Avant Garde And Kitsch Essay



The Avant-Garde and Kitsch, 1939

by Clement Greenberg

What is life?  If one paraphrases the painter, Ad Reinhardt, “Life is everything that is not art or art is everything that is not life…” which means that much has been excluded from art…an exclusion, which would please the New York critic, Clement Greenberg.  In 1939, against the backdrop of European Fascism, the American art critic wrote The Avant-Garde and Kitsch. The prevailing and popular art style, American regionalism, was waning when Greenberg set out to make the distinction between a true genuine culture and popular art.  From the very beginning of the essay, Greenberg was very clear that he would deal with a question of “aesthetics,” or how art is defined, and that he would do so by examining the experiences of a “specific” individual and the “social and historical contexts in which that experience takes place.”

Greenberg was writing at a very unique time indeed.  It was rare for contemporary art to be under the kind of attacks that had been underway for years in Europe.  In the Soviet Union, the avant-garde was completely suppressed.  In German, avant-garde art was defined as “degenerate.”  The Avant-Garde and Kitsch was published in the new intellectual journal, Partisan Review, a good place for an up-and-coming literary critic to further his career. For years Greenberg, an English major in college, wrote mostly as a literary critic, and his first published article was on Berthold Brecht, a Berlin theater producer.  Brecht, a devoted Communist, thought of popular entertainment as a means to raise the consciousness of the audience.  Using the “estrangement” strategy, Brecht broke the “fourth wall” by addressing the audience directly from the stage and thus also breaking the illusion of “reality.”

As his interest in Brecht’s use of popular theater would suggest, Greenberg was not necessarily opposed to popular culture per se and it is important to understand the context in which this essay was developed.  The entire world was poised on the edge of another world war and was witnessing the horrifying spectacle of a fascist war machine rolling over Europe.  During this fascist period in Europe, “culture” had been appropriated by the totalitarian powers in the Soviet Union, Germany and Italy and turned into spectacle for the masses, resulting in mesmerizing entertainment and psychic manipulation.

The ability of Hitler and Mussolini to make war with little opposition from their own people who supported the aggression was the result of a years-long, carefully orchestrated campaign of propaganda.  Brecht understood all too well how “culture” both popular and unpopular could be mobilized to mesmerize the masses, which was exactly what happened in Germany. Any form of culture that could protest the philosophy of the Nazis had long since been shut down and dissident artists were brutally silenced.  German artists had fled to America or had retreated to an “inner exile” of non-confrontational art.  Indeed, Greenberg himself would later learn much about art from an émigré artist, Hans Hofmann.

Greenberg was repelled by the totalitarian seizure of “culture” in Europe. But the critic is an American living in New York.  If the examples of the demise of the avant-garde in Europe were extreme, the governmental use of American artists to its own end was also disturbing to an intellectual. Although many artists owned their careers to government patronage during the thirties, there was a cost to carrying on this kind of work.  The role of art under the New Deal was to communicate very specific messages to a public, which was largely illiterate about art and the artist’s freedom was often limited by the parameters of the project.  That said, in America, there was artistic freedom, and Greenberg equated the freedom to make art with the freedom to make avant-garde abstract art.  But there was also a small arena for avant-garde artists in America and the artists lacked the open playing field of art galleries that existed in France.

Writing at the end of the avant-garde in Europe, Greenberg explained the significance of the avant-garde tradition. He defined the avant-garde as a “superior consciousness” which coincided with the emergence of modern scientific thinking.  As a force for cultural critique, avant-garde art separated itself from the bourgeoisie.  This separation included the artists’ separation from subject matter and content and an adherence to art-for-art’s-sake. Greenberg made reference to the avant-garde artists,

“Picasso, Braque, Mondrian, Miro, Kandinsky, Brancusi, even Klee, Matisse and Cézanne derive their chief inspiration from the medium they work in,” and he adds, in a phrase which would be further developed in later essays, “…to the exclusion of whatever is not necessarily implicated in these factors.”

But, as a Marxist, Greenberg saw problems within the avant-garde in that this “…culture contains within itself some of the very Alexandrianism it seeks to overcome.”  Greenberg feared for the avant-garde artist, for this artist was dependent upon capitalism and wealthy patrons.  The artist was necessarily attached to bourgeois wealth by what Greenberg called “an umbilical cord of gold.”  He pointed to the paradox of artistic freedom being dependent upon an elite clientele, which is shrinking rather than growing. Greenberg wrote,

“…the avant-garde itself, already sensing the danger, is becoming more and more timid every day that passes. Academicism and commercialism are appearing in the strangest places. This can mean only one thing: that the avant-garde is becoming unsure of the audience it depends on — the rich and the cultivated.”

