return to 2004

Clement Greenberg


by Miles Mathis

Why even bring up Greenberg, one may ask?  Wasn't Pop Art and all that came after a successful coup de grace to Greenberg and his theories?   To Greenberg, yes.  To his theories, no.  Art theory since Greenberg, as Greenberg himself maintained, has been nothing but an embarrassment to everyone but the truly credulous.  Greenberg's theories on aesthetics were false, deluded, and self-important; but at least he took the subject seriously, compared to his successors.  He tried, with misguided valor, to restore the dwindling importance of art, if only in order to reflect on his own importance.  He could not see that art's dwindling importance was due, in large part, to the influence of previous criticism, and that criticism could not possibly save it.  But despite this, subsequent theories did not conquer Greenberg's, they simply set themselves up in the void left by his theories.


Greenberg paved the way, unintentionally, for the possibility of Pop Art and the other nihilistic eruptions since, and maybe this should be punishment enough.  But I will not leave him be.  His undercurrents of historicism and dialectical materialism have been refuted by the movement of art history since 1960, but much of his theory still stands untouched, and remains as a strong influence even today.  Art was not moving in the direction he thought it was, even as he was trying to determine that direction, but his theories have helped determine, in a sense, what is critically viable in the last half-century.  His success called the present demons out of the closet.


The best way to counter-critique Greenberg, I think, is to go straight to his articles, to begin the counterassault point for point, answering him on specifics and building a general refutation on these answers.  A logical place to start is with his famous article, “Avant Garde and Kitsch” [Partisan Review, 1939], published at the very beginning of his career, while he was still in his twenties.  In it Greenberg asserted that what has allowed the avant-garde to go beyond the "sameness" of academic art or kitsch has been a "superior consciousness of history," that is, an advanced "historical criticism."  So right at the start, and under no cover but literary opacity, Greenberg positioned himself at the top of the pyramid.  In that one sentence, the artist becomes subordinate to, and is in the service of, the historical critic. 


He goes on to say, "...the most important function of the avant-garde was not to experiment, but to find a path along which it would be possible to keep culture moving in the midst of ideological confusion and violence."  To do this, the artist "retires from public life altogether, seeking to maintain the high level of his art by both narrowing and raising it to the level of an absolute in which all relativities and contradictions would disappear. Subject matter or content becomes something to avoid like the plague." 


Disregarding the absurdity of the sentiments expressed here for a moment, I would like to focus only on the progression of the argument.  There are two great jumps in logic in as many sentences: how does creating "absolutes" help "keep culture moving" (much of Modern criticism has claimed just the opposite), and how does "avoiding subject matter and content" a) raise art to an "absolute" and b) "keep culture moving"? 


Greenberg does not expound or explain his thesis, he simply rushes ahead: "If... all art and literature are imitation, what we have here [with Modern art] is the imitating of imitating".  Greenberg not only gives us another definition of Modern art, failing to tie it to previous definitions, he also continues to jump: how does the "imitating of imitating" a) express an absolute, b) avoid subject matter or content, and c) keep culture moving? 


In the very next paragraph he starts off, "That avant garde culture is the imitation of imitating calls for neither approval nor disapproval."  (Not very critical of him, is it?  It hardly seems like a superior form of historical criticism.)  He continues, "In a sense this imitation of imitating is a superior form of Alexandrianism [his word for academicism]". 


In what sense precisely?  In that it takes imitation and removes it one more step?  This seems not superior, though, but inferior.  Why is imitation inferior, but double-imitation superior?  Because, he says, "There is one important difference: the avant garde moves, while Alexandrianism stands still."   This brings to mind three questions: 1) This idea of movement clashes with the previous idea of distilling into absolutes.  I would think that absolutes are fairly stable.  2) Given that Modernism moves, and that Alexandrianism does not, why is movement categorically better than stillness?  Certainly the opposite has been argued well many times throughout history (by Lao-Tse, Buddha, Plato, Christ).  Is any movement better than stillness?  Should we prefer even reversion or flailing to a well-centered stasis?  3) In what sense does "imitating imitating" move where imitation does not? 


