The Unconditional Aesthete (1987)
Arts, September 1987, pp. 59 - 61.
Recently I gave a lecture at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo called "Bad Art and Why We Have It." Part of it was given over to whacking the critics for their high-handed obscurantism, bad writing, and trendiness. Art critics are an easy, if deserving target; a mildly sardonic reading of some ripe bit of highfalutin critical bombast always tickles an audience, and I often take the liberty.
Afterwards a young man stood up and asked, "Where do these critics come from, anyway?" Where indeed? No one had asked me that before. From anywhere and everywhere it seems. They are reporters, academics, and literary people who fall into art criticism as much by circumstance as by inclination or design. They are seldom artists. Artists, for whatever reason, are usually terrible writers. Writers, on the other hand, don't understand art. They adopt an attitude of patronizing kinship, look at subject matter and other evident parts of a work, relate it to "real life" and find "symbolic meaning" and think that's all there is to it. I see it all the time. A while ago, in the culture section of the New York Times, Carlos Fuentes held forth about Velazquez' Las Meninas, eliciting unfathomable profundities from the disposition and attitudes of the characters in the painting. Nothing he wrote about had anything to do with the reason why it's a wonderful painting. It's a wonderful painting because of the way Velazquez put the paint on the canvas. If someone else had painted the same set of figures in the same setting it would long since have been forgotten, and Mr. Fuentes would have had to write about the inessentials of some other painting.
If writers would paint for a year or two before they took up art writing, their criticism would improve a thousand percent. The same goes for dealers and collectors. I know this is true because I have seen it happen. "It's incredible" they say, pointing to a familiar painting. "I never noticed the way the arm is modelled, and how the highlights help create depth, and the way the paint thickens here and then runs off to a wash." Craft isn't everything. But when you know the craft you see the life in the paint, and when you see that, and only when you see that, do you see the painting. Most art critics remain willfully, even contemptfully, ignorant of the craft. One well-known art critic asserts that art criticism has gotten so much better than painting that there's no need for painting any more! What gives them such nerve? We don't find these extremes of ignorant arrogance in criticism of literature, or serious music, or restaurant food, for that matter. As Rodney Dangerfield says, we get no respect. Everyone is an art critic. Maybe that's why great art critics are so rare, rarer, even, than great artists.
Clement Greenberg is one of the rare ones. He came late to art criticism, and in the usual roundabout way, but he was a natural. Born in the Bronx in 1909, his family was cultured and fairly prosperous, "freethinking socialists" who spoke Yiddish at home. They moved to Norfolk and then back to Brooklyn, where Greenberg went to high school. He graduated from Syracuse in 1930, sat around at home learning languages, tried business ("My appetite for business did not amount to the same thing as an inclination"), and worked as a translator, before settling into a civil service job which gave him time to write. His first published essay, on Brecht, appeared in the Partisan Review in 1939, when he was just 30. Although he was a precocious draftsman as a child, and had taken art courses as a teenager and life drawing as a young adult, he had by that time become "much more interested in literature than in art." There was something in him, however, some constitutional relish for physical fact, together with a sharp inquisitive eye and a strongly inductive, judgmental mentality which heightened the appeal of art and drew him away from literature and ideas. I maintain - more from knowing him than from knowing his history - that he had to be an art critic.
Greenberg's reputation arose in the 1940s by virtue of the power, lucidity and astuteness of the short pieces he wrote for The Nation and the longer ones he wrote for Partisan Review and other magazines. In 1961, Beacon Press published a selection of these and later essays, most or all of them emended, under the title Art and Culture, and this book has been the still stone around which dispute has swirled ever since. The two volumes under consideration here include just about everything Greenberg wrote in the '40s, with a helpful note here and there from the editor. The index is excellent. The titles were chosen by the editor; that of the first volume, Perceptions and judgments, is appropriate; that of the second, Arrogant Purpose, taken from a phrase Greenberg wrote about Matisse, is not. I think Art and Culture should be read before these but certainly not in their place. No harm will come from reading two versions of the same essay.
