Homemade Esthetics: Observations on Art and Taste

Homemade Esthetics: Observations on Art and Taste

by Clement Greenberg, Charles T. Harrison

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Thanks to his unsurpassed eye and his fearless willingness to take a stand, Clement Greenberg (1909 1994) became one of the giants of 20th century art criticism a writer who set the terms of critical discourse from the moment he burst onto the scene with his seminal essays Avant Garde and Kitsch (1939) and Towards a Newer Laocoon (1940). In this work, which gathers previously uncollected essays and a series of seminars delivered at Bennington in 1971, Greenberg provides his most expansive statement of his views on taste and quality in art, arguing for an esthetic that flies in the face of current art world fashions. Greenberg insists despite the attempts from Marcel Duchamp onwards to escape the jurisdiction of taste by producing an art so disjunctive that it cannot be judged that taste is inexorable. He argues that standards of quality in art, the artist's responsibility to seek out the hardest demands of a medium, and the critic's responsibility to discriminate, are essential conditions for great art. The obsession with innovation the epidemic of newness leads, in Greenbergs view, to the boringness of so much avant garde art. He discusses the interplay of expectation and surprise in aesthetic experience, and the exalted consciousness produced by great art. Homemade Esthetics allows us particularly in the transcribed seminar sessions, never before published to watch the critics mind at work, defending (and at times reconsidering) his theories. His views, often controversial, are the record of a lifetime of looking at and thinking about art as intensely as anyone ever has.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780198031901
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Publication date: 10/19/2000
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 403 KB

About the Author

Clement Greenberg's books include Art and Culture and four volumes of collected essays and criticism. Charles T. Harrison of the Open University, co editor of Art in Theory 1900 1990 and one of the leading writers on modernism, has written an introduction placing Homemade Esthetics in the context of Greenbergs work and the evolution of 20th century critism.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Here are some definitions of the word "intuition." "The direct and immediate apprehension by knowing a subject of itself, of its conscious states, of other minds, of an external world, of universals, of values or of rational troths" (Ledger Wood in The Dictionary of Philosophy, Philosophical Library, c. 1950). "Direct or immediate insight" (Oxford English Dictionary). "The immediate apprehension of an object by the mind without the intervention of any reasoning process..." (ibid.). Also: "In receiving Intuitions, the mind exerts no conscious activity" (Francis Bowen in A Treatise on Logic, 1870, as quoted in the OED).

    Intuition is perceptive: it is seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting; it is also registering what goes on inside your own consciousness. No one can teach or show you how to intuit. If you can't tell for yourself what heat or cold is like, or the color blue, or the sound of thunder, or remembering—if you don't know these things by yourself and for yourself, nobody else can tell you.

    As Croce says in his History of Aesthetics, existence, experience, knowledge are unthinkable without intuition. So is esthetic experience as such, art as such. But there is a crucial difference between the way ordinary or primary intuition—which is necessary to existence, experience, knowledge—makes itself felt and the way esthetic intuition, which is not necessary to anything at all, does. Ordinary intuition informs, apprises, orients you, and indoing that always points to other things than itself, to other things than the act of intuition itself. Ordinary intuition does this even when furnishing data for pure knowledge, for knowledge valued for its own sheer sake; even here the act points to something other than itself: that is, to data.

    The moment, however, that an act of intuition stops with itself and ceases to inform or point it changes from an ordinary intuition into an esthetic one. An esthetic intuition is dwelled on, hung up on, relished—or dys-relished—for its own sole sake and nothing else. The intuition that gives you the color of the sky turns into an esthetic intuition when it stops telling you what the weather is like and becomes purely an experience of the color. The same conversion takes place when the intuition of the taste or smell of wine is received for its own sake as a taste or smell instead of for what it means in the way of allaying thirst. The same happens with the recognition that two different things cannot be one and the same when the intuition involved here is savored for itself and doesn't lead to thought or action. (This last is a far-fetched example, but it's not an impossible one.) In short, esthetic intuition is never a means, but always an end in itself, contains its value in itself, and rests in itself.

    The difference between ordinary and esthetic intuition is not blurred by the fact that the former is a necessary condition of the latter. Of course you have to have the use of at least some of your senses in the ordinary way, and have to be able to be aware in the ordinary way of at least the surface of your consciousness, in order to have any esthetic experience at all. Yet the difference between registering an intuition as a means and registering it as an end in itself remains, as I've said, a crucial one despite everything that might seem tenuous about it.

    It's implicit in what I have said above that anything that can be intuited in the primary mode can also be intuited in the esthetic mode. This, to me, seems a fact of experience. But I'd go even further, with the support of experience, and say that things not intuited in the primary mode, things remaining beyond the reach of intuition in that mode, can likewise be intuited esthetically. I mean entities like inferences, chains of reasoning, deduced knowledge. Unlike primary or ordinary intuition, the esthetic kind has no limits set to it. Which means that anything that's experienceable at all, anything at all that enters awareness, can be intuited and experienced esthetically. In other words, esthetic intuition commands the world as nothing else can—for human consciousness. (But of this, more later.)

