Some Thoughts on Clement Greenberg and His Legacy

avant-culture-320In his introductory essay to Vitamin P, a survey of contemporary painting first published by Phaidon in 2002, the poet and critic Barry Schwabsky takes pains to point out the variety of stylistic positions available to a contemporary painter. In doing so, Schwabsky suggests that there is no single identifying characteristic that would disqualify a contemporary painting from critical consideration today. This state of openness was not always the case. In my opinion, however, the receptivity that Schwabsky claims for painting is not actually an accurate characterization of the current situation, where success is generally judged by an artist’s standing in the marketplace.

While there are many factors that have contributed to the current situation — where painting is marginalized in a variety of obvious and not-so-obvious ways — the roots of it go back to Clement Greenberg and his 1939 essay, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch.” With this text, Greenberg began to develop his brand of formalist theory regarding innovative modern art and to advance the concept of art’s historical progress. And while it is easy to say that Greenberg is no longer as relevant and that formalist theory and its doctrinaire condemnation of subjectivity, subject matter, relational composition, drawing, and spatiality are no longer regarded as dominant, it seems to me that his formulations continue to be a powerful presence in one guise or another.

Outlining the distinction between avant-garde (or high art) and kitsch (or middlebrow art), Greenberg made three points. First, Modernism is defined by self-criticality and a rethinking of mimesis. Second, in the search for its irreducible identity, advanced painting clarifies its essential uniqueness as a two dimensional, flat surface where the optical takes precedence over such traditional elements as subject and pictorial space. Third, abstraction is more advanced than representational art. In Greenberg’s view, it was Impressionism and, in particular, Claude Monet that advanced painting the furthest, and not Pablo Picasso and George Braque during their Cubist phase.

In his next important essay, “Toward a New Laocoon” (1940), Greenberg further details the historical progress of painting:

But most important of all, the picture plane itself grows shallower and shallower, flattening out and pressing together the fictive planes of depth until they meet as one upon the real and material plane which is the actual surface of the canvas: where they lie side by side or interlocked or transparently imposed upon each other. Where the painter still tried to indicate real objects their shapes flatten and spread in the dense, two-dimensional atmosphere. A vibrating tension is set up as the objects struggle to maintain their volume against the tendency of the real picture plane to re-assert its material flatness and crush them to silhouettes.

In his desire to banish illusionism, which he felt was extraneous, from painting, Greenberg insisted “upon the real and material plane.” This insistence led directly to the literalism of Minimalism and to the literalist readings of Pop Art, particularly the “flag” paintings of Jasper Johns. Although Greenberg rejected Johns’ paintings, his followers did not, in part because they saw in Johns a way to distinguish their viewpoint from Greenberg’s while adhering to his model of historical progress.

According to Greenberg and those he influenced, painting could only be about itself — a viewpoint that artists as diverse as Frank Stella and Andy Warhol heeded, and which Johns seemed to do, in his early paintings. Certainly, Warhol — who relied on photographs for his subject matter — is acknowledging Greenberg’s insistence on painting’s flatness when he famously states:

If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.

And Frank Stella’s position is not so far from Warhol when he states: “What you see is what you see.” Despite their avowed differences, here is a moment in the mid-1960s when Greenberg, Stella, and Warhol all agree with each other on a central issue: the flatness of the picture plane must be upheld.

Greenberg’s Formalist theory was understandably attractive to younger critics and art historians because he seemed to be turning art history into a scientific method, with a variety of materially verifiable ways by which one could evaluate art. In doing so, he is claiming to be objective rather than subjective. In such declarations and later developments — “the death of painting,” “de-skilling,” “appropriation is the only game in town” and “provisional painting” — one hears the echoes of Greenberg’s belief in historical progress.

In his essay, “Provisional Painting” (Art in America, May 2009), the poet and critic Raphael Rubinstein, in his quest for something fresh and new, described a tendency among both young and seasoned contemporary artists to make work that “look[s] casual, dashed-off, tentative, unfinished or self-cancelling.” It seems to me that in order to isolate these characteristics, he had to ignore one of modern art’s recurrent legacies, which is the need for each generation to make “casual, dashed-off, tentative, unfinished or self-cancelling” work in its rush to distinguish itself from what came before.

In his attempt to extend the shopworn formalist doctrine of historical progress, Rubinstein paradoxically chose an ahistorical argument that fails to recognize that the “unfinished” work of art — after being touted in one way or another for the past 150 years, since Claude Monet painted “Impression, Sunrise” (1872) – had long ago passed from being an innovative possibility to being the go-to standard. Haven’t such reactionary choices become predictable and constraining – a set of familiar, easily mimicked gestures? Are we now mimicking the first mimickers? Are Rubinstein’s mimickers imitating the first mimickers? Also, are these painters being placed into the historical context of Greenberg’s formalist strictures in order to make them a safer bet in the marketplace?

It seems to me that the current situation is not about available options, as Schwabsky suggests, which span a wide range of possibilities, or about a critic channeling Greenberg’s legacy and identifying the next viable tendency in art. Rather, it revolves around one fundamental question: how does an individual go about making work when a significant part of the art world believes that painting and drawing are dead? Or, to put it another way: after the death of the author, how does an individual reinstate the mantle of authorship and take responsibility for what he or she makes? Mimicking casualness or employing a machine or fabricators to make one’s work — as many critical darlings are busy doing — might be this generation’s way of shucking responsibility. Previous generations of artists, critics and curators bought into a constricted definition of what art could be, believing that history had brought them to an inevitable endgame and that any aesthetic alternative was spurious at best. But nothing, we should remind ourselves, is necessarily etched in stone. Greenberg’s theories were narrow and wrong, catastrophically so. The need to undo the damage and to learn to see for ourselves continues.

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