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Overtaking the Avant-Garde

The Age of the Avant-Garde: An Art Chronicle of 1956-1972

by Hilton Kramer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 565 pp., $12.95

Like most collections of critical essays, the books under review are composed of pieces that have been written over many years, in Kramer’s case for the New York Times and, in Rosenberg’s, for magazines ranging from Partisan Review to Vogue. Almost all the essays in both books derive from events, such as art exhibits, the appearance of new books, or the organization of a symposium on an issue of current interest, so that the authors’ views cannot be as coherently presented as they might be had particular objects and themes been chosen for examination.

In both cases it doesn’t matter much whether one reads the whole book or parts of it, or in what order. In compensation for this lack of structure we are offered a kaleidoscope of cultural happenings in America—or more exactly New York—during a number of years, and an insight into the attitudes, methods, and to some degree the intellectual development of two widely read critics. The range of subjects is more likely to interest future historians than current readers, many of whom will have their own sense of recent cultural events; so these books will be of interest mainly to the extent that intellectuals who are concerned with such matters want to know more about the ideas of Kramer and Rosenberg.

Kramer is compelled by the policy of the New York Times to reveal his ideas in small and uniformly designed packages that provide the public with opinions on current exhibitions the day they open. We are intended to skim them while we drink our morning coffee. When they are presented in hard covers, it seems unjust both to Mr. Kramer and to the artists that exhibits should be evaluated in fewer than 1500 words (in one piece, three San Francisco artists are allotted a total of three pages) and that those words have often been written to meet a deadline. A novel does better in its Times review than twenty paintings and, characteristically, Kramer’s reviews of books by Clement Greenberg and Rosenberg are longer than any art notice in the volume.

Given these restrictions, Kramer has accomplished a lot in pieces on more than 125 nineteenth- and twentieth-century artists; the articles are consistently informative, acute, and helpful to the reader who wants some preparation for seeing an exhibit. Some, for example the essay on Medardo Rosso, are, to my mind, model reviews. Kramer is probably the best art journalist of our time; he knows his subject in depth, understands his audience, and is scrupulously fair as well as courageous in his attacks on wrongdoing and sham, as in an essay called “Art and Politics: Incursions and Conversions” (pp. 522ff), which indignantly rebukes a prominent critic, a leading minimalist artist, and the director of the Museum of Modern Art for their hypocrisy in suddenly announcing their discovery of the superiority of the art of the masses and the minorities.

But criticism does not flourish in these little boxes, nor does Kramer seem to want to practice it. He never discusses a particular work of art, even on occasions, as in his pieces on Lovis Corinth or David Smith, when he has a chance to write a longer essay. He gives the essential biographical data on an artist, discusses his style in a general way, and reveals the formative artistic influences on the work. He is, for better or for worse, an academic art historian of a period that isn’t yet history. “Better” because of his scholarly openness and thoroughness; “worse” for the absence of a definable philosophical or critical position.

I don’t mean by this that Kramer doesn’t make judgments. In fact, nearly every review in the last part of the book (“Contemporaries”) ends with a judgment—generally favorable in the case of older New York School artists and their followers (though he demolishes Pollock and the later de Kooning), and consistently antagonistic toward the vanguard styles of the last dozen years (Pop, Minimal, Conceptual, etc.). These evaluations are validated partly by personal taste and partly by the initial essay, from which the book takes its title and which is perhaps the most substantial in the collection.

In what Kramer calls a “revisionist” view of modernism, he distinguishes two kinds of avant-garde in our century: the “programmatic” avant-garde of manifestoes and gestures, which was influential but produced little lasting art (Futurism, Dada, etc.), and the “silent” avant-garde whose battles were waged in the loneliness of the studio and in the galleries of museums (an institution that was the target of the first avant-garde and the essential tool of the second) and which worked through the art of the past to arrive at a new and significant distillation (Picasso, Matisse). Kramer returns admiringly to T.S. Eliot’s essay of 1919, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” suggesting that the tradition-steeped avant-garde has been, after all, the more telling of the two. But finally, in our time, a supine and no-longer-shock-able bourgeoisie has deprived any sort of avant-garde of its radical function; what has passed for vanguard art in recent years is a more or less jaunty dance of death.

But I find Kramer’s judgments unsatisfying because he has raised this hypothesis, which is an acceptable perspective for surveying modern art, to a critical standard, when it is only a historical proposition. If tradition is a valuable ingredient in advanced art, it is not because it has proved to be so in the past, but because one’s values give it significance. Kramer does not articulate those values.

Kramer faults Clement Greenberg for taking a critical stand that excludes other viewpoints and that narrows his perception of recent art and its evolution; but no criticism is possible without a particular point of view, and that is why Greenberg’s reviews of art exhibitions are still challenging thirty years later, while the commentaries in this collection, informative as they are, have lost their primary function, having ceased to be news, and read like random passages from an encyclopedia of modern art.

Harold Rosenberg also includes an essay on the avant-garde written in 1969, and it is revealing to compare it to Kramer’s, though also a bit unfair, because the essay is less well organized and more superficial than some others in his book. Though Rosenberg does not distinguish two vanguards, his message is essentially the same, including the verdict that the era which commenced with Jarry’s Ubu Roi in 1896 is over. But he shows himself to be not so much a historian as a sociologist of art, and this, I think, is the main difference between the two writers. While Kramer is concerned with the significance of tradition, Rosenberg is interested in the impact of avantgardism on the audience, and particularly its dependence on the middle class; the avant-garde is “joined to the Bourgeoisie by bonds of antagonism always on the verge of being transformed into love.”

