Commentary Magazine


Art, Politics & Clement Greenberg

For three decades, art criticism in America was the domain of a rule-giving prophet, and woe to those who drew his wrath. A few laconic paragraphs might launch a career or cripple it. Where his favor came to rest, as it did for a time on the paintings of Jackson Pollock, there followed national celebrity and success. At the peak of his power—so it was said—the number of paintings sold by an artist was a coefficient of the number of paragraphs he had bestowed upon the artist’s work.

But there is more to the tale. The prophet also practiced the fine art of winning enemies while influencing people, and in the end there came to be too many of the former. Appropriately, a former disciple became the instrument of betrayal, publicly accusing the critic of deliberately destroying artworks that he had been charged to safeguard. There followed open scandal, disgrace, and ignominy.

So runs the myth of Clement Greenberg (1909-94), the most articulate and forceful voice in American art criticism in the postwar years and now the subject of a new biography by Florence Rubenfeld.1 A journalist and a former editor of New Art Examiner, Rubenfeld has the tenacity of a born researcher, and is a regular truffle pig when it comes to tracking down former girlfriends and old cronies. Indeed, it seems that, in addition to Greenberg himself, everyone alive who ever knew him was extensively interviewed for this work. Whatever its faults, Rubenfeld’s book thus provides a trove of information on a fascinating and formidable figure who acted as the principal spokesman for American art during the years when New York dislodged Paris as the artistic center of the world.

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Born in the Bronx, Clement Greenberg was the eldest of four children of first-generation Jewish immigrants from Lithuania. During his youth, some years of which were also spent in Norfolk, Virginia, his father advanced from buttonhole maker to candy-store owner to proprietor of a chain of clothing shops. The father was apparently a difficult type, alternately distant or choleric—traits that left their furrows in his son’s character.

In Rubenfeld’s account, Clement was something of a late bloomer. He studied at Syracuse University, where he discovered English literature but ignited no fires. Following graduation in 1930 he drifted through a series of jobs in newspaper offices and credit agencies, always with similar results: a good initial impression, followed sooner or later by a mutual parting of the ways. The same thing happened when his father set him up in a national business distributing neckties.

In 1934, while on business in California, Greenberg impulsively married a divorced librarian after a courtship of a few weeks. They moved in with her mother in Carmel, and a son, Danny, was born a year later. Again he made desultory attempts at office work, while investing most of his energy in writing short stories and poems. Soon divorced, he returned alone to New York, where he remained for most of the rest of life.

Within a few years, Greenberg had made contact with the group who would become known as the New York intellectuals: the critics and writers, chiefly Jewish and generally Trotskyist in their political sympathies, who were grouped around the magazine Partisan Review when it was refounded in 1937 (in the wake of the Moscow purge trials) as an anti-Stalinist publication. But Greenberg’s own relation to the group was not quite as straightforward as Rubenfeld suggests.

In 1935, Greenberg translated into English The Brown Network, a publication of the “World Committee for the Victims of German Fascism” that documented Nazi espionage activities outside Germany. How he was drawn into this assignment, which was not simply a translation job but essentially the project of a Stalinist front, is a mystery Rubenfeld ignores. In fact, she altogether passes over Greenberg’s politics in the turbulent decade of the 1930’s, mentioning only his attendance at “a few, large public meetings” in 1937 and his burgeoning friendships with Harold Rosenberg and Lionel Abel, both of whom were likewise destined to become celebrated critics and whom Rubenfeld identifies as being “Communists or fellow-travelers” at the time. Although her lack of curiosity surely reflects Greenberg’s own discreet silence on a phase of his life that he later renounced, it is an alarming trait in a biographer.

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Greenberg stepped into intellectual fame with his first major article, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” which appeared in Partisan Review in 1939. Although the essay is remembered today chiefly for having introduced the German word kitsch—lowbrow art or culture—into English usage, at the time it attracted attention for its analytical power and the ambitiousness of its intellectual reach. In his opening lines, Greenberg sketched out the problem as he saw it:

One and the same civilization produces simultaneously two such different things as a poem by T. S. Eliot and a Tin Pan Alley song, or a painting by [Georges] Braque and a Saturday Evening Post cover. . . . [W]hat perspective of culture is large enough to enable us to situate them in an enlightening relation to one another?

