PRINT February 1964

Harold Rosenberg on Criticism

The following comments were made by the distinguished American art critic, Mr. Harold Rosenberg, at the time of his December 1963 visit to Los Angeles. These ad lib responses to questions from members of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Contemporary Art Council have been restricted to the vocation and techniques of contemporary criticism.

TO EVALUATE A modern painting one needs to carry it back to its creator. Taken by itself no single work can be adequately appraised. The connoisseurship which the public expects in its critics cannot be achieved in respect to contemporary works unless the artist is present in a continuum of ideas and practice. Of course it is embarrassing for a man who occupies a professional position when someone asks him a reasonable question, to say “Let me tell you why that is so complicated that I can’t answer it.” Often answers are given not because the man who gives the answers really expects anyone to benefit from them but simply because he has no other way out under the conditions in which the public expects him to practice his vocation. But we may as well know that such opinions are conjectural at best. The more hypothetical the answer to a serious question about art, the more likely it is to have a certain amount of sense. I don’t mean that there aren’t many definite things that can be said about modern art but they usually aren’t the things that people are likely to ask about. The ordinary person wants to know, “Is this a good painting or a bad painting?” “How much is it worth?” “Will it be more valuable 25 years from now or less valuable?” Very few questions of this type can be answered.

Question: How does art criticism relate to the development of literary criticism in the last 25 years?

The evolution of the critical professions since the war has taken place under the pressure of the growth of the science departments in the universities. A tremendous amount of money has been poured into the universities to carry on scientific research. This brought pressure to do the same for the social sciences. What was left out were the so-called humanities, including literature and art. There, too, arose an internal pressure to develop techniques that were as specialized, and you might say as mysterious, as those of science and mathematics. In literature the “new criticism” conceived an approach to reading novels, poetry and plays that became steadily more engrossed in its own techniques and its own terminology. This critical methodology conquered the university English departments. I see the evolution of a similar approach to painting taking place in the universities. Once it has reached its full flowering it will no longer be possible to look at a painting without having studied the critical literature in which it has been analyzed in terms of space, color and line relations. The work of each artist will be broken down into visual qualities which no one can see who is not a specialist. In Art International we are beginning to get a criticism that is like the “new criticism” in literature. One looks at the painting over and over again and is unable to see what the writer is writing about—perhaps it isn’t there. The critic sees it because it is part of his thesis, and others begin to think, “What am I doing, just looking? Maybe I ought to have a thesis too.” In the end, the close visual study of paintings destroys their visual reality—a reality much more involved with contemporary culture than with mere retinal data.

Question: I detect an unwillingness on the part of art critics today to commit themselves to a work of art or a movement. Do you agree?

I don’t think that is the problem of art criticism today. There are plenty of people who are ready to make the most self-assured, even ferocious judgments. Apparently, they are too unsure of themselves to qualify their observations. Perhaps the problem is exactly the opposite of what you suggest—that art criticism today tends to merge too often into promotion. Literary criticism has the advantage of a vast literature and with it in mind a critic tends to be cautious. There is no art criticism, strictly speaking, until the 19th century. Even now, there are few critics, no literature. It does not deal with a verbal medium, and it is not capable of the degree of subtlety in analyzing a particular work that can be achieved in respect to a poem or novel. In the absence of a body of sound opinion, there is a great temptation on the part of people who pose as experts to say, “This is a masterpiece.” How many critics have said of a work of modern literature that it is a masterpiece and that its creation cancels all previous masterpieces? I cannot think of a reputable literary critic who makes the kind of arrogant remarks that are often found in writings on art. The problem of art criticism is to get more reflection and more discussion of basic principles into its literature rather than expressions of so-called “commitment.” There is not much intellectual value in saying, “I like this painting” or “I don’t like that one,” and things are not improved by substituting, “This fills me with doubt.” We need more discussion of what painting itself is about in these times and more ideas that help everybody make up his own mind.

A painter should commit himself to whatever hypothesis he is attempting to develop in his painting. The critic should commit himself to criticism rather than to a painter or a painting. If he commits himself to a painter he becomes a promoter and no different from a dealer. A dealer or a collector commits himself. The collector has historically been the main critic. He commits himself by acquiring a painting, in a decisive way. I mean the collector in the largest sense. When Pope Ignatius commissioned Painter X to do his portrait, that was criticism of the most convinced sort. He chose this painter among all of the painters of Europe—that is the extremist form of commitment. The same is true today when a collector, having the whole world art market before him, decides to buy the work of a particular artist. A critic doesn’t have to make such choices. He can devote himself to talking about what’s behind all of it: what experience is represented in this or that painting, what ideas, what motives, how it relates to contemporary culture. There isn’t much you can say in words about the painting itself, though you can talk for hours provided the painting is there to look at.