    The turn from ordinary to esthetic intuition is accomplished by a certain mental or psychic shift. This involves a kind of distancing from everything that actually happens, either to yourself or to anyone else. Consciously or non-consciously, a mind-set ensues whereby that which enters awareness is perceived and accepted for its own immediate sake; not at all for what it might signify in terms of anything other than itself as an intuition in the present; not at all for its consequences; not at all for what it might mean to you in your particular self or to anyone else in his or her particular self; not at all for the bearing it might have on your interests or anyone else's interests. You become relieved of, distanced from, your cares and concerns as a particular individual coping with your particular existence.

    If anything and everything can be intuited esthetically, then anything and everything can be intuited and experienced artistically. What we agree to call art cannot be definitively or decisively separated from esthetic experience at large. (That this began to be seen only lately—thanks to Marcel Duchamp for the most part—doesn't make it any the less so.) The notion of art, put to the test of experience, proves to depend ultimately, not on skillful making (as the ancients held), but on that act of distancing to which I've just called attention. Art, coinciding with esthetic experience in general, means simply, and yet not so simply, a twist of attitude toward your own awareness and its objects.

    If this is so, then there turns out to be such a thing as art at large: art that is, or can be, realized anywhere and at any time and by anybody. In greatest part (to put it weakly), art at large is realized inadvertently and solipsistically, as art that cannot be communicated adequately by the person who realizes or "creates" it. The esthetic intuition of a landscape when you don't convey it through a medium like language, drawing, music, dance, mime, painting, sculpture, or photography belongs to yourself alone; nevertheless, the fact that you don't communicate your intuition through a viable medium doesn't deprive it of its "status" as art. (Croce had a glimmering of this.) The difference between art at large and what the world has so far agreed to call art is between the uncommunicated and the communicated. But I don't find it a difference that holds.

    Everything that enters awareness can be communicated in one way or another, even if only partly. The crucial difference is not between the communicated and the uncommunicated, but between art that is presented in forms that are conventionally recognized as artistic and art that is not fixed in such forms. On the one side there is unformalized, fleeting, "raw" art, and on the other there is art that is put on record, as it were, through a medium that is generally acknowledged as artistic. Yet even this difference is a tenuous one: a difference of degree, not of experienced essence or of demonstrable "status." You can't point to, much less define, the things or the place where formalized art stops and unformalized art begins. (Thus flower-arranging and landscape architecture can be said to belong to either, though I myself would claim that they both belong very definitely to formalized art. There are other such cases. It's the great theoretical service of the kind of recent art that strives to be advanced that it has made us begin to be aware of how uncertain these differences are: the difference between art and non-art as well as that between formalized and unformalized art.)

    As I've already said, esthetic intuition gets experienced as an end in itself, which means as an ultimate, intrinsic value (or, as the case may be, a dys-value). Moral value can be experienced that way too. And some philosophers hold that moral value, insofar as it is final and intrinsic, is likewise accessible only to intuition (and intuition of a kind, moreover, that's hard to differentiate from esthetic intuition). However, there is also a kind of moral value that is not intrinsic, but instrumental and which can be arrived at through reasoning, not through intuition. (Every human being is a final, ultimate, intrinsic value; this can't be proven or reasoned out; it can only be intuited. But the means by which human life is maintained can be reasoned out and reasoned about, and are relative, instrumental.) Esthetic value is never instrumental or relative. It identifies itself by being altogether intrinsic, final—and utterly and immediately present. By affording value of this kind, esthetic experience constitutes itself as what it uniquely, irreplaceably, is.

    Esthetic intuition is entirely a matter of value and valuing— nothing else but that. With the same immediacy as that with which ordinary intuition registers the properties of things (to borrow G. E. Moore's distinction), to wit, their descriptive, identifying attributes, so esthetic intuition registers value and values. Which means that you don't, and can't, experience art or the esthetic, as art or the esthetic, without judging, evaluating, appraising. To the extent that something is intuited or experienced esthetically, to that same extent is its esthetic value appraised, evaluated, judged (whether consciously or non-consciously). There's simply no separating esthetic intuition from evaluation; it can't be imagined or thought of without that.

    Esthetic evaluating means, much more often than not, making distinctions of extent or degree, of more or less. Relatively seldom does it mean a flat either-or, a yes or no, a guilty or not guilty. Esthetic judging tends to mean shading and grading, even measuring—though not with quantitative precision, but rather in the sense of comparing (and there's no refining of esthetic sensibility without exercises in comparing). Esthetic evaluating is more on the order of appraising and weighing than on that of verdict-delivering—even though it so often has to sound like a verdict, pure and simple, when expressed in words.

    The intuition of esthetic value is an act of liking more and less, or an act of not liking more and less. What is liked or not liked is an affect or a group of affects. Esthetic value or quality is affect; it moves, touches, stirs you. But affect here is not to be equated with anything so "simple" as emotion; esthetic affect comprehends and transcends emotion; it does that in being of value and in compelling you to like it more or less. Value doesn't provoke emotion. Esthetic value, esthetic quality can be said to elicit satisfaction, or dys-satisfaction, but this is not the same thing as emotion. Satisfaction or dys-satisfaction is a "verdict of taste."

