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The Medium Inquisitor

Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 1: Perceptions and Judgments, 1939-1944 (1986)

edited by John O’Brian
University of Chicago Press, 270 pp., $16.95 (paper)

Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 2: Arrogant Purpose, 1945–1949 (1986)

edited by John O’Brian
University of Chicago Press, 353 pp., $16.95 (paper)

Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 3: Affirmations and Refusals, 1950–1956

edited by John O’Brian
University of Chicago Press, 305 pp., $29.95

Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 4: Modernism with a Vengeance, 1959–1969

edited by John O’Brian
University of Chicago Press, 341 pp., $29.95

1.

A phrase that has long echoed in discussions of American art was “as Clem Greenberg said,…” but the difficulty, until now, has been to know what that was. Clement Greenberg, for a slew of reasons, was the most influential art critic in American history. (He is still alive at eighty-four, but he abandoned critical writing long ago and shows no sign of resuming it; thus the past tense.) He was also nearly the last, and by far the best-known, of the self-taught art critics; practically no one goes into this field today without an armor-plating of specialized degrees in art history, but such things were not considered necessary fifty years ago, when most American art criticism was written by poets, painters, polemicists, and enthusiastic amateurs.

After twenty years of reviewing he published Art and Culture, a small volume of thirty-seven essays, many of them heavily revised from the form in which they originally appeared. “I would not deny,” he noted in the introduction, “being one of those critics who educate themselves in public, but I see no reason why all the haste and waste involved in my self-education should be preserved in a book.” Luckily, he was persuaded otherwise, and the result—four volumes of collected essays and criticism, all in their first published versions, the whole corpus scrupulously edited and well introduced by John O’Brian, who teaches art history at the University of British Columbia—has now appeared.

Though Greenberg stopped writing nearly a quarter of a century ago—the last piece in this collection is dated 1969, and it is a radio interview with him done for the United States Information Service—he continues to haunt some of his former disciples, who have never gotten over the resentments of apprenticeship. Rosalind Krauss, for instance, still can’t forgive him for writing off Surrealism, and for a memory like a film clip—Greenberg’s writhing lips pontificating to her about “Smart Jewish girls with their typewriters” is replayed four or five times in her recent book, The Optical Unconscious. And some Americans find it mightily hard to accept the fact that, just as Greenberg’s positivist, Kantian aesthetic positions seem to have been superseded by the flood of French theory into academe, the French themselves have recently discovered a new interest in Greenberg.

He may be officially “dead,” but he won’t lie down. No other American critic has ever imposed such a presence on the art world, or been so adored and vilified by opposing camps. Feminist and multiculturalist criticism has turned him, during the last fifteen years, into a bogey of elitism and male domination; when people attacked the idea of “quality” in art as repressive, it was usually Greenberg that they saw lurking like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain, pulling the wires that produce the special effects of phallocentric art history. In 1980s art-magazine writing the ritual denunciation of “Greenbergian formalism” was a way of clearing the throat, establishing credentials.

This seems all the more peculiar if you reflect that, to judge by results, Greenberg’s opinions have ceased to exert any leverage on the new art that is actually shown in American museums or followed by collectors. The last art movement he wholeheartedly endorsed—the color-field painting or Post-Painterly Abstraction, as he called it, of such artists as Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski—occurred in the 1960s; and although in a 1987 interview conducted by ARTnews he pronounced that Jules Olitski was still the best living American painter and that he preferred Andrew Wyeth’s paintings to Jasper Johns’s, few can have thought this more than the sound of a stuck record.

Greenberg was not a voluminous writer. Considering his near-legendary status as a critic, his output was meager. It’s hardly an exaggeration that after 1961—the year his collection of essays Art and Culture came out—more was written about him than by him. The standard edition of John Ruskin’s works, edited after his death in 1900 by his friends E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, runs to thirty-eight volumes and its index alone takes up 689 pages in double columns. Greenberg’s whole output is only eight books, of which five are made up of essays (Art and Culture, and the four present volumes) and three are short monographs on Joan Miró (1948), Henri Matisse (1953), and Hans Hofmann (1961). He meant to write a critical biography of Jackson Pollock. but was unable to finish it. He wrote some poetry, never published. He translated works by Kafka, Paul Celan, and others from the German. But that was all.

He was certainly no Ruskin, and did not wish to be. Not only were his writings comparatively few, but their style made no concessions whatever to casual reading: it was clipped, laconic, and although rigorously structured and always clear, his prose made no attempt to woo the reader—Greenberg assumed that a readership was there but a necessarily small one. Much work went into this reduction, since the writing itself, though dense at times, never seems labored. Needless to say, not all of it is on the same level—whose could be?

John O’Brian’s project has been to produce a Complete Works, and he has gone about it with such microscopic care that Volume 4 even preserves (item 25) a printed “Statement as Juror of an Exhibition in Oklahoma City,” an utterance one third the length of its title: “Man is fallible,” it reads. Humble thanks, Obi wan-Kenobi.

