Sheila Christofides

 

 

 

BEYOND REVISIONISM

Reconsidering Clement Greenberg's Cold War Politics

Originally published in The Australian & New Zealand Journal of Art, Volume 12, 2012, 43-57.

Sheila Christofides has a PhD from the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales, Sydney. She wrote her thesis on Clement GreenbergÕs politics and method of art criticism, and has since been continuing along the same line of investigation. As she suggests, the issue of GreenbergÕs politics has been much misconstrued. While I didnÕt know Greenberg during the period of which Ms. Christofides writes, when I met him in the mid 1960s he openly admired Lyndon Johnson, both for his civil rights legislation and Vietnam policy—no surprise for a disabused communist sympathizer.  He despised Nixon, but in 1972 so distrusted McGovern that he voted for a third party socialist candidate.  —TF 

Clement Greenberg's longest essay by far, 'The Plight of Our Culture', was published in two parts in the June and July 1953 issues of the Jewish magazine Partisan Review.1 It was subsequently abridged for Art and Culture (1961) and renamed 'The Plight of Culture' (to avoid confusion, I will refer to these versions as 'Plight 1953' and 'Plight 1961').2 These texts represent Greenberg's most concerted tribute to Karl Marx.3 They also reveal his views on American culture during the Cold War period, and build on his earlier, ground-breaking essay, 'Avant-Garde and Kitsch' (1939). Through analyzing them, as well as his '"American-Type" Painting' (1955), Greenberg's underlying socialist values become evident. While he faced the dilemma of justifying the historically elite tradition of 'high' culture, Greenberg nevertheless remained a socialist throughout the 1950s. This counters the dominant theory that, at some point between 1947 and 19534 Greenberg abandoned his Marxist/socialist ideals and became an acolyte of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and a puppet to various organizations' and periodicals' imperialist agendas, some of which were later found to have been sponsored and infiltrated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).5

***

Referring to Greenberg's 1960 essay 'Modernist Painting', John O'Brian argues that the politics of the Cold War 'were everywhere implicit' in its 'tone of cultural optimism'.6 While this essay's canonical nature reveals a new confidence in the status of American painting, it is debatable whether this is due to Cold War politics or simply because abstract expressionism—the art Greenberg had long championed—was finally achieving international recognition. O'Brian locates the first evidence of this optimism in 'Plight 1953', which, in his estimation, demonstrates a new-found enthusiasm for 'the new managerial elite who had risen to power in the United States' and a final 'unsticking of the Trotskyist label'.7 Greenberg, however, had effectively 'unstuck' the 'Trotskyist label' far earlier. In a 1944 letter to the editor of Politics, he wrote that Trotskyism, indeed true communism, had scant hope of thriving in a totalitarian regime wherein Stalin would 'muzzle, imprison, or execute all bona fide working-class leaders and liberals'.8 This was his last reference to Trotsky until 1960, when he penned the now-famous line: 'some day it will have to be told how "anti-Stalinism", which started out more or less as "Trotskyism", turned into art for art's sake, and thereby cleared the way, heroically, for what was to come'.9 [43]

To illustrate Greenberg's optimism 'about the culture of modernity', O'Brian quotes 'Plight 1953':

But can it not be hoped that middlebrow culture will in the course of time be able to transcend itself and rise to a level where it will be no longer middlebrow, but high culture? . . . And then, supposedly, we shall see, for the first time in history, high urban culture on a 'mass' basis.10

This passage reiterates an earlier statement from 'Avant-Garde and Kitsch': 'it's Athena whom we want: formal culture with its infinity of aspects, its luxuriance, its large comprehension'.11 In other words, Greenberg wanted the best aspects of culture to be universally accessible and appreciated by the urban masses. The inherent socialist vision of 'Avant-Garde and Kitsch' is clear; it ends:

Today we no longer look toward socialism for a new culture—as inevitably one will appear, once we do have socialism. Today we look to socialism simply for the preservation of whatever living culture we have right now.12

However, in 1953, the new culture Greenberg envisaged seemed no more imminent than it had in 1939. Rather, he saw that a newly expanded middle class had arisen, which required that its entertainment be the watered-down, easily digestible versions of so-called 'high culture'. That is, since 'Avant-Garde and Kitsch', which discussed the growth of the kitsch market to cater for the displaced working-class masses, the situation had compounded to include a new mass middle class. Whereas in 1939 the problem had been one of keeping the avant-garde free from fascist indoctrination, in 1953 it had become one of keeping the avant-garde free from banal, middlebrow corruption. Further, the avant-garde had 'given over to the canonizing, codifying, and imitating of itself, to the conning of a limited repertory of dissident attitudes'.13 By this, Greenberg clearly did not mean the 'genuinely ambitious' sector of the avant-garde he promoted (which now had to spend more energy 'establishing distance' between itself and 'the well-meaning but impatient middle-brow' than it ever had to 'with the out-and-out philistine'),14 but rather a sector (in reality sometimes one and the same) as much concerned with process and experiment as with a finished product. Greenberg would have encountered such advocates during a 1950 teaching stint at the experimental Black Mountain College, North Carolina,15 the sort of whom were promoted by his arch-rival Harold Rosenberg in 'The American Action Painters' (1952).16