To those who follow the art scene and to readers of the New Yorker, Harold Rosenberg is known as one of the most widely read commentators on contemporary painting and sculpture of the last quarter-century. But he is more ambitious than that, as this collection shows. The thirty-five essays devoted to issues in contemporary society are grouped in six sections: the first, on American “Mirages of Identity,” twits the bourgeoisie and breezily pronounces on what ails women, men, psychiatrists, and others; the nine pieces collected in “The Geography of Modern Art” concentrate on institutions, politics, and art-talk rather than on art itself (typically, since Rosenberg is no more inclined than Kramer to deal with particular works). There are essays on society and its analysts, on geopolitics, and a collection (“Themes”) of musings on the human condition.

Rosenberg is one of the very few writers in this country who has pursued a career as a professional intellectual, aimed to persuade other intellectuals of the views he has formed on high culture during his years in Manhattan. He has undertaken a more complex job than Mr. Kramer has, and consequently this sampling of his achievement over thirty years is more interesting. It adds up to something greater than its parts, being a sort of intellectual autobiography of a man who speaks perhaps as much as anyone could for a generation of New Yorkers disenchanted with Marxist solutions to social ills and seeking an alternative in liberal individualism and in a defense of the absolute autonomy of art. The essays in this book are linked by a single, insistent theme, that the dream of salvation through the political community, especially a socialist community, is an illusion, and that the answer lies in the cultivation of our independence and in seeing the faults of the bourgeois conformist majority.

Two weaknesses in Rosenberg’s criticism cause it to fall short of its ambitions. The first is that he sees the limitations of every segment of our society except his own. He speaks as a member of a self-appointed elite, and as he looks down with a bit of complacency and scorn on the habits of the advertising man, the Kremlin watcher, the art-manipulator, and various other vulnerable targets, he wins his victories so easily, and with so little self-doubt, that, acute as he is, he tends to become entertaining rather than enlightening. The critic who is unconscious of the possible defects in his own strategy weakens his attack as well as his defense. In the end, we learn from Rosenberg how badly all sorts of people and institutions behave, but not why they behave that way or whether they could behave better.

The second weakness is that Rosenberg’s definition of criticism puts so much stress on the programmatic aims of art and social acts—whether he writes about the abstract expressionists or the WPA—that it gives us little help in assessing the value of the work of art or of the acts themselves. “Criticism,” he says in the 1967 essay “Speculators and Recruiters,” “might dedicate itself to bringing into being a consciousness of those factors of experience that are related to style—for example, the liberation of individuals from dead forms in expression and social behavior.” With such a program, he is bound to discuss the nature and uses of artistic and social movements rather than works of art or events; all of the nine essays in the section called “The Geography of Modern Art” deal with institutions or patterns of behavior in the art world. Rosenberg himself falls into the error which he finds typical of the modernist attitude: “A human being, an object, a work is meaningful not for itself but through its position in the scheme by which future reality is being shaped, whether that scheme is the new social order of some revolutionary ideology or the changing order of poems which T.S. Eliot characterized as “the poetic tradition’ ” (in “The Avant-Garde,” p. 78).

Rosenberg and other contemporary liberal critics have difficulty in dealing both with particular works of art and with social actions perhaps because they have no consciously affirmed standards of value themselves other than a vague and unarticulated defense of freedom and diversity. The mixture of American pragmatism and the fear of Marxist and other socialist ideologies that characterizes their work has produced an intellectual class unable or unwilling to face up to its own values and the bases on which they are formed. The values are there, in some subconscious region whence they emerge only erratically to muddle the discourse.

For example, Rosenberg seems to be saying that the unfettered expression of individual artists and intellectuals helps to preserve liberty and that this condition would be threatened if the individuals were to join together in a community; but in spite of his early immersion in Marxist thought he does not ask how liberty of expression is assured, under what conditions it may be withdrawn, and how people who reject the principles shared by a community can defend their liberty. Nor does he face the implications of a culture in which the artists and writers whom he discusses constitute a privileged class by virtue of their capacities, whether they are poor or rich, to choose a style of life, to move out of tight spots, to stop or start work on their own schedule, and to cast aside conventions and restrictions. Why are they in particular given freedom, and do their assertion and protection of liberty help to spread their freedoms among those who are less free?

In raising this question, I assume, along with Mr. Rosenberg, that the freedom of expression sought and enjoyed by intellectuals really deserves to be called freedom. But to what extent is it contingent on the support of institutions? While painters are not necessarily formed by collectors, galleries, and museums, or professors by universities and organized disciplines, how many members of either group can conveniently reject the comforting embrace of such protectors? Is Mr. Rosenberg free of constraints when he accepts a commission from Vogue or Esquire, or am I free in writing this review? We all behave conventionally for security’s sake, and while we are free to kick over the traces, most of us don’t, because without either an alternative system of values or a community of like minds we lack both the will and the authority. At this moment we are free to say, do, or paint almost anything we choose, partly because we are so powerless that nobody is concerned to silence us, and partly because we can’t imagine anything really disturbing to communicate.

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