Greenberg looked elsewhere and wrote that the avant-garde was threatened by the rear guard, which, to Greenberg, was the dreaded phenomenon—kitsch, which he defined as,

“…popular, commercial art and literature with their chromeotypes, magazine covers, illustrations, ads, slick and pulp fiction, comics, Tin Pan Alley music, tap dancing, Hollywood movies, etc., etc…”

Later, Greenberg would disavow his definition of kitsch, and, indeed, his later discussion of kitsch indicates that he is less concerned about popular culture than with what would be better termed “academic art.”  It would be correct to assume that Greenberg despaired of a nation that thought it was receiving “art” every week with the Norman Rockwell cover of The Saturday Evening Post, but it is also important to recall that what was considered art in the 1930s was “academic.”

As the following quote from Greenberg would suggest, an example of “kitsch” would be Alexandre Cabanal’s Birth of Venus as opposed to avant-garde work of Édouard Manet’s Le Dejeunner sur l’herbe.  According to the critic,

The precondition for kitsch, a condition without which kitsch would be impossible, is the availability close at hand of a fully matured cultural tradition, whose discoveries, acquisitions, and perfected self-consciousness kitsch can take advantage of for its own ends. It borrows from it devices, tricks, stratagems, rules of thumb, themes, converts them into a system, and discards the rest. It draws its lifeblood, so to speak, from this reservoir of accumulated experience.

In other words, kitsch, using for raw material the debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture, welcomes and cultivates this insensibility. It is the source of its profits. Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money — not even their time. And speaking of money, Greenberg noted that the avant-garde has not always “resisted” the “of temptation” to turn their art into kitsch.

Kitsch is popular or commercial form of high art, a product of the industrial revolution, manufactured for a middle class audience who had enough literacy to want “art” but not enough culture to understand the genuine article.  The urbanized proletariat was given an ersatz culture—fake art, kitsch, which used a debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture.  Kitsch operated, according to Greenberg, as vicarious experience, as faked sensations, taking advantage of a fully matured cultural tradition for its own ends.  Kitsch loots real art, borrows what it needs, converts inventions into formulas, waters down experiments and turns out familiar art-like images mechanically.

Often overlooked in the numerous analyses of this essay is Greenberg’s lengthy and perceptive discussion of the relationship between kitsch and the regimes in Germany, Italy and Russia.  These totalitarian regimes reject the avant-garde for two reasons.  First, the dictatorial government must get close to the people in order to rule them and no government wishing to disperse propaganda would use avant-garde art to do so.  The public simply would not understand the language. In point of fact, that is precisely what happened to the Soviet avant-garde which was deemed inarticulate. Second, Greenberg considered the avant-garde to be inherently critical and unsuited for governmental manipulation. “It is for this reason that the avant-garde is outlawed, and not so much because a superior culture is inherently a more critical culture,” he stated.

Greenberg was certainly prophetic in recognizing that kitsch would become an international language, taking over indigenous folk cultures; but he was wrong in assuming that avant-garde artists would succumb to actually making kitsch.  It is one of the ironies of art history that the kitsch-producing government commissions allowed financially marginal artists to become professional artists who would later become the center of the avant-garde. What Greenberg could not foresee was that, after World War II, a consumer society would be kicked into high gear, producing a generation of artists who grew up with kitsch or popular culture.

Greenberg may have repudiated his rather simplistic definition of “kitsch,” but his attitude that the public could not tell the difference between Tin Pan Alley and T. S. Eliot remained. Convinced of the serious mission that avant-garde art had to stand apart from society in order to critique it, the critic could not look upon Pop Art as “art.” This generation, called Pop artists (popular culture) used kitsch as raw material for their art and converted images from kitsch sources into artistic icons. Trapped by a self-imposed vocabulary of form and formalism, he simply did not have the concepts that would have allowed him to marvel—however cynically—at how kitsch became elevated to “high art.”  But Greenberg’s essay remains viable and perceptive in his analysis of the gulf between the elite and the general public.  The following words could have been written today:

Most often this resentment toward culture is to be found where the dissatisfaction with society is a reactionary dissatisfaction which expresses itself in revivalism and puritanism, and latest of all, in fascism. Here revolvers and torches begin to be mentioned in the same breath as culture. In the name of godliness or the blood’s health, in the name of simple ways and solid virtues, the statue-smashing commences.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]


Exhibit A: Clement Greenberg - Changing the Way We See - part 5

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The fifth in our series on art books and essays which have changed the way we see and understand the visual arts, today focusing particularly on Clement Greenberg's influential essays 'Avant-Garde and the Kitsch' (1939) and 'The Plight of Culture' (1953), both of which were republished in the 1961 Art and Culture: Critical Essays.

