PRINT October 1967

Problems of Criticism II: Complaints of an Art Critic


ESTHETIC JUDGMENTS ARE GIVEN and contained in the immediate experience of art. They coincide with it; they are not arrived at afterwards through reflection or thought. Esthetic judgments are also involuntary: you can no more choose whether or not to like a work of art than you can choose to have sugar taste sweet or lemons sour. (Whether or not esthetic judgments are honestly reported is another matter.)

Because esthetic judgments are immediate, intuitive, undeliberate, and involuntary, they leave no room for the conscious application of standards, criteria, rules, or precepts. That qualitative principles or norms are there somewhere, in subliminal operation, is certain; otherwise esthetic judgments would be purely subjective, and that they are not is shown by the fact that the verdicts of those who care most about art and pay it the most attention converge over the course of time to form a consensus. Yet these objective qualitative principles, such as they are, remain hidden from discursive consciousness: they cannot be defined or exhibited. This is why such a thing as a position or standpoint cannot be maintained in the judging of art. A position, a point of view, depends on definable or exhibitable qualitative criteria, and the entire experience of art shows that there are none. Art can get away with anything because there is nothing to tell us what it cannot get away with—and there is nothing to tell us what it cannot get away with because art has, and does, get away with anything.

Of all the imputations to which this art critic has been exposed, the one he minds most is that his esthetic judgments go according to a position or “line.” There are various reasons for this imputation, not least among them being, I suppose, the flat, declarative way in which he tends to write. But there is also a general reluctance, or even inability, to read closely, and an equally general tendency to assign motives. The only way to cope with this is the tedious one of disclaiming explicitly and repeatedly all the things you, the writer, are not actually saying or implying. And maybe in addition to that you have to call attention repeatedly to the rules of inference. And also pause to give little lessons in elementary esthetics, like the one I have just recited.

To impute a position or line to a critic is to want, in effect, to limit his freedom. For a precious freedom lies in the very involuntariness of esthetic judging: the freedom to be surprised, taken aback, have your expectations confounded, the freedom to be inconsistent and to like anything in art as long as it is good—the freedom, in short, to let art stay open. Part of the excitement of art, for those who attend to art regularly, consists, or should, in this openness, in this inability to foresee reactions. You don’t expect to like the busyness of Hindu sculpture, but on closer acquaintance become enthralled by it (to the point even of preferring it to the earlier Buddhist carving). You don’t, in 1950, anticipate anything generically new in geometrical-looking abstract painting, but then see Barnett Newman’s first show. You think you know the limits of 19th-century academic art, but then come across Stobbaerts in Belgium, Etty and Dyce in England, Hayez in Italy, Waldmueller in Austria, and still others. The very best art of this time continues to be abstract, but the evidence compels you to recognize that below this uppermost level success is achieved, still, by a far higher proportion of figurative than of abstract painting. When jurying you find yourself having to throw out high-powered-looking abstract pictures and keeping in trite-looking landscapes and flower pieces. Despite certain qualms, you relish your helplessness in the matter, you relish the fact that in art things happen of their own accord and not yours, that you have to like things you don’t want to like, and dislike things you do want to like. You acquire an appetite not just for the disconcerting but for the state of being disconcerted.

This does not mean that the situation of art at any moment is one of disorder. Time and place always impose a certain kind of order in the form of negative probabilities. Thus it appears unlikely that illusionist painting will be any more capable in the near future than in the recent past of creating truly major art. But the critic cannot proceed confidently on this probability, and least of all can he have a stake in it, so that he will be embarrassed or disappointed if it should chance to be violated (which it happens to be my very private prejudice to want to see happen). You cannot legitimately want or hope for anything from art except quality. And you cannot lay down conditions for quality. However and wherever it turns up, you have to accept it. You have your prejudices, your leanings and inclinations, but you are under the obligation to recognize them as that and keep them from interfering.

