BY Robert Burstow in Interviews | 06 SEP 94
Featured in
Issue 18

On Art and Politics

An interview with Clement Greenberg

BY Robert Burstow in Interviews | 06 SEP 94

The following interview is from a conversation recorded in late 1992 as a trial run for a television interview. My collaborator and director, David Blackmore and I were preparing material for a documentary on modern sculpture in the cold war. As the most influential post-War art critic, Greenberg's uncompromising formalism has been identified as instrumental in an apparent depoliticisation of modern art during the 50s, especially of Abstract Expressionism which he most consistently championed. It is argued that this enabled some commentators to represent such American art as primarily emblematic of the freedom of the (Western) individual, during a period when this issue dominated the ideological rhetoric of the United States in its bid for cultural and political supremacy. The writings of the artists themselves, now widely published, confirm that their artistic interests and ambitions were frequently at odds with Greenberg's formalist interpretation of their art. I was particularly keen to hear Greenberg's reaction to these revisionist arguments and elicit his view of his own critical position during that time.

The interview took place in Greenberg's modestly-sized Manhattan apartment overlooking Central Park, which was filled with his collection of painting and sculpture, including works by many of his most favoured American Modernists - Louis, Noland, Olitski and Pollock. More surprisingly, his collection included a number of smaller figurative paintings: he welcomed my appreciation of a small landscape watercolour by a little-known artist hanging in his kitchen. Indeed, the champion of abstraction par excellence reaffirmed, with paradoxical delight, his own aspirations as a practising naturalist painter.

Although initially somewhat hesitant, his memory and vitality improved during the course of the afternoon, assisted by a constant supply of cigarettes and spirits, while acknowledging the cost to his health of these long-standing addictions. He was bluntly, but affectionately, dismissive of art historians who had challenged his critical standpoint and disdainful of the Abstract Expressionists' public utterances. (That he had long claimed that it is artists, not critics, who perform the most telling acts of criticism through their own artworks, did not prevent him from entirely disregarding their professed intentions.) But despite his contentious views and occasionally pedantic manner, Greenberg remained an engaging and amusing conversationalist. Ironically, but revealingly, his memory was especially quick and detailed for political events; regrettably for us, far less vivid for sculpture. His death means that the opportunity is gone to put on camera this rare interview with the octogenarian critic, but since he made clear that he was happy to repeat all that he had said for broadcasting, it seems timely to publish these personal recollections.

Robert Burstow: Let's begin with your politics. In the late 30s would you have considered yourself a Trotskyist?

Clement Greenberg: A half-assed Trotskyist, at the very end of the 30s.

Was 'Avant-garde and Kitsch' written within that kind of framework? 1

Alas, yes.

And you moved away from that because of the war?

No, it wasn't the war. It was a combination. My Marxism began to get diluted, then it faded and had nothing to do with art.

What diluted it, Stalinism?

No, I didn't identify Marxism with Stalin. Trotsky said, if at the end of this war there's no revolution - no socialist revolution anyway - we'll have to reconsider everything. Then he got killed in 1940 and I wasn't such a faithful Trotskyist anyway. After the war there was the attempt at Socialism in Britain, with the Labour Party and so forth which I was all for, of course, in a pious way, but it never had anything to with art. Marx himself said so little about art. He struggled with the fact that the Greeks, as he saw it, had produced the best visual art, and had done so in a slave society. He couldn't square that, so he dropped it.

After the war, some of us were interested to see what the French had done in the meanwhile. We hadn't seen much 30s French art over here. When we saw what they had done in the 40s we thought, well, we're way better. It wasn't chauvinism. We were disposed to it... the best American Modernist art comes out of Paris, no question about it: it comes from Picasso, Matisse, Miró and Mondrian. But we were disappointed with what we saw of Paris painting after the war, and in New York we got parochial, not provincial.

Was that sense of disillusionment with European art in any way linked with a disillusion with European politics?

No, that came up in the last 10 or 15 years with academics such as Serge Guilbaut and maybe Tim Clark. 2 That was a lot of shit and still is - how the State Department supported American art and that part of the cold war, and so forth? It was only after American art had made it at home and abroad, principally in Paris, that the State Department said we can now export this stuff. They hadn't dared to before that. The fight had been won.

