Activity of Criticism (1975)
Studio Magazine, March - April, 1975, pp. 84 - 85. Interview with Max Kozloff.
Bannard: I say from my experience, modernist criticism at its best is not theoretical. Greenberg is a good example of this, and the attacks on him are very good examples of art-world paranoia. When he does go over into being theoretical, that is, saying what something should or must be rather than what it is, he always pulls back, and he always qualifies, and he always uses adjectives and it is always very tentative. And it doesn't happen often enough to make it an interesting question.
Kozloff: Where do you disagree with Greenberg?
This is a dangerous question, because it implies that one must agree or disagree with him. You have to clear your throat and say "Well now, I don't agree with him on everything," and then you are in it, lining up, taking sides. He's been so right about so many things for so long that many critics are on the defensive and feel the must take a stand in relation to Greenberg instead of to art, and that's foolish. For me, he is a basic resource, a source of learning, not of who's good and who's bad as an artist so much, or any philosophical things, but more the moral or human force within art, and the seriousness of it. I may agree or disagree as I go along, but that's for myself, for my own use, and certainly not to make up some public stance. I couldn't care less about that.
Then is Formalism a myth?
If it isn't a myth, then I wish someone would clearly state what it is. Formalism is an undefined thing that has come to be understood through usage, like slang. It is a kind of myth: Clem the granddaddy, like Jesus and the disciples spreading the word. It's so tacky, so unreal, such a waste of time, instead of just evaluating what anyone says about art on its own merits, specifically...
My feeling when I do criticize is that I'm writing for a community. I appreciate someone who comes back to me, as if we're all in it together, and makes a dialogue out of it. I don't appreciate being called a formalist. That's useless and degrading. If someone comes back and says "what you said was wrong from the following reasons," it's absolutely wonderful, but it seldom happens, and that's a great disappointment. The art world doesn't care about ideas, they get no pleasure from ideas, or from art, for that matter, it's all positions and politics. I'm always angered. Yes, I suppose I exacerbate it, but that's not my problem, it's the problem of those who think that the art world is run by shadowy forces pushing secret buttons, when it is just a lot of different people doing what best they can, like everything else.
The distinction between good art and bad art, that's the basic function of criticism. The perfect critic could come on a painting and assign its ultimate level in general estimations. You have to like art and want to judge it; it's more or less the same thing. All the art objects that there are that can be looked at - that's the body of material. Then you go at it and make judgments. Now, judgments are going to be imperfect, and clouded, and biased by personality, but you do the best you can, like anything else. There is something somehow permanent distinguishing good art from bad art, and quality is the word used to denote it. The fact that quality can't be verbally laid out doesn't mean it can't be used, and I simply have no patience for semantic discussions about the word, or where quality resides. It is within experience. You get it by intuition.
What I like to do, my own personal bias, is to get a painting which I think is very good, and then describe the mechanics of it. This interests me. It doesn't work the other way around, you can't take a visual solution and stick it into a painting and make the painting good...
The idea of talking about painting as problem solving... Olitski, for instance, in the way he treats the edge, how that frees the centre of his paintings, that's technical, mechanical, inventive, and in some way is part of the content of the painting, I think. But I don't see it that way. When I look at an Olitski painting I don't say "the fact that he's done that is part of the content of the painting," I simply see it as a very fine thing that gives me pleasure. Then I may think, it's very interesting that he's done this, and done that, and the he has thrown things out to the edge so he can free up the centre, and let the centre be so purely sensual. These things exist at the beginning and at the end. They exist for Olitski when he is trying to figure out how to make the painting, and they exist for me when I'm trying to figure out how he made the painting - and in between is the art, and the experience of the art, and that's what counts. That's the only thing that counts: the experience, the judgment of it, and the pleasure from it. That's where the moral side comes in, a pleasure, a valuable pleasure, a pleasure without side-effects, that doesn't backfire or boomerang. I know this is vague, but it has to be, it's all experience. If you love art you know what I'm talking about, if you don't, you don't. One of the greatest pleasures - mental pleasures - that I know is the undefensive appreciation of good art. You don't get it unless you work at it, any more than you can paint well without working at it. You've got to do your roadwork, keep in training. I often think of athletics as analogy, though of course it's imperfect. In painting, and in appreciating painting, there's that kind of pleasure, when a difficult body of work suddenly comes across, or when I put on that last layer and know it's right. It is an absolutely tremendously elating feeling, it can change a bad mood to a good one, it can affect me very strongly.'