The answer came in the form of a heady cocktail of Trotsky’s politics and Bauhaus aesthetics. Greenberg traced the emergence of kitsch to the dislocations of the Industrial Revolution, the rise of universal literacy, and the creation of a market for accessible and affordable art objects. But he included under the category of kitsch not only the mass productions of American-style capitalism—those Tin Pan Alley songs—but the official art of both Nazi Germany and, much more controversially, Soviet Russia.

As Greenberg saw it, the repudiation of kitsch required, in turn, a vigorous defense of high art. But he had a particular mode of high art in mind. Greenberg was writing during a period of considerable artistic confusion in America, with four major movements contending in a stylistic free-for-all: the “American-scene” painters, from Thomas Hart Benton to Grant Wood; the social realists (Ben Shahn, Raphael and Moses Soyer, and others); the cubist-influenced painters of the “American Abstract Artists,” a group formed in 1937; and, finally, the surrealists, devotees of a movement that had never cast deep roots in America but that was now being fortified by the arrival of European artists like Yves Tanguy.

The first two of these movements held no interest for Greenberg; to him, they were simply kitsch in the service of political programs. He also despised surrealism, a kind of neoromanticism that was seeking (in his judgment) to return to the fictional notion of painting as a window into an imaginary world. In this he was taking an especially bold stand. Into the 1940’s it was unclear whether the principal channel of pictorial modernism would be surrealism or abstraction; Greenberg’s consistent and quite venomous polemicizing played a role in shifting intellectual opinion away from the former and toward the latter.

In “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” Greenberg laid out his core argument in favor of abstraction. At its heart was the notion of the autonomy of art, with its corollary that the intrinsic nature of each medium would determine that medium’s direction of development. In the case of painting, the direction was toward flatness; in the case of sculpture, toward volumetric clarity. But content in art—any content whatsoever, narrative, imitative, or political—was out. “Content is to be dissolved so completely into form that the work of art or literature cannot be reduced in whole or in part to anything not itself”—“itself” being its formal properties. This is not to say that Greenberg rejected the whole of Western art since the Renaissance. But for the moment and for the future, realism and imitation were no longer valid options: “The alternative to Picasso is not Michelangelo, but kitsch.”

This formalist program Greenberg would follow without detour for the remainder of his career.2 In themselves, his ideas were derived from European modernism, and in particular from the Bauhaus painter Hans Hofmann, whose lectures Greenberg had been attending. But the whole mental atmosphere of his thought as it revealed itself in “Avant-Garde and Kitsch”—from the vocabulary of objectivity and historical inevitability to the dogmatic and frequently corrosive tone—was thoroughly Marxist. This tone, a novelty in art criticism, would linger in Greenberg’s writing, like a childhood accent that cannot be shed, long after he dropped the rest of his Marxist habits of mind.

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Greenberg’s ascendance in New York intellectual circles was interrupted only by a failed stint in the Army Air Force in 1943. In the early years, as Rubenfeld writes, he thought of himself primarily as a literary person, and it was more by default than by design that he found himself a professional art critic. Although his enemies later snickered that he could not stand the fierce competition in the literary world, in truth he was virtually the only one of the early New York intellectuals with any aptitude for or interest in painting and sculpture.3 In this vacuum, especially in the 1940’s, his judgments began to carry weight.

Following the war, Greenberg, by now an associate editor at COMMENTARY and the art critic for the Nation, moved to Greenwich Village, and his social life came to revolve more and more about the downtown art scene. Although he is chiefly remembered in those years for having catapulted Jackson Pollock to fame—in 1947 he pronounced Pollock “the most powerful painter in America”—in fact his role went much deeper.

Greenberg was the first to treat New York modern artists as a collective school rather than as so many provincial followers of high European modernism. He took the term “abstract expressionism,” which had been used to describe German painters of the previous generation, and helped affix it to this “school,” which he then relentlessly promoted in his reviews and essays. In the work of such artists as Arshile Gorky, Adolph Gottlieb, Willem de Kooning, and especially Pollock and the sculptor David Smith, he saw a vitality and jauntiness absent from the art of postwar Europe. In his writings, the artists’ colony that huddled around grimy Eighth Street became nothing less than the churning center of a new international movement.

