A CRITIQUE OF CLEMENT GREENBERG ( 1904-1994) AN IMPORTANT MODERNIST WHO USED HIS EXPERIENCE AND KNOWLEDGE TO DEFINE A THEORY OF ‘HIGH MODERNISM’ WHICH REJECTED OTHER FORMS OF MODERN ART IN THE 20TH CENTURY INCLUDING POP ART , MINIMALISM , NEO REALISM , PERFORMANCE ART CONCEPTUAL ART, VIDEO INSTALLATION AND THE ART OF MARCEL DUCHAMP: PART 2.

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In the second part of my critique of Clement Greenberg I will be considering other 20th Century Art Historian’s criticism of Greenberg and his narrow definition of modernism.

Firstly I will consider the observations of Greenberg himself in two of his essays ‘The pasted paper revolution’ and Modernist painting.

” After Classical cubism, the development of collage was largely orientated to shock value-Miro, Arp and Schwitter”. [1].

In Modernist painting Greenberg reiterates his narrow definition of Modernism. ” I identify Modernism with the intensification almost the exacerbation of this self-Critical tendency that began with the Philosopher Kant. I conceive of Kant as the first real modernist”. [2]

Here Greenberg shows his subjective Idealist method by his reference to Immanuel Kant, the most Idealist of 18th century philosophers. It would take Philosophers like Hegel, Feuerbach and Marx to show a real understanding and to map out Materialist Philosophy as the way to understand reality and our search for Knowledge.

” Three Dimensionality is the province of sculpture. to achieve autonomous painting one has had to above all to divest itself of everything it might share with sculpture”.[3].

This again shows Greenberg directly attacking the Minimalism of Judd , Morris and Flavin. In a future posting I will quote Donald Judd’s retort to Greenberg and Michael Fried Greenberg’s disciple.

Serge Guilbault  a European and noted Art Historian takes a critical eye over Greenberg’s historical development as a Art Critic.

” Greenberg allied for a time with Dwight Macdonald (A American Trotskyist and Member of the Socialist workers party in the USA .Leon Trotsky was also a member of the SWP) and Partisan review in its Trotskyist period 1937-9. ‘ Someday it will have to be told how  Anti- Stalinism which started out more or less as Trotskyism turned into Art for Art’s sake’ “. [4].

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I have displayed images of the Abstract expressionists Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Jackson Pollock who fulfilled Greenberg’s definition of High Modernism  , I have also included Wassily Kandinsky , Donald  Judd and Dan Flavin The last two were referred as not Modernist work by Michael Fried and He and Donald Judd engaged in a furious debate about High and low art. I have discussed this in my article on Minimalism.

Guilbault  continues his assessment of Greenberg. ” Greenberg’s solution however abandoned this critical position (referring to his previous Marxist phase) as well as what Trotsky called eclectic action in favour of a unique solution ‘The Modernist avant-garde'”. [5]

” Greenberg believed that only the latter could preserve the quality of culture against the overwhelming influence of Kitsch by enabling culture to continue to progress”. [6].

” Greenberg insisted on the critical endeavour of the avant-garde ,but a critique that was directed inwards”. [7].

Guilbault continues to show that Greenberg from having a principled Marxist or semi Trotskyist position before the war turned into a rank opportunist and a ally of American Imperialism.

” Greenberg established a theoretical basis for elitist Modernism”. [8].

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In my last images displayed I have again showed Modernism which fitted Greenberg’s definition , including collages by Braque and Picasso. The History of Modernism according to Greenberg started with Manet through Cezanne towards Cubism , obviously Kandinsky does not fit the route of Modernism Art for art’s sake and Fried would Criticise artists like Hoch and Robert Morris who insisted his objects were not sculpture but Painting as a form of three Dimensional work.

Guilbasult continues his commentary of Greenberg. ” By opposing mass culture on an artistic level the artists was able to have the illusion of battling the degraded structure of power with elitist positions”. [9].

” Greenberg emphasized the greater vitality, virility and brutality of the American artist”. [10].

Guilbault argues that Greenberg defined an artistic model that rejected social and political issues that affected American artists. He insisted that they should only concentrate on the inward looking aspect of Art for art’s sake which meant The picture plane and spatial illusion , nothing else mattered.

