Enrico Donati’s small painting White to White features an aggressively encrusted pale rectangle with a second rectangle – black, white and brown – in its top left corner. Dated 1953, fairly early for such deliberately coarse abstraction, the painting landed in the collection of the famously plain-spoken art critic Clement Greenberg. Greenberg never published on the relatively obscure Donati, so one might wonder if he liked White to White. This isn’t a trivial issue in the bid to assess Greenberg’s legacy: true to the way he lived, the art that he owned might be his most evocative biography.
Nonetheless, Greenberg’s lasting influence prompts a curiosity about his day-to-day life, which Alice Goldfarb Marquis attempts to satisfy. And while Art Czar does better than Florence Rubenfeld’s Clement Greenberg: A Life (1997) at conjuring the flavour of Greenberg’s comings and goings, it still leaves us without the intellectual biography that would best address our desire to understand him. Neither book gets over the problem that, notoriety notwithstanding, Greenberg’s everyday life was unremarkable. He drank. He womanised a bit. His arrogance sometimes turned belligerent. Beyond that, it’s just gossip. Did Greenberg love Helen Frankenthaler because he admired her painting, or vice versa? Does it matter? Only in reminding us that life inflects both art and criticism more than Greenberg would have liked. He announced several times that biography, while interesting, didn’t affect either. His significance lies in his unwavering support for this view and the artists, mostly painters, who he felt represented it: artists who were careful to separate their art from everyday life and from the other arts. As for the relationship between his own life and work, no doubt he would have said that only his writing ought to be of interest to anyone.
Discussing the idea that painting should be pure, he flagged its improbability by putting pure in scare quotes. Many readers suspected that the scare quotes were a rhetorical escape hatch through which Greenberg could slip when pursued by Marxists claiming that art should be understood as a socio-historical product. So he faced derision for believing in art’s autonomy just as, despite his disavowals, he was criticised for believing in its supreme value and in abstract art’s historical inevitability. Why do so many readers misunderstand him when detractors and defenders agree about the exceptional clarity of his writing?
Greenberg’s first piece of criticism, a discussion of Brecht’s novel A Penny for the Poor, was published in the Partisan Review for winter 1939. The previous number had contained an interview he did with Ignazio Silone, and he’d also published a few translations and pseudonymous stories. He had just turned 30, and saw the Brecht piece as an auspicious entry into literary reviewing, yet it was equally significant for Greenberg, as things turned out, that the same issue of Partisan Review carried an article on Soviet cinema by Dwight Macdonald. Greenberg wrote to the Review’s editors to dispute some of Macdonald’s assumptions. Impressed, the editors – Macdonald among them – invited him to develop his letter into an article that became ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’, possibly second only to ‘Modernist Painting’, which he wrote twenty years later, as the 20th century’s most widely read piece of art criticism.
Partisan Review published ‘Towards a Newer Laocoön’ a few months after ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’. Greenberg set out his stall in these two essays: the best art of modern times – roughly, after 1850 – had no interest in daily life or in the things that other media were good for; storytelling was the province of literature; depth and volume were sculpture’s concern. Greenberg saw intermingling as decline, and this view impelled the memorable opening of ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’:
One and the same civilisation produces simultaneously two such different things as a poem by T.S. Eliot and a Tin Pan Alley song, or a painting by Braque and a Saturday Evening Post cover. All four are on the order of culture, and ostensibly, parts of the same culture and products of the same society. Here, however, their connection seems to end. A poem by Eliot and a poem by Eddie Guest – what perspective of culture is large enough to enable us to situate them in an enlightening relation to each other?
In Greenberg’s view, Braque and Eliot were authentic: ‘The avant-garde poet or artist tries in effect to imitate God by creating something valid solely on its own terms, in the way nature itself is valid, in the way a landscape – not its picture – is aesthetically valid; something given, increate, independent of meanings, similars or originals.’ Frauds like Eddie Guest and Norman Rockwell, on the other hand, produced the despicable residue that Greenberg called ‘kitsch’: ‘Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money – not even their time.’
That last sentence launched Greenberg. Concern about fake culture wasn’t new, but Greenberg was unusually determined to defeat it. The avant-garde offered exquisitely rarefied aspirations while kitsch, pretending to ‘demand nothing’, extracted soul, imagination and freedom. It wasn’t the popularity of kitsch that disturbed him so much as its capacity to fake the authenticity of high culture and the avant-garde. The further the avant-garde retreated into ‘the disciplines and processes of art and literature’, the more energetically kitsch hurried after it, producing not only Rockwell, Guest and the Saturday Evening Post but also Georges Simenon, John Steinbeck and the New Yorker (‘high-class kitsch for the luxury trade’).
With kitsch running wild, like the capitalism which propelled it, authenticity needed defending. For nearly fifty years, Greenberg shouldered the task, separating good art from bad with the resolve of a baseball umpire calling balls and strikes. His calls – that Guernica proved Picasso had lost his stuff, for instance – might seem wrong; his self-assurance might verge on narrow-mindedness; the game might bore us. But the rulings were clear: by 1954, Jackson Pollock’s paintings were ‘forced’ and ‘dressed up’; Clyfford Still never left the minor league; Marcel Duchamp was a joker (not in a good way); Morris Louis painted as brilliantly as Raphael.
