With the death of Clement Greenberg on May 7, the most important art critic of our time—the greatest in English since Roger Fry—has passed from the scene. Beginning with the essay he wrote in 1939 called “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” which promptly became a classic in the literature of modernism, Greenberg’s criticism did more to illuminate the vicissitudes and achievements of modernist art in the period of the Second World War and the immediate postwar period than that of any other writer. Those years were, of course, the heyday of the Abstract Expressionist movement, with which he was closely identified, and he wrote about the artists of that movement—mainly in Partisan Review and The Nation—with an uncommon understanding and authority.
Yet his critical interests were by no means confined to the accomplishments of the New York School—or, for that matter, to the visual arts. About literature, politics, and the problems of modern cultural life—most pertinently, the problems of high art in an era dominated by the imperatives of popular culture—he also wrote with great intelligence. He brought a highly developed historical sense to his examination of the art and culture of the modern period, and he brought to that task something else that was equally important and equally rare—an insistence on the priority to be given aesthetic standards in the judgment of works of art.
It was not a priority universally shared by his contemporaries, even in the art world, and it often provoked an antagonism that degenerated into ad hominem invective. (See, for example, Rosalind Krauss’s vicious attack in The Optical Unconscious, published just last year.) Yet he remained steadfast in his belief that what counted, above all, in the judgment of art was aesthetic quality, and that belief won him the devotion of many artists and critics who may sometimes have disagreed as to where aesthetic quality was to be found but who never doubted that the discernment of it was the raison d’être of criticism itself.
Like Roger Fry—and like T. S. Eliot, whom Greenberg once upheld as “the greatest of all literary critics”—he was often accused of wielding dictatorial powers over contemporary critical opinion. It was a charge that was much exaggerated in Greenberg’s case, for the majority of the new reputations to achieve commercial and institutional success in his time never enjoyed his critical support.
The odd thing about the charge of a Greenbergian dictatorship was that it did not achieve any real credence until Greenberg himself had ceased to write about art in any regular way. The dishonest thing about it was that those who made the charge rarely, if ever, declared their own special interest in bringing it.
This whole notion of a Greenbergian dictatorship, which found its way into some of the trashy obituaries that were published at his death, was essentially a phenomenon of the 1960s—an attempt, after the fact, to repeal an authority that had refused to confer its approval on artistic developments, Pop Art prominently among them, that were hugely successful but which, without this critic’s support, nonetheless still lacked an unchallengeable legitimacy.
Greenberg had acquired his immense intellectual authority in the art world at a time—the 1940s and early 1950s—when the influence of his criticism was limited to the emerging artists of the New York School and the kind of people whom he described, in 1947, as “a very small circle of fanatics, art-fixated misfits who are as isolated in the United States as if they were living in Paleolithic Europe.” His was, in this sense, an insider’s criticism, written out of a knowledge of the life of art, an awareness of the historical situation in which modernist art found itself at that moment, and a penchant for making aesthetic distinctions that were unequaled in his generation. That was the basis of his critical authority.
He had come of age, intellectually, in the Marxist-dominated culture wars of the 1930s. His experience in that intellectual milieu left Greenberg permanently inoculated against the politicization of artistic judgment. That, too, was one of the things that was held against him when, in the final decades of his long life, it once again became chic to confer distinction upon certain artists and works of art—works of non-art, too—solely on the basis of political criteria. He had been through it all before, and he looked upon this reversion to political tests for art with profound distaste.
Against the politicization of art and criticism, Greenberg upheld the importance of what he called “aesthetic fact,” by which he meant—as he wrote in an essay on Eliot in 1950—an understanding of “what works of art actually do, not so much what they mean.” It was owing to his tenacious concentration on “aesthetic fact” that he achieved his eminence and influence, and in the four volumes of his Collected Essays and Criticism he has left us a critical oeuvre that will outlive the carping and incomprehension of his adversaries.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 12 Number 10, on page 1
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