No art critic of our time has been the subject of more discussion than Clement Greenberg, who was born in 1909 and published the bulk of his critical writings between 1939 and 1969. Yet the nature of that discussion has at times been so contentious, not to say acrimonious, that the effect has been to obscure the virtues that made this criticism loom so large—and for so long a time—in the minds of both his admirers and his adversaries. It seems to me unlikely that the publication now of two further volumes of Mr. Greenberg’s Collected Essays and Criticism will do much to alter this situation.[1] The academy, the museums, the media, the art journals, and a good deal of the intellectual press, not to mention foundations, corporate sponsors, and the cultural agencies of government, are now in the hands of apparatchiks who have a vested interest in defending both the kind of art and the kind of writing about art that Mr. Greenberg has famously deplored, and it is not to be expected that they will surrender their animus on the present occasion.

On the contrary, opposition is likely to be intensified, for the discussion of the issues raised in Mr. Greenberg’s criticism is even more adamantly politicized today than it was in the days when he was still a regular contributor to critical opinion. In a culture now so largely dominated by ideologies of race, class, and gender, where the doctrines of multiculturalism and political correctness have consigned the concept of quality in art to the netherworld of invidious discrimination and all criticism tends to be judged according to its conformity to current political orthodoxies, even to suggest—as Mr. Greenberg’s writings invariably do—that aesthetic considerations be given priority in the evaluation of art is to invite the most categorical disapprobation.

So rapidly has the radicalization of critical opinion accelerated in the past decade that in the seven years that have elapsed since the publication of the first two volumes of The Collected Essays and Criticism, the editor in charge of this otherwise exemplary edition of Mr. Greenberg’s writings—John O’Brian, now professor of art history at the University of British Columbia—has clearly felt obliged to abandon the politically neutral tone he brought to the presentation of the earlier volumes and to adopt a more belligerent voice for the later volumes. No doubt this is due, in part, to the shift that occurred in Mr. Greenberg’s own political views over the course of his critical career, and in even larger part to Mr. O’Brian’s disapproval of that shift.

By the end of the Forties he had already described himself as an “ex- or disabused Marxist.”

In his early years as a critic, Mr. Greenberg was a Trotskyist—which is to say, an anti-Stalinist Marxist—yet by the end of the Forties he had already described himself as an “ex- or disabused Marxist,” and by the Fifties he had joined the ranks of the anti-Communist liberals. (Mr. O’Brian prefers to call the position of the latter “Kantian anti-Communism.”) From the perspective of the academic Marxists who came out of the Sixties, this put Mr. Greenberg on the wrong side of the Cold War, making him politically suspect if not actually retrograde, and it is more or less from that perspective that Mr. O’Brian has written his introduction to the last two volumes of The Collected Essays and Criticism.

Hence the tremendous emphasis that Mr. O’Brian places on the Cold War as the principal influence on Mr. Greenberg’s criticism in the Fifties and Sixties. The main charge is that an “acquiescence to the Pax Americana and its policies was accompanied by a corresponding shift in [Mr. Greenberg’s] stance as a cultural critic.” To support this charge, Mr. O’Brian dwells at some length on the long essay that Mr. Greenberg published in Commentary in 1953 under the title “The Plight of Our Culture,” which is now reprinted in Volume 3. This is indeed an important essay that ought to be better known. It is not only the best response to T. S. Eliot’s Notes Towards the Definition of Culture that I know of, but also one of the most cogent analyses of the problem of democratic culture any critic has given us in the last forty years. Unfortunately, it is one of the odd features of this new edition of Mr. Greenberg’s writings that Mr. O’Brian has allowed his own political animus to distort its meaning. My guess is that he was so concerned to bring his reading of Mr. Greenberg’s later criticism into line with the political views of his friend and colleague Serge Guilbaut, the author of How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art, that he scarcely noticed the degree of misrepresentation that such an effort required.

“In ‘The Plight of Our Culture,’” Mr. O’Brian writes, Mr. Greenberg “revoked his earlier criticism of mass-circulation magazines and their blurring of distinctions between high and low culture.” It is also claimed that “Greenberg deduced that the newly dominant culture of the middle classes had the capacity to resist dilution and adulteration by mass culture as well as produce what he still most desired: . . . ‘formal culture with its infinity of aspects, its luxuriance, its large comprehension.’” For Mr. O’Brian, then, “the transformation in Greenberg’s thinking was an about-face,” and “in the space of a couple of years, pessimism about the culture of modernity had given way to optimism” for purely political reasons. “Thus Greenberg’s Cold War politics and cultural optimism merged,” he writes, and this “ex- or disabused Marxist” is now said to have joined other New York intellectuals in believing that “democracy and capitalism . . . already were demonstrating what might be accomplished in the realm of middlebrow culture.”