For O'Brian, 'Plight 1953' shed the image of 'banality and tawdriness' Greenberg had conjured in 'Avant-Garde and Kitsch', wherein 'modern technological culture had assumed a routine and vulgar aspect'.17 Nevertheless, in 'Plight 1953', Greenberg listed four reasons behind society's despair, one being 'the present tawdriness of our machine-made environment with its commercial culture and its leveling' (by which he clearly meant a leveling down). The others were 'the exterminations', 'the oppression', and 'the war '.18 The first two of these clearly relate [44] to the holocaust and the Stalinist regime, and it seems significant that, in the first paragraphs of 'Plight 1953', T.S. Eliot is likened to the Nazi collaborator Charles Maurras, whom Greenberg accused of ultra-nationalism and anti-semitism. Through his close editorial association with Commentary, Greenberg was familiar with Stalinist anti-semitism. For example, in January 1953, Commentary published 'Stalin Follows in Hitler 's Footsteps', in which Peter Meyer discusses a November 1952 trial of fourteen leading Czechoslovakian communists, of whom eleven were executed and three were sentenced to life imprisonment. Of the fourteen, eleven were 'of Jewish origin'.19 Commentary's inaugural 'Act of Affirmation' stated:

As Jews we live with this fact: 4,750,000 of 6,000,000 Jews of Europe have been murdered. Not killed in battle, not massacred in hot blood, but slaughtered like cattle, subjected to every physical indignity—processed.20

These words would have had special significance for Greenberg, who, on 20 February 1939, had joined a fifty-thousand-strong crowd of angry protestors who had stormed the streets of New York to demonstrate against a mass rally of twenty-thousand American Nazi supporters that was taking place inside Madison Square Garden. The blocks immediately surrounding the venue were cordoned off by police. According to Greenberg's brother Martin, who had protested alongside him, he had known 'what to shout at damned Nazis!'21 In an article, Greenberg also criticized the awarding of the 1948 Bollingen Prize to the anti-semite Ezra Pound. In the same article, he noted that anti-semitism had made him 'feel physically afraid' since 1943,22 a comment that leads to his final reason for society's despair—the war. This 'physical' fear seems connected to his being drafted into the US Air Force and almost shipped overseas during 1943 to 'operate enemy air fields upon their capture. . . moving every few weeks to more recently taken ones'.23 For a Jewish writer of some renown, who had openly criticized Hitler 's philistinism, Greenberg would have realized his fate had he been captured by the enemy. Understandably, he had a nervous breakdown. On recovering, he was given the choice of being shipped to fascist Italy or being discharged. While he unsurprisingly chose the latter, his reasoning included never wanting 'to come as close again to suicide'.24

Events such as these would have shaped many of Greenberg's generation's outlook, and one cannot understand his post-war political position without acknowledging that, for him, Stalinism was tantamount to Nazism. This is evident in 'Avant-Garde and Kitsch', when he writes of the 'personal philistinism' of both Hitler and Stalin.25 That is, his opposition to Stalinism was not simply a Cold War strategy. Yet, Caroline A. Jones, writing thirteen years after O'Brian, cites an instance of Greenberg's anti-Stalinist invective in 1951 as 'cold-war red-baiting'. She argues that Greenberg 'published things that proved useful to right-wing Congressman George Dondero, Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee'.26 In reality, these 'things' amounted to an unpublished letter to The Nation (subsequently published in The New Leader) in which Greenberg accused the journal of being 'a vehicle through which the interests of a particular state power [45] [Stalinist Russia] are expressed'. He was writing in reference to a column by Nation journalist J. Alvarez del Vayo, which Greenberg saw as operating 'along a line which invariably parallels that of Soviet propaganda'. These sentiments echo his concerns, expressed in 'Avant-Garde and Kitsch', that kitsch (i.e., popular culture) was susceptible to being injected with totalitarian propaganda—a fate from which he wanted to save the avant-garde. In 1939, the chief instigators of such propaganda were Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin. In his letter of 1951, he again drew parallels: 'I abhor the Stalin regime and cannot see why one is obligated to consider both sides of the question any more in its case than in Hitler 's.'27

Upon its publication (and undoubtedly without his imprimatur), Greenberg's open letter was read in Congress by Dondero. For Jones, this signaled that Greenberg 'came to function as an explicit ally' of not only Dondero, but also McCarthy. In reiterating this anecdote, Jones's debt to O'Brian is clear, for he had also recounted this incident. However, O'Brian noted the irony of a letter from the arch-champion of modern art being read in Congress by one of its greatest detractors. By contrast, Jones uses the incident to support the theory that Greenberg had shifted dramatically to the right during the early Cold War period. As further evidence, she writes of his affiliation with 'certain cultural groups' later found to have been funded by the CIA, and of his move 'from the formerly Communist Partisan Review to the left-liberal Nation and then finally to the conservative journal Commentary'.28

In fact, of the numerous 'cultural groups' covertly sponsored or infiltrated by the CIA, Greenberg belonged to just one, the American Committee for Cultural Freedom (ACCF), of which he was a member from 1951 to 1953. According to Christopher Lasch, the committee was founded—in apparent good faith—to defend academic freedom, resist thought control, and 'counteract the influence of mendacious Communist propaganda' (of which Greenberg had long been critical).29 According to Serge Guilbaut, the ACCF pursued 'right-wing liberalism', yet, in reality, it included a variety of intellectuals who ranged in political persuasions.30 Among its members were Greenberg's Partisan Review colleagues Sydney Hook, Diana and Lionel Trilling, and James T. Farrell, as well as the artists Alexander Calder, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, and William Baziotes. Despite later awareness of the ACCF's covert links with the CIA, there seems no evidence to suggest that its members were aware of such involvement at the time. Greenberg's move between journals is also not as clear-cut as Jones suggests. Becoming involved with Partisan Review in 1938, two years after it had abandoned the communist cause, Greenberg was an editor from 1940 to 1942. He maintained his connections with the journal until '"American-Type" Painting' was published in 1955. His stint as art critic for The Nation lasted from 1941 until late 1949. His editorial association with Commentary (evolving from his editorship of the former Contemporary Jewish Record) began in late 1945 and ended in 1957, when he was fired. Thus, Greenberg was simultaneously involved with the three journals for a four-year period and with Partisan Review and Commentary for a decade.