Throughout the Fifties, Greenberg also did his share of routine freelancing for Vogue and for other middle-brow magazines that he had looked down on in the Forties. Few of these were worth exhuming. But either you publish the Complete Works, or you do not; and one of the surprises of this collection is to see how widely Greenberg’s interests fanned out, especially in the Forties and early Fifties. Those who imagine him strictly as a writer on “high” visual art will find pieces on Brecht and Kafka, on Jewish humor, on such cartoonists as David Low, James Thurber, and William Steig, on American poetry, the early work of Saul Bellow, and even a review of a ballet by Anthony Tudor. Loyal fans of Greenberg may take this as evidence of a mighty breadth of cultural curiosity, but such a spread is not unusual in freelance reviewing, and it hardly suggests that Greenberg possessed the range of Edmund Wilson. O’Brian’s collection makes this a lot clearer than one would deduce from the narrower scope of Art and Culture.

Some day,” Greenberg wrote in his essay “The Late Thirties in New York” (1961), “it will have to be told how ‘anti-Stalinism,’ which started out more or less as ‘Trotskyism,’ turned into art for art’s sake, and thereby cleared the way, heroically, for what was to come.” If the mind’s eyebrow shoots up at that word “heroically,” it is partly because one of the agents of that change was Greenberg himself. He joined the ideological wars of New York intellectual life later than some of his contemporaries on Partisan Review and The Nation, whose commitment to Marxism was longer and whose split from it was, accordingly, more wrenching, for instance Harold Rosenberg. Starting out as a parlor Marxist in the 1930s, he became rapidly disillusioned with Stalinism—faster, it should be said to his credit, than certain other New York intellectuals. It would be hard to fault his basic views on art and politics, set forth in Partisan Review in 1948:

As a person the writer ought indeed to involve himself in the struggle against Stalinism to the “point of commitment.” Why should we ask less of him than of any other adult interested in the survival of the common decencies and authentic culture? However, he is under no moral—or aesthetic—obligation whatsoever to involve himself in this struggle as a writer…. Qua writer he is only interested necessarily in what he can write about successfully.

This seems exactly right; it remains worth pondering almost a half-century later, as the American art world is swamped in a tide of political utterance that exceeds, in sheer volubility and boredom, anything produced by Popular Front Marxism during the 1930s or 1940s.

Greenberg did not become a militant anti-Communist until America was well into the cold war. At the end of 1950 he became a founding member of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, an anti-Communist organization, and in 1951, he broke with The Nation, for which he had been writing occasional reviews, angrily accusing it of fellow-traveling. All the same, his basic approach to cultural issues, dialectical and aggressively materialistic, was formed by Marxism and annealed by the peculiar toughness on which American Trotskyites, distrusted by the right and hysterically loathed by the Stalinist left, prided themselves. “Here, as in every other question today,” he wrote at the end of his celebrated 1939 essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” “it becomes necessary to quote Marx word for word…. Today we look to socialism simply for the preservation of whatever living culture we have right now.” Writing for Horizon in 1940, he opined that a Trotskyist revolution in the West, not a united capitalist front, was the only way to beat Hitler, because it “would send an answering thrill through the German workers… it would invite the world to join it in fraternity and love—yes, love. It would not be Stalin, it would not be tangled up with the barbarism, accidental to itself, of a backward country”—Russia.

That foolish and romantic enthusiasm burned off soon enough, but it left its residue; nine years later, in a sharp attack on the political vaporings of the French poet Paul Valéry, he pointed out, “Anyone who in the twentieth century protects his mind as carefully as Valéry did from Marx has small intellectual right to express his views on politics in public. Not that one has to be a Marxist….”

But it helped to have been one. The experience of Marxism gave Greenberg his bent as a critic: an obsession with the direction of history. Only by demonstrating that he is on the side of History—aware of the laws of its unfolding, able to reconcile the art he likes with those laws—can a critic rise to seriousness, for otherwise criticism is merely the expression of subjective taste, and can claim no binding force. A curious position, however, for a writer who placed the utmost value on such taste. However much the vision may take account of art history, the eye’s judgment, swift and instinctive, was also involuntary. Greenberg would always indignantly deny that his preferences in art were the result of a “line” or a “system.”

2.

Greenberg started writing on art with some degree of regularity for Partisan Review in 1941. He was emboldened to do so by his contact with the expatriate German artist Hans Hofmann. He attended some of Hofmann’s lectures on modernist aesthetics, and deduced from them some of his own basic ideas about the need for “radical” abstraction, the purity of color, and the integrity of the picture plane. Hofmann’s views on art, he would write in 1947, were “the core of the artistic sensibility and intelligence of our age.” And the core of that core was Hofmann’s belief, which would expand into the whole foundation of Greenberg’s approach to art, that painting and sculpture were not concerned with illusion; that what counted in them was their cultivation of their own medium.

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