That's by '56 or so?

Yes. When the State Department sent me to Japan and India in 1966/67 to accompany the show '20 years of American art', the battle had been won. That was why these foreigners wanted to look at American art, certainly the Japanese.

Why at that stage would the State Department have wanted to export American art?

Because they saw how it was praised abroad. Even in France people were praising Pollock by the 60s.

Was there a sense that it represented values of individualism or freedom?

Bullshit. The State Department knew, and I'm speaking first hand. It was going overboard with its catalogues.

It could have been Coca-Cola, as long as it was American?

It could have been Red Revolution - it would have been sent abroad!

They wouldn't have been subtle enough to think that it somehow represented values of individualism or freedom?

They wouldn't have been so shat-up! The State Department, or the part I knew of it, was damn well-intentioned and they had no fixed ideas. When they sent me abroad after having thoroughly investigated me, it was just because they knew I wasn't a fellow-traveller, that I was a Red-baiter. It wasn't only for that reason that they sent me, but it helped. All that Serge Guilbaut bullshit ... I have to like him. Over here they explained its success by the art market and so on - that it had been manipulated. Sometimes, it's just the taste of the art public, that's all, and it usually is, for the newest art.

Where would you position yourself politically at that point?

By that time my combative Marxism had long faded, but I was for anti-Stalinism from the left, not from the right. Like so many of my friends, my anti-Stalinism overrode all other considerations. You thought, well how could you stand this awful regime in Russia? It was that feeling, more than anything more positive. Now we're vindicated, the Mensheviks are vindicated more than anybody else, and nobody mentions them now. They were what were called the minority Mensheviks in the Russian Socialist Party before the First World War and they maintained that Russia was too backward to be the venue for a socialist experiment. The Bolsheviks, ironically, contended no, if we don't affect a socialist revolution now we'Il be colonised, we Russians. The capitalists will come in and colonise us. As if that weren't the best possible thing for Russia.

Why did you join the American Committee for Cultural Freedom?

To combat fellow-travelling, to combat sympathy for Russia, or sympathy for Stalinism.

How did you feel when the revelations came out about its parent body, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, having been funded by the CIA? 3

It didn't bother me much. I knew at the time that there had been CIA or government money somewhere around and I didn't feel that it had done much; nor did I feel that it had compromised anybody because the government money was fed without any conditions.

So is it possible that there was that kind of patronage for Partisan Review? 4

There wasn't any. Partisan Review didn't get a penny from the government. I wish they had.

Guilbaut says that the editorial stance changed from being formerly quite radical to being more liberalist with an influx of new funds in 1948.

Formerly quite radical? I was one of the editors of Partisan Review for about two or three years - radical my asshole. We were enlightened and we were for Socialism, that's about as radical as we were. There were Trotskyists like me and Dwight MacDonald, and so forth, but there was no Trotskyist line in the magazine.

You mentioned Dwight MacDonald. He submitted a piece to Encounter which wasn't published. That's one case where it has been suggested there was some interference, as Encounter was the Congress' journal. 5

What was the piece about?

It was a political piece, in which MacDonald lamented the taming of American intellectuals.

Dwight was a loyal Trotskyist in a formal way, not just a half-assed hanger-on like me, and there was some controversy among the Trotskyists. Trotsky reprimanded him quite harshly. This was before 1940. That was what I remember. It was the controversy between the Shachtmanites and the Cannonites - the Cannonites were straight-laced Bolsheviks and the Shachtmanites were for loosening up. 6 And the Trotskyist party, if you can call it that, split over that and Dwight was on Shachtman's side. And so what's this got to do with sculpture?

I was going to ask you that! As this was such an active, volatile period in politics, didn't any of this get into the art and the art criticism?

Not a bit of it ... well, maybe somewhere.

Did the artists agree with you? Didn't people like Barnett Newman say that if people understood his pictures it would be the end of state capitalism and totalitarianism? 7

No. That's so far-fetched. He wanted to be a success, that's all he wanted to be, like any other sane artist. He posed as an anarchist during and right after the War.

These artists, like you yourself, had been in the 30s, either Trotskyists perhaps, or Marxists...