Arguably the most influential American art critic of the second half of the 20th century, as a champion of the post-war American abstract modernist art which flourished in the 1950s (and most particularly for his promotion of Jackson Pollock), Clement Greenberg was also the most vilified. 'Clembashing', as it came to be known, dates from his refusual to back the new pop art, conceptual art and minimalism of the 60s -- and later, postmodernism.

Born in 1909 in the Bronx, with a Lithuanian Jewish background, politically, the young Greenberg belonged to the leftward side of humanity and in particular to American 'cultural Trotskyism'. Belonging to the generation that produced Abstract Expressionism (he was arguably the first champion of Jackson Pollock), Greenberg saw in that artist�s personal tragedy a metaphor for the disasters of American life and art, in which people were alienated from real culture, were being forced to live off kitsch culture ('one of faked sensations' ... 'because it was turned out mechanically') and he was resigned to the fact that at the other extreme, the so called avant-garde had taken off in another direction which was producing art for art's sake for themselves and the cultural elite.

Paradoxically, he came more and more to think that for art to survive it needed to move more and more into clear, open, abstract painting - or formalism � independent of any subject matter.

By the mid-seventies, opposition to Greenberg had grown to the point of demonisation. He was accused of manipulating reputations, and of telling artists what to paint. He died, aged 85, in 1994. Never utopian in his ideas about the value of art, he once said in a radio broadcast, 'I say if you have to choose between life and happiness or art, remember always to choose life and happiness. Art solves nothing, either for the artist himself or for those who receive his art. Art shouldn�t be overrated.'

Details or Transcript:

Julie Copeland: Welcome to Exhibit A on Radio National's Sunday Morning. I'm Julie Copeland with the fifth in our series on art books and writing which have changed the way we see and understand the visual arts. Last week it was John Berger's 1970s book and TV programs, Ways of Seeing, which inspired this series. Our John Coltrane jazz theme is most appropriate for today's Exhibit A, the New York art critic Clement Greenberg. And we're focusing particularly on Greenberg's essays, 'Avant Garde and the Kitsch' and from 1953, 'The Plight of Culture', both republished in the 1961 Art and Culture: Critical Essays.

Arguably the most influential American art critic of the second half of the 20th century, through his writings Greenberg championed the post-war American abstract modernist art which flourished in the 1950s. And most particularly, Jackson Pollock.

Clement Greenberg was also the most vilified. 'Clem-bashing', as it came to be known dates from his refusal to back the new, more playful pop art of the 60s�and later postmodernism. So he was seen as elitist. And, as I experienced when I interviewed the New York guru during his brief visit to Australia in the late 1970s, he had a very dogmatic and often abrasive manner. From ABC archives, here's a sample of the Clement Greenberg style when asked, as he often was, to define modernism.

[archived recording of Clement Greenberg: Modernist is not something to be defined that readily. It's not that handy a classification. But when you say postmodernist, I rear up. I think the term itself is illusory. We're still modern. It's like postindustrial. We look out the window here and say, wow, look at that� And is the age of industrialism over? Just look out the window.
Clem Greenberg. And if you've seen the biopic about Jackson Pollock, you'll realise that the art critic was very much part of that New York generation that produced abstract expressionism. And he saw Pollock's personal tragedy; his drinking, violence, his early death in a car crash, as a metaphor for the disasters of American life where people, alienated from real culture, were being forced to life off kitsch culture�off faked sensations which were turned out mechanically.

And in reaction to this pop kitsch, Greenberg argued that the so-called avant garde were producing art for art's sake which talked only to themselves and to the cultural elite. And so begin his arguments in the essay 'The Avant Garde and the Kitsch.'
[Reading from 'The Avant Garde and the Kitsch, by Clement Greenberg] Losing their taste for the folk culture whose background was the countryside and discovering a new capacity for boredom at the same time, the new urban masses set up a pressure on society to provide them with the culture fit for their own consumption. To fill the demand of the new market, a new commodity was devised�ersatz culture; kitsch�destined for those who, insensible to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the sort of diversion that only culture of some sort can provide.

Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money. Not even their time. The precondition for kitsch, a condition without which kitsch would be impossible, is the availability close at hand of a fully matured cultural tradition whose discoveries, acquisitions and perfected self-consciousness kitsch can take advantage of for its own ends. It borrows from its devices, tricks, stratagems, rules of thumb, themes�converts them into a system and discards the rest.
Richard Buckham, reading from Clem Greenberg's polemic in 1939, 'Avant Garde and the Kitsch'.

Born in 1909 in the Bronx, with a Lithuanian-Jewish background, politically the young Greenberg was attracted to Marxism, and in particular to American 'cultural Trotskyism'. Greenberg wrote for the Partisan Review, a left magazine which apparently Trotsky believed was concerned far too much with culture and not enough with mobilising the Revolution. Another of America's distinguished art critics, Donald Kuspit, was a friend of Greenberg's, and was his biographer. Donald's talking to me from our New York studio.

Donald Kuspit: Yes, I think it's important to see the essay 'Avant Garde and the Kitsch' in the context of its time, 1939. In the thirties the dominant mode of American art was so-called social realism or American scene painting, regionalism� It was from Greenberg's point of view a provincial, narrow art. It was also an art which was meant to have popular appeal. And he saw what was happening in Europe. He thought this was 'more advanced' art�that is, the development of abstraction in all its permutations. And he became an advocate for that abstraction. And 'avant garde' means abstract art, for him. He sets up this sharp dichotomy between avant garde and kitsch where kitsch is essentially mass-produced for a collective public with very little differentiation or individuation in it; in contrast to a profounder, more individualistic art such as avant garde art.

I think the basic distinction that he makes right at the beginning of the essay in the first paragraph is between a poem by TS Eliot and a poem by Eddie Guest�or Edward Guest (I think it's a little condescending to call him 'Eddie Guest')�who was a popular poet, interesting poet, but not somebody who so to say advanced culture, gave us something subtle to think about; instead, somebody whose work was right on the surface. Or again, he makes a comparison between a painting by Braque, presumably a Cubist painting, and a Saturday Evening Post cover.

Julie Copeland: And kitsch is also a commercial culture, of course. It's all about the market. It's getting people to buy things, as he says. He also raises the question of the individual's judgment and taste; how we assess the difference between, say, a TS Eliot poem and a pop poem or a pop song. Is that the first time that somebody talked about the subjective way that the individual makes value judgments?

Donald Kuspit: I think what you're saying is important because kitsch does not engage the aesthetic, which has a subjective dimension of taste�although interestingly enough, Greenberg always claimed that taste was objective in the sense that eventually there would be a consensus, as he explicitly said in later essays, a consensus of people who are in the know about art, who take it seriously, who would agree what art or artists are important, and who have a very subtly differentiated judgment of taste about�a disinterested judgment of taste. He believed that it was possible to have that. It wasn't just arbitrarily subjective.
[archived recording of Clement Greenberg: There is such a thing�and I've written this�as a consensus of taste that comes over time; that the people who pay the most attention to art, who try hardest and so forth, end up in the long run agreeing.
Greenberg at bottom had an elitist notion that art was for the happy few, as it were, who have the perception and understanding to truly appreciate it and evaluate it. And he was trying to create a sort of realm or space for the development of this art apart from public space, as it were, and from the mass audience. He felt that the very idea of thinking of art in terms of appeal to a mass audience was beside the point of what was significant in art.
[archived recording of Clement Greenberg: The Metropolitan Museum is no longer easy to visit. It's so crowded on weekdays. It used to be so delightfully empty. Maybe that sort of thing isn't so good for art. I'm sounding like an elitist, as I am. You can't get out from under that. The fact that the best art under urban circumstances, since the founding of the first cities in Eastern Turkey, or Mesopotamia, the best art has been protected by those have the dignified leisure.
Julie Copeland: But the alternative for societies in decay, as he calls them, was to just mechanically repeat the forms of the old masters, to repeat sculpture in the form of the Laocoon classical sculpture or neoclassical architecture. He supports the notion of this progressive art. It has to move forward.