During these years, Greenberg’s political views also shifted. As late as September 1941 he had predicted that if President Roosevelt tried to enter the war, America’s working classes would refuse to fight. But with the lessons of the war behind him, and faced with the realities of Stalin’s brutal occupation of Eastern Europe, he drifted away from Marxist orthodoxy. By the end of the 1940’s Greenberg (in common with others around Partisan Review and COMMENTARY) had become outspoken in the cause of anti-Communist liberalism.

This process of political maturation culminated in Greenberg’s public break with the pro-Stalinist Nation in 1951. Incensed by the magazine’s coverage of foreign affairs, which consistently “parallel[ed] that of Soviet propaganda,” he sent a letter challenging the magazine’s editor, Freda Kirchwey, to explain herself. She refused to print the letter, even in a revised version, and warned Greenberg of a lawsuit if he proceeded to publish his “false, defamatory, and scurrilous” charges elsewhere. He did; she sued. A considerable number of American intellectuals—including Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Lionel Trilling, and Richard Rovere—eventually aligned themselves with Greenberg, and in the wake of the affair, Reinhold Niebuhr resigned as a contributing editor of the Nation.

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This whole episode, and much more about Greenberg’s role in the formation of postwar American liberalism, is a story of considerable drama, which makes it all the more unfortunate that his biographer seems indifferent to or nervous about the issues at stake (at one point she frets that Greenberg had inadvertently become a “darling of far-right groups”). Her reticence seems even more culpable when contrasted to her sometimes embarrassingly full treatment of other areas of his life, then and later.

Greenberg’s compulsive womanizing, for instance—often inseparable from his promotion of female artists—has long been legendary; in Rubenfeld’s version, it verges on the grotesque. In the early 1950s he carried on a prolonged affair with the artist Helen Frankenthaler. Subsequent affairs, of which there were many even after his second marriage, seem to have been much more casual. Although Rubenfeld does not go so far as to suggest he demanded a quid pro quo for favorable notice, she does show how the culture of art schools—especially Bennington, where he taught intermittendy, and where students had to meet privately with their professors for a weekly tutorial—brought out the seducer in Greenberg.

Another element in her tale of Greenberg’s personal life, never narrated at length before, constitutes perhaps the most shocking segment of Rubenfeld’s book. Following the break-up of his attachment with Frankenthaler in 1955, Greenberg began an intense five-day-a-week psychoanalysis with a disciple of Harry Stack Sullivan. In all, his treatment would extend over six years.

Sullivan himself had died in 1949, but his followers had devised a particularly virulent version of his ideas, a central tenet of which was that close personal attachments only reprise the tyranny of the family and should therefore be dissolved. Patients were provided with form letters to help them break off ties with siblings and friends. (In Greenberg’s case, one casualty seems to have been his brother Martin.) Above all, patients were urged to avoid sexual monogamy, and were criticized if they spent too much time with a single partner. If this was free love, it was compulsory free love. In any case, it was hardly the sort of “therapy” Greenberg needed.

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By 1957, Greenberg had been dismissed from COMMENTARY after twelve years as an associate editor. (At fault was his viciously abusive temper, another character trait encouraged by the Sullivanian ethos.) After his removal he turned again to sustained art criticism. By now, however, much of what he had championed in the early 1950’s was somewhat passe, and a dissenting movement had arisen that was hostile to abstract expressionism in method, theory, and, especially, attitude.

This was pop art, whose appearance in 1958 had the breath of scandal about it. Disdaining the high moral seriousness that was a badge of honor to the modernist, pop artists replaced it with camp. Far from banishing subject matter from the pictorial plane, the pop artist injected that plane with subject matter that was patently ridiculous: beer cans, light bulbs, and other artifacts drawn from the world of modern commercial imagery. In place of the aggressively masculine style of the abstract expressionists, here was an art form dominated by homosexual painters whose attitudes were in every respect opposed to the whiskey-and-fisticuffs values of Eighth Street.

Although he expressed some admiration for Jasper Johns, in general Greenberg was contemptuous of pop art, despising its frivolousness and unearned facility. To him it represented not just the ascendance of kitsch, but—gallingly—kitsch lifted out of Tin Pan Alley and ensconced in the Museum of Modern Art. Caught by surprise by pop’s success, he responded by moving aggressively to promote a second wave of abstract artists, the color-field painters. Helen Frankenthaler was an early avatar of this trend, but the most celebrated practitioners were Morris Louis, Jules Olitski, and Kenneth Noland, the last of whom became something of a personal cause to Greenberg. In their paintings, gestural turbulence gave way to diaphanous washes of pure color, transparent as gauze or (to use their own favorite image) a veil.

