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CLEMENT GREENBERG BETWEEN THE LINESINCLUDING A DEBATE WITH CLEMENT GREENBERG
By THIERRY DE DUVE
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESSCopyright © 2010 University of Chicago Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Paths of Criticism
First, the question: is artistic emotion textually transmissible? Can an art critic cause his readers to love the work of which he speaks, and if so, by what means? By his argumentation, his rhetoric, his writing? Second, the question of the question: which critic are we talking about, and which work, which transmission? Third, an attempt at a first-person response concerning one specific case: did Greenberg make me love Pollock? Fourth, the problem of generalization, and its legitimacy. Fifth, the whole thing is opened up again for discussion.
I have a particular affection for Clement Greenberg the art critic, even if I am far from sharing all his judgments, even if I may have learned more from Greenberg the historian, who very early on formed quasi-dogmatic convictions about the role of the avant-garde and the raison d'être of modernism, and even if my debates have primarily been with Greenberg the theorist, who stepped out onto the terrain of aesthetics in the sixties under the pressure of the art stemming from Duchamp, whom he detested. All this means that even when I stick to Greenberg the art critic, my feelings are mixed. I also have a particular and long-standing affection for Jackson Pollock, the painter and the artist. However, being a child of my times, I must admit that what I now call my affection for Pollock—which twenty years ago I would have called my interest in Pollock—has gone through successive phases in which I am occasionally unsure whether I recognize the same artist. As an adolescent, my first contacts with the painting of Pollock, by way of Skira press, led me to view him—in the doxa of the epoch—as an American Mathieu. I already didn't like Mathieu, but I liked Soulages and I adored Hartung. And how could I have understood that it was Mathieu who sought to pass himself off as a European Pollock? In short, I learned that there was art in America, that tachisme translated as "Action Painting" in American, and that Pollock was a name with a future. He seemed difficult. Kline and Rothko looked better in reproduction, that's sure. The important thing, in any case, was the moves of "Jack the Dripper," more so than the results. That's what I hung on to. Later on, as a young professor overflowing with more or less well-digested theory, with "critiques of the dominant ideology," and "the deconstruction of representation," I was impudent enough to credit Pollock with dealing the definitive blow to the old Renaissance window. I had my Hans Namuth photos to prove it. The canvas lay on the ground, and the artist was up on his feet, dancing around in an altered state (alcoholism or floating attention?). His body had abjured the authority of the gaze, his hand had forgone the mastery of the tool, his trade had been given over to the force of gravity, like his whole being to the winds of chance. The word "chance" contained an entire epistemology: Boltzmann and Heisenberg, not yet Prigogine but already Shannon, and also tuchè, automaton. A bit further and I'd have reproached Pollock for his Jungian analyst, when a Lacanian would have done so much better. And for a crowning touch, the all-over treatment was a symbol of democracy and egalitarianism, whereas Mathieu centered his compositions and took himself for Connétable de Bourbon. The moves had become infinitely more complex, but they were still more important than the canvases. Poor me.
I don't disavow all that, there's still some truth in it, but nonetheless... It was then, and all at once, in a well-wrapped package, thanks to the good graces of Yve-Alain Bois and the journal Macula, that Greenberg's texts on Jackson Pollock fell out of the sky in a French translation. Only ten years later did they become easily available in the original, without long hunts through the library. Meanwhile, I had seen some Pollocks. And then I saw them again, and some I saw again and again. And I read and listened to other critics, for example T.J. Clark in Vancouver, who made me realize, suddenly, without saying anything of the sort, that Pollock was in the same family as Cézanne, and on the same level. But that was in 1986, and the Macula articles are 1977. And it was then, I say it for truth's sake, without shame and in gratitude, that my interest in Pollock finally molted into affection. Yes, Greenberg made me love Pollock. The question is: how? Did he get me to trade an ideology of "critique of ideology" for another, that of "modernist painting"? I'll dare to hope not. If there is an ideologue in Greenberg it is the early Greenberg, the one I call a dogmatic historian, the one who wrote "Avant-Garde and Kitsch" and "Towards a Newer Laocoon"; not the art critic. (And I am quite careful about distinguishing the three Greenbergs; such are my ethics toward him.) The fact is, I don't love Pollock because he is a modernist, nor Greenberg for that matter; and I don't love Pollock because Greenberg made me love him. I love Pollock because he is the best painter of his generation. Now there's an undisguised judgment, a real Greenbergian one, tautological! An argument of authority with much waving of hands. Could I be under his influence? Yes, but just when I say it, not when I think it. And just when I write it like that, in his rhetoric and without fearing reprisals, which is only courageous on the level of rhetoric, if at all. Where the judgment is concerned, I have nothing left to fear. And the rhetoric only seduces me in flagrante delicto of non-vigilance, and never without a slight feeling of guilt. Ask a certain "smart Jewish girl with a typewriter" about it, she'll tell you why.
