Abstract Critical

Greenberg and Modernism

Written by Alan Gouk

To read some commentators you might be tempted to think that Clement Greenberg invented Modernism and that it stands or falls in his account of it. He didn’t and it doesn’t. That was done by the major painters and sculptors, by artist-writers like Baudelaire, Apollinaire, and Valery, and by composers like Debussy, Schoenberg and Stravinsky.

What Greenberg did was to put a spin on it, from an inveterately American perspective, and one which has been contentious from the start. Theory rarely anticipates or predicts practice (though Greenberg had a try with his “bland, large Apollonian art”). It usually arises as a belated commentary on what the artists have been doing and thinking, and when it does prove to be prophetic, it is usually a clairvoyant projection of the desires of artists/poets being picked up by hyper-sensitive ears and eyes.

And even if Greenberg were finally to be censured by the concerted efforts of proponents of the “new art history”, and a phalanx of anti-authoritarians with various axes to grind, this would in no way undermine or discount the continuing importance and relevance of the pioneer modernists, and the authority which comes from the definitive artistic substance which their work embodies.

Whatever definition of Modernism is proffered, and there have been many and various, the leading artists of the period evade it, contradict it, or are bigger than it. No major artist of the period has tried to define, or given a fig for, Modernism as a category (with the possible exception of Ezra Pound) except as an extension of or a reflection of their own practice, and in describing their own values in art – self-aggrandising in the case of Wagner, an extension of his megalomaniac will-to-power, or else wish-fulfilment in the case of Kandinsky. (Marinetti and Malevich are manic aberrations, and a manifesto is not so much a theory as a program of work, witness the Constructivist Manifesto of Gabo and Pevsner.)

Anyone who has tried to draw up a chronological chart of the temporal coincidence of the various arts, music, literature, visual art, architecture, with historical and scientific events, cannot but be aware how out of sync the embracing of modernity is in these various pursuits; and out of sync with advances in technology, and the parade of wars, and that these advances occur at different paces depending on the relatively autonomous developments of each art in question, sometimes one art-form, sometimes another seeming to be in the “vanguard”. Even where there is a close parallel of aspiration and a shared aesthetic (momentarily) the dialogue arises from very different background motivations or out-and-out misunderstanding and leads to very different outcomes. Schoenberg’s Die Glückliche Hand, for instance, is a work of the theatre, exploring the simultaneity of perception of sound, light, colour, and dramatic action, influenced by Wagner’s ideas for the Gesamtkunstwerk; but it is a rejection, a critique of Wagner’s cult of redemption through union with a self-sacrificing woman; and a very different world from the one Kandinsky inhabits.

The ultra-romanticism of Schoenberg’s vision at this time remains; the shape of Wagner’s melodies, greatly fore-shortened, still haunt the music (as does the Viennese Waltz) and lies hidden even in his later “composition with the twelve tones”. He has a rich inner life of fantasy and harrowing nightmare imagery, which expresses itself in compulsive motor rhythms, akin to those of Schumann, through whose piano works he may be approached with profit. There is an amazing conflict between the espoused unconscious irrationality of creative vision (dictated rather than composed) and the detailed formal logic applied to its working out, or rather, its elucidation. The Wagnerian paradox of supposedly unconscious dictation pressed in the service of a formidably articulate ground plan, through which intuition is compelled to speak, squeezed through a sieve of didactic intentions, seems to have infected Schoenberg’s conceptions too, given dramatized expression in Moses und Aron 1931, and perhaps never resolved. The visionary idea (unconsciously derived) and its sensuous embodiment, super-conscious in its working out, are pitted against one another – the hypnotic valency, the allure, of both being of equal intensity, but incompatible. This is perhaps a false conflict, its universality open to question, and which not all will feel.

In painting, the Golden Age (L’Age D’Or) portrayed by Derain and Matisse in the early 1900s came with the stamp of “radical” innovations in representational means, and Picasso’s Demoiselles D’Avignon fused art history all the way from barbarism (so-called) to Cézanne with a manner of shocking directness, shattering by force of hallucination the prevailing sense of an unbridgeable gulf between the past of art, and the pressing contingencies of modernity.

