Lecture by John O'Brian, Edmonton Art Gallery, March 16 2006


From studiosavant, 18 March, 2006, a quality oriented art blog hosted by sculptors of the North Edmonton Sculpture Workshop.
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THIS PAST THURSDAY evening I and the NESW sculptors, among others, attended a ten-dollar lecture at the AGA by art historian Dr. John O'Brian visiting from UBC.

The title of Dr. O'Brian's travelling slide show is Greenberg on the Road to Edmonton: How Art Writing Earns its Bad Name. O'Brian is a scholar of art critic Clement Greenberg (1909-1994) and has recently compiled and edited a four-volume set of Greenberg's writings, which are well worth acquiring and reading. Previously scattered in the form of letters, articles, and small books, much of the writing had been out of print for many years.

O'Brian, though claiming to appreciate Greenberg's exasperation with the writing of contemporary art critics, seems unable to grasp the irony as he critiques Greenberg's art criticism. The title of the lecture belies its nature - instead of discussing the relationship of the critic extraordinaire to the artists of the Canadian prairies, O'Brian, a self-described "myth-popper", tries to pin Greenberg's special aptitude for expressing in words what he sees in art with a "Marxian" politicks button. O'Brian's main assertion is that the political trappings of Greenberg's societal environment massively informed and influenced his eye for art.

During a period of Q&A with the audience following the lecture, one person who had known Clem personally leveled a charge of "bad faith" upon Dr. O'Brian for daring to posthumously ascribe motivations to Clem Greenberg's discernment regarding art; to which Dr. O'Brian replied, "That is a very serious charge. You aren't seriously accusing me of bad faith?" "Well, yes," said the audience member, "that is what I meant."

It is not clear that O'Brian recalls it from the time he spent reading (presumably) and editing the complete set, but Greenberg had already weighed in on this sort of art-critic criticism back in 1967.

"That analysis and description without anything more should so often be inferred to be a program reveals something like bad faith on the part of those who do such inferring - not just laziness, obtuseness, or illiteracy. I can't help thinking this. The bad faith derives from the need to pin a critic down so that you can say, when you disagree with him, that he has motives, that he likes this and not that work of art because he wants to, or because his program forces him to, not because his mere ungovernable taste won't let him do otherwise" (C. Greenberg, Complaints of an Art Critic, Artforum, Oct. 1967).

Myself an inheritor of Greenberg's particular passion for and attention to art, I understand him to have espoused a "look first, ask questions later, if at all" stance before an artwork. He is also understood to have felt that, by making art, the artists lead and, by writing about it, the critic's place (his own place) is to follow; and he scathed in print any critic who presumed to supplant this natural order.

"Both Mr. Alloway and M. Tapié can see, and they do not want for courage either. Mr. Alloway, in particular, I always find refreshing to read. But like M. Tapié, he seems to lack a sense of perspective, and it is this that makes them both inveterate futurists, votaries of false dawns, sufferers from the millennial complex - and to that extent comedians like Mr. Rosenberg, who back in 1952 greeted the beginning of the end of painting as an art" (C. Greenberg, How Art Writing Earns Its Bad Name, Encounter, Dec. 1962).

From the frequency of certain comments during the speech, I gather that what O'Brian esteems above all else in his subjects is when someone can be said to be "shifting", while he reserves "interesting" for use as high praise. He seems to claim that the most interesting (best) Greenberg was the younger one whose art-view was still shifting in proportion to his world-view: this pre-prairie Greenberg; this Greenberg who hadn't yet stepped back from an increasingly literary visual-art scene in favour of visiting artists' studios for the sheer pleasure of seeing art in the making.

I can ascribe motivations as well as the next person. To hear Dr. John O'Brian tell it, should he have been able he'd have halted Clement Greenberg's trip west and north well before ever having encountered prairie artists, so that Edmonton might never have fostered the straggle of artists who continue to hold out here against the vagaries of contemporary art-culture. The great art and good artists that Greenberg so relentlessly sought to look at and write about are increasingly supplanted by "interesting and shifting relevancies": that hermetic gristly dialogue between art historians and museum curators. O'Brian's work to circulate C. G.'s crystalline writing is praiseworthy, but his commentary is only fit for gnashing.

More and more commonly, in this town if not across the continent, art lectures and exhibits epitomize the carrot cart being put before the horse (mixed metaphor intended). Said another way: "I actually oppose dialogue when it serves as a platform for bad faith and substitutes for action" (Franklin Einspruch, commenting recently at an unrelated blog).

That's $10 I really ought to demand refunded.

(Kudos to M.C. for digging up the perfect C.G. quotes.)

posted by ahab @ 14:56 



Hans said...
Very interesting post!

catfish said...
Good job, ahab. The lecture does not seem like it had much to say about Edmonton, title notwithstanding. The thing about "motive" was a fave subject of Clem's - not only its connection to seeing art, but the impossiblity of knowing anyone's motives for anything, and the ill manners of speculating about motive as if it were a known fact.

"Shifting" has indeed become the mainstay of the hard currency of art criticism as it is usually practiced. You gots to change to be any good, according to these blind guys who yak yak out their wazoos. Guess they never read Aristotle.

MC said...
catfish, the bit about "bad manners" was specifically brought up by the audience member ahab refers to (Russell Bingham)... seems clear to you, to Bingham, to ahab and I... it's puzzling why a scholar like O'Brian doesn't get it.

ahab said...
I'm glad you're here reading, and commenting, hans. Thanks. But if by "interesting post" you mean something akin to an O'Brian-esque compliment, it'll worry me a bit.

I tried to dish this little piece of journalism(?) to marc country since he reads Clem religiously. But he was only willing to do the research for it. I like to think of him as a modernist-library assistant.

What I wrote about the lecture owes a lot to what I heard vocalized by mc and Russell and Peter at the tail end of the talk. And I may not have picked up on "ascribing motivations" myself if I hadn't been paying attention to commentors over the past year.

I might've described O'Brian himself as "shifty", but chose to stop short of libel.

MC said...
Normally, I try to dispell the prevalent notion of Clem as some sort of "religious" figure... all too often he is described unflatteringly as the "High Priest of Formalism", the "preacher of Modernist art", etc, ad nauseam...
But, since ahab has already seen my shrine to St. Greenberg (with cigar-and-scotch scented candles and one of his knucklebones in a reliquary), my "Clem 3:16" t-shirt, and my stack of multiple copies of "Homemade Esthetics" that I leave in motel-rooms, I suppose I'll let it slide this time.

ahab said...
I totally forgot about the knucklebone. I may have to lay siege to your building and ransack your apartment for that precious relic. But its in the reliquary, you say? Loot and pillage anyway!