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Return to Greenberg May 31, 2009

Posted by jeffclef in Uncategorized.
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Time Out (1959)

Jackson Pollock: White Light (1954)

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 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?

You raise some valid points, and I should have been more careful in framing my remarks. However, you are citing Greenberg in the subjunctive: In Part IV of “A&K,” G hypothesizes what might have happened had the German and Italian masses asked the avant-garde for their entertainment. But the fact is, they didn’t. Benn and Goebbels had tried recommending [German] modernism to Hitler, but as G writes, “it was more practical to accede to the wishes of the masses in matters of culture than to those of their paymasters [i.e. Benn, Goebbels].” Similarly, “Marinetti, Chirico, et. al. are sent into the outer darkness [by Mussolini], and the new railroad station in Rome will not be modernistic.” That should tell you what Greenberg thought of the “right wing use of avant-garde art.” By contrast, he argues in the “The Plight of Culture” that the centrist use of avant-garde art can restore the gap between labor and culture.

As for your second point, the “ad hominem hope [or fear] for artists being literal revolutionaries” was quite common among American intellectuals in the thirties, when modernism and radical politics were seen go hand in hand. The best American example is John Dos Passos; the best European one, the Surrrealists. It’s around the start of the Second World War, that we begin to see what Serge Guilbaut describes as the “demarxization of the intelligentsia,” the disabusing of most leftist intellectuals. The exception to the rule, which Guilbaut does not mention, were African-American intellectuals, many of whom remained loyal to the Communist Party. Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright defected, but others stayed on at least until Garveyism, Negritude, and the Civil Rights Movement came along. In any case, I said that Pound was an exception to Greenberg’s rule that vanguard artists were revolutionaries. I should have also mentioned Wyndham Lewis, who speaks of a “rearguard action.”

Greenberg’s response to Pound is complicated. Yes, Greenberg is offended by Pound’s anti-Semitism. But if you think about it, they would have shared many of the same aesthetic views. Both believed that high standards of taste were necessary and that good criticism had ameliorative effects. And note that while Greenberg doesn’t support patronage, he doesn’t frown either on T.S. Eliot’s notion in a caste system that preserves those high standards of taste. When Greenberg wrote “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” he still looked favorably on Pound, as his VIP list of modernists testifies: “Rimbaud, Mallarme, Ezra Pound, Hart Crane, Stevens.” The change of heart only comes when The Pisan Cantos are published. Yet despite any objections to The Cantos on personal grounds, he says doesn’t believe in censorship. He can’t claim aesthetic grounds because the judging panel happens to consist of poets whose taste he happens to admire, (T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden). He blames the panel not for their choice of Pound, but for their refusal to reveal their criteria for the making the award.

I think you put in better than I did in clarifying the analogy G makes between canvas and society. I believe the phrase that Schönberg used was the “emancipation of dissonance.” I only used Webern because he makes the specific analogy between serialism and cubism. He also clarifies the difference between (Schoenberg’s) serialism, which eliminates the entire notion of key areas, from (Debussy’s) impressionism, which only collapses the distinction between major and minor.

As for Coleman, Coleman was like Charlie Parker, well read. It’s likely that he knew of Greenberg’s work. The painting he used for the Free Jazz album cover was Jackson Pollock’s White Light, though you can see how the image was cropped. The cover art for earlier albums, such as Dave Brubeck’s Time Out, draw a similar connection between avant-garde painting and avant-garde jazz. Cover art and the commodification of jazz, however, is a post for another time.

Free Jazz

Free Jazz (1961)

Time Out (1959)

Time Out (1959)

Next Week: The Poems of Frank Bidart



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