Greenberg does not answer any of these questions.  I found “Avant Garde and Kitsch” a very difficult read, not because I disagree with it or because its terminology is beyond me, but because it is so poorly written.  The man's mind was a muddle.  All of his writing is a horrible awful mess.  I don't understand how it got published, or how any normal person made sense of it.  I can read Dickens and Austen and Fielding and John Donne with nary a pause, but Greenberg is like a foreign language.  Logic is completely foreign to it.


We are told by his supporters that “Avant Garde and Kitsch,” though important, was juvenilia of a sort, and that this explains its problems.  We are assured that he sorted all that out later.  But in 1960 he was still thinking and writing like a college student who had read too much the night before an exam.  He was still substituting coffee and cigs for sleep and braggadoccio for understanding.  In “Modernist Painters” [Arts Yearbook, 1960] Greenberg continued the argument he had begun in “Avant Garde and Kitsch.”   There he said, "Realistic art had dissembled the medium, using art to conceal art.  Modernism used art to call attention to art.  The limitations of painting--the flat surface...the pigment--were treated by the Old Masters as negative factors that could be acknowledged only indirectly....  Modernist painting acknowledges them directly."  This is one of Greenberg's most influential ideas, although it is hard to believe now.  It is difficult for a sensible person to comprehend that this recognition of a banal fact could start a revolution in painting that lasted for decades and that still has important devotees.  It is discussed at great length to this day in art history departments and critical journals.  Certain people still find it fascinating intellectual fare.  For us artists it was a non-starter.  It was like noticing that grass appears to grow out of the ground in an upward direction, displaying a conventional predisposition toward the sun; or that cows appear to lower their heads in a conventionally downward direction in consuming said grass, revealing a dialectical opposition to ground-based living structures of the herbaceous variety.  But people with active lives cannot be induced to get involved in such discussions, since we have work to do.  The Old Masters would have admitted the limits of painting.  But making these limits the raison d'etre of painting would have seemed to them creatively suicidal, critically uninteresting, and historically idiotic.


Let's move on to more specific critiques, such as Greenberg's occasional attacks on the Old Masters.  In his "Review of The Drawings of Leonardo da Vinci," [The Nation, Nov. 2, 1946] Greenberg displays very little nostalgia for the Dominus Dominorum.  He begins by accusing Leonardo "of an unconscious hostility to accomplishment in general, not only toward art."  Greenberg gives us no evidence to support this incredible statement, unless one considers this evidence: "his lack of perseverance, and his very neglect of the rudimentary physical aspects of his metier...."  Once one forces oneself past the towering irony here, one guesses that Leonardo's failure to complete a number of major works is supposed to justify such a critique.  Even admitting these unfinished works, though, Leonardo is generally considered one of the most accomplished people in history, both for his talents and his achievements.  Normally in any kind of expository writing, when one makes a claim that is counter-intuitive, non commonsensical, anti-traditional, or otherwise revolutionary (and Greenberg's analysis of Leonardo is novel, if nothing else) one backs it up with some sort of argument.  But Greenberg's critiques are just one bald statement after another.  It would be one thing if the proofs were fairly transparent or self-evident or generally accepted.  But they are not.  They are, in fact, preposterous, once you cut through the confident verbiage; and you begin to suspect that there is no argument because there can  be no argument.   Greenberg was lauded for the terseness of his reviews, but no one seemed to recognize that brevity is not the same thing as conciseness, and certainly not the same thing as truth. Greenberg's articles had to be brief: they could stand only as bald assertions.  Any exposition would have undercut not just the brevity but the thesis itself.  For a false statement cannot admit of much elaboration. 


I know you will find it hard to believe that I not taking these quotes out of context, or that the rest of the article does not clarify the remarks I have quoted.  But I can only refer you to the articles themselves, which I do not quote in greater length because it would not help if I did.  Each of Greenberg's articles is an island thesis, a straight premise that you either accept or do not accept.  And this premise, in each case, is contained as fully, and perhaps more powerfully, in the few sentences I quote as in the article as a whole.  In this case, if you dislike Leonardo, the article will be great fun.  If not, not.  But there is no question of a rational discourse, and so I do not feel obligated to try and create one by more extensive quoting. 