All of this suggests, of course, that “The Plight of Our Culture” is a rousing, politically inspired apology for middlebrow culture, and hence a retreat from Mr. Greenberg’s vigorous defense of high culture in his classic essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” first published in 1939 and reprinted in Volume 1 of The Collected Essays and Criticism. Yet, in fact, “The Plight of Our Culture” is one of the most thoughtful and categorical indictments of middlebrow culture any American has ever given us. Far from representing an “about-face” on the imperatives of high culture, this very dour analysis of its fate under the pressures of democracy and capitalism puts a good deal of the blame for its problematic condition on the corrupting force of middlebrow culture. What does make “The Plight of Our Culture” different from “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” is its refusal to formulate its subject in orthodox Marxist terms (though Marxist thought still exerts a considerable influence on its analysis of culture) and its acknowledgment of the changes that had lately occurred in the relation of middlebrow culture to high art.[2] Yet to characterize this examination of middlebrow culture as “optimistic” requires a suspension of attention to its most salient points, if not indeed a flight of ideological fancy.

“The Plight of Our Culture” occupies some thirty pages in the new edition of Mr. Greenberg’s writings, and cannot therefore be summarized in its totality. But here, anyway, are some of the relevant passages from Mr. Greenberg’s analysis of middlebrow culture:

The liberal and fine arts of tradition, as well as its scholarship, have been “democratized” —simplified, streamlined, purged of whatever cannot be made easily accessible, and this in large measure by the same rationalizing, “processing,” and “packaging” methods by which industrialism has already made lowbrow culture a distinctive product of itself. Almost all types of knowledge and almost all forms of art are stripped, digested, synopsized, “surveyed,” or abridged. The result achieved in those who patronize this kind of capsulated culture is, perhaps, a respect for culture as such, and a kind of knowingness, but it has very little to do with higher culture as something lived.

The middlebrow in us wants the treasures of civilization for himself, but the desire is without appetite. . . . A sense of continuity with the past, a continuity at least of truth, of enduring relevance, belongs to a genuine culture almost by definition, but this is precisely what the middlebrow does not acquire. . . . He might be able to do so, eventually, by exerting humility and patience, but these he is somehow never able to muster in the face of culture. In his reading, no matter how much he wants to edify himself, he will balk at anything that sends him to the dictionary or a reference book more than once. (Curiosity without energy or tenacity is a middlebrow trait wherever and in whomever it appears.) Towards his entertainment, no matter how much he wants it to be “significant” and “worthwhile,” he will become recalcitrant if the “significance” is not labeled immediately and obviously, and if too many conditioned reflexes are left without appropriate stimuli. What the middlebrow, even more conspicuously than the lowbrow, wants most is to have his expectations filled exactly as he expects to have them filled.

Middlebrow culture, because of the way in which it is produced, consumed, and transmitted, reinforces everything else in our present civilization that promotes standardization and inhibits idiosyncrasy, temperament, and strong-mindedness; it functions as order and organization but without ordering or organizing. In principle, it cannot master and preserve fresh experience or express and form that which has not already been expressed and formed. Thus it fails, like lowbrow culture, to accomplish what is, perhaps, the most important task of culture for people who live in a changing, historical society: it cannot maintain continuity in the face of novelty, but must always forget and replace its own products.

“Unlike folk culture, lowbrow culture neither contributes—at least not fundamentally—to high culture nor effaces itself in its social presence.”

As for the relation that obtains between high culture and middlebrow “standardization,” Mr. Greenberg can hardly be said to take an optimistic view. “High culture, however—authentic, disinterested culture—has so far suffered more than it has gained in the process,” he writes. And his characterization of popular culture doesn’t offer much of a basis for optimism, either:

At the same time lowbrow, “machine,” commercial culture is there everywhere to offer its relief to all those who find any sort of higher culture too much of an effort—lowbrow culture being powerful not only because it is “easy” and still suits the majority, but also because it has replaced folk culture as the culture of all childhood, and thereby become our “natural,” “autochthonous” culture. (And, unlike folk culture, lowbrow culture neither contributes—at least not fundamentally—to high culture nor effaces itself in its social presence.)

You may, if you like, call this optimism or an “about-face” or—what is really implied by the charge—Cold War propaganda, but it sounds both pretty grim and pretty accurate to me, and not exactly a cheerleader’s view of either capitalism or democracy.

