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


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…

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