Peter Harris

Installation view, Greenberg Collection, Portland Art Museum. (Photo: Ann Walsh)

Against Clembashing

Peter Harris is the Contributing Editor (Sydney/Brisbane) for Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. The essay was written in response to an attack on Greenberg in the Sydney Morning Herald. It provides a detailed account of the character of what's become known as "Clembashing". The fact that Harris is an Australian underscores the extraordinary scope of Greenberg's travels and interests. He often professed that his favorite people were Austrailians and Western Canadians. In his travels he saw more contemporary art than any critic ever has and possibly ever will...

-- TF

"THOSE WHO ATTACK Greenberg broadly first get him wrong and then flog their own misunderstanding". Darby Bannard's observation in his essay The Unconditional Aesthete applies to the remarks made by John McDonald about Clement Greenberg in his review of the exhibition Colourfield and Hard-Edge Paintings 1960s/1970s (Herald Spectrum last weekend).

McDonald recycles false complaints about Greenberg that have been peddled for decades by his detractors. "So much of what the famous New York art critic wrote", says McDonald, "now seems dogmatic, proscriptive, and just plain wrong". His use of now and seems in this condemnation is puzzling. Does McDonald mean that Greenberg was not dogmatic, proscriptive and wrong until now, and might, correlatively, be cleared of these charges in the future? And is Greenberg actually, or only apparently, guilty as charged?

There is vagueness too in McDonald's attribution of these faults to "So much" of Greenberg's writing. How much is that? Responsible use of the phrase, certainly, would imply that dogmatism, proscription and obvious error were not incidental but characteristic features of Greenberg's thought. If McDonald's use of "So much" is not a vague hedging, then he must mean that Greenberg's supposed faults pervade rather than punctuate his writings.

McDonald's gibe that Greenberg was the Moses of Twentieth Century art criticism probably explains what he means by calling Greenberg dogmatic. "No critic in the 20th century can have been", maintains McDonald, "so adept at laying down the law, and making it sound like a set of universal principles handed down from above". Now, Greenberg might have been seen as Moses or even, as McDonald suggests, the Messiah, by some of the artists and critics of his time but there is no evidence that he encouraged these views or cast himself in these roles in his writing. He does, perhaps typically, write directly and forcefully, and at times authoritatively, but to be vigorous and definite is not to be uncritical, doctrinaire or ex cathedra. Otherwise even John McDonald himself, especially in his denunciation of some contemporary art, would be dogmatic.

Rather than laying down the law Greenberg sought to establish hypotheses or principles through empirical observation of art. His approach is typically descriptive, not prescriptive. Greenberg himself complained frequently, according to Terry Fenton in his 1994 memorial essay, that "when he wrote or said 'was' his critics assumed and reported 'should'." That is not to say he always argued to his position. Having arrived at a position he did, more so in the later writing, argue from that position ­ a natural and inevitable practice in discussion. His assumptions or judgments, however, are not necessary truths. They are empirical, contingent, generalisations and always fallible.

Unlike a dogmatist, Greenberg is a careful writer, who qualifies what he says and draws attention to the possibly provisional nature of what he claims. "Admittedly, this historical rundown simplifies far too much", he says in Avant-Garde Attitudes: New Art in the Sixties, an essay from 1969. "Art never proceeds that neatly. Nor is the rundown itself that accurate even within the limits set it. (What I see as hurried stylistic change between the 1880s and 1910 may turn out under longer scrutiny to be less hurried than it now looks. Larger and unexpected unities of style may become apparent" Such tentative and discriminating writing, not dogmatic assertion, is characteristic of Greenberg's style.

Unlike a dogmatist or a power-seeker Greenberg freely admitted his mistakes. In his last interview, given to Saul Ostrow, Greenberg concedes that he was wrong in 1939 to propose kitsch as the danger to good high art. "I made kitsch the enemy when the enemy was really the middlebrow My view of kitsch was somewhat crude, and in actuality I didn't develop it much. I started with a new model afterwards". Confession of error is also common in an earlier interview he gave to Peter Fuller for Modern Painters, especially in the opening parts where he admits that various things he had said previously were "sloppy", "brash" or "stupid". Greenberg rarely acts like a person concerned above all with his reputation or with being right.

He does not write like a proscriptionist either, though he came to dislike, perhaps even hate, certain types of art and artist. He might at times condemn and denounce but he is never censorious. A moralistic critic shuns what he disapproves of (This ought not to be, therefore avoid it) whereas Greenberg has an artist's enquiring outlook (This is, therefore embrace it).

In fact nothing in his writing rivals the scathing sarcasm in McDonald's criticism of some contemporary art and artists. And yet McDonald, rightly, does not think of himself as a proscriptionist. Denunciation is not in itself bad: some things deserve it. Sustained expose need not be part of a vendetta; nor is it necessarily the action of a censorious mind.

McDonald concedes eventually that Greenberg had at least one good point ­ "some canny insights" ­ but it turns out to be a sarcastic ploy. Greenberg's canniness, according to McDonald, lay in maintaining that rather than progress in art there was progress in taste, and then in ensuring it was his taste that dictated the way art went. This is a common and gross distortion of what Greenberg has said and a meretricious slur on the nature of his interest in art and especially on his involvement in modernist American art.