An invocation of the past, bringing it forward whilst at the same time attesting to a fundamentally unbridgeable gap, which began with romanticism is one of the key characteristics of modernism and I think that Mendelssohn (for example the opening of his Reformation Symphony) was one of the first to articulate a nostalgic view of music’s past, the sense that “history” has already happened, rather than happening now, that history is the record of the irremediably fallen, rather than a becoming with the implication of perfectibility (an Enlightenment conception) – showing that the origins of modernism have an earlier primogeniture than is often thought; and there is a view that the extremes of high modernist subjectivity are continuous with, an intensification of romanticism’s originating impulses.

Nor is there one definition of modernism which has equal application across all the arts. In music it was anti-romanticism, or the exhaustion of romanticism following the surfeit of subjectivity in Wagner, Mahler, Scriabin, and the Schoenberg of Gurre-Lieder which gave rise firstly to the incendiary ferment of turn of the century Viennese expressionism with both its extirpation of florid indulgence and hyper-sensitivity to moments of nervous agitation, to be followed by the neo-classicism of Ferruccio Busoni, the Richard Strauss of Ariadne auf Naxos, and eventually by the astringent rigour of “composition with twelve tones”, and sundry other calls to order, the anti-modernism of the neo-classical Stravinsky included. In literature, romanticism’s last stand, the hyper-subjectivity of the symbolists, gave way to an engagement with “modernity” in all its manifestations, good and ghastly, though symbolist ideas lingered subliminally in Valery, Rilke, Yeats, D.H. Lawrence, and in Eliot’s “incantation”, as late as his Four Quartets (in literature I am not qualified to go further).

In painting, the bugbear for the modernists was not romanticism, which had expired much earlier than in literature, nor symbolism (though both Romantic and Symbolism after-currents can be detected at various points and in various ways). No, it was as a critique of “realism”, that painting in modernism began, that commonplace, common sense reflexive vision, always with us it seems, which sees no problem in rendering the objects of sense in little trompe l’oeil patches of paint so that the convex surfaces of a head or body turn inwards to imply completion in those aspects of the illusion that the eye cannot see.

Gradually after Cézanne’s monumental effort, the representation of three-dimensional form on a flat surface (the quintessence of plastic and spatial art from time immemorial) became problematic in a way that it had not done for centuries. The “opticality” of painting, the optical conjuring tricks which had sustained painting from Leonardo to Rembrandt, Vermeer to Ingres, their hegemony put under strain by Courbet and Manet, suddenly began to seem grounds for disapprobation and by a curious volte-face in taste, faintly dishonest. The personal phenomenology of perception, intuited uniquely by each artist, raised to a pitch of symphonic doubt, confirmed in certainty, became the desired for imperative of every self-respecting painter, setting in train one stream of the modernist debate (Gauguin, the “arbitrary” colourist forming another sub-set.) The conflict between the instinctive and the fully conscious, or super-conscious is at the basis of all modern painting’s predicaments and successes.

To extend by analogy with music: on the one hand there is the kind of manic cerebral compulsiveness of some avant-garde music – not able to tell when enough is enough – going on churning through the permutations of some abstract system well beyond the tolerance of an audience (I’d cite Messiaen, Boulez, Maxwell Davies) with no sense of natural closure. On the other, the desire to place oneself in a state of constant turbulence of spirit, where study and calculation are anathema, where impulse rules, even arbitrary impulse, if only it ends in calm – this is the religion of every modern painter who still retains an identification with the romantic lineage.

Or we could say there are two strains in modernism – the tough and the tender-minded – the latter an intensification of aspects of romanticism and symbolism, the former a pursuit of a “dehumanised” novelty at any price, and a cultivation of artifice, shading towards fascism (T.E. Hulme, Wyndham Lewis, Hannes Meyer, Ortega y Gasset). However even here there are strange co-minglings of these tendencies and inversions of manner, so that, say, a nostalgia for lost youth, or lost innocence comes in the guise of strict, disciplined formality (Neo-classicism – Satie’s Socrate); and on the other hand a rigid churning through a system of thought is married to a deeply nostalgic religiosity (the late hexachordal serial Stravinsky, Messiaen).


Part 2

Keeping this complexity in mind (and ignoring for the time being the many positive values and accurate judgments Greenberg made as a pragmatic critic) I will now pinpoint three major fault-lines in his thought. First: his claim that self-definition is the major determinant of modernist innovation across the various art. Second: his claim that the most admired period of innovation in the art of the 20th century – from the early 1900’s to 1925 or so is characterised by a mood of “positivism” shared by pioneers in different media. Third: the question of whether value judgments are involuntary. Greenberg’s controversial views on sculpture I have left entirely out of account here, since I have written about them in various other contexts in the past.