    From everything I've said so far it ought to emerge that esthetic judgment is not voluntary. This should hardly need stating. All intuition, whether ordinary or esthetic, is involuntary in content or outcome. Your esthetic judgment, being an intuition and nothing else, is received, not taken. You no more choose to like or not like a given item of art than you choose to see the sun as bright or the night as dark. (What is chosen or willed is the placing of your attention, but that placing, as such, has little to do directly with your intuition as such.) To put it in other words: esthetic evaluation is reflexive, automatic, immediate, not arrived at in the least through willing or deliberation or reasoning. (If this were kept better in mind, there might be less rancor in disputes about art. But it would not, I'm afraid, induce people to report their esthetic judgments more honestly.)

    Immanuel Kant (who had more insights into the nature of esthetic experience than anyone else I'm aware of) held that the "judgment of taste" always "precedes" the "pleasure" gained from the esthetic "object." It's not necessary here to go into the reasons he gave for saying this. I'd rather go into the reasons my own experience offers for agreeing with him. I would say that the very involuntariness of the intuition that is the esthetic judgment does not so much precede the "pleasure" as enable you to commit yourself to it. That the judgment is received instead of taken makes it felt as a necessary one, and its necessity frees and surrenders you to the commitment. A judgment taken deliberately would lack such necessity; the "pleasure" would be infected with possible qualifications and doubts. (It would be the same way if the "object" gave you dys-pleasure instead of pleasure.) In short: If the judgment of taste precedes the pleasure, it's in order to give the pleasure. And the pleasure re-gives the judgment.

    Whether Kant's separation of the judgment from the pleasure is meant in a temporal or logical sense, I'm not expert enough to tell. My reading, along with my experience, insists on the latter sense. I find it impossible to separate the "moment" of judging from the "moment" of pleasure in any but a metaphorically logical way. The judging and pleasure mean one another and are therefore synchronous. The pleasure—or dys- pleasure—is in the judging; the judging gives the pleasure, and the pleasure gives the judging.

    In his Critique of Aesthetic Judgment Kant also speaks of esthetic pleasure as consisting in the "free play" and "harmony" of the "cognitive faculties"; in their "harmonious activity"; and in the "easier play of both mental powers—imagination and reason—animated by their mutual harmony." All this is occasioned by the esthetic object, which is itself a "given representation" such as is "generally suitable for cognition." This, despite there being no cognition as such, no addition to knowledge involved in esthetic experience as such. (Which doesn't mean that some sort of addition to knowledge can't be a corollary of esthetic experience, even if it's only the knowledge of having had the experience.)

    I don't have to accept Kant's particular designation of the mental faculties in order to find that the gist of what he says about the role of cognitive activity in esthetic experience is confirmed by my own experience. As I sense it, as I introspect it, the affect or pleasure of art (when it does give pleasure) consists in a "sensation" of exalted cognitiveness—exalted because it transcends cognition as such. It's as though for the time being, or for the instant, I were in command, by dint of transcendent knowing, of everything that could possibly affect my consciousness, or even my existence. I know, and yet without having anything specific to know. Definiteness in this respect would extinguish the sensation. For it is a question of "ness"-ness, not of what-ness; of a state of consciousness, not of a gain to consciousness. The more "general" the affect, the more embracing or comprehensive is the state of cognitiveness—and also the more challenging. A certain picture, a certain passage of verse, a certain piece of music can make you feel unequal to the exaltation of cognitiveness with which it floods you; those are the supreme works.

    What is ordinarily meant by emotion is swallowed up in esthetic experience (when the latter is "pure" enough). It's as though the affect or state of cognitiveness contained emotion, along with everything else—sensory experience and intellection and knowledge—and, in containing what it did, transcended it. Emotion, sense perception, logic, knowledge, even morality become known, felt, sensed from outside themselves, from a vantage point that controls and manipulates them for the sheer sake of consciousness. ("Distancing" enters in again.) The pleasure of esthetic experience is the pleasure of consciousness: the pleasure that it takes in itself. To the extent that esthetic experience satisfies, consciousness revels in the sense of itself (as God revels in the sense of himself, according to some theologians).

    This state of exalted cognitiveness or consciousness is esthetic value or quality. Inferior art, inferior esthetic experience shows itself in failing to induce this state sufficiently. But all art, all esthetic experience, good and bad, promises or intimates a promise of it. And it's only esthetic intuition—taste—that can tell to what extent the promise is kept.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Janice Van Horne Greenberg
Introduction by Charles Harrison
The Essays
Intuition and Esthetic Experience
Esthetic Judgment
Can Taste Be Objective?
The Factor of Surprise
Judgment and the Esthetic Object
Convention and Innovation
The Experience of Value
The Language of Esthetic Discourse
Observations on Esthetic Distance
The Bennington College Seminars, April 6-22, 1971
Night One
Night Two
Night Three
Night Four
Night Five
Night Six
Night Seven
Night Eight
Night Nine
Further Reading

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