Donald Kuspit: He does distinguish between 'Alexandrianism', as he calls it, in high culture, in contrast to avant garde art which moves. And Alexandrianism, as he correctly said, is a kind of decadent repetition of, shall we say, what had been previously the highest standards of art but eventually become thinned down and academicised in the most conventional way. And it's true, he makes that distinction within, say, high art, between the Alexandrian mode which is decadent and then the avant garde mode which advances art. And the key difference for him�this leads into his idea of modernist art�is that the Alexandrians have forgotten, as it were, the medium; whereas the avant gardists are engaging with their medium, refining it, in some sense articulating it as a phenomenon in itself. And so we get the idea of the tendency towards, or the push towards purity, as he has called it. I remember talking with him about that and he said, well, it was not absolute and was hard to realise, but indeed it was there, and it's what kept the avant garde advancing; this kind of self-criticism of its own relation to whatever medium it was operating in, be it painting or sculpture. It was not trying to make some general kind of art.
[Reading from 'The Avant Garde and the Kitsch, by Clement Greenberg] Retiring from public altogether, the avant garde poet or artist sought to maintain the high level of his art by both narrowing and raising it to the expression of an absolute: art for art's sake and pure poetry appeared. And subject matter, or content, becomes something to be avoided like the plague. It has been in search of the absolute that the avant garde has arrived at 'abstract', or 'non-objective' art�and poetry, too. The avant garde poet or artist tries in effect to imitate God by creating something valid solely on its own terms. Content is to be dissolved so completely into form that the work of art or literature itself cannot be reduced in whole or part into anything not itself.
Donald Kuspit: Yes, you've got to realise that Greenberg was working for Partisan Review, which was a leftist magazine, at the time. In '39 the Depression was still going on in the United States. He was disillusioned with Stalin, with the communist left. He acknowledged that he'd been a Trotskyite but he was getting disillusioned with politics altogether and turning towards art almost as a kind of sanctuary, I would argue.

Julie Copeland: Pretty unusual for an American art critic at that time to have been a Trotskyite, wouldn't it be? He would have been very isolated.

Donald Kuspit: Extremely unusual. But he also did believe that capitalism was in decline. He uses that term. Of course it's been in decline for a long time and that was a conventional communist belief, which had been around at least since the 19th century. And the question is, how art could survive during this capitalist decline. It's very interesting to think that the narrowing of the focus of art to its medium can be understood as a sort of defensive position within the venture that capitalism made possible for art. He does acknowledge that avant garde art is a late capitalist phenomenon. That's one side of his argument, the social side. The other side of his argument, it's been inevitable in art all along, the tendency to purification of the medium, articulating the medium for its own pure sake, as it were, we've been there all along. So at one point in his writing he actually says that Titian was the greatest painter in 400 years of painting, by which he meant, I think, that there was no painter who was quite as sensitive to the medium�to surfaces, to pigments, as Greenberg says, to what he called the material medium�as Titian. So it's a double-sided argument, as it were. On the one side, a general, universal argument; and on the other side, very culturally and socially particular.

Julie Copeland: And elite. There is a paradox there, isn't there�very contradictory�

Donald Kuspit: Very elite, yes, there is a paradox�

Julie Copeland: �in the essay called 'Plight of Culture', which I think you were referring to there, Donald.

Donald Kuspit: Yes, you're absolutely correct. There is a contradiction there which I'm not sure that Greenberg ever resolved. He on the one side was interested in an art that resonated as, let's call it, in the society. But only kitsch did that, and so he in some sense gave up on the possibility of having a high art that would resonate in society and simply, as you say, pursuing art for the sake of art. And he also interestingly connects this up with the specialisation that develops during industrialism. So you become a sort of specialist in painting or specialist in sculpture. He talks about 'moving art away from leisure and [placing] it squarely in the middle of work.' I'm quoting in the American edition near the end of his essay 'The Plight of Culture'. But it's sort of absurd, because the work he's talking about is a work that depends indeed on the assumption that artwork is different from other kind of work. I think he later on breaks out of it perhaps too easily by dismissing the issue of the relevance of art to society and simply pursues art as a phenomenon in itself. And I think those essays, the one in '53 is later, but they both signal his abandonment of shall we say the social dimension of art except insofar as it filters through in a kind of generalised social attitude in the arts. So he speaks of Leger's work developing on what he calls a 'wave of materialistic optimism.' He speaks of the 'existential pessimism' of Pollock. But he doesn't go on and explain exactly what these mean, and I think that's a shortcoming of his position but in a sense it's not�what he's suggesting in art is that the culture exists as a kind of mood, as it were, rather than as something that's specifically engaged.