1. Self-definition is not the major determinant of modernist innovation across the various arts. Simply declared to be prima facie true, the idea that it is is enunciated in Towards a Newer Laocoon as little more than a synoptic assertion, and so selectively as to render his argument tautological. But it is never elucidated or demonstrated in any convincing way in his writings – nor can it be, for a moment’s thought will reveal that the great innovators (as is any sphere of thought) are more open to the cross-fertilization of ideas from other media than to reduction. For example there is a link between Schoenberg’s jagged angular phrasing and Kandinksy’s drawn elements in the paintings of 1911-14. Admittedly Schoenberg’s impact is at once abstract and visceral whilst Kandinsky’s is still figurative and fragmented, and to my mind fails to overcome its fragmentation in a convincing plastic unity. But their aesthetic aims were very close, and a mutual admiration inspired them almost to the point of collaboration. And what of James Joyce’s threnody of musical analogies in Ulysses? Or Mondrian’s self-definition, which, far from remaining within the “essential” and “intrinsic” limits of its medium, extended to extrapolation of his plastic “purism” to a total transformation of the environment and architecture with utopian social consequences?

Later attempts to back up this assertion with specific examples are cursory and too selective to warrant the edifice that is built upon them. Such sweeping synoptic generalisation is only possible in the absence or refusal to furnish detailed specific corroboration. Once you turn to specifics the edifice begins to crumble. Greenberg’s prose skates over facts, giving the impression of much greater acquaintance with fields of knowledge and experience than his furnishing of examples is able to sustain, even in literature, his acknowledged training ground. Greenberg’s synoptic gift founders on fact, the ability to distinguish which is the self-declared bedrock of critical competence.

Debussy, who, on any account of the genesis of what is specifically “modern” about 20th century music ranks as prime mover, was heavily influenced by both poetry, not merely as a pretext for composition but substantially as inspiration, at the heart of his music, and by painting; by Turner when composing La Mer, and by Hokusai and Hiroshige as a stimulus for the angular arabesque of his later “classical” revision. The other senses pervade his music in ways that are hard to define but without them, his music would not have been possible at all – poetry from his early set piece for the Prix de Rome – La Demoiselle Élue, based on Rossetti’s poem, to his setting of Gabriel D’Annunzio’s Le Martyre de Saint Sebastian – and the range of visual stimuli which fed directly into his piano Images and Preludes speak of a sensibility almost as visual as it is auditory (though this is a complex subject).

Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, “modernists” all, began as out and out late romantics, then, with Berg and Webern following Schoenberg’s example, out and out expressionists, influenced by fin de siècle “decadent” literature and Viennese and Berliner Neue Secessionist painters (Schoenberg was an amateur painter himself, also in an expressionist idiom) and were part of a milieu for which the fusion of the arts stemming from Wagner was still a potent reality. The later anti-romantic reaction which led to “serialism” did not expunge the expressionism in Schoenberg. If anything it heightened it since the serial techniques of extreme dissonance and equality of all intervals was particularly attuned to the expression of extremes of emotion, states of high psychological tension and crisis (Erwartung), and the personal crises of the artists’ emotional life no less. One could hardly call all this an expunging from music of all sensation common to the other arts. Au contraire! Or a purification of painting of all material except that exclusive to its medium. The term “medium” of course cannot be made to connote across the various arts. What is “the medium” in poetry?

2. The most admired period of innovation in the art of the 20th century – from the early 1900’s to 1925 or so is not characterised by a mood of “positivism” shared by pioneers in different media. Yet for Greenberg the “pragmatic, empirical temper of the period 1900-1925 – common to its best thinking and affecting epistemologists and aestheties alike…” [Vol. 3. P.67] is time and again the favoured characterisation of the milieu which engendered the vaunted, and one has to say mythologised, Cubism.