Characteristically, Greenberg sought to promote these artists on the grounds of their historical inevitability. Gestural painting, he sweepingly insisted, had spent its force, and the long run of cubist-inspired art, based on the lattice of line and structure, was nearing an end. In its place the lineage of Impressionism would be revived, and color, no longer subordinated to a structural armature, would again be sovereign. To this new movement he gave a name: post-painterly abstraction.

It was a reach, and his amused fellow critics knew it. (Harold Rosenberg, a friend turned rival, burlesqued Greenberg’s essay, “After Abstract Expressionism,” with one of his own, “After Next, What?”) But Greenberg was also in trouble from another and more dangerous development than pop art. In his prime, he was unusually effective in imposing his authority on an art world that had just emerged from a prolonged period of stylistic confusion and experimentation. In this he resembled the 19th-century English critic John Ruskin, whose program for a modern Venetian gothic was no less absurd than the other eclectic movements of the day but had the virtue of being strongly stated. But again like Ruskin, who came to loathe the sham palazzos of Oxford built in his name, Greenberg would discover that his theories, assuming a life of their own, might reemerge in forms he would hate.

Such was the case with minimalism, the radically reductive art of the mid-1960’s that took to a logical conclusion the Greenbergian doctrine that painting tended inexorably to approach the condition of absolute flatness, and sculpture that of volumetric clarity. The favorite devices of minimalism—the fractured steel prisms and stacks of identical wooden boxes—dispensed not only with specific subject matter but with any and all substance whatsoever. In a work like Robert Morris’s Steam (1968), consisting of nothing but a series of photographs of a steam vent dissolving into nothingness, one saw formalism at its most ruthless absolute—and, artistically, one saw a complete dead end.

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It did not help Greenberg that he himself found minimalism vapid. By the late 1960’s, though he was still promoting individual artists (including Kenneth Noland), he no longer represented a coherent movement or perspective, and over the course of the next decade his ideas became deeply unfashionable.

In fact, the enmity felt toward him was only partly based on his aesthetic positions. To be sure, to some people in the art world the problem with Greenberg had always been the narrowness of his formalism, which tolerated only one channel of aesthetic development and scorned deviation. But this was no longer particularly relevant: formalism, after all, was dead. Now a new critique took shape, and one with a decidedly political hue.

The new view would become crystallized in a book by Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art (1983), which placed Greenberg’s opinions on art in the context of his anti-Communism. Greenberg, in Guilbaut’s influential reading, was to be understood as an aesthetic cold warrior, one who promoted American art as a vehicle of American hegemony. Within a few years this view had found its way into introductory art-survey books for college students.4

But the final blow to Greenberg’s reputation was the series of events alluded to at the outset of this essay. When the sculptor David Smith died in 1965, Greenberg was named a trustee of his artistic estate, which included a number of one-ton painted metal sculptures lumbering in the fields about Smith’s rural studio in upstate New York. Such trusteeships are generally advisory in nature, but Greenberg took his role to heart.

A decade after Smith’s death, the sculptures were found to be weathering rapidly and losing their coat of paint. Greenberg, however, preferred them in their unpainted form—in fact, he had always preferred them in that form. Knowing of this, the art historian Rosalind Krauss, a former intimate of Green-berg’s circle, now undertook to play whistle-blower. Greenberg—so the charge went—was allowing to happen passively and posthumously what he had failed to persuade Smith to do while alive.

Like most career-ending scandals, this one was damaging not because it was so bad in itself but because it embodied most clearly what was felt to be the subject’s characteristic flaw. That there was a defense—Smith’s works were unfinished, and the peeling paint was only a primer coat—did not matter. The whole incident confirmed what everyone already “knew” about Greenberg: his arrogance, his smugly superior attitude toward the artists he wrote about, above all his contempt for the cardinal rule of etiquette that says a critic may observe and comment but must never participate in the creation of art.

Other anecdotes also swirled about, recapitulating old scandals: that Greenberg had crossed a line in advising French & Co. Galleries on contemporary art, or that he had promoted artists with the understanding that he would be given paintings as gifts (which he would then sell after their values rose). By the 1980’s it became hard to find anyone willing to go on record with anything positive to say about Clement Greenberg, and to make matters worse, he returned the favor, feuding in his final years not only with adversaries but with those who loved him, and casting off old friendships with a feral snarl.

