This investigation of Clement Greenberg will be a major critique of what has been referred to as his theory of ‘High Modernism’ and his rejection of Pop Art , Minimalism Art and Language , the art of Marcel Duchamp and others. I will also consider the contributions of Michael Fried Who was a supporter and confidante of Greenberg and agreed with his Theory of high Modernism.
Gail Day and Chris Riding consider the contributions of Both Greenberg and Fried in their essay ” The critical terrain of High Modernism”.
” Yet almost half a century later despite being widely perceived as irrelevant the work of Greenberg and Fried can still elicit Hostility. so forceful and successful have the criticisms of them been that it can sometimes be difficult to encounter this body of writing for any purpose other than to set up ‘High Modernism’s fall from Grace’ .”. .
” In Avant Garde and Kitsch (1939) and Modernist painting (1960) Greenberg argued that since the onset of societies modernisation and secularlisation , the arts had lost their initial function and established role.as a consequence Art was in constant danger of being subsumed into the Modern Industries of Entertainment”. 
Here Day and Riding show Greenberg at is most elitist creating a body of art criticism that only takes into account his narrow definition of Modernism.
Greenberg further states ” Identified as colour , the shape of the support and the flatness of two-dimensionality of the surface”. . This is Greenberg’s narrow definition of High Modernism.
” Greenberg argued that all paintings have to deal with the relation between 3-dimensional spatial illusion or in Modernist work through the interplay of colours , forms etc: Modernist painting is not necessarily abstract”. .
The images I have shown which are some Abstraction expressionist paintings by Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko , these artists fit the description of Modernism that Greenberg defined. Two Painterly artists who followed the abstract expressionists could also be described as fitting the model of Modernism. These two artists I have displayed are Noland and Stella.
Michael archer another art critic offers his opinion of Greenberg’s definition.
” What could be understood to be taking place in Modernism was for Greenberg a critical and reflective realisation of Painting’s essential qualities . painting could be distinguished from other art forms by the rectangle of the canvass and its two dimensionality “. .
” Before the war in common with many prominent US intellectuals Greenberg had expressed a quasi Marxist ideology but his views like those of so many others were profoundly affected by the holocaust and Stalinism”. .
Archer has very well exposed Greenberg for what he eventually became a rigid Defender of Capitalism and Imperialism in the Post war period.
” Subsequently despite Greenberg’s denial that it was good in itself abstraction became within his criticism the provider of a guaranteed realm of aesthetic quality removed from what was now fatally compromised reality”. .
In an essay titled ‘convention and Innovation (1973-9) Greenberg launches his attack on Marcel Duchamp who provided trenchant criticism of the High Modernists by asking what the Art Object was.
” It is the boringness , the vacousness of so much of purported advanced art of the past decade and more that has brought home to me at least how essential the awareness of decision is too satisfying experience of formal art”..
In my most recent images I have shown examples of Pop art , with paintings by Warhol and Lichenstein and Minimalist art with structures by Judd and Flavin. I have also included some aspects of performance art including Marina Abramovic a performance artist who used sadistic measures to inflict pain and emotion. Greenberg in this essay rejects all these forms of art as kitsch or entertainment.
Greenberg continues with his essay criticising some aspects of 19th century Impressionist art.
” Esthetic pressure can come from only two directions”. .
” Premature innovation afflicts some of the best Art of the 19th Century and some of the just less than best of the 20th Century. The frequent ungainliness of Bake’s and Whitman’s free verse. Seurat is usually better in Oil when he stays closest to Impressionism“. .
what arrogance from Greenberg Seurat was one of the most revolutionary painters of the period. as I have remarked in a previous posting Seurat by using a scientific method was breaking from impressionism but of course the great art critic doesn’t understand this.
Again commenting on Gaugin and Van Gogh Greenberg makes comments which shows his misrepresentation of their art.
” Both Gaugin and Van Gogh are at their best when closest to conservative Impressionism”. .
” The Impressionists themselves were more consistently successful when they were, as in the late 1860’s and earlier 1870’s less than completely impressionist”. .
In these last images I have displayed they show aspects of Pop art , Minimalism Conceptual Art , Art and Language and Performance Art. Lawrence Alloway a British art critic maintained in opposition to Greenberg that the Modern art which Greenberg and Fried rejected was Popular art enjoyed by the Masses. In fact his definition was wrong. I will consider Alloway in a future posting.
Greenberg now considers Kandinsky who he was very critical of. His Modernism starts with Edouard Manet and progresses through Cubism Neo plasticism of Mondrian and Van Doesburg to Abstract expressionism .
” His first abstractness in his first pictures he did from 1910-1918 fail to assimilate itself , that is modify enough of the traditional and conventional illusion of the third Dimension , so that in too many of these pictures the abstract configurations get lost in space that contains them”..
” Referring to innovation his main attack is for Duchamp referring to his Pre 1912 cubist work , They also tell us that Duchamp had hardly grasped what real Cubism was about. The first recovered objects that he mounted The Bicycle wheel and the Bottle rack of 1913 tell us that he didn’t know either what Picasso first collage , constructions were about”..
Greenberg has got it wrong again The art Objects were placed to challenhe the idea of what the art Object was . Referring to his previous Cubism is just a Red Herring from Greenberg.
Greenberg continues his attack on Duchamp further in another essay the pasted Paper Revolution 1958.
” In collage there has to be a literal flatness of the picture plane and a contrast between the picture Plane and the illusion of pictorial space”. .
” Both Braque and Picasso had a way of specifying the very real flatness of the picture plane so that everything else shown on it would be pushed into illusional space by force of contrast”. .
Greenberg using aesthetic terms praises the Cubists Braque and Picasso by practising his strict definition of Modernism which means a flat literal plane combined with illusional space.
” The flatness of the surface permeates the illusion and the illusion itself reasserts the flatness”. .
This completes the first part of my Investigation of Greenberg’s High Modernism and a definition of what is good art. Greenberg and Fried following him would try to define High and Low art. I will explore these developments in future articles.
- VARITIES OF MODERNISM : TERRAIN OF HIGH MODERNISM . GAIL DAY AND CHRIS RIDING.PG.192
- ART SINCE 1960 MICHAEL ARCHER. PG.40
- ART OF THE 20TH CENTURY: CONVENTIONS AND INNOVATIONS 1973-9. CLEMENT GREENBERG.PG.199
- THE PASTED PAPER REVOLUTION 1958: TWENTIETH CENTURY ART . CLEMENTB GREENBERG.PG.89