If you believe me when I say that argumentation by the "logic" of modernism was not what made me give Pollock his place in the pantheon, and if you believe me when I admit that the formulation of Greenberg's judgments—or of my own when I envy and imitate them—in a rhetoric aspiring to the apodictic still raises a slight flush of shame on my brow, then will you also believe me if I say that it was not Greenberg's style which persuaded me to love Jackson Pollock? None of this is clear-cut, because modernism is not foreign to my affection for Pollock; but modernism is simply not a logic, except perhaps an apparent and retrospective one. Nothing is clear-cut, because to say of Pollock, "he's the best," and to think it too, may not be so different from saying of the woman I love, "she's the most beautiful"—and the flush on my forehead isn't just shame. As to Greenberg's style, if it can give me the opportunity to ask whether artistic emotion is textually transmissible, it is only on the condition—a minimum—that I love it too. And therefore that I judge it good. Does Greenberg write well? Yes, he writes well. Does it matter? Yes, it matters. But what does it mean to write well? It's to write "true." And "true," what does that mean? That means ... but take a look for yourself, read a passage:
It is possible to accuse the painter Jackson Pollock, too, of bad taste; but it would be wrong, for what is thought to be Pollock's bad taste is in reality simply his willingness to be ugly in terms of contemporary taste. In the course of time this ugliness will become a new standard of beauty. Besides, Pollock submits to a habit of discipline derived from cubism; and even as he goes away from cubism he carries with him the unity of style with which it endowed him when in the beginning he put himself under its influence. Thus Pollock's superiority to his contemporaries in this country lies in his ability to create a genuinely violent and extravagant art without losing stylistic control. His emotion starts out pictorially; it does not have to be castrated and translated in order to be put into a picture.
Pollock's third show in as many years (at Art of This Century, till April 20) contains nothing to equal the two large canvases, Totem Lesson I and Totem Lesson II, that he exhibited last year. But it is still sufficient—for all its divagations and weaknesses, especially in the gouaches—to show him as the most original contemporary easel-painter under forty. What may at first sight seem crowded and repetitious reveals on second sight an infinity of dramatic movement and variety. One has to learn Pollock's idiom to realize its flexibility. And it is precisely because I am, in general, still learning from Pollock that I hesitate to attempt a more thorough analysis of his art.
This is one of two articles by Greenberg on Pollock that I will quote in full, and I do so not to betray it by cutting it short. It was published in The Nation on April 13, 1946. There is nothing extraordinary in the style, it's just good journalism. It packs a maximum of information into a minimum of space, without tiring the reader, and without forgetting—no doubt it's a law of the genre, but it has great importance—to indicate the location of the exhibition and its closing date, so the reader can verify the critic's words with his own eyes. In passing, the reader who knows nothing of Pollock learns that the painter is under forty, that he was initially influenced by cubism, and that he has had three exhibitions in three years. He also learns that Pollock has bad taste, that he is superior to his contemporaries in this country, and that he is nothing less than "the most original contemporary easel-painter under forty." But does he really learn that? Not really. He learns that such is the opinion Greenberg has formed of Pollock. To write "true," for an art critic, is perhaps above all to interject this quality of frankness, emanating from a style which, while blending factual information and value judgments in the same breath, still stresses the heterogeneousness of the registers with crystalline clarity, using none of those falsely modest provisos such as "in my opinion," "I believe that"—or even worse, pusillanimous pedantries like "in the eyes of the present writer ..." Greenberg writes in such a way that the speaking subject never disappears behind the subject of the sentence, but also in such a way that we feel that this assignation of the subject to different places does not dissolve the writing into subjectivity, by which I mean subjectivism. How do I know that? You can feel it, and there's nothing more to be said, if not this: frankness does not equal sincerity.
