On July 31, 1958, Franz Kline, a New York School abstract painter, strode purposefully into an East Hampton Ford dealer where he purchased a sleek, black Thunderbird. For the first time, an American abstract artist had bought a new car. According to art historian Serge Guilbaut, Kline became the first such artist to cross "the line separating the bohemians from the well-to-do middle class..." At last, the United States had avant-garde art stars such as Kline who, along with Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, and Barnett Newman, shared the celebrity status of their European counterparts.
To Clement Greenberg, this century's most influential writer on art in the English language, this development seemed only fitting. "Our new abstract painting seems to have anticipated the Paris version by two or three years," he wrote in 1953, "but I doubt whether there has been, or is yet, any real acceptance of American influence on the part of the French (and I don't much care)." Greenberg's dismissal of advanced French culture may seem astonishing. However, this was the beginning of the New York School's biggest moment, when artists like Kline, Pollock, Still, and Newman made it seem that the United States could produce artists equal to Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.
It was the apotheosis of a historical tendency now known as modernism, that was born during the nineteenth century and characterized by painting's continuous re-invention of itself. Modernism proceeds by asking what defines painting: it begins (and ends, according to Greenberg) with the materials required-pigment on a two-dimensional surface; but it often opens out onto inquiries about painting's relation to the other arts, as well as to other registers-the quotidian, political, and ethical-of human existence. In pictures like Edouard Manet's Music in the Tuileries (1862), the weighty flatness of tree trunks punctures a park scene-the artist having given his trees no sense of roundness-and upsets the painting's sense of depth. This collapse of the Renaissance trope of delineating a space and then filling it with apparently three-dimensional objects paves the way for paintings like Pollock's Lavender Mist (1950), in which the absence of anything recognizable as space or object creates a tension between depth and flatness.
The late 1970s brought a wave of declarations of modernism's demise, which continued into the early 1990s. Modernism, this "postmodernist" argument runs, killed itself by allowing its mushrooming popularity to pull its critical sting. Hal Foster, a prominent commentator on postmodern art, observed at the time: "Originally oppositional, modernism defied the cultural order of the bourgeoisie.; today, however, it is the official culture." Pollock's drips, once confrontational, now appear everywhere because they startle no one-an incorporation into elite culture strikingly foreshadowed by Kline's purchase of his T-Bird.
As its name suggests, postmodernism assumes that modernism's critical core remains valuable even though it has passed its historical limits, and therefore attempts to revitalize its precursor-"to deconstruct modernism," Foster suggests, "not in order to seal it in its own image but in order to open it...". In artistic practice, this philosophy generated reflections on the instability and manipulability of identity and meaning. For example, Cindy Sherman's photographic self-portraits of the last twenty-five years present her as a blank screen upon which she projects innumerable "types" of women.
Postmodernism's concern with the instability of meaning shifts modernism's self-questioning into self-doubt. In this climate, Greenberg's pronouncements (such as his dismissal of 1950s French painting) are unwelcome. Opposition to judgment, however, was widely mistaken for opposition to rigour and, as Foster noted, "a basic opposition" arose between "a postmodernism which seeks to deconstruct modernism and resist the status quo and a postmodernism which repudiates the former to celebrate the latter: a postmodernism of resistance and a postmodernism of reaction." The work of US painter David Salle typifies the latter: panels charged with a vague sexual frisson crossed with barely suppressed violence are juxtaposed with a variety of images just random enough to seem indefinably profound.
The postmodernism of resistance counters not only its modernist precursor, but also its fatuous shadow. Under these circumstances, modernism's willingness to challenge and judge have been revived, albeit in a less strident form. The first step came with the publication of a collection of Greenberg's complete writings up to 1969. The popularity of this project stems from a dramatic change in the art world over the last fifteen years. As a formalist, Greenberg assesses the specific characteristics of a painting or sculpture, rather than analyzing its content, ideology or social history. During the 1980s, formalists and those interested in other interpretive possibilities viewed each other hostilely, each convinced of their aesthetic and ideological superiority.