“Even poets – thus Apolliniare – saw, at least for the moment, aesthetic possibilities in a streamlined future, a vaulting modernity; and a mood of secular optimism replaced the secular pessimism of the Symbolist generation….This mood….underpinned even those who rejected it” [Vol. 3. P.166]. This barely characterises the “mood” of fin de siècle Vienna or Berlin, up until the outbreak of the 1st World War – and the sleight of hand of “underpinned even those who rejected it” will hardly do. The city which engendered logical atomism (and logical positivism?) also engendered “serialism”, an atomisation of intervals of pitch, but the consequences for expression of the latter far outweigh any notion of secular optimism. The “mood” of the Neue Secessionists could scarcely be further from that of the bohemianism of the Bateau Lavoir, Diaghilev, The Ballets Russes, Jean Cocteau, Apollinaire, Stravinsky and the programme of “Les Six”: the intellectual climate of Paris in the 1900s to 1910s cannot be elided to concur with that of the Vienna or Berlin of the same period – the Vienna of Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg, Sigmund Freud and the Logical Atomists – and the connotation which “positivism” has for an American audience, in an American context, is not at all akin to its usage in connection with Frege, Russell and Wittgenstein. It is also clear that his brand of American positivism which sits uneasily with the tenor of the artistic mood amongst the emerging painters of the pre-war and inter-war years, and would set him at odds with the pronounced aesthetic of the “Subjects of the Artist” group, the nascent “Abstract Expressionists”.

“What the mechanism is by which such assumptions penetrate to all departments of culture, almost simultaneously it would seem, has not yet been satisfactorily explained, but that they do is indisputable” [Vol. 2. P. 325]. Such a view can only be sustained by riding roughshod over blindingly obvious differences in cultural milieu, between Paris and Vienna, between the late-Wagnerian anxiety of influence which led to the 2nd Viennese School, and the post-Cézannian reintroduction of the palpability and “reality” of the object which motivated Braque (the originator) and Picasso the follower, in the early discoveries of “cubism”. (It is curious how unexamined this term is in Greenberg, for all his perspicuity in describing the evolution of their style.) Nor can the hermetic phase of Braque’s and Picasso’s cubism be characterised as “pragmatic, empirical” without doing disservice to the querulous, vertiginous poetry with which normative certainties are undermined.

The mythologizing of the years of “high” analytical and synthetic cubism mean that all other manifestations of “modernism” in the other arts are elided to it, and where they show characteristics foreign to the “mood”, deemed not to be truly “modern. There is a curious failure to mention or discuss the proto-cubist painting of Picasso and Braque of 1906-8, which includes some of the strongest paintings Picasso ever created. The Demoiselles, Nude in the Forest (1908) etc.

Nor, come to think of it, does he specify which cubist masterpieces of 1911-17 embody “balance, largeness, precision, enlightenment, contempt for nature in all its particularity” [Vol. 2, pg. 168] (here he was paraphrasing Nietzsche – though he also held an opposing view, arguing In the Role of Nature in Modern Painting [Vol. 2 pgs 271-275] that ‘the best modern painting remains naturalistic at its core’). Neither does he specify which are Apollonian in spirit, since, as Christopher Green has pointed out (in Architecture and Vertigo) Picasso’s quixotic and iconoclastic spirit is at work countermanding even his own best efforts at architecture, and only a simplistic view of them sees only “clarity, grandeur and harmony”. Perhaps the greatest picture of these years which might qualify – Man Leaning on a Table 1916 (or Seated Man), painted in direct competition with Matisse’s Piano Lesson 1916, seems to have acquired its architectural grandeur (and ambiguity) in part from this rivalry.

Having mythologised the 1910-17 Picasso to nothing short of idolatry (hagiography) Greenberg becomes increasingly bothered by the lapses from that standard he discerns in the later Picasso. From 1928 onwards, Picasso can do no right: “He insists on representation in order to answer our time with an art equally explicit as to violence and horror, but at the same time the inherent logic of his genius and his period still pushes him towards the abstract. In my opinion it is Picasso’s temperamental resistance to the abstract that has landed him in the impasse in which he new finds himself.” Vol. 2. P. 89.

3. Aesthetic judgments are not “involuntary”. To say that they are, as Greenberg did, flies in the face of his own reported testimony of his experience with a number of “difficult” encounters. The process by which one learns to like a picture, or learns to dislike a picture, and to have the courage of one’s dislikes, is indeed obscure, but “involuntary” does not do justice to it.

I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of approaching an escalator, noticing that it is not in motion, and stepping onto it, only to find that the nerves and muscles of the leg behave as if it is in fact moving. The cumulative build-up of expectation overrides the knowledge that the escalator is not functioning as it should. This is the involuntary in action. And our first impression of works of art is perhaps involuntary in that sense.

We come with expectations based on prior likes and dislikes, and they are not matched. We are called up short, have to revise expectations, and begin again. But to say that mature artistic judgment remains on that level is plainly false.