That was the line-up in the Artists' Union. I wasn't there. I got everything secondhand, but there was a big fellow-travelling, more than a contingent, and then there were artists who opposed it. No programme but they opposed it. Gottlieb was prominent amongst them and one of the keenest. He could be a dull man but he could smell a fellow-traveller a mile away. He was like an old hand at it. After the war, I won't say the Abstract Expressionists fled politics but they abandoned it. Pollock had been a communist. I don't know whether he belonged to the Party or not. I never asked him. They lost all interest, the whole lot of them.

Did that make them vulnerable in the late 50s?

Vulnerable to what?

The State Department.

They would have been vulnerable to the Devil if he had come along with money and exposure! These shows that were sent abroad that Serge [Guilbaut] goes on about - do you think the State Department cross-examined every artist? Except Dondero afterwards, it was after the fact, and the people that Dondero pointed to had long since abandoned politics. 8

One exhibition was recalled in '56. 'One Hundred American Artists' was recalled from Europe, which is after McCarthy's time.

I had forgotten about that. Dondero was still there and I guess a lot of fellow-travellers were still there. I didn't know those hundred American artists - they were all off somewhere else and they were all mediocre artists anyhow. You could almost equate that: if you stayed a fellow-traveller, your art would not suffer for it but it would reflect in your art. The fellow-travellers faded and in a sense disappeared, and I think Dondero could get his staff to spot the ones that were, or had lately been, fellow-travellers. It was too large a net, a hundred artists, anyhow. I don't remember it being that big, but it was way too large. You don't send that kind of show abroad to speak for American art. You couldn't send a hundred artists from any country at any time to speak well for the art of the country concerned.

Can I bring you back to your conviction that what was relevant to talk about in painting and the work of the Abstract Expressionists was its formal qualities?

Qualities? What was relevant is whether it was good or bad. Nobody explained much. When you try to explain, it's still true today, you put on an art professor's act, or whatever. Don't explain too much - it's just good, bad, good, bad, that's all. Why? Tell me why a Titian is good. Tell me why a Norman Rockwell is bad (and he's not bad).

What did you think when artists like Rothko and Gottlieb made those often long statements about their work?

It was anti-Gallic! Still, Gottlieb, Newman and Rothko were quite anti-French, although they owed everything to them, and it was a fact that, at that time, the Museum of American Art - the Museum of Modern Art, what a slip! - was readier to buy a new Frenchman than they were a new American, just as collectors were readier too. And they had a point because I remember how the Museum of Modern Art got a Mathieu (and Mathieu was good back then) before they ever touched any but one or two of the Abstract Expressionists. But that passed in the mid-50s. The Abstract Expressionists had won out.

So when somebody like Rothko talked about metaphysical intentions in his art, that art must be 'tragic and timeless...'

Bullshit. Artists' talk.

Why did he say those things then?

Because artists want to elevate their art, as it were, in words, that's all, especially among the American artists who had a wayward way with words. Pollock, beneath everything was hard-headed. But when he read someone who saw all sorts of things in his art, he really liked it.

Yet these artists talked about their art being appropriate to the period of the atomic bomb...

They didn't talk this way among themselves, they would have been hooted out of the room. Maybe in public they did, but among themselves: good, bad, that's all.

So who were they feeding these lines to?

The public. When you had a talk at a college or whatever. David Smith was the great exponent of bullshit. He would blossom on some campus - the things he would attribute to his art! It wasn't usually as high flown as Rothko but that's what you did as an artist.

Concentrating on the formal qualities of art and not writing about contemporary political or social concerns - had this nothing to do with a fear of the McCarthyites who would find their political beliefs unacceptable? Wasn't it a way of fighting off the Right?

The Abstract Expressionists were nowhere in the public esteem for a long while. They were beginning to get somewhere in the early 50s, and the Whitney Museum was beginning to show them in their Annual and so forth. McCarthy was sounding off in Washington and didn't obtrude, so no attention was paid. At that point there was no hope of big museum acquisitions and all that anyway. You wanted to get noticed and that's about all you hoped for, for the time being. You worked among the professionals. Nobody got worked up about this stuff. The opposition to the best new art was there and it didn't need McCarthy. That opposition of indifference and negation is true today. The best new art doesn't get a motivated opposition, it's just the opposition of deficient taste. People like to explain all the art dealers who were at work, and so forth, but it's just the deficient taste of the art public as it has been since Monet's time, back in the 1850s, nothing else.

