in Frieze | 06 SEP 94
Featured in
Issue 18

Cold Warrior

The Clement Greenberg Phenomenon

in Frieze | 06 SEP 94

On May 7, 1994, Clement Greenberg, the American art critic most famously associated with Abstract Expressionism and Colour Field painting, died aged 85. Greenberg had started with literary ambitions, was redirected into art criticism, and worked for many years as the critic for the influential liberal broadsheet, The Nation. A handful of brief theoretical essays, such as 'Avant-garde and Kitsch' (1939), and 'Toward a Newer Laocoon' (1940), remain the remarkably enduring testament of his position: a relentlessly highbrow American brand of 'formalism'. They are supported by a much larger number of brief reviews of exhibitions in which these principles are more or less applied. In 1961, selected essays from 1939-1960 were published as the book Art and Culture, which still maintains an overpowering dominance in the American critical canon. Recently the whole mass of Greenberg's critical writings has been republished in a four volume set by the University of Chicago Press.

I have elsewhere published my critique of Greenberg's theoretical position,1 and will offer here, instead, a discussion of the Greenberg phenomenon - his enduring hold on much of the American art establishment, both in the gallery and in the academy.

I think it is clear that there never was a 'Greenbergian' theory of art. Greenberg himself acknowledged that he was merely embellishing the aesthetic theory of Immanuel Kant - though his stance was also shot through with liberal injections of Hegelian historicism which he didn't acknowledge. Greenberg was really just a late and distant representative of a European tradition going back through Roger Fry and Clive Bell to the so-called Critical Historians of Art and the ancestral lineage behind them: Schelling, Hegel, Kant, Goethe, Ficino and, ultimately, Plotinus, Plato, and Pythagoras. 2 The view that pure form somehow is its own content because it derives from universals has been perhaps the most clichéd and central European view about art since the Pre-Socratic period, with the exception of eras in which the Christian church has dominated.

It was not, then, what Greenberg said about art that made 'Greenbergianism' seem like a real - even an important - entity; it was the art he chose to say it about: the fact that he championed American painting at the moment when it was about to go over the top historically. He backed a winner.

Post-War American military and industrial hegemony carried American art along with it into a fairly lasting moment of cultural hegemony. This is not to say that the art was without value, or that any American art at all could have been effectively used in this way. Abstract Expressionism was, of course, the branch of American art which had lately received the most direct European influence - but it also embodied something of the mythical Yankee initiative, rugged individualism, and so on. It was, in other words, a highly suitable sign for the propagandist idea of the unity of the United States and Western Europe - but unity under American leadership. Earlier American art not spawned out of Paris - such as the Regionalist painting of Thomas Hart Benton - could not have been used credibly for this purpose in Europe, where it would speak only of the provincial backwardness of the Americans. Abstract Expressionism, on the contrary, spoke of a new, Euro-derived historicist sophistication in the Yankee which made him, in the guise, say, of Jackson Pollock, worthy of receiving the torch of avant-gardism from a Europe crippled by war. He would keep its flame alive - a rough-hewn, authentic Siegfried emerging from the forest with the song of the new day on his lips. Greenberg disciple William Rubin evidently wasn't kidding when, in the 60s, he referred to Pollock as 'World Historical', meaning that Pollock (read 'the United States') had taken on the leadership of Europe.

As for Greenberg himself, his hegemonic positioning as über-critic was a minor wrinkle in this new geopolitical arrangement. Starting in 1956, the USIA and the CIA, in conjunction with New York's Museum of Modern Art, arranged a series of exhibitions to be sent to Europe as weapons of the Cold War in which the United States and the Soviet Union were struggling for the soul of Western Europe. 3 Paintings by Pollock, Kline, and de Kooning were to demonstrate the free spontaneous sensibility of the American option as opposed to the robotic Socialist Realism coming out of the Soviet Union. There was something slightly dishonest about this, since it is no secret that American formalism, despite the rebellious ambitions of its practitioners, served in part to depoliticise art at a moment - the McCarthy era and its aftermath - when content inevitably seemed political and hence dangerous. In this sense Abstract Expressionism was as much a submissive response to repression as it was a daring challenge to it. But this was not so obvious at the time, when Pollock, Newman, and so on - not to mention Greenberg himself - had no idea they were being co-opted into the role of Cold Warriors.

Greenberg, even more than the artists he championed, had regarded himself as a leftist, a Marxist, a Stalinist until that became impossible in 1936, and then for a while a Trotskyist. In fact, his supremely confident Hegelian determinism derives in part from this orientation, but with a remarkable displacement from society at large to the sheltered realm of high art. He took the highly political background of the American apocalyptic Marxism of the 30s, with its enthusiasm and passion, and translated it into a depoliticised theory of art that has since only been practiced by right-wing critics like Hilton Kramer. Was the triumph of Abstract Expressionism really a substitute for the triumph of the proletariat? Greenberg's triumphalist tone implied that somehow he had convinced at least himself. In terms of his famous dichotomy between avant-garde and kitsch, the arts produced by Nazism and Stalinism were both to be regarded as kitsch - that is, as having falsified content. Pure form was offered as the revolutionary alternative. In effect he offered Abstract Expressionism as a way out of the dilemma of failed faith in Stalinism. His unqualified assertion that 'quality' is to be judged only by the eye, and that only he had the eye to do it, also derived some of its infantile arrogance from the intolerant universalism of Marxism: this (whether the revolution of the proletariat or the emergence of Colour Field painting) is historically inevitable - and everything else is bad.