Take the experience of being “moved” by a scene in a film, or by “cheap music”, or even high serious music. We can be taken in, we can be manipulated, our involuntary response plays us false; we are aware of being manipulated, and as soon as we are, we bring other aspects of experience into play; in short, we reflect, we weigh the experience in the wider context of the value of the film as a whole, we compare experiences. This is not the same as ratiocination, discursive thought or intellection of that kind. It is a reflection by introspection of intuitions. We weigh, and we form a judgment – reflection, yes, – discursion, no! Greenberg’s enunciated aesthetic position is self- contradictory both in theory and in practice. In Seminar 8 of the Bennington Seminars 1971, he states “High artistic surprise [for whom?] creates a certain resistance [in whom?], and gratification with the case of high new art comes in some part from the sense of resistance overcome – overcome by yourself and maybe overcome by the artist himself….”

Leaving aside the problematical grammar, I fail to see how “resistance overcome” is compatible with the involuntary nature of aesthetic judgment enunciated most clearly in “Complaints of an Art Critic”, 1967 – “Aesthetic judgments are given and contained in the immediate experience of art. They coincide with it; they are not arrived at afterwards through reflection or thought. Aesthetic judgments are also involuntary: you can no more choose whether or not to like a work of art than you can choose to have sugar taste sweet or lemons sour. (Whether or not aesthetic judgments are honestly reported is another matter)”; “That qualitative principles or norms are there somewhere, in subliminal operation, is certain… Yet these objective qualitative principles, such as they are, remain hidden from discursive consciousness: they cannot be defined or exhibited.”

Set this beside his own honest reporting – “We have had to catch up with Gorky and learn taste from him; he was one of those artists who had by themselves to form and extend our sensibility before they could be sufficiently appreciated” [Vol. 3. P.39]. Or: “It is discovered that those works that had originally the greatest immediate effect do not in every case remain the necessarily superior ones” [Vol. 3. P.35]. Or: “But how do we decide this? Only through experience, and through reflection upon experience. Quality in art can be neither ascertained nor proved by logic or discourse. Experience alone rules in this area – and the experience, so to speak, of experience. This is what all the serious philosophers of art since Immanuel Kant have concluded” [Vol. 4. P.118].

There are many other instances throughout Greenberg’s writing, when dealing directly with the art of past and present, where he articulates an overcoming of resistances before being able to form an accurate if provisional judgment of someone’s work, and these are the most interesting aspects of his writing. Gorky, I’ve already mentioned. Here, the initial judgment on what has come to be known as his mature style, was that of a falling off of ambition, a settling for a sweeter, less challenging style. This was gradually revised until the quote above was reached (in 1950). The case of Clyfford Still was even more dramatic, and it brought out one of the few instances of really vivid description of the pluses and minuses of a contemporary artist’s work (and personality) in Greenberg’s whole writing – apart from the complex issue of Picasso.

What needs to be explained however is how one progresses from an initial enthusiasm, or an involuntary frisson of pleasure, say, to a sober rejection of an artist, or conversely, how one graduates from an instinctive rejection or puzzlement to a gradual awareness of the presence of genuine talent or depth in an artist. I have called it reflection by introspective comparison of intuitions, not by discursive thought or argument, though it does involve an argument with oneself at some level.

We thus find ourselves with a paradox. If, as Greenberg repeatedly insisted, in his early years at least, that most good, original new art looks ugly at first, and if one has to overcome resistance in oneself in order to learn to like it, then how is it possible to say that artists, and critics, “receive, and don’t at all take, the decisions of their taste”. There is an implication of the involuntary nature of the shock of one’s first response to a new work of art either for or against, as we first experience it, of its getting beneath the skin of one’s taste, based as it is on built-up expectation; and this I’m sure we can confirm from our own experience, does indeed happen, on first exposure to certain works (of music no less).

There may be an initial frisson, like the hairs standing up on the back of the neck, either enjoyable, or which one consciously resists or rejects – and these are the works which haunt one longest – or there may be an instinctive reaction, almost a revulsion, gradually receding – but judgment can in the end go either way – one can either yield to the first frisson or ultimately judge against the work on weighing it more fully, in full cognisance of its effect on the mind (more than the senses). Aesthetic judgment, in short, is in the end conscious judgment, not an involuntary response, however much the initial shock may have contributed. And this can affect one’s acceptance or otherwise of one’s own work too. Critical faculty operates equally with respect to what one has created: one can side against it (rightly or wrongly) upon weighing it fully in the balance. (There is a view that modernism itself is predominantly a critical and self-critical examination.)