The flat dismissal of Leonardo's multiple genius by Greenberg as a "reluctance to commit himself" and as a sign of "inconstant interests" is nothing less than astounding.  For we must remind ourselves exactly what is happening here.  Leonardo, perhaps the greatest, the most prolific and varied, genius of all time, the embodiment of the Renaissance man (in fact, the source for the very idea of a Renaissance man) is being called lazy and nihilistic (having an "hostilty to accomplishment") by a man whose only accomplishment is criticism--praising or damning another's accomplishment.  The thought of Greenberg sitting in his little Modern cubicle, legs crossed (knee to knee, of course), affectedly smoking his damn cigarettes, looking up every once in a while with a terribly clever, terribly satisfied look in his big droopy eyes, musing on Leonardo's or Michelangelo's shortcomings, is enough to give me a heart murmur. 


Greenberg even criticizes Leonardo for "only taking the initial steps "down many scientific paths due to his "lack of a scientific method."  Greenberg is guilty here of the cardinal sin of historical analysis: judging a man by the standards of a later age.  He does not remember, or finds no truth in, Newton's admission that "if I have seen farther than other men, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants."  But dismissing Leonardo's scientific discoveries (which were legion) because they were not complete in themselves is like dismissing Newton's physics because he did not discover Relativity.  Greenberg might retort, "But we have dismissed Newton's physics."  No we haven't.  Einstein perfected physics, he did not invent it. Without Newton, Einstein would have had no field in which to theoretically wander.  And without the advances of Leonardo, among others, Newton would never have reached the height he did, as he was the first to admit.


Greenberg's attitude toward history is a common one.  It is both a symptom of the Modern age and one of its causes.  The Modern man forgets that history is a palimpsest, a page written and overwritten, corrected but never finished.  He sees it instead as spiral notebook or a pad of post-it notes, where he tears out the top page, crinkles it up, and throws it away before going on to the next page.  Unfortunately when he gets to the end, there is just one pathetic page: and it had better be right, because all the notes are in the fire.


The worst consequence of this attitude toward history is a vain and self-glorifying ingratitude.  Greenberg's dishonor of Leonardo, although meant to be self-serving, is not even that.  For in failing to recognize his own support, Greenberg was doomed from the start.  Greenberg's field is art, and whether he likes it or not that field owes its very existence to artists like Leonardo.  Without the Renaissance there is no post-Renaissance.  Without art history there is no art.  Without great artists there is no art history.  In reviews like this one, attacking artists like Leonardo, Greenberg spent his capital.  He went broke. And in founding or perfecting a movement, he bankrupted contemporary art.


In the same article, Greenberg, unsatisfied with this puerile assault on Leonardo, also aims his peashooter at Michelangelo:  "Michelangelo's Sistine frescoes constitute one of those rapes of the medium that result in something splendid and extraordinary but that leave us admiring the scale and force of the artist's nerve more than his art."  As Michelangelo's defender, I will respond that Greenberg's critiques constitute one of those rapes of the medium in which something splendid and extraordinary is destroyed, leaving us admiring only the scale and force of the critic's  nerve.  For he follows up with, "And since these works [of Leonardo and Michelangelo] have such a deleterious effect upon artists who come afterward, they amount almost to acts of hostility toward art."  Greenberg's theory of criticism seems to be, "il faut s'abetir"  [It is necessary to appear foolish-- Pascal ].  What we are to understand here is that the two greatest geniuses in history have been bad for art, and that a Modern critic is its savior.  One gets the feeling, although it is never spelled out, that the "deleterious effect" just mentioned is nothing more or less than the "little brother" complex.  The Renaissance masters planted a flag so far up the mountain, actually achieved so much, that their successors, especially at a distance, despaired of climbing at all.  I can't figure out any other way to make sense of Greenberg's complaint.   Michelangelo's "hostility toward art" is simply his forgetting to leave us something to do, or forgetting to leave us something we can do easily.   In this sense, achievement itself is inimical to the sort of "progress" the Moderns demand.