Therefore, what is presented as indisputable in certain histories becomes markedly less so when probed. Ultimately, Greenberg realized that a regime that [46] called itself communist was, in essence, fascist, and therefore sat to the far right of the political spectrum. By contrast, Marxism sat to the left, and it was to this philosophy that Greenberg aspired. Because of her 'take' on Greenberg's 1950s politics, however, Jones downplays the so-called Marxist 'architecture' of 'Plight 1953', presenting it as something he was 'trying to avoid'.31

***

Evidence of Greenberg's Marxism first appears in 'Avant-Garde and Kitsch', entering with the phrase: 'as in every other question today, it becomes necessary to quote Marx word for word'.32 Despite his rare references to Marxism during this period, but possibly because of his close association with the leftist Partisan Review circle, his politics at this time have never been questioned. Yet, as I have already argued, never were his references to Marxism more extensive than in 'Plight 1953' and 'Plight 1961'—written within the period he supposedly moved to the political right. Perhaps Greenberg scholars have been influenced by a famous statement from 'The State of American Writing' (1948): 'It has become possible lately to pigeon-hole and predict almost everybody . . . there is the ex- or disabused Marxist (in which category I put myself).'33 As if to dispel any misconceptions over what he had meant by this, a review he wrote three years later endorsed art historian Arnold Hauser 's Marxism thus:

His analysis of the development of society is unequivocally Marxist—appropriately so, because no other available method can extract equally plausible meanings from the seeming contradictoriness of social evolution, especially in relation to art.34

However, Greenberg did not completely support Hauser 's politics, as his Marxism was 'too "orthodox", in the Bolshevik sense'.35 This comment might be seen to reflect his antipathy towards Stalinism, thereby begging a different reading of his self-inclusion into the ranks of 'ex- or disabused' Marxists. Clearly, Greenberg meant that he was a 'disabused' Marxist, for he harbored no illusions about the possibility of purely Marxist solutions, given over as Marxism was to totalitarian misinterpretation. If the Hauser review had not clarified his position, then 'Plight 1953' and 'Plight 1961' would, as the following examples suggest.

Marx pointed out that productivity in even the most advanced societies of the past was always so low that the majority had to work full time to provide, in addition to their own necessities, the material surplus to support the leisure and ease of the relatively tiny minority that maintained high culture wherever it appeared. [1953]36

Marx was the first to point out that what made class divisions necessary to civilization was the low material productivity so far of even the most advanced societies. This is why the vast majority have had to work full time in order to provide both for their own necessities and for the leisure and ease of the minority [47] that carried on the activities by which civilization is distinguished. [1961]37

Through modifying and extending his points (for instance, changing 'high culture' to 'civilization', and underscoring Marx's significance by including the words, 'the first'), Greenberg indicates his increasing commitment to Marxism. As if to highlight Marxism's continuing relevance to post-war generations, Greenberg substantially altered and rearranged the following passages, even changing their proximity within the text:

Marx's prognosis of a socialist future was founded on the assumption that science and industrial technology would eventually make it possible for society to produce material goods in such plenty as to render social differences unnecessary and put the dignified leisure required for the pursuit of high culture within reach of everyone. Whether this expectation is utopian or not, Marx did at least sense the big difference that industrialism would make as far as the structure of society was concerned . . . [forty paragraphs later] Marx expected socialism, with a working day of four hours or less, to solve the problem of culture under modern industrialism. [1953]38

Marx assumed that scientific technology—industrialism—would eventually do away with class divisions because it would produce enough material goods to exempt everyone from full-time work. Whether he was right or wrong, he did at least appreciate the enormous change in the shape of civilized society that technological revolution was bound to bring with it in one way or another . . . [seven paragraphs later] the socialist and Marxist [solution to the problem of culture] is to intensify and extend industrialism, on the assumption that it will eventually make well-being and social dignity universal, at which time the problem of culture will solve itself of itself. This expectation may not be quite as utopian as are the proposals of the ideologues of 'tradition', but it remains a very distant one. [1961]39

As these examples suggest, in 'Plight 1961' Greenberg synthesizes ideas that subtly underpin the much longer 'Plight 1953'. That these ideas are veiled in the original seems hardly surprising, given the McCarthyist climate of the time. The change from 'dignified leisure for the pursuit of high culture' to 'social dignity' is particularly important, for it more closely adheres to Marx's writing. Marx suggests that class divisions result in a loss of 'social dignity' when he writes:

When in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the hands of associated individuals, the public power will lose its political character. Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for suppressing another.40

Of equal importance in the above passages are Greenberg's shifting doubts. In 'Plight 1953', he expresses doubts that 'the dignified leisure required for the pursuit [48] of high culture [is] within the reach of everyone', while, in 'Plight 1961', he doubts that all would be exempt 'from full-time work'.

Having clarified the point that Marx was not entirely utopian in his assumption that industrialism would 'eventually make well-being and social dignity universal', Greenberg then states, 'In the meantime, the hope of liberals—that the greater leisure made possible by industrialism can be turned to the benefit of culture here and now—seems more reasonable.' Rather than a blanket endorsement of liberalism, this was obviously a holding action, for he continues: 'But precisely in this hope, most liberals show the extent to which they, too [like conservatives, such as T.S. Eliot], fail to appreciate the novelty of industrialism and the scope of the changes it makes in life.'41 This, in turn, reinforces Greenberg's respect for Marx who 'did at least appreciate the enormous change in the shape of civilized society that technological revolution was bound to bring with it'. A passage written especially for 'Plight 1961' further reveals Greenberg's admiration for Marx:

Marx made the only real beginning in the discussion of the problem of culture, and neither conservatives nor liberals seem yet to have gone beyond that beginning—or even to have caught up with it. It is to Marx, and to him alone, that we have to return in order to restate the problem in such a way that it has the chance of receiving fresh light. Eliot's little book [Notes towards the Definition of Culture] has the merit of sending us back to Marx and his beginning. And when we try to go beyond his beginning, we find ourselves still proceeding along lines that he laid down.42

To an extent, this echoes Greenberg's earlier comments on Hauser (that Hauser 's 'analysis of the development of society' was 'unequivocally Marxist'). It seems that, during the Cold War years, Greenberg's Marxism increasingly needed to be spelled out, however guardedly, perhaps in order to establish where he stood within the spectrum of the new American liberalism that encompassed both Stalinist and anti-Stalinist views (as in the case of The Nation) and embraced the anti-Marxist ideology of Arthur Schlesinger 's The Vital Center (1949). Writing on 'Avant-Garde and Kitsch' and 'Towards a Newer Laocoon' (1940), T.J. Clark observes that, because the Marxism was 'quite largely implicit', it remains up 'to the reader to determine just how [it] works in the history and theory presented'.43

In contrast to his increasing endorsement of Marxism, in 1961 Greenberg's references to liberalism were rewritten to highlight his dissatisfaction. For instance, in the fourth paragraph of 'Plight 1953', he writes of 'the superficialities that have accompanied the popularization of the ideas of the Enlightenment, of Utilitarianism, and "scientism"', by which he means 'the ideas of liberalism'.44 In 'Plight 1961', the phrase is reworded and moved to the opening line, so that the point cannot be overlooked: 'the superficialities accompanying the popularization of liberal ideas'.45

Given this clarification, and the timing of the original version, it seems reasonable to suggest that, while ostensibly a rejoinder to T.S. Eliot's Notes towards the Definition of Culture, 'Plight 1953' is targeted at the immensely popular Vital Center, which, by 1950, had gone into its second edition. Unlike Schlesinger, Greenberg continued [49] to look to Marx and socialism for solutions. It was not that he was an undiluted socialist, but rather that he could see no viable alternatives, a conundrum that is reflected in 'Plight 1961':

The difficulty of carrying on a leisure-oriented tradition of culture in a work-oriented society is enough of itself to keep the present crisis in our culture unresolved. This should give pause to those of us who look to socialism alone as the way out. Efficient work remains indispensable to industrialism, and industrialism remains indispensable to socialism. Nothing in the perspective of socialism indicates that it will easily dissipate anxiety about efficiency and anxiety about work . . . Nothing, in fact, in the perspective of an industrialized world—a perspective that contains the possibility of both good and bad alternatives to socialism affords any clue as to how work under industrialism can be displaced from the central position in life it now holds.46

By writing 'those of us' instead of simply 'those', Greenberg implies that he still counted himself among the ranks of socialists. By 'leisure-oriented tradition of culture', he refers to the historically elite tradition that had once been the sole domain of the upper classes. In contrast, a 'work-oriented society' was primarily one in which work held a 'central position in life' and in which everyone was constrained to work efficiently. And here lay Greenberg's dilemma: he needed to present the avant-garde—which he saw as deriving from an elitist, leisured tradition—in a socialist, work-oriented light.

***

In 'Plight 1961', Greenberg's answer to the 'unresolved' cultural crisis is to shift culture's centre of gravity 'away from leisure and place it squarely in the middle of work'; for, he asks:

With work becoming universal once more, may it not become necessary—and because necessary, feasible—to repair the estrangement between work and culture, or rather between interested and disinterested ends, that began when work first became less than universal? And how else could this be done but through culture in its highest and most authentic sense? 47

This seems to mean that high, authentic culture (which, for Greenberg, meant avant-garde culture) now had to be justified in terms of the serious work involved in its creation. While briefly put in 1961, in 'Plight 1953' his conclusions are reached through an elaborate argument that involves challenging a variety of opinions, including those of fellow art critic Sir Herbert Read. After considering Read's proposition—that 'an authentic non-utilitarian culture' might 'develop in industrial leisure on the basis of the kind of interest and activity that go into the hobby'—Greenberg asks, 'May not leisure in that way be infused with some of the positive [50] spirit of work and redeemed from its passivity?' But this presents a problem, for the hobby lacks due gravity. One works at it 'for the sake of the pleasure in work', and one is 'able to take pleasure in it' precisely because its end is 'not serious or necessary enough to subject its means to the rule of efficiency'.48 Having dismissed Read's proposition, Greenberg turns to the historian Johan Huizinga who, in Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, writes that 'the contrast between play and seriousness is neither conclusive nor fixed' and that the 'great archetypal activities of the human society' are all 'permeated with play from the start'.49 Yet, while Huizinga sees play as 'the mother of all culture', Greenberg views play under industrialism as a 'detour or escape [and] no longer serious enough to open the way to the heart of things'.50 Conversely, 'authentic' culture has to 'lie at the center, and from there irradiate the whole of life, the serious as well as the not serious'.51 In terms of 'his' avant-garde, however, Greenberg would accept nothing other than the austerely serious—a stance that set him apart from Harold Rosenberg.