Greenberg's essays on art had begun to appear in 1939, but it was not till a decade or so after the War that he began to ascend to special status. The work which was being sent abroad to represent America as the utopia of free expression and open-ended searching for the truth had to be supported by some critical opinion or other. And among the existing options, Greenberg's pseudo-secularised Kantian purism, with its driving engine of Hegelian historicism that implied American Manifest Destiny, was the most suitable vehicle for effecting a cultural and political symbiosis between America and Western Europe at the height of the cold war. It was this peripheral participation in the emergence of American global hegemony in the late 50s that elevated Greenberg to the status of archetype. For the amazing thing about him is that, though he comes from the mainstream Plato-to-Kant tradition, he seems to stand alone. This work and that work, this critical opinion and that one, are called Greenbergian; or they are anti-Greenbergian. One does not say that they are either Kantian or anti-Kantian but, absurdly, that they do or do not conform to the view of this minor and distant Kantian revivalist.

Such is the egocentrism of the American point of view, still enamoured of one of the prophets of its hegemony, that American opinion has edited out the long tradition of the formalist position, leaving Greenberg, the American, standing alone. (Michael Kimmelman, for example, in the New York Times obituary article, speaks of 'the theoretical framework Greenberg formulated.' 4) The unique archetypal position of this critic must seem strangely askew in Europe and, of course, even more so in the rest of the world. He wrote no major opera or theoretical tomes, just little reviews which reprocessed the most traditional of all European attitudes toward art in a chauvinistic and bellicose American spirit.

Concerning Greenberg's death, a friend said recently, 'The point is that Greenberg is not dead.' She was not speaking of Greenberg's transfiguration and assumption, like Elvis and Jesus and others whose tombs have come up empty. She meant that his attitudes - or rather those traditional European attitudes that he adopted and Americanised - are still a widely prevalent vocabulary. They dominate much of the practice of art history. The activity of painting, too, is still taught in these terms in many studio classrooms. In addition they dominate much of the practice of contemporary art criticism. One can see the intimidating power of his reputation clearly in the obituary articles in the American press. Kimmelman, for example, evidently isn't kidding either when he calls Greenberg still the only critic whose voice is central and essential. Other critics, even in liberal organs like the Village Voice, similarly have treated him like the ultimate, irreplaceable master. In fact, at this moment of backswing away from post-Modern relativism, Greenberg's ideas are surging back here and there in disguised ways. An example is the recent resurgence of the word 'beauty' as a supposedly viable art critical term - with no apparent memory of two generations or so of recognition of its synonymity, or at least deep complicity, with the term 'decoration.' 5 (Some would prefer 'pretty.')

Perhaps this is a moment to remember how artistic systems based on ideas of transcendent beauty have tended to be produced by totalitarian regimes and oppressive societies. The highly decorative surface of art in ancient Egypt, as in Medieval Europe, the Forbidden City of Ming China, and the McCarthy-era United States, may have served an essentially falsifying function, suggesting that God is at peace with this culture which, like the surface it presents to the world, is beautiful, serene, eternal, continuous, and universal. The decorative surface, in other words, when presented one-dimensionally, can distract human feeling from the deficiencies of society in a classic case of fetishism and reification.

1. See, especially, 'Heads It's Form, Tails It's Not Content,' Artforum, November 1983; reprinted in Thomas McEvilley, Art and Discontent: Theory at the Millennium, Kingston, NY: Documentext, 1991.

2. The loci classici of this ideology are Plato, Philebus 51c, Phaedrus, 245a ff, and Plotinus, V.8.1. In the little passage of the Philebus the Kantian doctrines of aesthetic feeling, aesthetic autonomy or disinterestedness, and pure optical formalism are first set out; in the Phaedrus the Romantic doctrine of Genius is expounded. The passage in Plotinus summed up the transcendental view of art for later Western thinkers from Marsilio Ficino to Goethe to Schelling.

3. These events are chronicled and analysed in Francis Frascina, ed., Pollock and After: The Critical Debate, New York: Harper and Row, Icon Editions, 1985.

4. The New York Times, May 10, 1994.

5. I am not referring here to 'Pattern and Decoration' painting, but to a larger tradition in which, for example, Barnett Newman's works, when first exhibited, were criticised as 'decorative'. For 'beauty' see, for example, Dave Hickey, The Invisible Dragon, Art Issues Press, Los Angeles,1993; and Peter Schjeldahl, 'Beauty,' Art Issues May/June 1994, pp. 24-28.