Today's modernism, however, incorporates postmodernism's caution against excessive self-assurance. Thus, the collection of Greenberg's writings from the seventies published posthumously this spring as Homemade Esthetics: Observations on Art and Taste does not collect everything the critic published after 1969; instead, it focuses on nine seminars concerning aesthetic judgment that Greenberg gave at Bennington College in 1971.
Greenberg began reworking this material into book form during the early 1980s, but abandoned the project for health reasons. The editors have compiled the material on which Greenberg would have drawn had he completed this work. The book holds special interest now because, while most of Greenberg's writings record his critical judgments, here he attempts to theorize how that judgment works. The difference between Homemade Esthetics and the Collected Essays reflects current interests in examining modernism's roots, as well as a recent preoccupation with what Greenberg has to say to this new, more flexible modernism.
Characteristically, Greenberg begins Homemade Esthetics by describing the a priori character of intuition, which, following Immanuel Kant, he understands as our psyche's organization of raw experience into comprehensible patterns. Intuition is perceptive: it is seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting; it is also registering what goes on inside your own consciousness. No one can teach or show you how to intuit. If you can't tell for yourself what heat or cold is like, or the colour blue, or the sound of thunder, or remembering, if you don't know these things by yourself and for yourself, nobody else can tell you. Your unique constellation of perceptions and genes makes your perceptions yours alone. They are neither demonstrable nor, Greenberg maintains, analyzable by logic. If someone prefers Norman Rockwell to Pollock, he liked to say, they cannot be proved wrong.
Nonetheless, they are wrong, Greenberg insists, because Rockwell is kitsch, while Pollock is high culture. As such, Pollock's abstractions provide us with all too rare opportunities for purposeless contemplation: an aesthetic intuition is dwelled on, hung upon, relished-or dys-relished-for its own sole sake and nothing else. The intuition that gives you the colour of the sky turns into an aesthetic intuition when it stops telling you what the weather is like and becomes purely an experience of the colour. The importance of distinguishing ersatz from authentic culture lies in the purposeless, self-sufficient experience of the latter. For, Greenberg argues, we are wholly ourselves only in experiences which encourage us to transcend the concerns of our daily lives.
Greenberg's belief in the necessity of passing judgment means that his position is elitist. ("Arrogant Purpose" is how John O'Brian subtitled volume two of the Collected Essays, summarizing the anger on this score that confronted Greenberg repeatedly.) However, Homemade Esthetics clarifies the fact that, as well as being driven by a deeply humanistic purpose, the standard underlying Greenberg's elitism is less intransigent than is generally believed. Greenberg's objectivity is not of the sort-typified by the more vulgar forms of scientific objectivity-that believes its system is universally true in a way that transcends the vicissitudes of history and human perception: "It's not scientific objectivity, it's not probative objectivity as I said last night, but it's not subjective... Objective is much closer to the truth than subjective."
Greenberg backs away from the transcendental notion of objectivity. He has in mind a consensus of experts that tends towards objectivity since it remains constant over time: "[W]e are pretty much alike along general lines. And it is the general lines that come into play when we're developing our taste. The more you develop your taste, the more impersonal you become. Not the less individual."
This last phrase is crucial because, for Greenberg, the individual is the point. This is why his aesthetics focus more on the experience of the artwork than on the artwork itself. "Esthetic experience is the experiencing of experience," he writes. "But there's one kind of experience that can't double back on itself, and that's esthetic experience itself." This self-sufficiency of aesthetic experience gives the encounter with art its transcendent purposelessness. Kitsch, by contrast, pretends to provide this experience when, as a mass-marketed product of industrial society, it can do nothing of the sort. For Greenberg, this phenomenon constitutes an incursion of industry at its most vacuous into our imaginations-the very thing that makes us individuals.