Greenberg writes about Marxism and Jewishness as well as literature and art. There's one curious piece about life in the army and another on the ballet. The writing gets better as the decade moves on. It is plain and rich, with little wit or sentiment. The erudition is evident but worn lightly. The essays are clear and succinct - short, nourishing morsels to be bitten off and chewed over; you can pick the book up and read one or two and put it down again. It's rather like looking at pictures. Students, who have been force-fed the indigestible prose of the art magazines, are astonished at how easy Greenberg's writing is to read and understand, as if art writing should not or cannot be.
Greenberg is an unconditional esthete. He has "art hunger." His instinct is to search out and evaluate. His gift is in his amazing eye, his uncanny grasp of the character of relationships and the deadpan way he brings sensation shaped by intuitive judgment into words. He writes about good, bad, and middling. He discriminates. He is good when the art is bad and better when it is good. His pen scrapes peevishly through mediocrity and comes alive when it hits excellence. He is best when he interweaves observation with explanation and lards the text with description, structure, and sensuality, as in the "cold hedonism" he admires in Matisse. Bits of rich description ring through the text like echoes of command, compelling assent. There's all too little of it, as if he purposely stinted to uphold the fact that description cannot substantiate quality, thereby withholding much of that kind of high recounting which can burn the art into the brain like a brand.
Ideas are Greenberg's weak point. He is not an intellectual, not in the usual sense. He draws inference, but ever so cautiously, with hesitancy and qualification. He doesn't theorize. Greenberg always comes back to the thing, as genius does, whether it works with the ego, art, or the atom. Like Antaeus, he loses power when he gets off the ground. Some of the early literary criticism and even some of the early art writing, such as the 1941 piece on Klee, is attenuated by unclear reference, by things said which cannot be located. Much of the political comment, such as "An American View," is rationalized with dubious Marxist certitudes, of which he was eventually, and mercifully, "disabused." On the other hand, the essay on Sholom Aleichem, really a general paean to Jewishness, is strongly felt enough to move a goy with nothing Jewish in bone or background.
There is occasion to regret this inability or disinclination to build with abstract thought, just as we must mark the irony of and bad faith behind the cold theorist label unjustly hung on this most thing-bound and feeling-dependant of critics. The fine 1949 essay "On the Role of Nature in Art," for example, fails to exhaust a complex and interesting idea. The failure, such as it is, is signalled in the title, which relegates nature to subject matter, excluding consideration of nature as coincidental to art, or of art and nature as interreflective, or of a work of art as a natural thing. Too much remains to be worked out. Also, the frequent use of the words good and important, or equivalent terms, especially as applied to the good Matisse and the important Picasso, obliges him to amplify the distinction. The context requires it, but it is not Greenberg's type of thing to do.
I take issue with Greenberg's frequent practice of referring artistic matters to social ones, so that an art style "relates itself to the true insights of its time," an artist's break with nature is "a reflection of the profoundest essence of contemporary society," certain artists produce art "out or their sense or contemporary experience" and others "cut through to the ultimate truth of life as it is lived at present." In an article about Pollock we go from the wonderfully descriptive "thick, fuliginous flatness" to the artspeak "Pollock's art is still an attempt to cope with urban life." Such vague, inflated phrases do not compromise the essay - they are merely bland and inert, soft places in a hard text - but they'd be better off unsaid because they would wither under the fire of particularization, which, as Blake said, and as Greenberg knows, is "alone distinction of merit."
The only real blunder of taste I found was the characterization of Theodoros Stamos' 1948 Altar as "sickeningly sweet, inept and utterly empty." Strong words, and wrong. I saw the painting at the Whitney "Formative Years" show some years ago, and it is a good one. Greenberg has acknowledged this mistake in conversation, saying "it was too much for me then." His clear-cut errors are so rare one is tempted to relish them; I almost think he does.