Julie Copeland: Yes, which is a strange thing for a Marxist�or even a lapsed Marxist�to say. I think that's a good place, Donald, to turn to Clement Greenberg's arguments about abstraction versus representational art, because that's really the core of his influence, isn't it, his arguments about abstract versus representational and his ideas therein. And I'll start with a quote: 'The presence or absence of a recognisable image has no more to do with value in painting or sculpture than the presence or absence of a libretto has to do with the value of music.' In other words, there's no doubt that a recognisable image is easier to 'read' in a picture but it's got nothing to do with the quality as work of art.

Donald Kuspit: What you say is correct. That's the perfect quote. He dismisses the libretto, the imagistic character of a work, as what he called literature as distinct from the visual. It's a distinction that goes back to Lacune. the point he's making, in a certain sense, is obvious and I think it's correct. In other words, he's asking what's the visual difference�visual art is not about storytelling, narrative, et cetera, at least according to him, or if it does involve it that's incidental to the execution of the artist. I have another quote which I always thought was very much to the same point, where Greenberg is talking about Rembrandt and then suddenly says, well, you know, the so-called 'spirituality', he puts that in quotes, of the old master really has nothing to do with spirituality. It is about a matter of the handling of the pigments of the paint; their metier, their response to the medium. And we get a 'spiritual' effect, if you want. But there's no idea that there's something spiritual about Rembrandt that makes him such a great painter of religious imagery. It's all in the handling, in other words, Greenberg says.

Julie Copeland: The passages of paint, as he said once.

Donald Kuspit: Yes, the passages of paint. That's exactly correct. I think it's a key argument. One of his last pieces that he wrote was called 'To Cope with Decadence'. And he calls himself explicitly a 'formalist'. And he describes a trip he'd made to Asia, particularly to Japan, and he's going through a museum. He says he knows nothing about the history of Asian art except a certain amount of basic things that anybody in art history would know from an introductory class. But he goes through and he points out this work, that work. He says, 'Those are the best works.' And then he goes and talks with a scholar and he says, 'Yes, we agreed.' And so his argument is that the historical context in which these works were made and whatever particular social, cultural or political meaning they would have had at the time has faded away. What remains is the visual image and its effect, that is, the handling and its effect. And somebody who is a connoisseur�and I think in the end Greenberg was a formalist connoisseur�can immediately pick that up, cut through all the other things. And he also implicitly is implying that it's a-historical. So you go to Japan, or he goes on to India as well, and come back to New York or go to Europe and look at Matisse. It doesn't matter. What matters is the purely aesthetic values which can be perceived by a connoisseur in pure experience.

I'll tell you a funny story which I think confirms this. I was once going with him in the Boston Museum of Fine Art with Kensworth Malfit who was the chief curator at the time. The three of us were going through an exhibition of Chardin. He's not a modern or contemporary painter, he is an 18th century French painter and Chardin's work goes through various phases. He starts making figures and there're all kinds of social and economic reasons he does this, and go to other phases. And I said, well, what do you think of this, Clem? And Malfit was asking him also. And he said, 'Just look at the colours. Just look at the colours.' I said, 'But there's much more than the colours here.' What I'm trying to say is that Greenberg was interested in the quality of paint. He couldn't care less about the subject matter. for example, the still-lifes that make Chardin so famous; later on scenes of figures and then another kind of still-life, very complicated construction�he's just interested in what he would call the formal values, the quality of line, of colour, of touch and so forth. This is what interested him. And then the way these all came together in what he called the 'unity'. What he called the aesthetic unity was absolutely crucial. He sometimes called it the decorative unity. That it all worked together in this kind of aesthetic harmony. That's all that interested him, at least officially. He once said, 'Well, yes, I enjoy some realist works but I know it's not particularly important aesthetically.'

Julie Copeland: That Chardin story is a good one. So we're talking about formalism. Well, his idea of formalism. He'd said that 1912 was perhaps the most beautiful date in the history of French painting. That is, it was a great year for Cubism. And so he's talking about Braque and Picasso who are joined by Leger and that they both were celebrating this mood of what he calls secular optimism. So it's interesting that he then goes on in his essay about Picasso. And I remember when I met him, when he was in Melbourne, he was saying, in his inimitable style, 'Picasso lost his stuff in the late 1920s.' By which he meant (and that Leger had, too) they'd returned to the illusion as he said, recognisable objects, figures and shapes. And he thought they'd lost it, by then. Because he saw Cubism as naturally progressing towards abstraction. So he's talking about abstraction, isn't he.