In "'American-Type' Painting" [Partisan Review, Spring 1955] Greenberg says, "Though it [painting] started on its 'modernization' earlier perhaps than the other arts, it has turned out to have a greater number of expendable conventions imbedded in it, or these at least have proven harder to isolate and detach.  As long as such conventions survive and can be isolated they continue to be attacked, in all the arts that intend to survive in modern society.  This process has come to a stop in literature because literature has fewer conventions to expend before it begins to deny its own essence...."  On first reading this I was torn between  two strong emotions, the second much more violent than the first.   At first I felt the pure joy of a researcher who discovers his thesis, or the proof of his thesis, in the mouth of his archenemy.  But then it began to dawn on me: the enormity, the absolute blundering conceit, the blind (if not outright malicious) presumption of such a statement from an art critic.


Greenberg is cautious in his own field (he is, after all, a litterateur), careful not to attack conventions in literature heedlessly lest its "essence" be lost.  But in considering painting, all restraint is gone.  So much more here appears "expendable"--another man's inspiration, like his money, is so much easier to "expend".  Why walk gingerly in someone else's garden? --his tomatoes are not my tomatoes.  Purify, distill, vivisect everyone else's means to expression, all in the name of Science, of progress; but leave one's own alone, of course.


This is why the critic cannot, must not, be allowed to control, or even inform, the artist's agenda.  Not being an artist, the critic cannot know what is expendable and what is not.  Intuitively unaware of painting's "essence" he cannot know when it is in danger of being encroached upon. 


Nietzsche called religion's goal "the minimum metabolism at which life will still exist without really entering consciousness."  Greenberg's goal in art is analogous: the minimum metabolism at which art can exist (by definition) without really entering the consciousness of the artist or viewer.  An art stripped of everything but its "essence": meaning art as a terminal patient, with only the faintest pulse.  Such an art is "alive", assuredly, compared to a corpse, compared to no art.  But is this all there is to a definition of a thing--its minimum definition?  What of its maximum definition?  Or even its viable definition?  Modern art is art in the same way that the tiniest peak or trough on an electrocardiogram is life.  But is this blip what we want as a viable definition of life, as a definition of what life can be or should be at its fullest?  Would it even be correct to call this blip the "essence" of life?  I don't think so.  Greenberg is confused not only about the essence of art, he is confused about what the essence of any given thing might be.  It is not the stripped down bare bones of a thing.  It is not the least common denominator.  It is not what is left after all "conventions" have been "expended".  If anything it is the process of spending these conventions: not transcending them or excising them, but transforming the necessary conventions through the process of creativity into an original expression.  Art is not the negation of all conventions.  It is the proper use of the proper conventions, just like anything else is.    Whittling away all but  "flatness"  from painting is like whittling literature down to the alphabet, and asserting that is literature's essence.   It is like disallowing writers from forming words, or sentences, or ideas because these conventions betray a kitschy love for "content and subject matter." For it doesn't take a savant to see that painting's essence has been expended, if not extinguished, in the last 50-100 years, and that fools like Greenberg, meddling with unctuous arrogance where they had no business, are to blame.  Perhaps the most maddening part of this quote is "in all the arts that intend to survive," as if we, as painters, are in some sense obligated to justify ourselves to self-proclaimed judges like Greenberg.  But I say I am the creative one here, I am the one producing something, I am the primary source without which Greenberg and his ilk would be unemployed (and perhaps unemployable).  Let them justify themselves to me!

If this paper was useful to you in any way, please consider donating a dollar (or more) to the SAVE THE ARTISTS FOUNDATION. This will allow me to continue writing these "unpublishable" things. Don't be confused by paying Melisa Smith--that is just one of my many noms de plume. If you are a Paypal user, there is no fee; so it might be worth your while to become one. Otherwise they will rob us 33 cents for each transaction.