In a 1959 essay, ‘The Case for Abstract Art’, he answered his critics by drawing on Kant to argue that taste is objective because art takes its viewer outside history. A ‘mere glance’ at the picture ‘creates the attitude required for its appreciation, like a stimulus that elicits an automatic response’, he wrote. ‘You become all attention, which means that you become, for the moment, selfless and in a sense entirely identified with the object of your attention … For the cultivated eye, the picture repeats its instantaneous unity like a mouth repeating a single word.’ The genius of Raphael, Manet, Pollock or Louis pinpoints, liberates and concentrates attention, ‘offers what is largely a new experience to most people in our sort of society’.
The marriage of Pollock to Raphael infuriated Greenberg’s long-time antagonist Harold Rosenberg, who argued with a nod to Existentialism that mid-century abstraction was revolutionary because it wasn’t interested in any of the conventions of painting and thus offered a radically free arena in which to act. He was not alone. Greenberg’s notion of the avant-garde as a single unbroken tradition had seemed strained from the outset; it was unable to account for Malevich, Duchamp or Surrealism, and over time narrowed still further. But objections to Greenberg’s preferences paled in comparison with attacks on the way he justified his taste. In 1955 John Berger attacked the idea of ‘the iron division between the “highbrow” and the “lowbrow”’ in a piece in the Nation, whose association with Greenberg had ended a few years earlier in a flurry of lawsuits. Though he didn’t name names, Berger clearly had Greenberg in mind when he complained that cultural snobs ‘claim that it requires special sensibility, imagination, and breadth of mind, to appreciate Modern Art; and … to justify their own possession of these gifts even further … claim that in the future the art which they champion now will be seen to be great by the world at large’.
It wasn’t just that Greenberg was quick to separate art into good and bad that Berger held against him, but also that he disdained anyone who disagreed with him. Greenberg himself took the view that he belonged to a relatively small group who could distinguish between good, mediocre and bad art, and dismissed people – like Rosenberg and Lawrence Alloway – who claimed to know the difference but, in his opinion, didn’t. As for everyone else, it seems they couldn’t help it: their circumstances prevented them from enjoying authentic culture; and what Greenberg called ‘kitsch’ in the 1930s and 1940s, and ‘lowbrow’ and ‘middlebrow’ in the 1950s and 1960s, was a fraud perpetrated against them.
The charge of elitism followed Greenberg throughout his career. His self-assurance, Berger believed, was grounded in the circular argument of the ‘cultivated eye’: my taste must be cultivated, Greenberg appeared to assert, since it agrees with what I recognise as cultivated taste. To object to this circularity was to miss the point: because art transcends utility and reason, it sidesteps logic. ‘I can’t prove that Raphael is better than Norman Rockwell, the way I can prove that two plus two equals four to anyone who is sane,’ Greenberg observed at a conference entitled ‘Modernism and Modernity’, convened in 1981 to bring the controversy to a head. ‘If I choose to think that Rockwell is better than Raphael, you can’t show me otherwise.’
Despite his confidence, Greenberg’s impatience with Constructivism and Dada indicated to some that he’d always lacked imagination and insight. But the nay-saying increased following the publication in 1961 of Art and Culture, a collection of Greenberg’s writings which convinced many people that his taste had ossified. Prior to that, he had entertained many possibilities as to what constituted good art. His most significant articles defended art that might have perplexed if not outraged many of his readers: Picasso’s collages, Pollock’s drip paintings, Noland’s targets, Louis’s variegated mists. Greenberg needed to coax his readers along because he wrote for non-specialist audiences. What he wrote for his books on Miró, Matisse and Hans Hofmann were introductions to the illustrations in those volumes, not scholarly monographs. His output as a reviewer was a far more significant aspect of his career. He wrote mostly for the Nation in the 1940s, stepping away only for occasional contributions to the Partisan Review or the New York Times Book Review, and didn’t write for art magazines until the 1950s. Even then, though he focused increasingly on the insider readership of Art Digest, Art News, Studio International and Artforum, he produced articles for Vogue, Vanity Fair and Country Beautiful. ‘The Case for Abstract Art’ appeared first in the Saturday Evening Post. That Greenberg wrote for so many and such various publications both belies and confirms the charge of elitism against him. His belief in the fraudulence of kitsch – late in life, he called it ‘an ongoing emergency’ – committed him to the hope that its audience could be rescued. But it also required him to believe that the fans of kitsch wanted and needed saving.