Art has its history as a sheer phenomenon, and it also has its history as quality. Order and logic can be discerned in both, and there is nothing illegitimate in the effort to discern them. But it is illegitimate to believe in, advocate, and prescribe such order and logic as you discern, and another frequent imputation this writer minds is that he is for the order and logic he discerns. Because he has seen “purity” (which he always puts between quotes) and “reduction” as part of the immanent logic of modernist art, he is taken to believe in and advocate “purity” and “reduction.” As if “purity,” however useful it may have been as an illusion, were anything more than an illusion in his eyes, and as if he ever wrote anything to indicate otherwise. Because this writer has dwelled on the fact that the most original sculpture of the recent past opens up the monolith in a radical way, he is also taken to be for “open” sculpture and against the monolithic kind. Yet there is nothing in what he has written that can be interpreted as even implying this. That analysis and description without anything more should so often be inferred to be a program reveals something like bad faith on the part of those who do such inferring—not just laziness, obtuseness, or illiteracy. I can’t help thinking this. The bad faith derives from the need to pin a critic down so that you can say, when you disagree with him, that he has motives, that he likes this and not that work of art because he wants to, or because his program forces him to, not because his mere ungovernable taste won’t let him do otherwise.

Last and worst, however, is that most art-lovers do not believe there actually is such a thing as ungovernable taste. It is taken for granted that esthetic judgments are voluntary. This is why disagreements about art, music, literature so “naturally” become personal and rancorous. This is why positions and lines and programs are brought in. But it is one thing to have an esthetic judgment or reaction, another thing to report it. The dishonest reporting of esthetic experience is what does most to accustom us to the notion that esthetic judgments are voluntary. Not only are you ashamed to say that a Norman Rockwell may move you more than a Raphael does (which can happen); you are also afraid simply to sound inconsistent—this because it is also taken for granted that esthetic judgments are rational as well as voluntary, that they are weighed and pondered. Yet rational conclusions can no more be chosen than esthetic ones can. Thus even if esthetic judgments could be arrived at through ratiocination, they would still be involuntary—as involuntary as one’s acceptance of the fact that 2 plus 2 equals 4.


THE ONLY DEFINITION OF “FORMALISM” with regard to art that my unabridged Webster gives is: “Emphatic or predominant attention to arrangement, esp. to prescribed or traditional rules of composition, in painting and sculpture.” My impression is that the word acquired its present broader, and different, meaning when it became the name of an avant-garde Russian literary movement of the time of the First World War that proclaimed “form” as the main thing in verse and prose. Soon afterwards it became another of the “isms” in the Bolshevik lexicon of abuse, where it means modernist and avant-garde art and literature in general. Whatever its connotations in Russian, the term has acquired ineradicably vulgar ones in English. This is why I was surprised to see it come into currency not so long ago in American art writing. No proper literary critic would dream of using it. More recently certain artists have been referred to as belonging to a “formalist” school for no other reason than their having been championed by certain critics whom some other critics call “formalist.” This is vulgarity with a vengeance.

One reason among others why the use of the term “formalism” is stultifying is that it begs a large part of the very difficult question as to just what can be sensibly said about works of art. It assumes that “form” and “ content” in art can be adequately distinguished for the purposes of discourse. This implies in turn that discursive thought has solved just those problems of art upon whose imperviousness to discursive thinking the very possibility of art depends.

Reflection shows that anything in a work of art that can be talked about or pointed to automatically excludes itself from the “content” of the work, from its import, tenor, gist, or “meaning” (all of which terms are but so many stabs at a generic term for what works of art are ultimately “about” ). Anything in a work of art that does not belong to its “content” has to belong to its “form”—if the latter term means anything at all in this context. In itself “content” remains indefinable, unparaphraseable, undiscussable. Whatever Dante or Tolstoy, Bach or Mozart, Giotto or David intended his art to be about, or said it was about, the works of his art go beyond anything specifiable in their effect. That is what art, regardless of the intention of artists, has to do, even the worst art; the unspecifiability of its “content” is what constitutes art as art.

All this has been said before, and there is no getting around it. Nor is there anything mystical about it. What has also been said before, but maybe not emphatically enough, is that the quality of a work of art inheres in its “content,” and vice versa. Quality is “content.” You know that a work of art has content because of its effect. The more direct denotation of effect is “ quality.” Why bother to say that a Velasquez has “more content” than a Salvador Rosa when you can say more simply, and with directer reference to the experience you are talking about, that the Velasquez is “ better” than the Salvador Rosa? You cannot say anything truly relevant about the content of either picture, but you can be specific and relevant about the difference in their effect on you. “Effect,” like “quality,” is “content,” and the closer reference to actual experience of the first two terms makes “content” virtually useless for criticism. . . .

