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Clement Greenberg at 100: Part 2 March 20, 2009

Posted by jeffclef in greenberg, Uncategorized.
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I tried writing a short sequel to the previous post on Greenberg, but it metastasized beyond bloggable size. I really should be saving my thoughts on Greenberg for the dissertation and for the presentation I’m supposed to give in two weeks. But while I’m on the topic of Greenberg’s war against interdisciplinarity, it’s worth pointing out that as much as Greenberg hardlined for purity in the arts, he could not fully exorcise his own criticism of the evils he found in rival critics like Rosenberg, O’Hara, and Hess. He was, however, more circumspect.

On Clyfford Still, in “‘American-Type’ Painting” (1955):


Clyfford Still, 1957-D

Still is the first really Whitmanesque kind of painting we have had, not only because it makes large, loose gestures, or because it breaks the hold of value contrast as Whitman’s verse line broke the equally traditional hold of meter; but just as much because, as Whitman’s poetry assimilated, with varying success, large quantities of stale journalistic and oratorical prose, so Still’s painting is infused with that stale, prosaic kind of painting to which Barnett Newman has given the name of “buckeye.”

The fact that “meter” and “value contrast” are governing rules which the avant-garde in poetry and painting, respectively, shattered hardly justifies an analogy between Whitman’s poetry and Still’s painting.

Greenberg appealed to “experts” when he wished to give his interarts analogies scientific weight. In “The Crisis of the Easel Picture” (1948), Greenberg cites the approval of two musicologists for his usage of “polyphony” to characterize how “a number of surprisingly different tendencies in modern art”—”expressionism, cubism, and Klee, as well as…late impressionism”—converge towards radical “uniformity” in the canvases of contemporary painters like Jean Dubufett, Mark Tobey, and Jackson Pollock. Instead of the division between foreground and background, the canvas gets parceled out into increasingly equivalent yet independent spaces. This trend towards a “polyphonic” aesthetic marks for Greenberg “not an eccentric phenomenon” but “an important new phase in the history of painting”:

Pablo Picasso, Guitar Player (1910)

Pablo Picasso, Guitar Player (1910)

Pauk Klee, Ancient Sound (1925)

Pauk Klee, Ancient Sound (1925)

The new polyphonic kind of painting that I refer to uses less explicit oppositions, and it is more nearly anticipated by Picasso’s and Braque’s analytical cubism and by Klee than by Mondrian himself….

To characterize what I mean I have advisedly borrowed the term “polyphonic,” from Messrs. Kurt List and René Leibowitz. For the resemblance in aesthetic method between this new category of easel painting and Schönberg’s principle of composition is striking…Mondrian’s term “equivalent” is important here. Just as Schönberg makes every element, every voice and note in the composition of equal importance—different but equivalent—so these painters render every element, every part of the canvas equivalent; and they likewise weave the work of art into a tight mesh whose principle of formal unity is contained and recapitulated in each thread, so that we find the essence of the whole work in every one of its parts. (See Finnegans Wake and Gertrude Stein for the parallel to this in literature.) But these painters go even beyond Schönberg by making their variations upon equivalence so subtle that at first glance we might see in their pictures, not equivalences, but an hallucinated uniformity.

Uniformity–the notion is antiaesthetic. And yet the pictures of many of the painters named above get away with this uniformity, however meaningless or repellent the uninitiated may find it. This very uniformity, this dissolution of the picture into sheer texture, sheer sensation, into the accumulation of similar units of sensation, seems to answer something deep-seated in contemporary sensibility. It corresponds perhaps to the feeling that all hierarchical distinctions have been exhausted, that no area or order of experience is either intrinsically or relatively superior to any other.

Greenberg was clearly unfamiliar with Harry Partch and the microtonalists, who chopped the octave into even further divisions—”variations upon equivalence”—than the semitone. Why it matters that these painters go even beyond Schönberg is beyond me. The reason he allies serialism with Abstract Expressionism is to raise the purist pedigree of the latter, but Greenberg is hardly qualified to speak seriously at any length about music  (Adorno, on the other hand…).

Schönbergs principle of composition (the row matrix)

Schönberg's principle of composition (the serial row matrix)

There is nonetheless some discursive truth behind the analogy between serialism and the paintings of Klee, Mondrian, and the analytical Cubists. The composer Anton Webern, for example, justified Schoenberg’s “principle of composition” in the following terms: “an ash-tray, seen from all sides, is always the same, and yet different. Just so, a [musical] idea should be presented in the most multifarious way possible.” And just as Greenberg sees abstract painting converging towards “variations on equivalence,” Webern saw serialism doing away with the absolutism of the tonic by granting “equal rights” to each of the twelve semitones of the octave (DO-di-RE-ri-MIFA-fi-SOL-si-LA-li-TI). That meant getting rid of the arbitrary rule that music was supposed to have a key or “DO,” an origin around which a piece of music revolves.

Where I disagree with Greenberg are the political conclusions he draws from the formal premises. The passage gently unveils Greenberg’s sympathies with the Marxism of Leon Trotsky. For the same reasons that Trotsky praised Mayakovsky, Greenberg would praise the Abstract Expressionists in his belief that these vanguard artists would be the agents of the Revolution. The enthymeme on which that argument is based, however, presupposes that radical art which does away with “hierarchical distinctions” corresponds with radical politics, a thesis debunked by the counterexamples of Ezra Pound and F.T. Marinetti. One should always remember that radical is always relative: One generation’s radical is another generation’s reactionary.

“For Pound, Cocteau & Picasso” (1959)

so you sit
robes and all
you old ones
and having broken
every rule
they ever made
you now

ain’t you the cool ones.

– Diane Di Prima

Read CG at 100: Part 3.



1. Andrei Pop - May 15, 2009

Hey Jeff,

Weren’t we in a class together? Anyway, a fascinating discussion of Greenberg and music, but I’d like to mildly point out that Greenberg couldn’t have had in mind the ad hominem hope for artists being literal revolutionaries that you attribute to him. To take just the example of “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” which precedes the “Crisis” essay by some years, Greenberg goes on at length about the essentially apolitical and potential right-wing use of avant-garde art, citing the Italians, Gottfried Benn, etc. And Ezra Pound was a particular bête noire of Greenberg’s, who wrote a letter protesting his winning a poetry prize.

It seems to me you are right in smelling a kind of smuggled analogy, not between the artist and revolutionary, but between canvas and society. If the canvas is “egalitarian” then there are no oppressed and dominant parts. It’s a sophism that appeals to musicians, too: does not Schönberg say something about freeing the notes from a tonal center? And then there’s ‘free’ jazz. Interestingly Coleman’s “Free Jazz” album has a Pollock painting on the inside cover. An unlikely Greenberg reader?


2. jeffclef - May 17, 2009

Hey Andrei,

I believe were were both in Jim Engell’s seminar on Comparative Romantic Theory. I will post my reply to your comment as a post shortly.

3. Return to Greenberg « jeff clef - May 31, 2009

[…] 31, 2009 Andrei writes in response to “Clement Greenberg at 100: Part 2″: Anyway, a fascinating discussion of Greenberg and music, but I’d like to mildly point out that […]

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