This is where the reaction of others can sometimes help. For one can end up rejecting features of one’s own achievement which conscious judgment has balked at, i.e. on grounds of taste lagging behind. One can see here how little taste has to do with it in the end, where not actually a hindrance – what matters is the fully realised intention of the artist, whether a conscious one or not, for good or ill, the fullest statement of his or her intuition, the expression of their spirit, whether rejected by its creator or not. This is confirmed by Greenberg’s own dialogue with the artist who influenced his critical apparatus most, with whose art he struggled longest, whom he judged to be the finest of his generation and whose decline gave him the most pain to enunciate – Jackson Pollock. The painting which first persuaded Greenberg of Pollock’s potential greatness was the Mural 1943 which Pollock painted for Peggy Guggenheim’s apartment. As Caroline Jones has chronicled in her book “Eyesight Alone” – Greenberg did not like Mural at first or even second meeting. He had to learn to like it. So far, so good as regards the ugliness of original new art.

But for the second part of the paradox, it does not seem to be possible to describe the process of education of taste involved as an involuntary “receiving”. There are other instances in Greenberg’s “self-education in public”, which in his own words involve a learning to like or to understand works which at first sight were problematic or misunderstood. The process by which taste is educated, re-trained, re-orientated is complex indeed, and it is the art that leads the way; and the art that truly does lead the way is the art that lasts, but I do not mean to imply by this, any more than Greenberg did in his finer moments, a progressivism. There is painting which at first glance looks as if safely ploughing a path on a road to nowhere, but which by its quietistic grasp of the essential eloquence and limitation of the means of painting is an implicit criticism of more overtly ambitions, ground-breaking performances. For instance, drawing is Picasso’s domain, the engine of his innovation, and yet even here it is Matisse who wins out in the end. Matisse is the servant of his vision; Picasso imposes his vision. Matisse has nothing to prove, so in the end he demonstrates his superiority even on Picasso’s own ground. The great lesson of the Matisse/Picasso confrontation lies in the channeling of the libidinous impulse. Picasso is too determined and too ostentatious, voracious, in his assertion of libido, and too anxious to prove his versatility, even within the language of a single drawing. Matisse works by suggestion. He allows eroticism to pervade every line, every brushstroke. His vision is purer and sexier.

Innovation does not always carry the stamp of heroic adventure, radicalism, or obvious newness in appearance, or method, techniques or materials. This is where Greenberg often erred, in disregarding or downgrading the quiet plenitude of “pure” painting, referring to it as settling into working “within a style”, rather than evolving it. There is a moot distinction here – for working out the full implication of a style in so-called “luxury” pictures, may be the surest way of evolving. The later work of Braque, much of Bonnard, prompted disaffection, and only the constant surprise of Matisse’s colour saved him from a similar fate.

The case of Ben Nicholson is instructive. Greenberg should have liked him more than he did, for Nicholson in the 1940s-60s answers much of the call for a grand, Apollonian, impassive, detached monumental art with its roots in the highest phase of synthetic cubism, which Greenberg had been extolling. Where Nicholson seems to have fallen short (apart from being English, or English/Scottish), at least the Nicholsons he saw in 1943, is through the pervasive sense of a naturalistic open-air light which animates his art both in its colour and in the spatial implication of his drawing, where even still-life is pitched against a pastoral or open-air background. Even when barely hinted at, this carries more feeling of actuality of place and light than Picasso ever does in his token views through an open window which back-up his interiors.

And this proviso seems to have qualified Greenberg’s appraisal of the St. Ives painters in general – the conviction that only an urban consciousness could adequately answer the need for an art which addresses the spirit of the times (in obeisance to standard modernist precepts). What is missing is the savoured texture of phenomenal appearance, weighed in the mind, its quiddity. Even in Braque, where “tactility” applies even to the space between things, there is a lack of sensuous presence of the things rendered in natural light, and it was Braque’s endeavour to re-introduce light (in his later work) which bothered Greenberg. Cubism’s re-casting of the terms on which all the means by which the sensory world is represented meant that natural light needed to be re-introduced as an element amongst others in the picture’s construction, quasi-artificially, where before it was the very element in which the image bathed. And this absence of the sensuous texture of appearance became standard in the abstraction which grew on the cubist root, pervading the kind of abstraction which Greenberg admired, and pervading the work of Jackson Pollock no less.