Homo Ludens first appeared in English in 1949, just three years before Rosenberg's 'The American Action Painters' was published. The two texts demonstrate a similar ethos. In Rosenberg's scenario, the canvas represents the site of a form of play—a concept that he emphasizes by characterizing the painter as being 'around seven' years of age (as opposed to the person, who may have been 'over forty'). Casting aside—with a 'gesture of liberation'—the worldly encumbrance of 'political, aesthetic [and] moral' value, this seven-year-old had now decided 'to paint . . . just to PAINT'. For Rosenberg, 'act-painting', confined to the moment of making, represents a negation of 'The Great Works of the Past and the Good Life of the Future'—that is, a negation of the very factors, which, for Greenberg, underpin the role of the avant-garde as the carrier of tradition and heralding the hoped—for 'formal' culture of the future.52 Meyer ShapiroÕs essay 'The Liberating Quality of Avant-Garde Art' (1957) (also known as 'Recent Abstract Painting') bears a number of similarities to Rosenberg's work. For Shapiro, the artist was seen to be engaging in a type of free play:

Ignoring natural shapes, [the modern artist] is alert to qualities of movement, interplay, change and becoming in nature. And he provokes within himself, in his spontaneous motions and play, an automatic production of chance.53

In 1962, aware that Rosenberg's ideas were newly popular due to 'The American Action Painters' being republished for his book The Tradition of the New (1959), Greenberg lambasted his 'notions', accusing him and others of making art 'look silly'.54 Shapiro escaped such criticism possibly because his overriding argument attempts to justify modern art's existence in a culture dominated by industrial production—a goal that, while differently argued, is similar to Greenberg's own.55 The avant-garde process that Rosenberg and Shapiro describe is reminiscent of the playful trait that began in fin-de-sicle Europe (with, for instance, the work of Alfred Jarry and Erik Satie) that informed the ideology of subsequent avant-garde generations. In his biography of Marcel Duchamp, Calvin Tomkins describes [51] this trait as part of 'the cult of childhood'56 and Greenberg would have witnessed something similar during his 1950 sojourn at Black Mountain College. Teaching alongside him that summer were Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, and Willem de Kooning, the latter of whom famously glued a mouth from a Camel cigarette advertisement to his first Woman painting that year.57 While the Black Mountain experience engendered some seminal avant-garde developments—including Rauschenberg's 'combines' and Cage's influential Theatre Piece 1 (1952), which was seen as the first 'happening'58—Greenberg's 1950s writings do not reflect this aspect of American modernism at all.

***

A world away from the 'cult of childhood', in 'Plight 1953', Greenberg effectively sets up a distinct division between the serious and the non-serious. At the serious centre of things lay work, authentic culture, and what Greenberg perceived as the genuinely ambitious sector of the avant-garde. At the non-serious periphery lay leisure, the hobby, play, and middlebrow culture. Although leading the fight 'against the utilitarian ethos',59 the avant-garde artist still required the appearance of being a skilled artisan much like any other under industrialism, as evidenced by '"American-Type" Painting'. Arshile Gorky, for instance, had superceded the 'flashy and superficial' Roberto Matta Echaurren on account of his 'profounder culture as a painter ' and, importantly, his 'more solid craft'.60 This mastery of craft, so essential to various fields of industrial endeavor, was, as in industry, achieved through a form of apprenticeship to past masters. The mission of Greenberg's avant-garde was to learn from the best before moving on to break new ground. Writing in 1960, he notes that modernism 'may mean a devolution, an unraveling of tradition, but it also means its further evolution'.61

The master/apprentice-type process enters '"American-Type" Painting' with Greenberg's observation that abstract expressionists had, from the outset, digested Paul Klee and Joan Mir—, and been exposed to the work of Wassily Kandinsky, Pablo Picasso, Ferdinand LŽger, Piet Mondrian, etc. They had taken their 'lead' from German, Russian, or Jewish expressionism in 'breaking away from late Cubist abstract art' and 'got their fundamental sense of style' from French painting, with which they maintained 'some sort of continuity'. According to Greenberg's version of modernism, Henri Matisse's influence was seen in the work of Hans Hofmann and Milton Avery.62 He asserted that Gorky was 'submitting' himself to Mir— 'in order to break free of Picasso'. His work at this point, however, was still 'derivative', and it would take Kandinsky to stimulate him 'to a greater originality'.63 Adolph Gottlieb, learning from cubism, Klee, and Joaqu’n Torres-Garc’a, had 'in his sober, pedestrian way, became one of the surest craftsmen in contemporary painting', one who could 'place a flat, uneven silhouette . . . with a rightness beyond the capacity of ostensibly stronger painters'.64 For de Kooning, the modern master was Picasso. While Greenberg does not use the word 'craft' here, it is inferred, for, like Gorky, de Kooning was 'a draughtsman before anything else', a draughtsman who proposed [52] 'a synthesis of modernism and tradition, and a larger control over the means of abstract painting that would render it capable of statements in a grand style equivalent to that of the past'.65 Whether or not this was de Kooning's intention, Greenberg's choice of words reveals his formalist and socialist leanings.

The seriousness of this avant-garde enterprise might be seen to reflect Marx's opinion in Grundrisse: 'Really free labor, the composing of music, for example, is at the same time damned serious and demands the greatest effort.' Here, Marx refers to individual, rather than collective, labor, the result of which is 'self-realization and objectivization of the subject, therefore real freedom, whose actuality is precisely labor '.66 When one reads Marx's observation in The Communist Manifesto—that 'in the most advanced countries' all had an 'equal liability' to labor '67 (echoed in 'Plight 1953', where Greenberg writes that it was no longer possible to say, as the upper classes once did, 'Work—that's your fate, not ours' 68)—one realizes Greenberg's debt to Marxism, particularly in his emphasis on industry and craftsmanship in the creative process.