How about the question of formal development in modernist art?
Now that's really difficult. Is there, or can there be described such a thing as an imperative, either general or specific, that is going to demand - and, like quality, not "exist" anywhere - that such and such must be done in order to produce the best painting. I can't answer that question, except to say that there seems to be - it's always in retrospect - a pressure in art making for invention of some kind, for working against what's gone before. Whatever quality is, whatever is in art that makes it good, has something to do with the pressure an artist puts against what he's got in order to make something else. Something about that process gets into art and makes it good. It's to do with human accomplishment, pressure for renewal - it's hard to pin down. Greenberg has been describing this process as it has appeared in the recent past, quite accurately, but has been taken not as description but as proscription or dictation - it mustn't be taken that way, it's not intended that way.
Do the people who make art of lesser quality suffer from a misconception about art or lack of ability?
Ability is nearer to it, in the broad sense, not the capacity to wield art making tools. It's ability in terms of being willing to do something that's very chancy and risky, and taking on the most difficult problems - no, that's not right, that's not reasonable, taking on the most difficult problems isn't going to make the best painting... but it's something like that. They don't have the character, or the nature to go all the way... There's all kinds of contention right now about which art form is best or right, which is silly. The reason is that they all came up in the gallery - museum situation - "formalist" art, earth art, conceptual art, and all the rest. Sooner or later they will all go their own way, and have their own place. I see conceptual things once in a while that amuse me, and interest me, but that's about as far as it goes. Most of it is dead and boring, even on it's own terms...
Painting and visible connected sculpture is where the best art is to be found. There are reasons for this, and it probably will continue... But everything goes in cycles - painting can dry up, look how sculpture was dried up for so many years. Whether the best stays in painting and sculpture doesn't matter. It's only important that there is some vehicle for the expression of whatever is good in art, and if it goes out of painting and sculpture into something else, who cares - who cares about canvas except that canvas manufacturer? Nobody cares about the medium. The only thing is where you find quality.
Back in the middle fifties, when I was learning to paint, art magazines were there to give up the word from the big city, in terms of pictures, and we'd look through and read Art News and study it very assiduously, as if we were going to a gallery. This was the value art magazines had for us...
How about magazines today?
I have mixed feelings about that. I am very depressed when I go out to a place like Kent Sate to teach, as I did this summer, and I find students totally intimidated by these magazines, and by the garbage that's in them, and they're very humble - it's just pathetic. And if I come from the east and all that, from New York, and I say "Don't be intimidated, it's garbage," you can't imagine the relief that comes over their faces. They say "you mean to say this really is nonsense" and I say "Yes, it's really nonsense. Don't read it. Just fold up the magazine and go on painting." It's just inexcusable, that a magazine doesn't have a consciousness of that responsibility. That's what I object to most, not keeping the stuff clear...
Does some of the tentativeness of the critical process get lost in the writing?
It gets thrown out. You know why? Because you can't put it there. When you get down to the typewriter you've got to come out as briefly as possible with the conclusions you've made. If you put your whole thought process on the line, on the page you'll bore the interested reader and open yourself up to the illiterates. It's like a legal brief. All sorts of things go on, but when you present it it's got to be solid. Tentativeness would make your writing more sympathetic, but at great sacrifice. You say what you can as clearly as possible. It must be clear.