Writing Archive

Vulgarity With A Vengeance: The Clement Greenberg Myth Machine

Abstract Critical, September 19, 2013 (read there)

Next May will mark two decades since the death of Clement Greenberg, who used to remark that he had an argument with his reputation. [1] More than his intellectual legacy, it is this reputation that retains its prominence in the imagination of the contemporary art world. The figure described by this reputation is the stuff of melodrama: Greenberg the dictator, the critic who saw abstract expressionism as the triumphal endpoint of art and fought off other styles as if they were competitors to his legacy. So entrenched are such ideas about him that otherwise respectable critics feel no need to read his original writings in any depth, or with any sense of context. As a consequence, Clement Greenberg has the distinction among major 20th century thinkers - not just those of artistic fields, but of any field - for being known, if you can call it knowing, almost completely in the form of caricatures.

The most recent example has come from John Yau, in an essay for the site Hyperallergic entitled "Some Thoughts on Clement Greenberg and His Legacy." I issued a few basic challenges to the author to produce evidence that Greenberg held the views that Yau attributed to him, and the resulting conversation revealed the depth to which those caricatures have been embedded in contemporary thought. My motivation for doing so was that Greenberg's writings, which remain full of vitality and useful insights decades after he penned them, deserve further discussion, whereas his reputation, which is largely the product of misconceptions perpetrated by other writers, does not. Yau cares about painting, and while I don't agree with every judgment he makes about art, he is a worthy critic. [2] (His recent profiles of Richard Walker and Catherine Murphy are sensitive and astute.) This is why "Some Thoughts," which trotted out a list of complaints about Greenberg that nigh twenty years after his passing ought to stop being repeated as fact, was so disappointing.

There is a core in "Some Thoughts" that is worth salvaging, to the effect that orthodoxies in place in the art world subscribe to a narrative of historical progress that cuts off critical consideration of every possibility available to art. The problem is that the orthodoxies in place since the height of Greenberg's influence have to a great degree struck an Oedipal attitude against Greenberg, and Yau, with his essay, has only perpetuated their stranglehold by repeating their canonicized myths about him. Moreover, when challenged about the veracity of those myths, this from Yau is not an acceptable reply:

Perhaps, in your consideration of Clement Greenberg, you should take into account how he wrote about women artists, specifically Anne Truitt. ... In writing about Anne Truitt, Greenberg characterized her as "the gentle wife of James Truitt." Here his condescension towards her (a woman artist) shows through. I don't think we can ignore this condescension when it comes to Greenberg's formulations regarding art.

When I asked for the context of that remark, he answered:

Could you tell me in what context Greenberg's remark, which appeared in Vogue (May 1967), would be proper? Could you tell me where in that statement Greenberg is writing about Truitt's work? Is it because she is "the gentle wife of James Truitt" that she uses the colors that she does?

So I begin here. First, no amount of sexist condescension attributable to Greenberg entitles Yau to repeat falsehoods about him. Second, the alleged condescension is hard to locate. Two essays mentioning Truitt appear in the fourth volume of the John O'Brian anthology of Greenberg's writings. One, from a publication produced by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1967, makes no mention of the artist's gender; if not for the name and the pronouns, the reader wouldn't know that she was a she. The other, from the May 1968 (not '67) issue of Vogue, noted her sex but didn't opine that the associated sensibility was particular to it.

Had they been monochrome, the "objects" in Truitt's 1963 show would have qualified as the first examples of Minimal Art. And with the help of monochrome the artist would have been able to dissemble her feminine sensibility behind a more aggressively far-out, non-art look, as so many masculine Minimalists have their rather feminine sensibilities. But Truitt is willing to stake herself on the truth of her sensibility, feminine or not, and this she does in her painting. ... Truitt is one of the very, very few living sculptors who has used applied color with consistent success. [3]

That is to say, her feminine sensibility was intrinsic to her results but beside the point of her artistic success, which hinged on probity that her male colleagues were unable to emulate. He went on to note, "She remains less known than she should be as a radical innovator." [4] The "gentle wife" bit never appears. So, third, is it possible that a Greenberg essay published exactly one year prior in Vogue referred to Truitt in the manner that Yau says it did? It seemed unlikely, and the answer is no. Some sleuthing turned up the remark: it was excerpted from a chirpy caption on a photo illustration for the May '68 Vogue piece. It is the writing of a deservedly unnamed photo editor. [5]

This is what we who would prefer a discussion of ideas are up against: the Clement Greenberg Myth Machine. For most topics, faulty claims disqualify one from discussion. Greenberg, as the vaunted embodiment of artistic wrongdoing, is the exception.