But taste is something that you can cultivate, it's not something you are just born with and have or don't have, is it?

I should hope not and that's why the rich acquire better taste than the poor. That's why the best art has been elitist ever since before Giotto. Art talk is as full of hot air today as it has been in the past.

Your writings are sometimes linked with Roger Fry and Clive Bell, the English critics. Do you think there is a sense in their attitudes that taste is something that you have only if you come from the right social class?

It just happens to be a noticeable fact that you have to have dignified leisure in order to cultivate taste in any of the arts, not the leisure of an unemployed stevedore.

The way Clive Bell writes suggests that the working-class would never be able to cultivate that taste.

That leisure wouldn't be dignified, it wouldn't be comfortable. That's the mark.

So you decide whether a painting's good or not through, as you would say, your intuitive and involuntary response?

Art for arts sake, that's where I'm at. So I'm simplifying, but I think in the right direction, to get the irrelevancies out of the way. In art you don't lay down prescriptions, though I'd like to on Mapplethorpe's photos. I think some of them are revolting. I don't know what I would do, if I were in authority, about showing his stuff, I'd probably say no. He was a good photographer too, but some of his stuff is just horrendous, fists up somebody's asshole ... that's too much. But I still say 'art for art's sake', while there's a limit as there is to everything.

Do you think your essay 'Modernist Painting' has had comparatively too much attention compared with your other writings? It is often referred to as your clearest statement about your 'observations', as you would have it, on the history of Modernist painting. 9

I love attention like anybody else but the British economist, Lionel Robbins has said that the weakness of the cultivated public (that includes academics) is to read 'should' where they see 'is' and that's the way in which my 'Modernist Painting' has been read. I was describing, and it's been assumed that I was prescribing, and that bothers and irritates me. There's a common tendency to think when you read somebody praising this kind of art, it means the writer is for this kind of art, not that he's for the specific works in question. I wasn't careful enough in that 'Modernist Painting'... my rhetoric, if you can call it that, was sloppy, negligent. Having said that, all other things being equal I prefer representational art. This is something I can't help.

And when you said in your interview with Tim Clark that you were waiting for a return of Fantin-Latour...? 10

No, I said I'd like to paint like Fantin-Latour's still-lifes, not the other Fantin-Latours, not the figures. I wasn't joking, I meant for myself, as a painter. There is a wonderful still-life in the National Gallery in Washington. That's the way I would want to paint if I took myself seriously as a painter.

I would like to thank David Blackmore and Waterside Productions for their commitment to the TV documentary project, and both the Arts Council of Great Britain and the University of Derby for their financial assistance.

1. Partisan Review, Fall 1939, pp 34-49; reprinted in C. Harrison & P. Wood (eds) Art in Theory 1900-1990, Blackwell, 1992, pp 529-41.

2. See especially S. Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom and the Cold War, University of Chicago Press, 1983.

3. See C. Lasch, 'The Cultural Cold War', The Nation, 11 Sept 1967, pp 198-212; reprinted in B. Berstein (ed.) Towards a New Past, Dissenting Essays in American History, Pantheon, 1968.

4. A small circulation politico-cultural journal published in Boston (Mass) which Greenberg wrote for between 1939 and 1955.

5. See C. Lasch, op cit., p 201.

6. The American Trotskyist movement was split between the Shachtmanite Workers Party and the Cannonite Socialist Workers Party.

7. Interview with Dorothy Gees Seckler in Art in America, Summer 1962, p 87; reprinted in C. Harrison & P. Wood (eds.), op cit., p 766.

8. George A. Dondero, Republican Senator for Michigan and follower of Senator McCarthy, led attacks on modern art in the US as a weapon of communist subversion.

9. Voice of America radio broadcast, 1961; reprinted in C. Harrison & P. Wood (eds.), op cit., pp 754-60.

10. Greenberg: 'I'd like to see painting come along in a major the manner of Fantin-Latour's still-lifes...that's the way I like to paint myself'; Open University, A315 TV29 and A316 TV19, 1982.