It is also true that Mr. Greenberg acknowledges that “like lowbrow culture, middlebrow culture is not all of a piece,” that “the good and the bad are mixed,” and that middlebrow art “is not wholly adulteration and dilution.” This, too, strikes me as true, at least for the time in which it was written, but not to offer much solace. Really, the only thing that Mr. Greenberg found to admire in “the middlebrow’s respect for culture” was, as he wrote, that “it has worked to save the traditional facilities of culture—the printed word, the concert, lecture, museum, etc.—from that complete debauching which the movies, radio, and television have suffered under lowbrow and advertising culture.” Yet anyone reading this passage in the 1990s must be aware of how much more has been surrendered by these “traditional facilities of culture” to the demands of lowbrow, popular culture over the last forty years. But even forty years ago, when our institutions of high culture had not yet sunk to their present levels, Mr. Greenberg’s view of even this development was anything but rosy:

But doesn’t the damage still outweigh the gains [he asked], and can any amount of improvement at the lower levels compensate for deterioration at the highest, where the most authentic manifestations still have their being, where the forms and values of every other level originate—no matter how perverted subsequently—and where our experience is still most significantly and enduringly preserved?

As the passages I have quoted from “The Plight of Our Culture” attest, this is an essay that raises fundamental questions about the fate of high art in our society. They are the kind of questions, moreover, that have acquired an even greater urgency today when the middlebrow culture described by Mr. Greenberg in 1953 has been largely gutted of whatever virtues that could once be claimed for it and, for both political and commercial reasons, is now effectively supplanted by something much worse. (See, for an egregious example, Tina Brown’s New Yorker.) For Mr. O’Brian to reduce these questions to a highly simplified scenario of Cold War politics not only misrepresents the content of “The Plight of Our Culture” but renders it irrelevant to our current cultural concerns—which is, to say the least, a curious policy for the editor of these books to pursue.

What Mr. O’Brian clearly cannot forgive is that Mr. Greenberg had taken the anti-Communist side in the early stages of the Cold War, and, as he writes, “remained committed to the Cold War agenda of the U.S. government.” This is the “original sin” that for Mr. O’Brian has left an ineradicable taint upon everything that has been gathered in Volumes 3 and 4 of this Collected Essays and Criticism, right down to its last pages. For “in 1969,” he writes, in what turns out to be the closing item in Volume 4, Mr. Greenberg “conducted a lengthy interview with Lily Leino for dissemination by the U.S. Infor- mation Agency, the umbrella organization for the Voice of America.” I frankly rejoice that someone in the USIA bureaucracy had the brains to ask a writer of Mr. Greenberg’s distinction to speak on the Voice of America broadcasts, but for Mr. O’Brian it remains a mark of the writer’s contract with the Devil.

And what sort of thing was Mr. Greenberg broadcasting for the Voice of America in 1969? Recalling a period twenty-five years before “when everybody was so sure that Americans couldn’t produce art of any consequence—and that included Americans themselves,” Mr. Greenberg was, among other things, complaining that

a lot of inferior art is taken seriously all over the world. It’s a paradoxical situation when someone like Rauschenberg—who’s nowhere nearly as good as Eakins, Homer, Ryder, or the early John Sloan, or Milton Avery, not to mention Marin—is viewed a major figure because of the credit American art in general now enjoys in the world.

He also had some praise for Andrew Wyeth! But it was probably this sort of thing that Mr. O’Brian found particularly offensive:

I’ve seen some contemporary Soviet art, and as far as I can tell, art in the Soviet Union is controlled by Philistines. The same appears to be true in China and in every other place where Bolsheviks are in power. I call them Bolsheviks instead of Communists because I feel that that’s more accurate, more specific. “Socialism” in backward countries means Bolshevism—Stalinism, if you want—and that means something barbaric, because “socialism” in a backward environment becomes, among other things, an aggressive expression of backwardness.

Some of us knew that all this was perfectly true when Mr. Greenberg made his broadcast in 1969, and now all the world knows it was true. Yet because he spoke the truth under U.S. government auspices, Mr. O’Brian apparently finds it tainted. That is indeed the triumph of ideology over veracity.

There is no question but that the Cold War played a significant role in shaping American cultural life in the decade and a half that followed the end of World War II , and that ex-radical intellectuals of Mr. Greenberg’s generation made an important contribution to the formulation of that role. I said as much more than thirty years ago when Mr. Greenberg’s first book of essays, Art and Culture, was published, and Mr. O’Brian accurately quotes me to that effect. “To understand Art and Culture is to understand a great deal about the artistic values that came out of the war and the Cold War years,” I wrote in Arts Magazine in October 1962; “to question it is to question some of the salient achievements and aesthetic beliefs of those years.”

What is so curious and distorting about Mr. O’Brian’s characterization of Mr. Greenberg’s role in this intellectual history is that he leaves the “salient achievements” of the Cold War period—which means, in this context, the Abstract Expressionist movement—unquestioned while at the same time endeavoring to reduce the “aesthetic beliefs of those years” to a purely political scenario. It is in this respect as well as others that he reveals his loyalty to the radical politics of the Sixties, with its anti-American paranoia, its sentimentalization of Marxist ideology, and its adamant refusal to acknowledge the moral superiority of American democracy over Soviet tyranny.