Yau writes that with Greenberg's 1939 essay "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," he "began to develop his brand of formalist theory regarding innovative modern art and to advance the concept of art’s historical progress." I let the stand the point about historical progress as beyond the scope of this essay; please read what my confrere Alan Pocaro has written about it. My challenge is that Greenberg did not advance a formalist theory. Greenberg wrote an essay entitled "Complaints of an Art Critic" for the October 1967 issue of Artforum that devotes a couple thousand words to his rejection of the formalist label. [6] It is, for one, a tawdry import. It first appears as the name of a Russian literary movement from the time of World War I, then entered what Greenberg calls "the Bolshevik lexicon of abuse." Its pejorative connotations in Russian were amplified upon its adoption into English. "No proper literary critic would dream of using it," explained Greenberg. "More recently certain artists have been referred to as belonging to a 'formalist' school for no other reason than their having been championed by certain critics whom some other critics call 'formalist.' This is vulgarity with a vengeance." He continues:

One reason among others why the use of the term "formalism" is stultifying is that it begs a large part of the very difficult question as to what can be sensibly said about works of art. It assumes that "form" and "content" in art can be adequately distinguished for the purposes of discourse. This implies in turn that discursive thought has solved just those problems of art upon whose imperviousness to discursive thinking the very possiblity of art depends.

Furthermore, "...the quality of a work of art inheres in its 'content,' and vice versa. Quality is 'content.' You know that a work of art has content because of its effect." The reason not to discuss content as such is not philosophical, but practical:

You cannot say anything truly relevant about the content of either picture [by Velazquez or Salvador Rosa, taken as examples], but you can be specific and relevant about the difference in their effect on you. "Effect," like "quality," is "content," and the closer reference to actual experience of the first two terms makes "content" virtually useless for criticism.

In 1971 he attempted a rectification of terms in "Necessity of 'Formalism'." [7] Modernism, considered as a working attitude, "distinguishes itself by its inclusiveness, its openness, and also its indeterminateness." It "defines itself in the long run ... as a kind of bias or tropism: toward aesthetic value, aesthetic value as such and as an ultimate." One of the features of modernism is what he calls artisanal emphasis or artisanal concern, a "questioning concern" regarding "the nature of the medium in each art" as it related to making or technique. This was the "cold" side of modernism, as he put it, as opposed to the romantic, anti-technical, heated side. This artisanal concern he then equated to "formalism." The formulation here, to some degree, accommodated the use of "formalism" that had become common among his colleagues, but his distaste for the term is palpable. In the essay he handled it using quotation marks as if they were tongs.

It remains that modernism in art, if not literature, has stood or fallen so far by its "formalism." Not that modernist art is conterminous with formalism. And not that formalism hasn't lent itself to a lot of empty, bad art. But so far every attack on the "formalist" aspect of modernist painting and sculpture has worked out as an attack on modernism itself because every such attack developed into an attack at the same time on superior artistic standards. ...it has to be concluded that if modernism remains a necessary condition of the best art of our time, as it has been of the best art of the hundred years previous, then formalism, apparently, remains a necessary condition too, which is the sole and sufficient justification of either modernism or formalism.

And if formalism derives from the hardheaded, "cold" side of modernism, then this must be essential, defining side, at least in the case of painting and sculpture. That's the way it looks right now - and looks more than ever right now. The question is whether it will keep on looking that way in the future: that is, whether modernism will continue to stand or fall by its cold side and by its formalism. Modernism has been a failing thing in literature these past twenty years and more; it's not yet a failing thing in painting or sculpture, but I can imagine its turning into that in another decade (even in sculpture, which seems to have a brighter future before it than painting does). If so, this may come about in the same way that it has come about, it seems to me, in literature: through the porousness of modernism's "hot" side, the enthusiastic and hectic side, which is the one that middlebrows have found it easier all along to infiltrate.

He added, in a postscript, as if throwing his hands up:

My harping on the artisanal and "formalist" emphasis of modernism opens the way to all kinds of misunderstanding, as I know from tiresome experience. Quality, aesthetic value originates in inspiration, vision, "content," not in "form." ... When a work of art or literature succeeds, when it moves us enough, it does so ipso facto by the content which it conveys; yet that content cannot be separated from its form... It embarrasses me to have to repeat this, but I feel I can count here on the illiteracy of enough of my readers in the matter of what can and what can't be legitimately put in words about works of art.

So much for his "brand of formalist theory." In 1983 he gave a talk at Western Michigan University [8] at the invitation of the painter John Link, who was a professor there. By then Greenberg had taken to blaming himself for some of the confusion about his views, a concession for which he was never repaid by anyone else's admission that they had contributed to the rest of it.

Formalism was originally the name of a Russian art and literary movement before the First World War. And then it became used by the Bolsheviks (Communists is a dirty word) for any kind of art that was for its own sake. It became a dirty word like "art for art's sake," which is a valid notion. Sometime in the '50s the word formalism came up again in the mouths and at the pens of people I dare to call middlebrow. And then, it's true, I was made responsible for it, though I wasn't the only one, and by one of these easy inferences that plague human thought, it was held that I advocated a certain way of painting. ... I was in favor of "pure" art in spite of the fact that I put quotation marks around "pure" or "purity" whenever I used them, because I don't believe there's any such thing as pure art. It was an illusion. It was a necessary illusion, apparently, for modernist artists and it helped produce some great art and some great poetry. ... There is no such thing as pure art, or pure poetry, or pure music. Anyhow I don't believe there is such a thing. But I made the mistake of contenting myself with quotation marks and not saying "look, I don't believe this as a program, I'm simply describing." And so people assumed that was my program. I'd been describing what I thought had happened under modernism, and nothing more and nothing less. It was also inferred that I had said there was some necessity working in this although I said nothing to that effect. But I blame myself. I should have been more careful.