Time and again we see that it is the art declared minor which carries the sensuousity gene – (Avery, Gorky), whereas the heroic striving for an art of detachment, the monumental “impersonal” style, squeezes sensuous life out of the means. What makes the difference is the nuancing of sensation, – the “crimble-crumble” which reveals the texture of experience as it is marinated in the artist’s semi-conscious reverie upon it.



Caroline Jones’s “Eyesight Alone” is one of the most interesting and revealing of the recent attempts to trace the origins of the post-modernist revision. Intended as a forensic examination, warts and all, of Greenberg’s life and writings, and undoubtedly yet another putative attempt to demolish his reputation, it ends by having the opposite effect, confirming his importance, in spite of his many errors. She explains how advocates of post-modernism, in order to supplant the Greenbergian hegemony which had been undermined during the 1970s by consistent sniping from diverse quarters, art-historians, rival critics, discomfited artists relegated from the canon of “major” art, needed to erect an alternative authorial voice, a guru whose body of thought might act as a counterweight, subverting the canon implied by Greenberg’s evaluations.

They lighted upon Walter Benjamin, despite the fact that he had little or nothing to say about any actual works of art. Here was no Élie Faure, André Malraux, Berenson or Fry, but a social historian of neo-Marxist persuasion (remembering that Greenberg had begun with similar background and pretensions) who, from a Jewish perspective, was well aware that whenever the armies of righteous orthodoxy are afoot, someone is sure to be being trampled. Whenever a canon of high art, a dominant tradition is asserted, someone is being cast out.

This does not mean that declaring the canon, the “Great Tradition” is always a distortion, of negative consequence. On the contrary, people will go on reading and enjoying all the despised “minor” authors, perhaps all the more since they have been declared wanting in “greatness”; people will go on loving Victorian sentiment in painting, receiving a vicarious thrill from the very fact that they are enjoying a genre declared beyond the pale. (So the sons and daughters of fading rock stars can still flock to the Pre-Raphaelite openings and rub shoulders with Andrew Lloyd Webber.)

Someone has to declare the difference between major and minor, to give us, in the memorable phrase of Henry James, “the reasons of our interest” to tell us why one work of art is more worthy of prolonged attention and admiration than another. Though as T.S. Eliot memorably said in The Perfect Critic (1920) this should be done by elucidation (from a perspective of objectivity, not identification) rather than by a nominative “good” or “bad”.

Although Greenberg was criticised for failing to do just that, for failing to announce the criteria by which his eyesight was able to tell him why one artist was major, another minor, why the paintings of one period of an artist’s work were great, while another period wasn’t, even though implicitly he was doing just that. But he resolutely refused to spell out “criteria” in any general form, holding to his self-designated stance of “hyper-pragmatic” critic.

Caroline Jones’s putative hatchet-job ends by somehow confirming Greenberg’s importance; this is because, with all his faults, his body of work tried to define and to enshrine key aspects of those values to which the major figures in modernism’s evolution aspired, even if they and he did not always succeed in doing so, and even if many of them would have disagreed heartily with the precise details of his formulations (and indeed many of those whose life-paths crossed his did disagree, sometimes vehemently. (Rothko, Still, Newman.)

And so autarchic and canonical is the edifice of valuations that he articulated that it was only by stepping right outside its frame of reference into the outer shores of the far-out as an end in itself that the self-styled avant-garde was able to operate at all – neo-dada, neo-Duchampian life as art, or life instead of art – rampant theatricality. Post-modernism reversed the terms of Avant-garde and Kitsch (ironised kitsch is still kitsch, and all the more cynical in its coy, knowing courting of debased taste, its concupiscence, its bare-faced complicity in flaunting all notions of aesthetic propriety, and its complicity in political mendacity).

Post-modernism, as we are now able to look back on it, doesn’t amount to a hill of beans (perhaps that is what it does amount to). There is only modernism however defined, and its consequences, working themselves out in the imaginations of those artists who retain a respect for the various idealisms which stood behind the achievements of the best painters of the later 19th, and 20th centuries. Modernism is simply the example which their works have set, and the self-critical apparatus that accompanied them. Far from being swept along, caught up in a zeitgeist, the major figures stand out, like islands in a stream. Much more aware than their interpreters, their theorisers, of the prevailing biases of the times in which they are living, they tend to appear either hopelessly idealistic, or else “reactionary” small ‘c’ conservative, while actually presenting an alternative reality, a radical social critique, fulminating against the superficialities that surround them- George Eliot, Ruskin, Carlyle, William Morris, Zola, Proust, Frank Lloyd Wright, D.H. Lawrence, Kafka, Yeats, Rilke, Eliot – (no painters, notice – that is not painting’s job – until we get to De Stijl).

