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Clement Greenberg at 100 March 7, 2009

Posted by jeffclef in Uncategorized.
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Clement Greenberg at 100

Clement Greenberg at 100

I’m so excited. I’m one of the few graduate students who will be presenting at a centennial symposium looking back to the life and work of the legendary Clement Greenberg. (So my name isn’t listed yet on the official publicity, and that’s all right. I haven’t paid enough dues yet to warrant headlining status. Rosalind Krauss and Thierry de Duve, Luke Menand and Serge Guilbaut have).

The topic of my presentation is Surrealism, the modernist movement eclipsed by America’s discovery (largely Greenberg’s) of Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists. I approach my subject by way of Greenberg’s own critique of Surrealist painting, and the duel it instigated with poet and art critic Frank O’Hara. This match is less legendary than the battle royale between Greenberg and Rosenberg, but it’s important because it brings literature and collaborative production into the larger discussion of what the avant-garde is and is not.

Greenberg was a believer in the purity of the arts, or what he called medium specificity. Good art, for Greenberg, remains true to the limitations of its medium. It doesn’t fraternize with sister art forms, because doing so is an admission of weakness, a concession that one has run out of ideas. Serious painting seeks to reaffirm the paintness of paint and the flatness of the canvas rather than trifle with illusions like trompe l’oeil and literary charades like representation. After so many years of wandering in the desert of pretend (painting trying to be poetry, poetry trying to be music, music trying to be painting), twentieth-century artists finally found their way back to the path of purity. And this is how it should be, insisted Greenberg in “Towards a Newer Laocoon” (1940), an ambitious attempt to outline a thesis of development for the twentieth century avant-garde in all the major art forms: literature, music, painting, and sculpture.

What this means, though, is that movements of one feather prone to the persuasions of another get excluded from consideration as true revolutions, aesthetic or otherwise. Greenberg dismisses interdisciplinary movements like Dada and Surrealism because they violate the purity of the arts, on the one hand, and conform to an academic or mass-reproduced aesthetic, on the other. (Interestingly, it is these anti-institutional movements with which various members of the fifties underground would warm their hands with during the conformist winter of the Cold War). His famous quarrel with Harold Rosenberg and with future movements like Pop Art, I argue, can essentially be traced back to his essays on the Surrealists, who in Greenberg’s view threatened to turn American art and art criticism into kitsch. Frank O’Hara begged to differ.

The name O’Hara may ring a recent bell if you happened to spy his Selected Poems (2008) in the bookstore or caught this January the second season of the hit cable drama Mad Men, where his poetry serves as a foreshadowing device for some Cold War icebergs. O’Hara’s reputation rests on chatty, offbeat lyrics like “The Day Lady Died” and “A True Account of Talking to the Sun on Fire Island,” but even poets need a dayjob, and O’Hara’s was rather remarkable. He began writing reviews for Art News while selling postcards from the front desk of MOMA. However, his friendships with contemporary painters including Franz Kline and Larry Rivers scored him a promotion to the Museum of Modern Art’s International Program, established to promote American art abroad by means of touring exhibits. As an assistant curator under the lead of Dorothy Miller, O’Hara would partake in the cultural offensive funded by the State Department to win the respect of European and Soviet-fringe allies, thereby helping to contain the threat of world communism.

O’Hara ‘s professional responsibilities made him, like Greenberg and Rosenberg, one of the foremost champions of the New York School, the circle of painters who became synonymous with the movement known as Abstract Expressionism at home and “‘American-Type’ Painting” abroad. This circle included painters like Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning, Franz Kline, Arshile Gorky, and Mark Rothko. It is the origins and significance of the movement on which Greenberg and O’Hara disagree, and while that difference may seem a moot matter, it raises a rather important question for the Cold War / Civil Rights era, when the mantra of democratic freedom was chanted by institutions and rebels alike: Was the avant garde a bastion of elite culture or did it hold out radical, queer, and countercultural possibilities? To be continued. I will be expanding this post as the conference date approaches.



1. Russell - April 10, 2009

I’m surprised that with all of the people who are speaking at this symposium, none seem to be from among the curators, artists, critics, historians who thought that Clem was right on the money with his take on art. What about Darby Bannard, Terry Fenton, Tony Caro, Larry Poons, James Walsh, on and on and on? So much energy spent presenting a “balanced” view of Greenberg. How do you all manage to fit on that one end of the teeter totter?

2. Russell - April 10, 2009

Do a search for “John O’Brian” “Clement Greenberg” and “bad faith.” Sums it up.

3. jeffclef - April 11, 2009

I hear your concerns, Russell. But I think you miss the point of an academic conference. The original call for papers asked for “proposals that extend or challenge traditional notions of Greenberg’s art criticism or that propose new ways of understanding Greenberg’s influence over the long twentieth century.”

The symposium was therefore less concerned with toasting Clem’s impeccable taste than it was in determining the next direction in Greenberg scholarship. That is to say, how will the next generation of scholars use Greenberg’s theories to illuminate the art of the past, present, and future? My intervention was welcome because it was an inquiry into Greenberg’s literary taste–of which little has been said–and whether it coincided with the most advanced literary developments of his era. (It did not.)

None of the scholars whom I heard speak at the conference have it out for Greenberg in the way you suggest. I can’t speak for John O’Brian, because he did not present a paper (though he was a roundtable participant). We all appreciate Greenberg because he made criticism rigorous and respectable. But as scholars, we are also interested in that which gets repressed by the formation of taste canons and what those blindspots say about a critic and the greater cultural, historical, and political moment of which he was a product. Hence, the many papers on photography, on surrealism, on decoration, on minimalism, on the postwar German art scene, aspects which reveal ambivalence and lacunae in Greenberg’s thinking about art and culture.

Greenberg loved to argue, and unquestioning praise does the great questioner a disservice. As long we continue to read Greenberg, to read him polemically, with sympathy and resistance, do we not reinscribe his legacy?

4. michele - April 13, 2009

The insularity of america celebrated at its best! congrats!

5. drby bannard - May 2, 2009

I think Russell’s point was not to supply undiluted praise – we all knew Clem’s shortcomings far better and more clearly than his detractors do – but to have someone who knew and understood him and his work well enough to counter the endemic ignorant misunderstanding, misconstruing and misinterpretation of the academics who not only get him wrong but get art wrong. The problem is not one of “disagreement” – academics do that all the time in their limited way. The problem is you don’t want to her anything from outside the proverbial box.

Just the fact that you use the phrase “Greenberg’s theories” indicates that you either do not know Greenberg or do not know what a theory is. And, like Russell, when I look at that lineup there is not much doubt that the old clembashing machine was out in full force.

6. schwoop - February 12, 2010

chiming in for no reason, a year later. sick and retarded that krauss would get to speak at this. october magazine is predicated on the mis-use and abuse of greenberg. hope your paper went well.

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