In summary, the fact that "formalism," so-called and such as it could be said to exist, was a component of modernism was an accident of history and might not endure. I don't think that Greenberg's views reduce to a theory, formalist or otherwise, but if pressed to come up with one, I would identify the repeated observation of his that eventually, middlebrows ruin everything.

This could become a much longer essay with the treatment of other untenable claims that Yau makes in "Some Thoughts": that Greenberg rejected Jasper Johns's paintings, that Greenberg "seemed to be turning art history into a scientific method, with a variety of materially verifiable ways by which one could evaluate art," that he was of the mind that "painting could only be about itself," that he had a "desire to banish illusionism." It could grow into a book, albeit a dreary one, if it tackled all the other authors who read Greenberg's works with an eye for pinning culpability upon him instead of taking him at his word - a survey of Greenberg's thought as seen incorrectly through the eyes of his detractors. Yau, after all, is more or less repeating the claims of these other writers.

Instead I would encourage everyone with an opinion on the matter to consider the possibility that much of what they know about Clement Greenberg is wrong, and to spend time with a wide swath of his writings with the intention of letting him speak for himself. This, after all, is what any good writer deserves, and Greenberg was such giant of 20th-century art that a rectifying of opinion about him is likely to lead to a rectifying of opinions about art in general. "Go honest," as he put it. "If you want to make a career as an art writer you'd better do more than that, but we're not talking about careers now, we're talking about the truth." [9]

Notes

1. Walter Darby Bannard, "Remembering Clement Greenberg," The Edmonton Review, Vol. 1, Issue 3, Fall-Winter 1994.

2. Also, Jerry Saltz, who was once a worthy critic but is no longer, recently called Yau "comotose," which is a point in Yau's favor.

3. John O'Brian, ed., Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Volume 4: Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957-1969, p. 290.

4. Ibid., p. 291.

5. The sentence fragment is cited by James Meyer in Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties from 2001, p. 73. "Truitt did not, in fact, install [her 1963 show at Emmerich]: three friends - Greenberg, Rubin, and Noland - had obliged. At a time when Greenberg advised artists how to make their work, and Rubin organized exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, 'the gentle wife of James Truitt' did not contest those with more experience and expertise. The chavinism of the sixties art world, from which the Greenberg circle was not immune, may have prompted her silence." The quote is sourced to a photo caption for Greenberg's May 1968 Vogue writeup of Truitt.

Meyer is implying that Greenberg wrote this caption, which read, in its entirety: "Anne Truitt, one of the innovators who swerved the path of sculpture when she began her primary constructions in November 1961, is a creatively inventive woman of forty-seven, the gentle wife of James McConnell Truitt, a journalist on the staff of Newsweek, and the mother of three children, the oldest twelve, the youngest seven. In the basement of her house in Washington, D.C., she works in her organized untidy studio on three or four of her massive structures, each of which receives from ten to twenty coats of paint. Tacked on the walls are the daily records of which sculpture has had which number of coats." The realities of magazine production and the grating infelicities of the prose make Greenberg's authorship here extremely unlikely - I'll go ahead and say impossible.

Yau had previously written this in "Ken Price's Time" for Hyperallergic: "[The museums] don’t want to break with the protocol set in place by Clement Greenberg, who was fond of the phrase, 'as stupid as a painter.' If you apply that attitude to the question of what he would have thought of a sculptor working in clay, you’ll get a pretty good idea of what Price was up against in New York: How can you be intelligent (much less, conceptual) if you want to stick your hands in that stuff?" That Greenberg was fond of such a thing has been claimed in the Steven W. Naifeh and Gregory White Smith biography of Pollock of 1989 and subsequently repeated, but searching on the phrase itself turned up this:

In France there is an old saying, "Stupid like a painter." The painter was considered stupid, but the poet and writer very intelligent. I wanted to be intelligent. I had to have the idea of inventing. It is nothing to do with what your father did. It is nothing to be another Cézanne. In my visual period there is a little of that stupidity of the painter. All my work in the period before the Nude was visual painting. Then I came to the idea. I thought the ideatic formulation a way to get away from influences.

The speaker, of course, is not Clement Greenberg. It is Marcel Duchamp. Misinformation about Greenberg is so rampant that even direct quotations have to be assumed guilty until proven innocent.

6. O'Brian, pp. 265-272.

7. Robert C. Morgan, ed., Clement Greenberg: Late Writings, University Of Minnesota Press, 2007, pp. 45-49. "Necessity of 'Formalism'" originally appeared in New Literary History 3, no. 1 (fall 1971), pp. 171-175.

8. Greenberg's "Taste" talk from 1983 was recorded and transcribed under the direction of John Link. It is preserved here.

9. Morgan, pp. 202-203. The source is "A Conversation with Clement Greenberg in Three Parts," Art Monthly (London), 1984.

Word count: 3206

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