Donald Kuspit: Yes, that's absolutely correct. He thought they had regressed or given up their efforts or were reluctant to move forward. If you recall the end of the Picasso essay he quotes, Pollock was just making work like an ink blot and he could not understand the movement towards total abstraction. And I think right there you have the reason why he finally came to celebrate American art over European art. the ball had moved, the baton, if you want, had moved from Europe to America because Europe remained stuck with a certain kind of Cezannian Cubism and did not go forward towards pure abstraction. The remark that I have in mind, it's really quite marvellous, is indeed at the very end of the Picasso essay, and he says, 'Time reports that he [that is Picasso] believes a work should be constructed and is distressed by the work of many abstract expressionists�once grabbed an ink-stained blotter, shoved it at a visitor and snapped, "Jackson Pollock". The term 'constructed' was the slogan under which the Cubists set out 50 years ago to repair the supposed damage done to painting by the impressionists.' And he stops right there because he knows that Pollock is going to in some sense pick up on impressionism, at least, however awkwardly, by way of automatism. So Pollock moves to total abstraction, sort of 'breaks the ice' as De Kooning famously said, and Picasso couldn't follow. And in fact Picasso, as we know, said that pure abstraction was impossible, one always had a residue of feeling and experience that was invested in the object, however distorted, strange, or absurd the object may have seemed.

So Picasso didn't fit into his paradigm. And here we see something very important about Greenberg. He became very narrow. He was so insistent on his paradigm of the development, that when an artist's creativity took him somewhere else, Greenberg had no tolerance for it. He was absolutely not just indifferent, but dismissive. He said, 'No, this is a wrong turn.' And I think if you read him carefully he had the sense that there were these sort of short-lived spurts of creative innovation in relation to the medium, and that was it, for an artist. And then moved on somewhere else. So the modern idea of the breakthrough�but in Greenberg's sense, a breakthrough in relation to the medium�and then somebody else picks it up and goes somewhere else.

Julie Copeland: So just to sum up, are Clement Greenberg's ideas about formalism, the progression of art, the avant garde�still read today? Is Greenberg�and these essays particularly�still taught in art schools?

Donald Kuspit: Yes. But they're taught as a sort of historical phenomenon. The art that they advocate has been bypassed, replaced by more of a conceptual orientation. I think Greenberg would be very unhappy. But he is recognised as a major figure, even though a figure that people like to attack and hate. But he and Rosenberg are acknowledged as the two major critics of the heyday of abstract expressionism and they're still read wherever there is an interest in abstract art and in abstract expressionist art in particular. He is still acknowledged as a force to be reckoned with, if only by stepping out of his way or dismissing him as obsolete or even narrow-minded in his own day.

[archived recording of Clement Greenberg: Good art is no more to be defined than art itself. People have tried to define art. Better minds than mine. And haven't succeeded. Aesthetic experience�well Kant did say, 'The free play of the cognitive faculties.' My own experience bears him out, and that's the most I can do. Heightened cognitiveness, without cognition. Cognitiveness without cognition.'
Julie Copeland: From the ABC archives, Clement Greenberg, who died, aged 85, in 1994. And we should note that much earlier, by the mid-70s, opposition to Greenberg had grown to the point of demonisation, as the critic was accused of manipulating reputations and of telling artists what to paint. Never idealistic about the value of art, he once said on American radio, 'If you have to chose between life and happiness or art, remember always to chose life and happiness. Art solves nothing.'

And in this week's Exhibit A we were reviewing Clement Greenberg's Art and Culture: Critical Essays, and particularly his 1939 essay, 'The Avant Garde and the Kitsch', with the prolific New York art critic, Donald Kuspit, author of the End of Art and one of Clement Greenberg's first biographers.


Rhiannon Brown & Debra McCoy

Guests on this program:

Donald Kuspit
Art critic and a professor of art history and philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. An author of numerous articles, exhibition reviews, and catalog essays, Kuspit has written more than twenty books, including Redeeming Art: Critical Reveries, Idiosyncratic Identities: Artists At The End Of The Avant-Garde, The End of Art and Clement Greenberg, Art Critic.
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