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The Collected Essays and Criticism, by Clement Greenberg, edited by John O'Brian

Art and Culture

The Collected Essays and Criticism.
by Clement Greenberg.
Edited By John O’Brian University of Chicago Press. Volume I: Perceptions and Judgments, 1939-1944. 270 Pp. $27.50. Volume II: Arrogant Purpose, 1945-1949. 353 Pp. $27.50.

Clement Greenberg is widely regarded as the most important art critic of his generation. Perhaps best known for his early and vigorous championing of abstract art, Greenberg was one of the first to appreciate the distinctive achievement of what has come to be known as Abstract Expressionism. Already in 1944, for example, Greenberg wrote that Jackson Pollock’s second one-man show “establishes him, in my opinion, as the strongest painter of his generation.” But Greenberg’s stature as a critic does not rest simply on his prescient enthusiasm for artists like Pollock, David Smith, and Robert Motherwell. Indeed, it does not rest solely on art criticism of any stripe.

For Greenberg’s passion has been not simply for art, but for the life of high culture generally, and though he has undoubtedly written more on the visual arts than on any other single subject, his career as a critic has embraced a wide range of topics. He began as a literary critic and translator (he was one of the first to translate works by Franz Kafka and Bertolt Brecht into English), and he continued to be a distinguished practitioner of both activities while also writing about art, politics, general cultural matters, and working as an editor. In short, Greenberg is the very embodiment of that nebulous phenomenon of which one has heard so much lately, the New York intellectual.

Born in the Bronx in 1909, Greenberg grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household. He has described his parents as “freethinking socialists,” and, given his interests and the era in which he came of age, it seems only natural that his intellectual temper should have been formed by that heady mixture of avant-garde cultural convictions and socialism of the Trotskyist, anti-Stalinist variety which distinguished New York in the late 30′s and early 40′s. In other words, Greenberg’s formative world was the world of Partisan Review, the world of writers like Dwight MacDonald, William Phillips, Philip Rahv, Harold Rosenberg, Meyer Schapiro, Lionel Trilling, and Robert Warshow.

In the late 30′s Greenberg attended lectures by the German-born painter and teacher Hans Hofmann, a major if elusive influence on his thinking whom he later called “in all probability the most important art teacher of our time.” Then in 1940, after having worked briefly in his family’s dry-goods business, as a translator, and as a government clerk, Greenberg became an editor at Partisan Review. He began publishing in the Nation in 1941, becoming its regular art critic the following year, a post he held (with time off in 1943 for a brief stint in the army) until 1949. He also contributed essays on literature, art, and politics to other leading magazines and reviews, including the New York Times Book Review, Cyril Connolly’s Horizon, and COMMENTARY, where he was an associate editor from 1945 until 1957.

For many readers, Greenberg is known only as the author of Art and Culture—a slim but deeply influential collection of thirty-seven essays and reviews published in 1961—and a handful of other uncollected essays and monographs. Altogether, however, this represents but a small fraction of his published work. Happily, John O’Brian, who teaches in the fine-arts department at Harvard, has undertaken to collect Greenberg’s criticism in the form in which it was originally published (many of the essays in Art and Culture were substantially revised by Greenberg, often obscuring their original impetus). The first two volumes, which bring together over two-hundred items, have recently appeared, and they contain Greenberg’s essays and criticism from 1939 through 1949. An additional two volumes will contain his criticism from 1950 through 1969. O’Brian has provided an introduction and notes, and has appended a chronology that traces Greenberg’s career through 1949.

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Greenberg’s first published criticism, a brief review of Bertolt Brecht’s A Penny for the Poor, appeared in the Winter 1939 issue of Partisan Review. This was followed the next fall by “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” one of Greenberg’s most ambitious and still most widely read essays. Though marred by occasional graceless writing and ritual descents into Marxist jargon, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” already announces several themes that were to become central to Greenberg’s concern as a critic. There is, first of all, the notion of historical inevitability, borrowed from Hegel via Marx: the age demands the avant-garde, demands an art that turns away from representational “subject matter” to explore its own medium and processes of fabrication. There is also the opposition of avant-garde art to its antonym: kitsch, an omnibus term that Greenberg employs to describe “ersatz culture” and an art that depends on mechanical formulas to produce “vicarious experience and faked sensations.”