And so in spite of everything, in spite of his theoretical formulations being shot full of holes, what remains impressive when one re-examines Greenberg’s writings as a whole, is the tenor of his adversarial stance – for high seriousness of critical aspiration, his attempt to trace the major determinants on artistic quality of the key figures in the art of the 20th century; for an art which challenges inveterate assumptions and the bourgeois pieties (however they may have come about), with their readiness to assume that art is the product of alienated, strident, suffering, “colourful” or damaged personalities venting their spleen against the delusions of “The American Dream”; and against the woeful slippage of standards of evaluation which has accompanied the reign of pluralism and relativism, the “chic cynicism” and “parlour despair” of post modernism’s “slick technocracy” reflected in a new wave of entrepreneur curators schooled in “art language”- speak who now roam the international global network pick and mixing according to some cock-eyed set of discourses of dubious provenance.

It would be a great error to conclude that Walter Benjamin was advocating a kind of art that condescended to mass appetites or that embraced a deterioration to “disintegration of the aura in the experience of shock.” The bitterness, bitingness, of his irony is too deep for that – or that his “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in any way welcomes the threat to authenticity, genuineness, originality. It may anticipate, augur in the world of Warhol, but it does not advocate it. Benjamin would I’m sure be appalled to see his prophetic vision fulfilled in such squalid finality, its worst predictions celebrated as a triumph of culture. And the “jostling of the crowd” which attends a visit to one of the “block-busters” of our big city museums, were he to have experienced it, would have filled him with dismay, terror, even if, like his account of Baudelaire which says so much about himself too, he would have gained a kind of masochistic pleasure from it.

The days are long gone since it was an affront to be jostled by the crowd. We are all part of the crowd now – and what we all want is to “have a good time”, at whatever level we enter it, and how-so-ever our predilections direct us. But this does not mean that we need to embrace every manifestation of the now debased “new sensibility” which commercialised and commodified culture throws at us.

Alan Gouk February 2012 – March 2013

  1. virginia bryant said…

    “On the other, the desire to place oneself in a state of constant turbulence of spirit, where study and calculation are anathema, where impulse rules, even arbitrary impulse, if only it ends in calm – this is the religion of every modern painter who still retains an identification with the romantic lineage.” As a painter that retains some of this, I disagree. Study and calculation (better said as contemplation) are a basic element of processes across many definitions, including romanticism. Those boundaries cannot be crossed with any power, without a firm rootedness in certain sorts of study and calculation, which may be said to be a refining, a part of any growth process.
    Good stuff. Enjoyable read.

  2. CAP said…

    On abstraction in painting: (a cornerstone for Greenberg’s version of Modernism) French/Belgian critic Michael Seuphor – slightly older than Greenberg but far more committed – makes for a bracing corrective. See ‘Abstract Painting’ – English editions 1964-7 or ‘A Dictionary of Abstract Painting’ 1958 English translation – Methuen and Co, London.

    Seuphor’s version usually gets swept aside as Paris is exchanged for New York as The Great Centre, and he was often the implicit butt of some of Greenberg’s jibes, about excessive French cooking versus Puritanical American basics (barbecues?) mostly around the comparison between Soulages and Kline. But Seuphor was much less partisan or chauvinistic – appreciating the contrived pastes of Fautrier or Dubuffet just as much as the stripped down applications of Pollock or Kline. He visited New York in the early 50s and welcomed their developments. He didn’t see it as a contest. As he wittily replied, “But I am not on a diet!”

    Alas it fell on dead ears.

    Later generations of French critics such as Y-A Bois just couldn’t see what Seuphor was driving at in his later writings distinguishing between a scream and a cry (between accidental and deliberate demonstration) but if we want to recover Modernism from Greenbergian dogma, this may be a good place to start.

  3. Peter Stott said…

    “To read some commentators you might be tempted to think that Clement Greenberg invented Modernism and that it stands or falls in his account of it. He didn’t and it doesn’t”.

    Hurray,thank God someone’s said it.