Terry Fenton

Rubenfeld Aftermath


LIKE KAREN WILKIN I had anticipated -- even looked forward to -- Florence Rubenfeld's biography of Clement Greenberg. Unhappily I discovered its publication when I encountered the March 1998 New Yorker on a hotel newsstand in Saskatoon; emblazoned on the cover was the headline:

And so it proved to be: a post-mod journalist deploring the life and debunking the judgments of a great and recently deceased critic. For that, as they said in times gone by, Gopnik deserved a punch in the nose.

Wilkin notes in her review of reviews of A Life that none of the reviewers she reviewed questioned Rubenfeld's accuracy. Good point, although one doesn't expect accuracy from contemporary art writers let alone regard for truth. Greenberg wrote "How Art Writing Gets a Bad Name" to illustrate that very problem. Rubenfeld presented the article as a personal attack on Harold Rosenberg, making out that Greenberg was a jealous rival. But Greenberg wouldn't have bothered to write the article had not Rosenberg's writing been symptomatic of what he perceived to be an epidemic, in my view one that continues to rage. Greenberg had a much clearer apprehension of both the facts and the truth in this and other matters than was dreamed of in Rubenfeld's philosophy.

Too many contemporary biographies proffer damaging facts stitched together with malice; they wallow in scandal. The tissues they assemble circument libel and the stitches create the illusion of truth. Some one once observed at a good biographer should admire his subject. One can on occasion -- with a Stalin or a Hitler -- substitute fascination for admiration but in that case objectivity becomes especially important. Rubenfeld was neither objective nor appreciative. Dislike of her subject led to carelessness and to retailing gossip as fact. One of the reviewers, William Corbett, as quoted by Wilkin, declared that the Rubenfeld's book convinced him that Greenberg was "every bit as arrogant as gossip made him out to be." That may be proof enough for him, but not for me. For over three decades I knew and, yes, liked Clement Greenberg: he illuminated so much; he made me laugh; he was never boring; he was the smartest and most candid man I've ever met; and he had that amazing eye...

P.S. I thought that Karen Wilkin was too kind to Arthur C. Danto. I thought his review in ArtForum rude and self-serving. In short, I thought he, himself, came across as a #@!! People who live in glass houses...