I have many quibbles on matters of emphasis. He overrates Renoir and Bonnard and is too hard on Dove, Burchfield, Homer, and Morandi. He was slow to warm to Motherwell, and it looks like he never did like Motherwell's early collages, which I think are first-rate. He puts the Impressionists on an elevated plane but appears unsympathetic to them, except for Pissarro, with whom he seems to identify. He doesn't think enough of Hopper, but then I'm a sucker for Hopper's strong lights and long shadows, and I realize they embody longing and sadness just a little too literally. Greenberg knows, like the "cold, undistracted" Matisse, that great art is beyond sentiment. There's a review of a novel by Anna Segher which seems to tread lightly because Greenberg sympathizes with its politics, and I sense more Jewish solidarity than objective criticism in a review of Hyman Bloom's paintings. I disagree with his reasoning about the decline of Cubism ("ideas" again) and with his evaluation of Leonardo's personality. And I would replace the overused emotion with the better word feeling throughout both books.
But, as I said, I quibble. The writing is strong, and the faults as incidental, as the art he praised so early and so well. There's no real chink, no crack to work open. One must flail around the edges. Those who attack Greenberg broadly first get him wrong and then flog their own misunderstanding - several current reviews of the books stand in radiant evidence, quivering diatribes that get Greenberg wrong on every count and hang him for crimes he never imagined, much less committed. His performance is remarkable. Where's the competition? What other art critic of the 1940s - or the 1980s, for that matter - gets read and reread and inspires such admiration and desperate anger? Don't forget, these are not long-pondered think pieces, but essays and reviews written under deadline, written there and then, with little chance for reflection and no waiting around for the winnowing hand of history.
It may be this blend of immediacy and perspicacity that makes the writing so very contemporary. Time and time again I found myself reading about today. The 1944 "Romantic Painting" show at the Museum of Modern Art is described as a phase "of that campaign against modern art which began ambiguously among the Surrealists twenty years ago"; that same campaign is waged in the same way by today's Neoexpressionists and others. The army is new; the battle is the same. It's eerie. A review of Rouault opens with "Art lovers yearn now for the Terrible." They still do, and the following comments exactly describe that ache for emotional content which still clears the way for esthetic monstrosity. Read about the 1946 Whitney Annual and learn all you need to know about today's Biennial, except that the bad art of 40 years ago was tame stuff compared to the vile bilge there now. At the Whitney only the names change; artistic disaster is a revered tradition. For a symposium on the state of American art in 1949, Greenberg writes "Public taste seems eclectic... because there has been a breakdown of cultural authority... people are no longer so ashamed as they used to be of bad taste; rather, without going to the trouble to improve it, they defend it aggressively." That's today's collector in spades. Again, in a review of a 1944 show at the Modern:
The presumably enlightened rich... have found the courage to ask for the art they really like: "Give us the romantic, the realistic, the descriptive, the immediately erotic, and the chic. It fits us better, mirrors us better and moves us quicker. Since we pay for art, we have a right to the kind we want."
The article on Edward Weston leaves us wanting more on photography. The short analysis of Degas' pastels is tight and luminous. There's a short, craggy, intensely worded review of a Masson show which gave Greenberg a workout; he describes it as "a debacle, in which (there is) little that is second-rate." Is this contradictory? Maybe so. But the report is faithful to the perception, and that comes first. I've seen "first-rate debacles." I know just what he means. And there is, as they say, much, much more, all in the company of the celebrated notice given the then-unknown Abstract Expressionists.
There are memorable phrases throughout. He points to the "conventions of experiment," so tiresome then, as now. He takes Kenneth Burke to task for "terminological intrigue conducted within the standing body of truth and error," and says of Calder's sculptures "felicity exhausts their content." In Eakins' paintings "lighted surfaces displace rather than emerge from surrounding shadow." He describes Pollock's "encasement in a style that ... feels for the painter ... leaving his gift free to function almost automatically." Also, "A painting, like a living organism, exists by the simultaneous relationship of its parts." And the well-known "All profoundly original art looks ugly at first," which could be updated for today to "All profoundly ugly art looks original at first."
In the first of these two volumes Greenberg writes "It is possible to get away with murder in writing about art." That was in 1942. In the second volume, in an essay written in 1945, he notes "In no other field can one get away with such hokum in print." What bothered him 40 years ago when art was a self-contained craft practiced by a few adepts and amateurs has now become, in this day of the billion-dollar international art market, a ghastly scandal. When art went big-time in the early '60s, art writing went from bad to worse right along with the art that pandered to it.
