PRINT November 1967



All the while we have been viewing him as the most hardboiled ideologue, the affronted Mr. Greenberg has been considering himself the willing victim of the most unpredictable and involuntary esthetic reactions. It is quite a surprise, especially in the light of the fact that, no matter how liberal he claims to be in private, he has for years chosen to write only about one tendency in art. That he sees this tendency as the most significant is his privilege, but to elevate it as the modernism stemming from, and validated by the tradition of modern art is not only to confuse part with whole, or to revise a complex, highly differentiated history, but to erect a superstructure hemming in that very “quality” he generously judges to be so diffused in the experience of contemporary art.

Besides, if “quality” equals content, and content is undiscussable, it is also an absolute, an “effect” impenetrable or unmodifiable by thought, which happens to strike him (but perhaps not others) instantaneously. All works of art, no matter how antithetical or self-contained in their vision, have to be measured (or rather, schoolmasterishly graded), against those few which are said to possess this one unarguable, but vague ingredient called “quality.” This contention does not seem very credible. But the trouble is, if “quality” can never be substantiated by criticism as a whole, mere description and analysis, parts of criticism, will do it even less justice. This is to reduce criticism to a mute apologia for a visceral reaction, and to short-circuit techniques that are capable of picturing an object, but not of probing an experience. Worse, Mr. Greenberg has the effrontery to imply that any writer on art who does not confine himself to its strictly visible features, is not a critic! The impulse governing this authoritarian idea is a demand for a rock bottom (and, I think, trivial) certainty.

Thus, he is forced to insist that criticism must be an objective operation because it eventuates in a consensus. But a really objective field, like physical science, doesn’t need consensus precisely because it tests facts, rather than concerns itself with qualities of individual perceptions. No less weirdly also, Mr. Greenberg thinks that it is “so much easier to deal in words with literary considerations than with ‘abstract’ or ‘formal’ ones.” (Although, “it remains peculiarly difficult to talk with relevance about the literary factor in painting or sculpture.”) Since when is either one of these activities intrinsically easier or more difficult than the other? (Or, since when is its ease a gauge of a method’s worth?) I always thought it depended on the imagination, talent, and sophistication of the man who practiced it. Finally, Mr. Greenberg exhibits a real abhorrence towards any statement on art which opens itself to argument, and which is vulnerable to discussion, because it is dealing with complexes of feelings and moods. If provability were the only justification of critical discourse, and a speechless, untouchable effect the only guidepost to artistic significance, we would be in a much sorrier, a much more poverty-stricken state than we are in. He shrinks away from many of the most interesting, because in part debatable, issues in our relation to art. How queasy of Mr. Greenberg, how fearful!

—Max Kozloff
New York, N. Y.

That it is much easier to deal in words with literary considerations does not at all contradict the assertion that it is hard to talk relevantly about the literary factor in painting or sculpture. “Relevantly” is the key word here.

To deal with the first and second sentences of Mr. Kozloff’s third paragraph: all objectivity is not necessarily factual or scientific. Criticism becomes “objective” not because it “needs” a consensus, but because it produces one. Try to imagine what the consequences would be if the “qualities of individual perceptions“ in art remained entirely or even largely “subjective” or private.

What Mr. Kozloff says in the second and third sentences of his first paragraph amounts in principle to the same thing as reproaching a critic for having chosen to write only about the Cubists and Matisse in the years between 1910 and 1920. The unwarranted inference is that the critic dismisses whatever he does not write about.

“To revise a complex, highly differentiated history” sounds good but begs the question of Mr. Kozloff’s own discriminations. What does he himself consider more worthy and less worthy of writing about in the art of this time? How does he, as a critic of contemporary art, decide what to write about?

Last and least: the sarcasm in Mr. Kozloff’s letter is on a level with its matter.

—Clement Greenberg
New York, N. Y.