And this: an operation of feeling, which is also an operation of reflection, causes me to say upon reading this article that the frankness of the style cannot be reduced to the sincerity of the author; is this operation not akin to the operation of feeling and of reflection (filling a small paragraph of explanations which are simultaneously a judgment) which causes Greenberg to say that Pollock's bad taste is not bad taste, or that his ugliness will become a new standard of beauty? He doesn't say exactly that, by the way. He says "what is thought to be Pollock's bad taste is in reality simply his willingness to be ugly in terms of contemporary taste," adding that "in the course of time this ugliness will become a new standard of beauty." How does Greenberg know that Pollock is not ugly but that he is willing to be ugly? He feels it, and there's nothing more to be said, just as I feel that Greenberg writes "true" and that his frankness is not one with his sincerity. Moreover: just as Pollock is willing to be ugly, Greenberg is willing to yield to the truth of what he perceives—I mean, what he feels—in Pollock.
One could linger over each word of this text, stressing the pertinence of its reading of Pollock's sources in cubism (at a time when his painting shows more the influence of Masson and Hofmann, with traces of Thomas Hart Benton), recognizing the acuity of the judgments, bowing before the premonitory intuition of variety in "what at first sight may seem crowded and repetitious," and finally thanking the author for the humility of the final paragraph. Shunning all braggartism, an art critic announces to his readers that his function is to learn from artists, and that because this artist has not finished teaching him he can say no more for the moment. Admirable. But I am not here to praise Greenberg, I'm here to find out how he made me love Pollock. So I'll ask once and for all, because I've got it under my skin: who writes like that today? Where can you read art criticism that discusses a contemporary work, and at the very moment of its blossoming (because one must remember that outside a small circle, Pollock was a nobody in 1946), with the terms customarily reserved for the great masters of the past, and yet without sparing specific reproaches: "divagations and weaknesses, especially in the gouaches"? No jargon, no abstruse theorization, no professorial condescendence, no need to excuse oneself for promoting the artist—or for not promoting him. The reader is assumed to take contemporary art as seriously as the critic. Greenberg only addresses himself to real art lovers, but in a style and in a mode of address that excludes no one. It's a long time since I've read anything similar (or wrote anything similar, I admit) in contemporary art criticism.
The text I have just quoted is Greenberg's third critique of Pollock. The very first, commenting on the painter's first solo exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim's gallery (in The Nation on November 27, 1943), begins with these words: "There are both surprise and fulfillment in Jackson Pollock's not so abstract abstractions." Next comes a laudatory evocation of Blakelock and Ryder, enlarging on "the muddiness of color that so profoundly characterizes a great deal of American painting." Immediately afterwards, that same miry quality earns Pollock the following comments:
The mud abounds in Pollock's larger works, and these, though the least consummated, are his most original and ambitious. Being young and full of energy, he takes orders he can't fill. In the large, audacious Guardians of the Secret he struggles between two slabs of inscribed mud (Pollock almost always inscribes his purer colors); and space tautens but does not burst into a picture; nor is the mud quite transmuted. Both this painting and Male and Female (Pollock's titles are pretentious) zigzags between the intensity of the easel picture and the blandness of the mural. The smaller works are much more conclusive ...
It must be admitted, we've lost the habit of such criticism, a criticism peppered with judgments, laced with admonitions to the artist (orders he can't fill, pretentious titles), a criticism that breathes fire and ice in the same sentence—a criticism where one can wonder if the word "mud," weighted with so much malevolence by the nineteenth century (like coal, blacktop, pipe juice), is not after all simply being employed here as an innocent description. But a strange description nonetheless, since Greenberg applies it to pure colors. I recently saw Guardians of the Secret again, and as for those traces of mud, really, there aren't any. But I can understand that an eye which, in 1943, could not of course have familiarized itself with the impastos of Burri, Fautrier, or Dubuffet, could use the word "mud" for such violently colored paint, thick and indeed, inscribed—grafittoed, one might say—onto the canvas. And I can understand the evocation of Blakelock and Ryder, even if the comparison strikes me as distant, above all for Blakelock. Whatever the case, I think it is the last sentence of this excerpt that should catch our attention, where it is said that this painting "zigzags between the intensity of the easel picture and the blandness of the mural." Here, and very early on, Greenberg has seen something—a question or a dilemma—which without exaggeration can be said to structure a large proportion of his later thinking on "modernist painting." We'll come across it again further on.
Jackson Pollock's second one-man show at Art of This Century (till April 14) establishes him, in my opinion, as the strongest painter of his generation and perhaps the greatest one to appear since Miró.... In Pollock, there is absolutely [no self-deception], and he is not afraid to look ugly—all profoundly original art looks ugly at first.... Pollock's single fault is not that he crowds his canvases too evenly but that he sometimes juxtaposes colors and values so abruptly that gaping holes are created.
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