Here, as in later pieces, Green-berg’s main crusade is against stagnation and “Alexandrianism” in art, or the twin vices of “academicism and commercialism.” Above all, “Avant-garde and Kitsch” sets the stage for Greenberg’s later work in its insistence that looking at these phenomena involves “more than an investigation in aesthetics.” Just as kitsch carries with it the suggestion of the spiritually meretricious and inauthentic, so the avant-garde, by contrast, appears as an almost heroic effort to forge something vital and genuine in an age inhospitable to the rigors—spiritual as well as aesthetic—of high culture. From the very beginning of his career, in other words, Greenberg held that the fate of cultural life in the modern age is inextricably bound up with the fate of serious art.

Equally central to Greenberg’s thinking is the proposition that, in the words of the art historian Heinrich Wöfflin, “Not everything is possible at all times.” For Greenberg, too, every age produces its own particular aesthetic demands, and artists ignore those demands at the peril of artistic enervation and obsolescence. “The imperative,” he writes in “Towards a Newer Laocoon” (1940),

comes from history, from the age in conjunction with a particular moment reached in a particular tradition of art. This conjunction holds the artist in a vise from which at the present moment he can escape only by surrendering his ambition and returning to a stale past.

It is in this context—the context of what the age demands—that we must understand Greenberg’s famous insistence on purity and abstraction in art. “Purity in art,” he writes, “consists in the acceptance . . . of the limitations of the medium of the specific art. . . . The arts . . . have been hunted back to their mediums, and there they have been isolated, concentrated, and defined.” As Greenberg’s language suggests (“hunted back,” “isolated”), this process of concentration and definition, though in some sense ineluctable, is nevertheless not wholly welcome. It involves a loss as well as a gain. What is lost is the richness and variety and accessibility of traditional representational art. What is gained is the possibility of genuine cultural achievement unadulterated by sentimentality, manufactured feelings, or kitsch.

Greenberg later softened these views somewhat, admitting that “Art is under no categorical imperative to correspond point by point to the underlying tendencies of the age.” But he continued to feel that abstract art represented the most fertile stream of contemporary art, “the only stream,” as he put it, “that flows toward an ocean.” More generally, he continued to hold that the age had its imperatives and limitations and, stringent as they might be, one’s best approach was to acknowledge them honestly. As he wrote in an important essay in 1948: “Our most effective course is to confront the situation as it is, and if it is still bad, to acknowledge the badness, trusting in the truth as the premise of any improvement, and feeling a new security because of the very fact that we have met and ascertained the worst.”

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Greenberg’s insistence on facing up to modernity, as it were, is one of the most powerful aspects of his criticism, and one that emerges with new clarity when reading through these volumes. But allegiance to this model of historical inevitability has drawbacks as well as advantages. Among other things, it puts one in the embarrassing position of appearing to dictate to history—and then, of course, of having to contrive elaborate explanations of why reality refuses to conform to the schedule laid down by the theory.

In Greenberg’s case, the drawbacks expressed themselves more in the political than the aesthetic realm. At least through the mid-40′s, he was wont to load his criticism, especially his longer pieces, with Marxist-inspired exhortations. Citing Trotsky in 1940, for example, he tells us that “in order to keep democracy there must be a socialist revolution. . . . We must choose: either capitalism or democracy.” By 1948, however, Greenberg was speaking of himself as “an ex-or disabused Marxist,” and the truth is that despite his penchant for socialist rhetoric, he has always insisted on the relative autonomy of art and the aesthetic sphere. The pieces collected in these volumes testify that Greenberg’s judgment as a critic remained uncorrupted by subservience to the Marxist program.

In the more narrowly aesthetic sphere, Greenberg’s embrace of the model of historical determinism gave his pronouncements about the necessity for abstract art a sometimes unwarranted zeal and assurance; as we look back on the period, it is not clear that the aesthetic choices were quite so limited as Greenberg made out. Nevertheless, by and large he did not let his theory of art history dictate his taste. In fact, the scores of exhibition reviews collected here reveal above all a sensibility capable of responding freshly to an extraordinarily wide range of artistic expression, classical as well as contemporary, figurative as well as abstract. Enjoyment, a spontaneous reaction of pleasure, this was his ultimate criterion of judgment.

It is precisely this concern for what might be called the living experience of art that led Greenberg to deplore the shallow parody of high culture that was embodied in “middlebrow” taste: the easy, superficially educated judgment that appropriates the gestures of serious art without grasping the experience or authentic feeling that validates them. Middlebrow culture, he writes, “attacks distinctions as such and insinuates itself everywhere, devaluating the precious, infecting the healthy, corrupting the honest, and stultifying the wise.”