There are, however, further means by which the socialism underlying Greenberg's art writing might be understood: his attention to craft, in particular, the arts-and-crafts movement. Greenberg's art history professor at Syracuse University, Irene Sargent, was a noted authority on this movement. Although the American movement was grounded less in socialism than a benevolent form of capitalism, Sargent may have taught Greenberg about the skills needed to produce fine art. He never wrote of the American movement, but, in 'Surrealist Painting' (1944), he mentions its British equivalent, which had no appeal due to its 'antiquarianism'. He did, however, mention William Morris's 'revivalist Socialism', and compared the movement to surrealism—another 'literary and antiquarian' movement—that also 'stood firm on Socialism' and aimed to make art 'the affair of everybody'. While Greenberg found this intention 'most laudable', he felt that, as surrealism had inherited the nihilism of dada, 'with all the artificial nonsense entailed', it tended to attract those 'who were repelled by the asceticisms of modern art'. For him, the 'laudable' intention had resulted in 'a certain vulgarization of modern art', lowering it 'to a popular level instead of raising the level of popularity itself'. Greenberg clearly aspired to the latter, yet until the popular level rose—until the proletariat acquired the necessary leisure and patience for informed appreciation of the genuine—the 'authentic' avant-garde could not help but remain elitist.69

As the carrier of authentic culture, Greenberg's envisaged avant-garde could not be seen as producing antiquarian or artificial nonsense, or as courting popular and lucrative appreciation; its place was at the battlefront of a historical and serious line of progress. It heralded the way forward and was therefore compelled to maintain recognizable standards. Its success, then, lay in achieving its own ends—ends that might or might not translate into financial return. As Greenberg notes in 'Avant-Garde and Kitsch', the fact that the avant-garde's best artists were 'artists' artists' estranged it from the public, which was 'unwilling or unable to acquire an initiation into [its] craft secrets'.70 However, craft (read skill) alone determined neither the status nor the mission of the avant-garde. In fact, it could even offer moments of [53 misinterpretation, as in the case of Jackson Pollock's 1954 exhibition, which had been 'the first to contain pictures that were forced, pumped, dressed up'. The show, however, had been publicly well-received because it had 'made clear what an accomplished craftsman he had become, and how pleasingly he could use colour now that he was not sure of what he wanted to say with it'.71 It is unclear whether Greenberg interpreted this as a deliberate ploy by Pollock, but certainly, for him, craft used simply for virtuoso effect was bad. When 'buckeye'ö—the 'piling' of dry paint—was used by third-rate landscapists to 'capture the brilliance of daylight', it resulted in a form of kitsch that was displayed on Greenwich Village restaurant walls. In the hands of a skilled artist such as Clyfford Still, the same 'buckeye', while occasionally spoiling his pictures, could also make for 'the conquest by high art of one more area of experience, and its liberation from Kitsch'.72 This was craft in the hands of a master, conquering decadence. Greenberg saw this as an essential function of the avant-garde, indeed of modernism.

'"American-Type" Painting', then, becomes the culmination of Greenberg's socialist values expressed in 'Plight 1953' and demonstrates his emphasis on the finished product. Unlike Rosenberg, for whom (in Greenberg's perception) the picture, once painted, had become 'an indifferent matter ', where 'everything lay in the doing, nothing in the making', he clearly saw the finished product as the concrete evidence of skill, tradition, and the degree to which the artist had moved culture forward.73 For Greenberg, the relation between the product and avant-garde labor might be seen as a social one—each product representing an upward step on the path to cultural perfection and a direct connection between artists and their predecessors. In this respect, the passing down of tradition and skill through the material products of art can be seen as a surrogate for the direct human passage of skill between master and apprentice in the field of industry or, as was once the case, in the field of art. While the Marxist connotations here are obvious, Greenberg, in effect, turns Marxism around. In speaking of the social relationship between labor and the product, Marx refers to 'alienated' labor (labor performed by a worker for the capitalist or landlord), yet Greenberg presents avant-garde 'free labor ' in a similar light.74 He does this to underscore the avant-garde's continuing relevance in a work-oriented, industrialized society.

While industrialism is implicit in '"American-Type" Painting', in 'The Present Prospects of American Painting and Sculpture' (1947) Greenberg presents David Smith's sculpture as being identifiable 'by its materials and methods—steel, alloys, the blowtorch—with industrial procedures', and as reflecting 'American industrialism and engineering by its denial of weight and mass and its emphasis on direction and trajectory rather than locus'.75 Through linking modern art to American industrialism and engineering, Greenberg indicates the same political stance that flavour 'Plight 1953' and 'Plight 1961'. In his opening paragraph, he writes of the yearning of 'the three, four or five' best American artists for 'that vivacious, unbelievable near past which lasted from 1905 until 1930 and which not even the First World War, but only Hitler, could definitely terminate'.76

Through his connections with Partisan Review,77 Greenberg knew that Hitler had [54] portrayed modern art as the 'primitive international scribblings' of 'prehistoric stone-age culture-vultures', the result of a supposed Jewish plot to usurp the natural flow of 'wholesome' Aryan art.78 Therefore, Marxist/socialist connotations aside, Greenberg may have emphasized Smith's sculptures' wholesome industrial qualities and fine craftsmanship in order to counteract such ideas. In 1948, as if throwing Hitler 's words back to another totalitarian detractor of abstract art, Greenberg writes of Soviet writer Vladimir Kemenov that his 'pen, if not mind, functions in a subcellar of consciousness a Neanderthal man would have shrunk from entering'. Apparently, Kemenov had described modern art as 'pathological' and 'insane', but had lauded Soviet art as 'advancing along the true path indicated by the genius of Stalin'.79 This anecdote effectively brings my argument full circle—for Greenberg's attack on Kemenov published in Partisan Review, is a clear precedent to his letter to The Nation. While O'Brian portrays the letter as 'proof of faith' to the ACCF,80 given Greenberg's history of opposing Stalinism (and totalitarianism in general), it is doubtful that the ACCF needed any such proof.