As his audience expanded, Greenberg’s taste narrowed, its tight focus reflected in his personal collection. Presumably he liked much of the art he owned: the bold, concentric circles of Kenneth Noland’s Number One, its verso inscribed, ‘To my friend Clem who has more to do with it than anybody’; Jules Olitski’s shifting colours; Anthony Caro’s decisively abstract steel sculptures. Karen Wilkin writes in the catalogue of his collection that Greenberg didn’t miss the art he sold, but surely he winced as works by David Smith, Jackson Pollock or Morris Louis went out the door.His enthusiasm for these artists, particularly Noland and Louis, undercuts the common misperception that he saw purity and flatness as modern art’s defining achievement. Greenberg came to distance himself from a belief in art’s purity. ‘I don’t believe in purity at all,’ he told Charles Harrison in 1983. ‘It acts as some kind of beacon. It’s there but it’s not possible.’ It wasn’t possible because all good paintings use more than one colour and thereby necessarily convey a sense of depth. The attempt to purge painting of the third dimension, and of narrative, creates a ‘vibrating tension’ which began with Impressionism: ‘The objects struggle to maintain their volume against the tendency of [the canvas’s surface] to reassert its material flatness and crush them to silhouettes.’ ‘Vibrating tension’ was the effect Greenberg was looking for when his taste came to rest, around 1960, with Louis, Noland and Olitski.
These artists’ ‘post-painterly abstraction’, as Greenberg called it, comprised large fields of colour made with paint thinned until it soaked into canvas like dye. But the translucence of the paint in these works, together with the juxtaposition of colours, creates a compelling sense of depth despite the paintings’ physical flatness and total abstraction. Could Donati’s restrained palette, by contrast, hold Greenberg’s attention? Did its thick paint give it what he later called, dismissively, the ‘Tenth Street touch’? Or did it ‘vibrate’ enough to be good? Certainly, Greenberg was more likely to respond positively to Donati in the 1950s than later, when little could distract him from post-painterly abstraction. Given Greenberg’s disdain for Duchamp, his distaste for Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg was predictable. But he also dismissed most other major movements of the 1960s and after: Minimal and Conceptual Art’s high-mindedness; the new art forms that focused on the body and performance; and especially the growth of politically oriented art.
Increasingly belligerent, he wrote several articles in the early 1970s – ‘Counter-Avant-Garde’, ‘Necessity of “Formalism”’, and ‘Can Taste Be Objective?’ – to reiterate his belief in cultivated taste and in purity as a beacon, adding that nothing contemporary met these standards. Decadence advanced unopposed. And the more he argued, the more artists, critics and historians claimed that he had things back to front. They shared his concern about decadence but countered that he had enlisted as its foot soldier in wanting to make art into decoration by purging it of content. The art world was now finding him almost impossible to swallow. In 1966, the artist John Latham borrowed Art and Culture from the St Martin’s School of Art library and enjoined his students to chew its pages and spit them into a jar, in which they were mixed with yeast and distilled to make a different sort of art and culture.
Opposition to Greenberg deepened still further in the 1970s and 1980s. Historians like Max Kozloff, Eva Cockroft and Serge Guilbaut argued that Pollock and his New York colleagues hadn’t gained international prominence solely on their merits, but had received help from various agencies in the US government as part of a Cold War propaganda offensive. Linda Nochlin, Mary Kelly, Griselda Pollock and others mounted feminist critiques of such received notions as disinterested taste. The dismantling of Greenberg’s authority reached its height during his debate with T.J. Clark at the ‘Modernism and Modernity’ conference. ‘I really do say this with respect,’ Clark said, summarising his objections. ‘You have become a spokesman for a kind of devastating self-satisfaction and laziness.’
The art world’s obsession with Greenberg had turned from admiration to perversity. People hated him so much that they couldn’t stop reading him. With time, however, the opposition became more constructive. Donald Kuspit and Thierry de Duve wrote books about him, while Rosalind Krauss and Clark included uneasy but thoughtful engagements with his work in books that proposed innovative interpretations of Modernism and the avant-garde. Having once been a member of ‘Greenberg’s team’, as she called it, Krauss argued for a competing view of Modernism as rupture in The Optical Unconscious (1993), thus widening the gap she had spent much of the 1980s establishing between herself and her former mentor. (Greenberg snapped back to the effect that Krauss and her followers didn’t ‘matter’ and denounced her as a ‘facile’ writer and a ‘fraud’.) In Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (1999), Clark, on the other hand, rehabilitates Greenberg as a worthy adversary.
If anything, the attention intensifies still. In addition to Marquis’s biography, the last two years have seen Jonathan Harris’s Writing Back to Modern Art, which challenges the assumption, shared by Greenberg, Clark, and Greenberg’s one-time protégé Michael Fried, that modern art is valuable as a defence and expression of the imagination; and Caroline Jones’s Eyesight Alone, in which she reads Greenberg against himself to show that his idea of a purely visual art hooks into modernity’s increasingly narrow specialisations.
Critics are still trying to decide whether the avant-garde travelled a straight line, as Greenberg suggested, fomented revolution, as Rosenberg claimed, combined the two, or moved through a series of starts, stops, ruptures and diversions. Not everyone agrees that Greenberg is still worth discussing, but he is discussed nonetheless. Perhaps postmodernism, whatever its contributions elsewhere, has cast a short shadow in the visual arts. Certainly the current tendency to treat art as entertainment, popular with tourist boards and museum marketing departments, has created a backlash among artists who maintain that art’s primary duty is to itself.