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In the end, how does one assess Clement Greenberg? How important were his career and his ideas?

An odd discrepancy haunts that career. Greenberg did indeed represent a kind of arid intellectualism; his writings about art displayed the ruthless, frigid aspect of a logician’s proof. In this connection it is instructive to compare him with George Orwell, another former Trotskyist who happened also to write from time to time for Partisan Review. In a famous article, “The Art of Donald McGill,” Orwell examined the vulgar postcards sold at English seaside towns between the wars. This was kitsch, Greenberg’s turf. But Orwell, instead of dismissing it, looked closely at the aesthetic conventions of the postcards and at their limited palette of themes: sex, nudity, drunkenness. He worked to reconstruct the moral atmosphere they expressed—a lower-middle-class respectability that tolerated a certain bawdy rebellion in restricted channels—and in doing so he struck off insights of a sort not to be found in Greenberg’s work, where all is kept on a high plane of abstraction and objectivity, and human messiness never intrudes.

And yet, at the same time, the objective critic was often a source of markedly subjective judgments. In his interaction with artists, in particular, Greenberg freely abandoned analytic categories and resorted instead to the authority of his much-vaunted “eye.” The Greenberg who was so precise in making Kantian distinctions, and so voluble in articulating them, paid taciturn visits to studios where his only form of communication was a peremptory grunt in front of something he liked, a slightly different grunt to signify the opposite.

Rubenfeld does not succeed in knitting together these two facets of Greenberg. In general, her book lacks a center; although it is based on much material and long preparation, it gives the impression of something incompletely digested, and we do not gain from it a sense of the complete man. She does, though, take a stand on the question of Greenberg’s importance, entering a broad and convincing claim for the centrality of his role in the rise of postwar American art. But she does this in a way that leaves little for revisionist historians to disagree with.

Their version, at least, is all of a piece: the man who promoted American art as an instrument of United States foreign policy, tacitly collaborating in alleged CIA-sponsored shows of painting in Europe—a charge floated in David Anfam’s Abstract Expressionism (1990)—was the same man who brought a veritably McCarthyite temperament to his aesthetic judgments, brooking no dissent and enforcing a stifling conformity. It is to Rubenfeld’s credit that she does not endorse this foolish and tendentious view; unfortunately, she also does nothing to correct it.

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Perhaps the real case for Greenberg’s lasting importance rests on the fact that the art world today is still haunted by his ideas and prescriptions—if for no other reason than that virtually every one of them has been turned on its head. Today’s wisdom is that art should have an explicit and direct political application; that the distinction between kitsch and high art is meaningless; and that subject matter and narrative content are more important than technique or form. As for the notion of a coherent and logical course of artistic development, intrinsic to every genre, that has been jettisoned in favor of a willed celebration of the provisional, the improvised, the personal, and the arbitrary.

The result, however, is not an improvement upon the cultural vitality of an earlier age but a distinct and disastrous decline. If, then, students in America’s art schools continue to invoke “Greenbergian formalism”—and they do—that is because in a shifting sea, without fixed positions, it is a comfort to have a landmark, even a theoretically hateful one. As a foil, perhaps even as a secret ideal, a number of the things Clement Greenberg stood for—austerity, high intellectual integrity, the devotion to formal perfection—may, if we are lucky, be with us for some time to come.

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Footnotes

1 Clement Greenberg: A Life. Scribner, 336 pp., $30.00.

2 Greenberg never wrote a book of theory, but he did publish a collection of essays entitled Art and Culture (1961), as well as a few slim monographs on individual artists. His criticism is in the process of being edited by John O’Brian; four volumes have already appeared under the auspices of the University of Chicago Press.

3 Meyer Schapiro and Harold Rosenberg both frequently turned their hands to contemporary art criticism, but neither so consistently nor so successfully as Greenberg. Hilton Kramer arrived on the scene a bit later.

4 For more on this point, see Hilton Kramer, “Greenberg and the Cold War,” New Criterion, March 1993.

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About the Author

Michael J. Lewis, a frequent contributor, teaches at Williams College. He is the author most recently of American Art and Architecture (Thames & Hudson)




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