There are different kinds of anti-“formalism.” I am not sure but that those more ambitious critics who try to deal with “content” in abstract as well as representational art are not less sophisticated intellectually than those whose anti-“formalism” compels them to deprecate abstract art in general. To say that Pollock’s “all-over” art reflects the leveling tendencies of a mass society is to say something that is ultimately indifferent in the context of art criticism—indifferent because it has nothing to do with Pollock’s quality. To say (as Robert Goldwater does) that Kline’s art offers an “ image . . . of optimistic struggle of an entirely unsentimental ‘grace under pressure’” is to say something that is both indifferent and wanton. Good art is by definition unsentimental, and of what good art can it be said, moreover, that it does not show grace under pressure? And if I choose to feel that Kline is pessimistic rather than optimistic, who can say me nay? Where is the evidence on the basis of which Dr. Goldwater and I can argue about that? There is not even the evidence of taste. For you do not have to be able to see painting in order to say or not say that Kline’s art shows either optimism or pessimism. I, who am considered an arch-“formalist,” used to indulge in that kind of talk about “content” myself. If I do not do so any longer it is because it came to me, dismayingly, some years ago that I could always assert the opposite of whatever it was I did say about “ content” and not get found out; that I could say almost anything I pleased about “content” and sound plausible.

The anti-“formalist” whom I regard as more intellectually sophisticated concedes the case of abstract art but accuses the “formalist” of neglecting the crucial importance to pictorial and sculptural art, when it is representational, of the illustrated subject, whether as “form” or “content.” I myself, as a reputed “formalist,” would deny this charge. It is quite evident that the illustrated subject—or let’s say “literature”—can play, does, and has played, a crucial part in figural art. Photography (which my experience tells me is not necessarily inferior to painting in its capacity for art) achieves its highest qualities by “story-telling.” Nonetheless, it remains peculiarly difficult to talk with relevance about the literary factor in painting or sculpture.

The meaning of an illustrated subject qua subject—the prettiness, say, of a girl, her coloring, her expression, her attitude, etc., etc.—delivers itself to any eye, not just the one attuned to pictorial or sculptural art. The person who cannot tell the qualitative difference between a portrait by Ingres and one on the cover of Time perceives just as much of the subject qua subject as the person who can. Iconography is brilliantly practiced by people largely blind to the nonliterary aspects of art. It does seem that literary meaning as such seldom decides the qualitative difference between one painting or sculpture and another. Yet I say “seem” advisedly. For at the same time the illustrated subject can no more be thought away, or “seen away,” from a picture than anything else in it can. The thing imaged does, somehow, impregnate the effect no matter how indifferent you may be to it. The problem is to show something of how this happens, and that is what I cannot remember having seen any art writer do with real relevance—with relevance to the quality of the effect. And I notice that even those fellow-critics who nowadays complain most about “formalism” will again and again in the showdown fall back on “formalism” themselves—because otherwise they find themselves condemned to repeat commonplaces or irrelevancies.

The art of Edvard Munch is a case in point. I know of nothing in art that affects me in anything like the way that his “literature” does. Yet the purely pictorial impact of his art (leaving his drawings and prints aside) remains something else, something less. His paintings, as successful as many of them are in their own pictorial terms, do not startle my eyes again and again the way great paintings do. Compared, say, with Matisse, Munch never looks more than minor. How then does his illustration manage to carry so strongly and convey so intensely? I wish some non-“formalist” critic would enlighten me here, if only a little bit. I am eager to be instructed by example.

I am all the readier to be instructed by an example of this kind because it is otherwise so much easier to deal in words with literary considerations than with “abstract” or “formal” ones. It is easier to write plausible literary criticism than plausible art criticism. You can write at length about the questions raised by the kind of life depicted in an indifferent novel or even poem, and whether or not you make a contribution to general wisdom, the chances are that your failure to deal with the novel or poem as art won’t be noticed. Ruskin, murmuring at a picture he otherwise liked, because it showed children drinking wine, would not sound half so silly were it a piece of fiction he was talking about. Not that literary critics, properly speaking, get away with their irrelevance in the long run. But men of letters do, and so do iconographers. Nor do I object to this—as long as men of letters and iconographers do not claim to be critics.

Clement Greenberg