No doubt Greenberg was an advocate of Abstract Expressionism and some of its offshoots, but he did not believe that pictorial flatness was the only way for painting to go. It was simply the way it was going in the forties and fifties, above all in New York, and it was producing the best painting and sculpture of the time. Who could deny that? Moreover, Greenberg said a number of times that all art movements die out, and he once said his own preference was for representational painting.

Greenberg was indeed the chief mediator to the wider public of a certain kind of art and the committed champion of certain painters and sculptors, but, pace McDonald and others, this was not because he was a power-seeking opportunist but because he loved that art and admired those artists. His writings and his actions eloquently and forcefully reveal Greenberg's love of art and the centrality of it in his life. Despite having to earn a living as an art critic he was no self-seeking time-server.

In attributing a disarming bluntness to Greenberg, McDonald misreads the opening section of Greenberg's After Abstract Expressionism, chiefly because he takes the wrong view of Greenberg's use of ambitious. Greenberg is writing here of artistic or aesthetic ambition, not worldly ambition. In the early forties abstract art had to be the chosen style for young painters in New York because, according to Greenberg, they could see no other way in which "they could say something personal, therefore new, therefore worth saying. Representational art confronted their ambition with too many occupied positions".

McDonald takes these statements to refer to material and career strategies, when clearly they and the statements that immediately follow refer to choices as to how to do something new and substantial in painting. The "occupied positions" to which Greenberg refers are not in the art market but in the world of art-making. Representational or, rather, illusionist, painting has been perfected: it offers no room to move for the young painter ambitious of some good.

And that is why in the very next paragraph Greenberg, after a discussion of various kinds of abstract art, says "most of the young painters continued to believe that the only way to real style in abstract art lay through trued and faired, silhouetted and flattened forms". How can Greenberg's reporting of the pursuit of real style in abstract art be equated, as McDonald maintains, with his recommendation of the subordination of inspiration to (material) ambition, of insincerity (not "speaking from the heart") or of "finding a recognisable niche within a fiercely competitive market"?

At the beginning of his mistaken and mean-spirited digression on Clement Greenberg McDonald is puzzled by "all the fuss" caused by Greenberg's first visit to Australia in 1968. He seems to imply that it was simply an "illusion of the epoch". The people who crowded to hear Greenberg's Power lecture were in thrall to the art zeitgeist of the time. They could not then see Greenberg to be what McDonald now sees him to have been: an error-ridden and self-seeking authoritarian.

Maybe, though, it is McDonald who is not seeing straight. Maybe those who flocked to hear Greenberg's lecture and seminars in 1968 and in 1979, when he visited Australia for the second and last time, were right to think they were in the presence of a gifted art critic, from whom much could be learned. Certainly, in his essay The Man Who Loved Pictures, the critic Terry Fenton has no doubt. "Clement Greenberg was a great critic ­ as passionate and revealing about the visual arts as T.S. Eliot and F. R. Leavis were about literature. But he was less academic than they. In his vitality he reminded me of Samuel Johnson, a combination of Olympian judgment and grand idiosyncrasy. He was fearless in his judgments yet relished acknowledging his mistakes. He was candid to a fault. No art critic of this century can match him".

This kind of evaluation has been repeated by other critics and artists. The great sculptor, Sir Anthony Caro, in a tribute last year writes about Greenberg's exceptional perceptiveness, integrity, empathy with artists, love of art, honesty and generosity. "He had an extraordinary clarity of eye as well as the highest standards", Caro says. "I would say that his eye was the nearest to infallible I have ever come across. His love of painting and sculpture was such that he would appreciate ­ and criticise if need be ­ whatever art was in front of him, without respect for accepted taste". According to Caro, Greenberg "looked at art with the eye of a painter or a sculptor, from the inside rather than coming to the work from the outside". In addition, he "always put out, no matter how exhausting, always found something within himself to give the painter or sculptor, so that they came away having received help and feeling hopeful". "Because of the intensity of his response", Caro observes, "his delight at seeing something fresh and unexpected, and his understanding of where we were going, he gave us direction and confidence".

From these brief testimonials a different and better picture emerges of Clement Greenberg than from McDonald's crude and dismissive sketch. The acclamation of Greenberg as the greatest American art critic and possibly the best from anywhere in the Twentieth Century is founded on more than his daring and perceptive advocacy of certain American artists. It springs essentially from the insight and lucidity he brought to his commentary on a wide diversity of artists, including such greats as Manet, Monet, Matisse and Picasso, and his penetrating diagnosis of the social conditions as well as the "philosophical" basis of various art movements.

The reach and depth of his work can be measured by reading three compilations of his talks and/or writings: Art and Culture (1961), Clement Greenberg: the Collected Essays and Criticism (1986-93) and Homemade Esthetics (1999). Any serious attempt at a just estimation of his place in the history of art and art criticism will need to focus on these books.

John McDonald's dismissal of Greenberg, mean and erroneous as it is, does not encourage the view that he has ever undertaken a disinterested reading of Greenberg's writing. "The thing about Clem was", says Hilton Kramer, "you didn't have to agree with him to find him the most interesting writer around".

Peter Harris
25th July 2001