Current writing about new art is a self-indulgent, semiliterate anarchy. The few critics who can or will write readable English can't tell a good painting from an armadillo. They do come down hard on something now and then, and the proportion of bad to good is so lopsided that they are usually on the right track. Otherwise, there is little regard for truth, facts, common sense, and clear thinking. It is worse now than when Greenberg was writing for the Nation, worse because the dissolution of standards has spread to all parts of the art world, creating an intellectual atmosphere that excludes the very notion of standards. Our normative value system - the good-bad-better-best which is so very fragile in an enterprise in which criteria are unspecifiable - has been thrown into deep disrepute by the overwhelming disapproval of a fast-growing commercial system that is naturally threatened by any hint of the rarity of goodness. We have, in every part of the art world, abandoned professional restraint, wariness, and skepticism. We've lost our appetite for the real thing along with our sense of the spurious. Everything tumbles down to the sophomoric whimsicality of the new collector. Where his money goes, the art world goes. When a number of trend-followers bought the bumbling scrawls of a chum of Andy Warhol, the New York Times Magazine did a cover story on the guy, and he's hot everywhere. When a wretched Jasper Johns painting sold at auction for $3,630,000 it merely reinforced the uncontested belief that Johns is one of the great masters of the 20th Century. I could go on and on. No one seems to know any better. If they do, they're not saying.
Greenberg knows better, of course, but he's quiet now. Who can blame him? He's been a model of the ideal critic: tough, honest, lucid, consistent, uncompromising, and right. What has it gotten him? A handful of ardent supporters, a modicum of grudging respect and massive abuse and misunderstanding. Here's a man who should be jetting around first-class collecting honorary degrees. Instead, he finds himself saying, "I have an argument with my reputation." He's known as the "Pope of Modernism," a relentless, dogmatic disseminator of prearranged hypotheses, demagogue of historical necessity, flat painting fanatic, ruthless proscriber of all that is rich and warm and human in art, the heartless ideologue who, in one reviewer's words, banished "sensuality, intuition, empathy, history, personality and mind," the unforgivable tyrant who brought down upon us the scourge of "Formalism." Everyone knows all this. So what did he expect? Didn't he get what he asked for?
Well, as a matter of fact, no. There's a line in an old blues song that goes "What everybody thinkin'/is what make me so blue/what everybody know, baby/usually just ain't true." One honest, intelligent good-faith reading of these books and Art and Culture, should be enough to convince anyone - anyone with no axe to grind - that this strident chorus of outrage is a simple reaction to the bitter taste of truth, truth which, in Milton's words "...never comes into the world but like a bastard, to the ignominy of him that brought her forth." Or, to quote an anonymous T-shirt maker: "The truth will set you free, but it won't make you many friends." It is an ancient human conflict, as old as language itself: if you write over their heads, they will misunderstand; if you are clear and precise, they will be defensive about their incomprehension because they will see that they should understand; and if your message is - as true and right things are -highminded, hard-nosed, limiting, exacting, and exclusive, they'll get angry. People like old truth and familiar truth, and they like general truth, if there is such a thing. But they do not like tough new truth in detail about specific present things in current time. That kind of truth makes people resentful and uncomfortable. It disturbs entrenched habits of thought. It casts a cold light on corruption. It prescribes change.
What is this dreaded "Formalism?" It is hard to pin down and define. It is one of those words which, in the way of the art world, was coined, or resurrected, by those who wanted a weapon. As Sidney Tillim put it, "Formalism is anything Clement Greenberg likes." Getting beyond that nutshell delimitation is hard to do. There is no such thing as "formalist theory" except, perhaps, for the basic proposition that you do your best to accept art through feeling and intuition, as Greenberg advocates, and does, and always has done. Formalism is more a way of looking at art than making it. It is a way of being kind to art, if you will, a way of fully ingesting it, of giving it the benefit of the doubt, of letting it have its way. Formalism won't let art be explained; talked about, yes, described, yes, but not explained. Formalism won't let you say why the art is good. It won't let you dodge the experience of art with easy verbal handles. It insists on a direct experience of art, and it insists that esthetic experience is primary, nonverbal, and the source of all qualitative judgment, and that intuitive qualitative judgment is a necessary prelude to art talk. You can't get much less theoretical than that. To the antiesthete, and to those of bad faith, to the art careerists; art sellers, and art promoters, to the ideologue, middlebrow, and ambitious academic, Formalism is dangerously antitheoretical, antiverbal, and antiuseful. That's why they hate it and fear it. That's why they damn it in the only terms they understand: theory, ideology, and politics.