For what, after all, was the Cold War about if not the conflict between American (and Western) democracy and Soviet tyranny? Mr. O’Brian is not, to be sure, one of those nut cases who attempt to demonstrate that the fame and influence of Jackson Pollock was the creation of Nelson Rockefeller and John Foster Dulles and that even Harry Truman had somehow contrived to promote the interests of American abstract painting even while going through the motions of condemning it. He leaves the ideological dirty work to Serge Guilbaut and the cadres of radical art historians who have now succeeded in portraying the achievements of the New York School as nothing but a tainted product of America’s role in the Cold War. Yet what he has given us in a large part of his introduction to Volumes 3 and 4 of Mr. Greenberg’s Collected Essays and Criticism is a somewhat more respectable and respectful version of the same ideological narrative.

The Stalinist-inspired Popular Front culture of the Thirties was, in all its essentials, an irredeemably Philistine and middlebrow culture.

There is no way to understand what in 1962 I spoke of as “the salient achievements and aesthetic beliefs” of the war and the Cold War period without some acknowledgment of the lethal effects that Stalinist influence had on American art and culture in the 1930s. The Stalinist-inspired Popular Front culture of the Thirties was, in all its essentials, an irredeemably Philistine and middlebrow culture, and it laid upon the arts in this country a curse of mediocrity and sentimentality from which it did not begin to recover until the 1940s. (That is the reason why William Faulkner and Wallace Stevens were dismissed as reactionary eccentrics in the Thirties while Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton were acclaimed as geniuses.) If there is a serious criticism to be made of Mr. Greenberg’s essay “The Plight of Our Culture,” it would have to do with his failure to acknowledge the extent to which the middlebrow culture of the Forties and early Fifties had been fashioned in the Popular Front culture of the Thirties.

In its artistic and cultural interests, this was one of the things that Trotskyism set out to combat in the Thirties, and it was out of that conflict that Mr. Greenberg wrote his essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” in 1939. But even stripped of its Stalinist distortions, the Marxism of the Thirties proved to be a poor guide to what was actually happening in American art in the Forties, and it is much to Mr. Greenberg’s credit that he recognized the change for what it was. (By the same token, it is much to Mr. O’Brian’s discredit that he still doesn’t.) This was the political drama that was made manifest in virtually every area of postwar American cultural life. Whereas in the early plays of Arthur Miller, for example, you see the middlebrow senti- mentalism of the Popular Front mind re-enacted with a vengeance, in the criticism of Lionel Trilling you see the attempt to liberate literary and social thought from its corrupting influence. It is in that context that Clement Greenberg’s criticism of the Fifties and Sixties needs to be understood, and it is a sad commentary on the intellectual life of the 1990s that the editor of this fine edition of The Collected Essays and Criticism still doesn’t get it. Hence his determination to reduce every aesthetic idea, if not aesthetics itself, to a suspect political datum.

  1. Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, edited by John O’Brian. Volume 3: Affirmations and Refusals, 1950-1956 (305 pages) and Volume 4: Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957-1969 (341 pages); University of Chicago Press, $29.95 each. The first two volumes in the series, Volume 1: Perceptions and Judgments, 1939-1944 (270 pages) and Volume 2: Arrogant Purpose, 1945-1949 (353 pages), are still available from Chicago, in paperback only, for $16.95 each.
  2. Still, there was much in “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” that did not belong to Marxism, and much, too, that is perfectly consistent with the view of high art to be found in “The Plight of Our Culture” and all the later criticism. For example: . . . it is true that once the avant-garde had succeded in “detaching” itself from society, it proceeded to turn around and repudiate revolutionary as well as bourgeois politics. The revolution was left inside society, a part of that welter of ideological struggle which art and poetry find so unpropitious as soon as it begins to involve those “precious” axiomatic beliefs upon which culture thus far has had to rest. Hence it developed that the true and most important function of the avant-garde was not to “experiment,” but to find a path along which it would be possible to keep culture moving in the midst of ideological con- fusion and violence. Retiring from public altogether, the avant-garde poet or artist sought to maintain the high level of his art by both narrowing and raising it to the expression of an absolute in which all relativities and contradictions would be either resolved or beside the point. “Art for art’s sake” and “pure poetry” appear, and subject matter or content becomes something to be avoided like a plague.

    It has been in search of the absolute that the avant-garde has arrived at “abstract” or “nonobjective” art—and poetry, too. The avant-garde poet or artist tries in effect to imitate God by creating something valid solely in its own terms, in the way nature itself is valid, in the way a landscape—not its picture—is aesthetically valid; something given, increate, independent of meanings, similars or originals. Content is to be dissolved so completely into form that the work of art or literature cannot be reduced in whole or in part to anything not itself.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 11 Number 7, on page 4
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