Clearly, Clement Greenberg was an elitist. On the surface, this elitism does not sit comfortably with his claims to Marxism and socialism. However, by scrutinizing his writings, we can see that he was primarily concerned for the survival of a level of culture (that he perceived to be on the brink of extinction), which he wanted to be universally available and appreciated. While his complex position is clearly mapped out in 'Plight 1953', it is not as obvious in 'Plight 1961', as all mention of the avant-garde—the frontrunner in the fight for the survival of 'high' culture—is eradicated. Perhaps Greenberg thought it unnecessary to include this, for 'Plight 1961' was written with Art and Culture in mind, where it appears alongside 'Avant-Garde and Kitsch', which delineates the avant-garde's role and purpose. Significantly, these overtly political essays begin the volume. With them, Greenberg consciously provides the coordinates for his politics over a two-decade period. Read in this way, an above—quoted line bears repeating: 'some day it will have to be told how "anti-Stalinism", which started out more or less as "Trotskyism", turned into art for art's sake, and thereby cleared the way, heroically, for what was to come'. This line, written in 1960 specifically for Art and Culture, acknowledges the debt owed by 'Greenbergian' modernism to the politics of the late 1930s, and reminds us that it remained imbued with socialist values for the next twenty years.

 

Notes

Thanks to Associate Professor Alan Krell and Lynne Swarts for their comments on various sections of this essay.

 

1. Clement Greenberg, 'The Plight of Our Culture', in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism: Volume 3: Affirmations and Refusals: 1950-1956, ed. John O'Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 122?51. First published as 'The Plight of Our Culture: Industrialism and Class Mobility', Partisan Review, June 1953, and 'Work and Leisure under Industrialism: The Plight of Our Culture: Part II', Partisan Review, July 1953. Page references are from the 1993 publication.

2. Clement Greenberg, 'The Plight of Culture', in Art and Culture: Critical Essays (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), 22-33.

3. While culling the original to less than a quarter of its length, Greenberg retained all passages relating to Marxism, subjecting some to extensive reworking.

4. Greenberg scholars differ on the precise date of Greenberg's supposed shift to the political right.

5. This kind of thinking can be found in Serge Guilbaut's and John O'Brian's writings. See, for instance, Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983); and John O'Brian's introduction to The Collected Essays and Criticism: Volume 3. They in turn owe much to Eva Cockcroft's seminal text, 'Abstract Expressionism: Weapon of the Cold War, Artforum 12, no. 10 (June 1974): 39-41.

6. John O'Brian, introduction to The Collected Essays and Criticism: Volume 3, xxxiii.

7. Ibid., xxix, xxx.

8. Clement Greenberg, 'Letter to the Editor of Politics', in The Collected Essays and Criticism: Volume 1: Perceptions and Judgments 1939-1944, ed. John O'Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 187. First published in Politics, March 1944.

9. Clement Greenberg, 'The Late Thirties in New York', in Art and Culture, 230.

10. Clement Greenberg, 'Plight 1953', 140.

11. Clement Greenberg, 'Avant-Garde and Kitsch', in The Collected Essays and Criticism: Volume 1, 19. First published in Partisan Review, Fall 1939.

12. Ibid., 22, original emphasis.

13. Clement Greenberg, 'Plight 1953', 139-40.

14. Ibid., 140.

15. For details of Greenberg's teaching stint at Black Mountain College, see Florence Rubenfeld, Clement Greenberg: A Life (New York: Scribner, 1997), 145; and John O'Brian, 'Chronology, 1950?1969', The Collected Essays and Criticism: Volume 3, 287.

16. Harold Rosenberg, 'The American Action Painters', The Tradition of the New (Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1971 [1959]), 23-39. First published in Art News 51, no. 8 (December 1952): 48?50.

17. John O'Brian, introduction to The Collected Essays and Criticism: Volume 3, xxix.

18. Clement Greenberg, 'Plight 1953', 128.

19. Peter Meyer, 'Stalin Follows in Hitler 's Footsteps', Commentary 15, no. 1 (January 1953): 1.

20. Elliot E. Cohen, 'An Act of Affirmation: Editorial Statement', Commentary 1, no. 1 (November 1945): 1, original emphasis.

21. Reports of this protest come from: 'The Editor 's Comment: Where Was the Communist Party?', The New International 5, no. 3 (March 1939): 67-9; Clement Greenberg, The Harold Letters: 1928-1943: The Making of an American Intellectual, ed. Janice van Horne (Washington: Counterpoint, 2000), 196; and Martin Greenberg, letter to author, 28 March 2002. By Martin Greenberg's account, 'The police lines were strained to hold back a great crowd, largely Jewish.'

22. Clement Greenberg, 'The Question of the Pound Award', The Collected Essays and Criticism: Volume 2: Arrogant Purpose: 1945-1949, ed. John O'Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 304 [first published in Partisan Review 16, no. 5 (May 1949)], original emphasis.

23. Clement Greenberg, The Harold Letters, 274.

24. Ibid., 279.

25. Clement Greenberg, 'Avant-Garde and Kitsch', 21.

26. Caroline A. Jones, Eyesight Alone: Clement Greenberg's Modernism and the Bureaucratization of the Senses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 84-5.

27. Clement Greenberg, 'Letter to the Editor of The Nation' ( 7 February 1951), in The Collected Essays and Criticism: Volume 3, 79, 81. The letter was rejected by The Nation and subsequently published in The New Leader on 19 March 1951.

28. Caroline A. Jones, Eyesight Alone, 377-8.

29. Christopher Lasch, The Agony of the American Left (New York: Vintage Books, 1966), 78-9.

30. Serge Guilbaut, 'Postwar Painting Games: The Rough and the Slick', in Reconstructing Modernism: Art in New York, Paris, and Montreal 1945-1964, ed. Serge Guilbaut (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986), 73.

31. Caroline A. Jones, Eyesight Alone, 71.

32. Clement Greenberg, 'Avant-Garde and Kitsch', 22.

33. Clement Greenberg, 'The State of American Writing, 1948: A Symposium', in The Collected Essays and Criticism: Volume 2, 255. First published in Partisan Review, August 1948.