These people, like the dinosaurs, are up against a big problem they don't understand. Evolution happens. It happens slowly in nature; in human institutions, like art, it happens fast - in centuries, decades, years. Evolution plows a furrow, folding in the old and turning up the new. The successful organism addresses the fresh turn. Art has evolved. In the last hundred years, the changes have been more evident and describable than ever before. Greenberg did for art what Darwin did for life: he saw what was happening when no one else saw it, and he told us about it. For a time, his inspired reporting was accepted, and, by extension rather than by design, influence - especially when it rang in tune with the rising wave of avante-gardism in the late '50s and early '60s. However, as the fullness of the message filtered through to the art mob, it dawned on them that a clear, widespread understanding of the changes in art might undermine the burgeoning middlebrow art culture by making it look laughably backward. They rose in anger, and, in their dumb dinosaur way, directed it not at the unpersonified and inexorable process itself, but at the man who told us about it. If Greenberg said it, they attacked it.
Because their anger was misdirected, they got it wrong. For example, when we teach perspective and show how it can be used to create an illusion of depth on a flat surface it is taken as a useful device, as it has for hundreds of years. No one stands up and says that it is trickery and deception (which it is, of course) and therefore morally unfit for use in art. But when Greenberg described how the mechanics of abstraction erode the illusion of depth and visually flatten the picture plane, which is merely a neutral and easily demonstrated fact, everyone began declaiming about "cold, lifeless theory" and "impoverishment of means" and "proscriptive dogma." It's like saying "E=mc2 is all very fine, Dr. Einstein, but aren't you leaving out real life and human content?"
There's a lot of righteous bellyaching about "human content" right now. Formalism is supposed to be against it. It isn't. Formalism says that great art is jam-packed with "human content." But it also says that it isn't that easy to get at. It says that great art doesn't represent life, it sublimates it, and that art which doesn't is either obvious or trivial or both. Formalism knows, as Beethoven knew, That "...true art is selfish and perverse - it will not submit to the mold of flattery." Great art is sufficient within itself. It doesn't care about you and your needs and demands. It won't take pains for you. It says that all your whining about human content is probably only a reflection of your inability or unwillingness to do a little work to find it, or a perverse insistence that art do things it isn't fitted for and can't do. Too bad. Middlebrows should like what they like, and stop worrying about whether it is art or not. Or they should leave art alone, or try harder, or defer to someone who knows better. In the end, it all boils down to Formalism or Pop Art. All art, in the long run, is one or the other. And history is a Formalist.
The art world doesn't want to hear this. It listens to the indiscriminate critic, the one who accepts what has come up through commerce and plays with it and talks around it - content, iconography, social relevance, personal symbolism, and all that - avoiding value judgment until the art is cleared through the system. To get along, go along. Greenberg may be quiet now, but his standards are a matter of record, and the record and the example won't be stilled. Everyone knows those standards and that example, and everyone knows that their mildest application would blow this ship of fools right out of the water, right along with all the jobs, reputations, and glamor that go with it. These books are a painful new reminder; that's why they have raised such a ruckus. Greenberg is anathema, a cross held up to Dracula. He is at once the finest art writer of the century, and the most reviled person in the art world today.
All the more reason to read these books and be thankful for their publication. Second only to seeing the art, they are requisites for the study and comprehension of the art of our time, handbooks for the neophyte, and armchair pleasure for the connoisseur. They tell us what happened as it was happening and what to make of it. They are exemplary as an approach to art that parallels the dynamic of history. They stand for the highest and best in art, which is the vehicle by which we hold and give the best of ourselves to ourselves, defending that best, not for art's sake, but for our sake. "Must we argue this over again?" Greenberg grumbled in Partisan Review 38 years ago. Well, yes. Over and over again, then, now, and as long as we have art or take it seriously. Unfortunately for art, and for us, there's only one Clement Greenberg.