; other, extra aesthetic values have to be invoked: historical, political, social, ideological, moral of course, and what not.[6]

The SECOND miscomprehension, related to the first for its subjective determinism, is expressed in Wichert’s definition of Greenberg’s concept of art history: “… ‘mainstream’ art has one — and only one — central current that carries history forward in unbroken progress.”[7] This accusation is valid, not just of Greenberg, but the entire historical profession during the late 19th and early 20th centuries! Greenberg operated with the understanding, founded by earlier scholars (predominantly German) who developed “History” as an academic discipline, that history is linear progression.

For thousands of years art-makers produced art objects, but don’t we all agree that few art-makers and art objects should make it into the history books? For better or for worse, history focuses on the significant players, whether they are: (1) INNOVATORS, like Jackson Pollock, who redefined line as velocity – not contour; (2) PRODIGIOUS, like Vincent van Gogh, who produced over 2200 artworks during a scant 10- year period, despite numerous interruptions because of mental health issues; OR, (3) POPULAR, like Andy Warhol, who used screen-printing (a mass marketing method) to transform the common and the celebrity into fine art commodities. To include every artist and every artwork is absurd; so at what point is it best to judge worth for inclusion?

Further, in the history of Western art, scholars identify the shifting trend from the “classic” to the “romantic” and back again.[8] Greenberg, following this century old scholarly tradition, defined the “classic” in relation to the dominance of literature (and narrative subjects) and the “romantic” in relation to “the artist [who] feels something and passes on this feeling — not the situation or thing which stimulated it — to his audience.”[9] It’s not that Greenberg dismissed the classic or romantic, but favored artists who did not fall into the academicization and clichés that he felt threatened aesthetic standards in the visual arts. As a result, Greenberg’s working definition of Modernism was that it:

. . . consists in the continuing endeavor to stem the decline of aesthetic standards threatened by the relative democratization of culture under industrialism; that the overriding and innermost logic in Modernism is to maintain the levels of the past in the face of an opposition that hadn’t been present in the past. Thus the whole enterprise of Modernism, for all its outward aspects, can be seen as backward-looking.[10]

A THIRD misconception about Greenberg was that he championed “high art” and despised “popular art.” For this reason, we are told, he rejected recognizable subjects, pushing artists to paint and sculpt in an abstract mode. This brings together the previous two miscomprehensions, as Greenberg’s perception was that most — not all, but most — artists producing representational artwork fell victim to academicization and clichés … or worse, were completely commercial.[11] Pop Art is an interesting case in point: By the late 1960s, Greenberg felt Pop Art was a minor art movement … “too agreeable, too readily pleasing; it doesn’t challenge your taste enough. That’s why it became so popular so quickly. And that’s why it’s wearing out – or has already worn out — even in the eyes of its devotees.”[12] Were Greenberg alive today, I do not believe he would revise his perception of Pop At as “minor,” as the goal of Pop was to carve out a position that challenged, even rejected, the traditional standards in the visual arts.” What can a critic like Greenberg do but admit some Pop Art was good quality, judge the majority to be trivial, and move on?

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