Thus it should not be surprising that Greenberg, for all his proselytizing for abstract art, was not an unthinking champion of the new. By the late 40′s, he was already speaking of “the stabilization” of the avant-garde, what he would later disparagingly call “avant gardism”—an art that merely aped the outward forms of the avant-garde without possessing its essential spirit or its foundation in living experience.

One of Greenberg’s greatest strengths as a practical critic is his ability to call attention to an artist’s faults and weaknesses without failing to do justice to his merits; indeed, he realizes that an artist’s merits sometimes depend upon his weaknesses. Thus, he speaks of Delacroix’s “indispensable” faults (above all, a certain muddiness) or criticizes “the practice of wholesale appreciation, which remains the bane of art writing today.”

This rejection of “wholesale appreciation” gives Greenberg’s criticism a certain severity and appearance of ungenerosity, but it also means that his praise is worth something. Writing about the distinguished American poet Randall Jarrell, for example, Greenberg notes that he

has the talents, the sensitivity, the wisdom, and almost everything else that the good fairy can give. He is one of the most intelligent persons writing English at the moment. . . . But . . . he seems to have a blank personality. He is swallowed up by his gifts.

These are hard words, but Greenberg is right about Jarrell, and one cannot help thinking that the poet, himself a master of the penetrating critical mot, would have grudgingly approved of the verdict. (I am reminded of Jarrell’s comment in 1955 that anyone who reads and writes about many books is bound to be disappointed by how few he likes; “yet really,” he continues, “he should be uneasy at liking as many as he does. Posterity won’t.”)

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Reading through these volumes, one is naturally struck by how much the art world has changed since Greenberg’s heyday. It was much smaller and more intimate in the 40′s and 50′s than it has since become, and—one cannot help feeling—far more serious and vital. The blights of commercialism and academicism that Greenberg excoriated have by now installed themselves as the dominant forces. But there are some things that, perhaps because they were so bad to begin with, never seem to change. It would appear that one such dubiously predictable phenomenon is the Whitney Annual, forerunner of today’s notorious biennial. “This year’s Whitney Annual,” Greenberg wrote in 1944, “is more disheartening than ever”; “a new low,” he observed the following year. He discerned “enormous improvement” in the 1947 Annual, but the next year the exhibition had lapsed back to its “old mediocrity.” Plus ça change.

While Greenberg is still generally recognized as one of the giants of 20th-century criticism, there is a considerable irony attached to his current reputation. Because he has stressed purity and the abstract qualities of art, he is often branded a formalist, uninterested in anything except arcane questions of artistic technique; because he has stressed the relative autonomy of aesthetic experience, he is sometimes dismissed as an aesthete, unattuned to the social and historical dimensions of art. But the truth is that for Greenberg criticism has always been “more than an investigation in aesthetics.” There is always another dimension: moral, spiritual—call it what you will. Thus the Marxist art theorist Rosalind Krauss is quite right when she sniffs that for Greenberg “criticism has everything to do with value and almost nothing to do with method.”

But this remark, meant as a denigration, in fact points to one of Greenberg’s most conspicuous strengths. A concern with “value” over “method” shows itself in various ways throughout his writing, but at bottom it shows itself as a refusal to subordinate life to art. Responding to the controversy surrounding the 1948 award of the Bollingen Prize for poetry to Ezra Pound, for example, Greenberg noted that he had no quarrel with the aesthetic judgment of the award panel, but that “Life includes and is more important than art, and it judges things by their consequences.” “In any case,” he wrote,

I am sick of the art-adoration that prevails among cultured people, . . . that art silliness which condones almost any moral or intellectual failing on the artist’s part as long as he is or seems a successful artist. It is still justifiable to demand that he be a successful human being before anything else, even if at the cost of his art. As it is, psychopathy has become endemic among artists and writers, in whose company the moral idiot is tolerated as perhaps nowhere else in society.

This is one of many passages in Greenberg’s writings that speak with an absolutely contemporary voice.

At least through 1949, when these volumes conclude, what one misses in Greenberg’s criticism is a more sustained exposition of the critic’s underlying ideas. By far the greatest number of pieces collected here are brief reviews—notices, really—often no more than a page or two. This format has the indisputable advantages of freshness and immediacy, but it also has the distinct liabilities of cursoriness and, at times, of superficiality. Nevertheless, Greenberg reveals himself throughout as a critic unusually alive both to the experience of particular works of art and to the overarching question of the fate of art and high culture in the modern age.

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