34. Clement Greenberg, 'Review of The Social History of Art by Arnold Hauser ', in The Collected Essays and Criticism: Volume 3, 95, original emphasis. First published in New York Times Book Review, 23 December 1951.

35. Ibid.

36. Clement Greenberg, 'Plight 1953', 130.

37. Clement Greenberg, 'Plight 1961', 26, original emphasis.

38. Clement Greenberg, 'Plight 1953', 130, 147.

39. Clement Greenberg, 'Plight 1961', 26, 29, original emphasis.

40. Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto (1848), trans. Samuel Moore (1888), in Karl Marx: Selected Writings, ed. David McLellan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 237-8.

41. Clement Greenberg, 'Plight 1961', 29.

42. Ibid., 26.

43. T.J. Clark, 'Clement Greenberg's Theory of Art', Critical Inquiry 9, September 1982, 141.

44. Clement Greenberg, 'Plight 1953', 123.

45. Clement Greenberg, 'Plight 1961', 22.

46. Ibid., 32.

47. Ibid., 33. To speak of the 'interested and disinterested ends that began when work first became less than universal' was to hark back to Aristotle's Politics, cited by Greenberg, in which 'the first principle of all action' was leisure—leisure being both 'better than work' and 'its end'. Ibid., 30.

48. Clement Greenberg, 'Plight 1953', 148-9.

49. Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, 1st ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955), 4-5. The German version was published in 1939, and the first English version in 1949.

50. Clement Greenberg, Plight 1953', 149, original emphasis.

51. Ibid.

52. Harold Rosenberg, 'The American Action Painters', 29-30.

53. Meyer Shapiro, 'Recent Abstract Painting', in Meyer Shapiro, Modern Art: 19th and 20th Centuries (New York: George Braziller, 1978), 221. First published as 'The Liberating Quality of Avant-Garde Art', Art News 56, no. 4 (Summer 1957): 36-42.

54. Clement Greenberg, 'How Art Writing Earns Its Bad Name', in The Collected Essays and Criticism: Volume 4: Modernism with a Vengeance: 1957-1969, ed. John O'Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 137, 144. First published in Encounter, December 1962.

55. Greenberg and Shapiro seem to have shared a good professional relationship, joining forces to select works for a 1950 group exhibition at the Kootz Gallery. See Clement Greenberg and Meyer Shapiro, 'Foreword to a Group Exhibition at the Kootz Gallery', in The Collected Essays and Criticism: Volume 3, 28. First published in Talent 1950 (New York: Kootz Gallery, 1950).

56. Calvin Tomkins, Duchamp: A Biography (London: Pimlico, 1997), 73. Tomkins attributes the term 'the cult of childhood' to Roger Shattuck, whose book The Banquet Years, rev. ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 1968) discusses the origins of the European avant-garde.

57. For an account of the activities at Black Mountain College around this time, see Mary Emma Harris, 'The Black Mountain College: European Modernism, the Experimental Spirit and the American Avant-Garde', in American Art in the 20th Century: Painting and Sculpture 1919-1933, ed. Christos Joachamides and Norman Rosenthal (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1993), 93-9.

58. For details of Theatre Piece 1, otherwise known as The Event, see Mary Emma Harris's essay listed in the previous note (specifically, page 94), and RoseLee Goldberg, Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present (New York: H.N. Abrams, 1988), 126-7.

59. Clement Greenberg, 'Plight 1953', 139.

60. Clement Greenberg, '"American-Type" Painting', in The Collected Essays and Criticism: Volume 3, 220. First published in Partisan Review, Spring 1955.

61. Clement Greenberg, 'Modernist Painting', in The Collected Essays and Criticism: Volume 4, 92. Broadcast for the Forum Lectures (Washington: Voice of America, 1960). First published in Arts Yearbook, no. 4, 1961.

62. Clement Greenberg, '"American-Type" Painting', 218-9.

63. Ibid., 220.

64. Ibid., 224.

65. Ibid., 221.

66. Karl Marx, Grundrisse (1858, first published 1941), trans. David McLellan, in Karl Marx: Selected Writings, 368.

67. Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto, 237.

68. Clement Greenberg, 'Plight 1953', 146.

69. Clement Greenberg, 'Surrealist Painting', in The Collected Essays and Criticism: Volume 1, 225-6. First published in The Nation, 12 and 19 August 1944.

70. Clement Greenberg, 'Avant-Garde and Kitsch', 10.

71. Clement Greenberg, '"American-Type" Painting', 226.

72. Ibid., 230-1, original emphasis.

73. Clement Greenberg, 'How Art Writing Earns Its Bad Name', 136.

74. Karl Marx, Capital: Volume One (1867), trans. David McLellan, in Karl Marx: Selected Writings, 436.

75. Clement Greenberg, 'The Present Prospects of American Painting and Sculpture', in The Collected Essays and Criticism: Volume 2, 167. First published in Horizon, October 1947.

76. Ibid., 160.

77. For instance, at the time of Greenberg's first acquaintance with the Partisan Review circle, George L.K. Morris wrote that Hitler 'opened the Munich Art Congress [of 1937] with the announcement that "there is no place in the German Reich for the works of Neanderthal Man"'. George L.K. Morris, 'Art Chronicle: The Architectural Evolution of Brancusi', Partisan Review 5, no. 3 (August-September 1938): 34.

78. Adolph Hitler, 'Speech Inaugurating the Great Exhibition of German Art 1937, Munich' (excerpts), trans. Ilse Falk, in Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics, ed. Herschel B. Chipp (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), 482.

79. Clement Greenberg, 'Irrelevance versus Irresponsibility', in The Collected Essays and Criticism: Volume 2, 233-5. First published in Partisan Review, May 1948.

80. John O'Brian, introduction to The Collected Essays and Criticism: Volume 3, xxvii..