The weakness in art criticism has been in the level of its discussion of the meaning of contemporary art. There is sufficient talk about how the work is made and what its characteristics are in terms of some technological concept of evolution, some concept of a constant purification of the idea of space in painting, for example. Some critics like to compare that de Kooning with that Clyfford Still. De Kooning, they find, is involved with three-dimensional space. There is depth in a de Kooning; though his shapes are not modeled, they suggest the density of the human body. In the Still you are dealing entirely with planes—no figures, just planes laid one upon another as if they were sheets of paper. We are then presented with a theory of evolution from Renaissance deep space, a movement toward flat space, which is carried to a further degree in the Still than in the de Kooning. Why is it better to have planes than thicknesses? Only Hofmann has tried to answer this question. He has tried to erect over the many years of his teaching a principled criticism of Renaissance space, that it created, as he put it, a hole in the wall. He said that this aperture, with its foreground, middle ground and background did not act back on the painter. He tried to give meaning to the idea of fidelity to the “picture plane” by connecting it with the problems of creation in painting. And it’s perfectly true that if you look at a Renaissance painting (most Renaissance paintings) you find that the painter had complete control over that illusionary box and that he puts the figures inside it, one set behind the other. Now when a modern painter (particularly an action painter) approaches his canvas and puts a stroke or a dot on it, the whole thing begins to change and he does not have control. He must struggle with it for his result. So a new concept of creation appears, and that begins to make sense of the idea of eliminating perspective. We have an idea of some kind of continuous creation in which the artist is involved as a total individual, and it would not do for him just to place forms symmetrically in deep space. We think that maybe the modern idea is creatively richer and freer. That is why Hans Hofmann said that we have a much better idea than the Renaissance. That’s a very proud statement. Whether you believe it or not, it is an inspiring thought.

Question: Do you have a set of ethics or ground rules for the critic in the plastic arts, or for yourself?

I have no ground rules because I’m not devoted to the idea of methodology. I like to talk to artists. I’ve spent most of my life talking to artists. My criticism is not really criticism very often, it is simply a continuing dialog with artists. All of these painters (indicating the walls hung with works by Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman, Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Piet Mondrian) are critics. There is no painting in this room that is not a criticism of painting. Every one of these paintings is produced as the result of a conclusion as to what painting is. That’s Still’s idea about painting today. That’s Picasso’s idea about primitive art and the whole history of painting in the West. That’s Jackson’s idea about the subjective relation to painting.

An art critic is a critic who deals with art. You have to start with a critic—there is such an animal—the interest in art comes later. A critic is a peculiar beast who goes around repeating, “I want to find out how it works. What’s the matter with it? When is it good? When is it bad? What is it saying?” A peculiar kind of beast. Then he applies his peculiarity to some field of endeavor, say, art. Usually this animal will criticize anything: give him a plate of french fried potatoes and he won’t necessarily find something wrong with them. But he is likely to remark, “I once had some that were a little better.”

Question: Then what the critic does is to amplify the environment?

Amplify and correct, but mostly investigate. His work involves making a judgment regarding the tendency of our culture as a whole. You start to make choices on this basis. I believe every good critic is basically a critic of society. He is for one kind of art rather than another for the sake of society. The work of art creates value. It doesn’t only submit itself to value; it creates it.

Question: How do you decide what to write about?

That’s not really very difficult, because it has to do with one’s idea of what meaning is. Something arouses your total experience of meaning, and you say, “This seems to be related to that.” You appreciate it and then you begin to relate it to your configuration of meanings. You don’t decide on any objective basis—you’re involved with comparison, with fitting in and filling out. If you’re confronted with a painting you immediately connect it with other paintings—you can’t admire it any other way.

The big event in contemporary American art is that a continuity has been established since the early ’40s, so that today even when one is against an idea he is against it in terms of that idea. The artists of the generation of the abstract expressionists were concerned with the problem of creation and being creative. Recently, Andy Warhol made the cute remark that everything and everybody are so creative that he would like everyone to think the same way. That’s a very fine joke. And it results in a kind of art that is—all the same. That’s lovely. You start with an idea, you get an antithesis and then somebody else says “I get the point” and goes on to do something new. There we have the critical connection. This is the beginning of a culture. It is a tremendous thing. Art has become a family matter. As far as America is concerned the post-war period did not bring art to an end, it brought art to a beginning. An American artist goes to Rome and finds that Romans want to know what he is doing. Just think of that! Thirty years ago he would have looked for a third cousin to introduce him to some Italian who would have given him the inside story on European art. The world is absolutely turned upside down by this transformation of culture. We have a continuity: because Hofmann and Warhol are part of the same discussion. They used to talk about things that way only in foreign countries.

Harold Rosenberg