The desire to defend the imagination against attempts to tame and exploit it connects Greenberg with those art historians who consider modernism in light of social history, ideology, and meaning. This connection is particularly clear in T.J. Clark's Farewell to an Idea: Episodes in a History of Modernism, which is, in part, an engagement with Greenberg's ideas. Not that the Marxian inflection of Clark's previous work has disappeared. But the rhetorical pitch has been lowered and the willingness to engage with differing viewpoints raised.
There is, however, no danger of mistaking Clark for Greenberg. Their disagreement turns on the fact that Greenberg sees modernism as a seamless lineage reaching back into the past-a model Clark finds inadequate: "Even [during the 1950s and 1960s] it was chilling to see Greenberg's views become an orthodoxy. What was deadly, above all, was the picture of artistic continuity and self-sufficiency built into so much modernist writing: the idea that modern art could be studied as a passing-on of the same old artistic flame (now under threat from ideological confusion and violence) from Manet to Monet to Seurat to Matisse to Miro.."
For Clark, modernism opposes tradition with ruptures, sudden stops, and equally abrupt lurchings-off in unpredictable directions. While Clark's history of modernism takes in many artists included in Greenberg's account of the movement (Jacques-Louis David, Gustave Courbet, Manet, Paul Cezanne, Picasso, Pollock), it also comprises some excluded by Greenberg-most notably Soviet artists El Lissitsky and Kasimir Malevich. Greenberg excludes this work from his canon because, given that it is art for propaganda's sake rather than for art's sake, its content de-emphasizes its form. And form, according to Greenberg, is what modernism must focus on "to the exclusion of all else".
Clark counters that the emphasis on form, the concentration on the materials of painting, always has meaning. Moreover, he says, meaning differs according to context. Thus, he contends, if there is meaning in paintings that Greenberg would deny are high modernist, such as Lissitsky's Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, there is also meaning in paintings that Greenberg would count as modernist, like Cezanne's Bathers. In Lissitsky's case, the meaning is explicit because programmatic: he and his colleagues searched for symbolic forms appropriate to the radically new society that the Soviet Union took itself to be. In Cezanne's Bathers, the meaning is more obscure.
Clark compellingly relates the ambivalent passages of these paintings (heads turning into phalluses; shoulders and breasts of one figure doubling as buttocks and legs of another) to the theories concerning hidden meanings that Sigmund Freud developed simultaneously. Clark's point is not that Cezanne based his compositions on Freud's theories. Rather, he argues that Cezanne addresses in paint the same problems about the unpredictability of meaning that Freud tackles in print: "I like to think of [Bathers at Rest (1875-77)] as roughly the equivalent of The Interpretation of Dreams, and the cooler atmosphere of [The Large Bathers in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (1904-06)] as corresponding to that of the Three Essays [in Sexuality]. Though I admit that still leaves me with the problem of [The Large Bathers in the National Gallery, London (1900-06)]. Would it help if we saw it as Cezanne's Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, which Freud published along with the Three Essays in 1905?"
It will help, of course. It will enable us to see that, while Cezanne and Manet both use heavy brush strokes and deliberately neglect modelling to collapse depth and volume in their paintings, differences remain. Manet leaves more detail than Cezanne, for example. And it will help us to understand that those differences mean, in part, that Manet's flatness is concerned with Baron von Hausmann's Paris, while Cezanne's flatness addresses the destabilization of meaning that occurred at the very beginning of this century.
The happy coincidence of these works' simultaneous appearances emphasizes the extent to which their voices, once considered diametrically opposed, are in productive dialogue. Homemade Esthetics and Farewell to an Idea are written for art world initiates, but both authors are articulate enough that any interested reader can follow along. This is particularly true of Clark's book, with its abundant, strategically placed, high quality plates and informative footnotes. With their commitment to serious ideas, their searching engagement with art, and their determination to express both clearly, Greenberg and Clark show by example what writing about art should be.
Charles Reeve is a Toronto-based art historian and art critic.