” It should not allow itself to become emmeshed in the absurdity of daily political and social events”. [11].

” For Greenberg painting could be important only if it made up its mind to return to its Ivory tower”. [12].

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Index: Incident in a Museum IV

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I have shown here a collection of images which reflect the different art forms Conceptual art , Performance Art , Minimalist art and an early picture by Cezanne which Greenberg would have definitely approved of.

I am now going to consider the contribution of Barbara M Reise an American art Historian who is quite critical in her review of Greenberg and his Group.

” It was Greenberg alone whose journalism championed Pollock, Gorky , de Kooning Smith and Robert Motherwell to the public at large in the 1940’s”. [13].

” Their work (The Abstract expressionists) dominated his writings at that time and he seemed only peripherally aware of concurrent activity of other young artists like Rothko ,. Still ,Newman Baziotes and Gottlieb who were more closely involved with the French Surrealists”. [14].

Reise shows in her trenchant criticism of Greenberg that he had a very inflexible attitude to any form of art that did not subscribe to his narrow definition.

” During the 1960’s the tone of Greenberg’s criticism changed. His early penchants for discussing art in terms of form rather than content. in the 12960’s these penchants rigidified into dogma allowing only Art which conformed to Greenberg’s Philosophy of art History to be considered as aesthetic serious ‘High Art’ in his discussions”. [15].

” Greenberg’s own experience in leading a seminar on criticism at Princeton in 1958  which would bring order and objectivity to his subjective rejection of Jasper Johns , Rauchenberg ,Happenings and Pop artists as creators of serious Art”.[16].

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Black on Maroon 1958 by Mark Rothko 1903-1970

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I have included Performances by Carolee Scheemann whose performances brings to the public gaze the border between Art and sexual provocation. I have also included images from Rothko and Lichenstein to show how opposed Greenberg was to art practices that did not fit his required model of Modernism.

Reise continues her critique of Greenberg and Fried.

” Greenberg’s failure to predict and inability to discuss or even see this type of art (Pop art Neo realism) seriously threatened his established position prophet of the future trends. Museums and galleries rapidly supported this new movement in the early 1960’s”. [17].

” The scope of modern art  is reduced in Greenberg’s latest writings to a narrow line between Impressionism,. Cubism late synethic Cubism Abstract expressionism and post painterly abstraction (Stella, Noland and Olitski). reading only Greenberg one would never know of the existence of symbolism , futurism , Expressionism Dada Surrealism Pop art and mixed happenings”.[18].

Reise finally puts in her last criticism of Greenberg. ” His absurd notion that Noland and Louis (Painterly abstraction painting) were not influenced by Newman’s and Rothko painting , his misleading implication that Newman , Rothko and still developed their colour field painting after participating in the painterliness of Abstract expressionism”.[19].

This completes the second part of my critique of Clement Greenberg’s theory of High Modernism and his rejection of most popular art forms that exist today in the 21st century. in Part 3 I will further consider other aspects of High Modernism.

FOOTNOTES.

  1. TWENTIETH CENTURY ART : PASTED PAPER REVOLUTION 1958. CLEMENT GREENBERG.PG.93
  2. ART IN MODERN CULTURE: MODERNIST PAINTING. CLEMENT GREENBERG.PG.308
  3. DITTO.PG.310
  4. THE NEW ADVENTURES OF THE AVANT GARDE IN AMERICA:SERGE GUILBAULT.PG.239
  5. THE NEW ADVENTURES OF THE AVANT GARDE IN AMERICA: SERGE GUILBAULT. PG.241
  6. DITTO.PG.241
  7. DITTO.PG.241
  8. DITTO.PG.242
  9. DITTO.PG.242
  10. DITTO.PG.245
  11. DITTO.PG.245
  12. DITTO.PG.245
  13. ART IN MODERN CULTURE: GREENBERG AND THE GROUP A RETROSPECTIVCE VIEW. BARBARA M REISE. PG.253
  14. DITTO.PG.253
  15. DITTO.PG.254
  16. DITTO.PG.255
  17. DITTO.PG.255
  18. DITTO.PG.256
  19. DITTO.PG.256

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