PRINT Summer 1999


Clement Greenberg

AT LONG LAST, CLEMENT GREENBERG has become readable again. This should have taken place years ago, for the texts themselves are luminous. Those of us who have been around long enough know why it didn’t happen sooner. Most artists and critics who came of age in the ’80s were fed a caricature of Greenberg—a foil, more precisely, against which the then-dominant antiaesthetic discourse stood for the truth. But those who are coming of age now are the readers whom Greenberg’s long-overdue Homemade Esthetics will, one hopes, reach. To do him justice, one must, of course, read him, preferably whole. With the timely publication of Homemade Esthetics complementing John O’Brian’s four-volume Collected Writings, that’s now almost a possibility.

The book, intelligently prefaced by Charles Harrison, has two parts. The first consists of nine texts, most of which appeared in Art News and other magazines throughout the ’70s as “Seminars” (“Seminar Nine” is previously unpublished). The second part comprises transcripts of nine lectures at Bennington College in Vermont in 1971, here entitled “Nights.” There is some redundancy, since the “Seminars” chapters were based on the lectures and the discussions that followed (well edited by Peggy Schiffer Noland, who transcribed the tapes as part of her graduate work at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts). I myself find nothing wrong in the repetition, and I would be at odds advising where to begin. I started with the “Nights” because I am long familiar with the “Seminars.” In the former, Greenberg’s casual mode of address is refreshing and the discussion is of a high level, on the part of his interlocutors as well as that of the critic. Newcomers might prefer to start with the slightly more formal presentation of the “Seminars” for its pedagogical value. Either way, both the “Seminars” and the “Nights” have that peremptory but charmingly unpedantic tone characteristic of Greenberg, who always seems to write as if he were speaking and speak as if he were thinking out loud—which in many places he does; I find these passages the most stimulating. The reading of Homemade Esthetics is most profitable when attuned to this spirit. Greenberg’s jargon-free ideas are at times disarmingly simple but prove to have been thoroughly thought out by a critic who has spent years reflecting on his practice—but reflecting, so to speak, on the side, never with the purpose of arriving at a full-fledged theory. Yet one discovers that Homemade Esthetics indeed contains something close to a completely developed theory, though one that is never dogmatic but is rather based on the hard-won lessons of personal experience.

Indeed, Homemade Esthetics is exactly what its title says it is: not an academic treatise on the philosophy of art or on aesthetics (Greenberg preferred the less pedantic spelling “esthetics ”), but an empirical assemblage of thoughts and second thoughts engaged with over the years and cobbled together in the home workshop. The key word is experience. When Greenberg cites philosophers and aestheticians (Immanuel Kant and Benedetto Croce, mostly, though George Santayana, Susanne Langer, and Harold Osborne put in cameo appearances), he never takes shelter under their authority; he confronts what they said with his own experience. And experience he has—lots of it. When he says that, instead of going into the reasons Kant gives for upholding this or that point, he’d rather give his own reasons for agreeing with him, I wish everybody who reads Kant—or Greenberg, for that matter—would comment on those thinkers in the same way.

The touchstone of Greenberg’s attitude and thought is that, in our dealings with art as art, everything begins and ends in aesthetic judgment. The aesthetic experience cannot be separated from the act of evaluating that experience, and though it is reflexive or “distanced,” it is involuntary, even passive. Although the reporting of one’s aesthetic judgments can be and often is dishonest (one can sense Greenberg railing against this), there is no such thing as unfaithfulness to one’s judgment per se. Of course, one can attend to art for nonaesthetic reasons, but it is the aesthetic experience that constitutes art as art. Everything that Greenberg then has to say about the experience of art—interspersed with insightful comments and judgments about a few individual artists (see, for example, his thoughts in “Seminar Six” about Kandinsky, František Kupka, Malevich, and Duchamp as “premature innovators”) derives from these premises. I shall refrain from trying to summarize the book, for fear of betraying it. It is already such a condensed summary of a lifetime’s experience that a summary of the summary would verge on caricature, and I’m afraid this has happened to Greenberg all too often. Suffice it to say that I find my own experience in line with his most of the time (individual aesthetic judgments aside, of course), and I am convinced that readers who pay enough introspective attention (a favorite method of Greenberg’s intellectual procedure) to what happens to them when they “perform” aesthetic judgments will find that their experience matches his as well.

This is not to say that everything Greenberg says should be taken as gospel. It comes as no surprise, given his lack of academic training and his decisively pragmatic biases, that Continental philosophy is a somewhat muddled area for him, even though Homemade Esthetics demonstrates that Greenberg has read Kant’s Critique of Judgment more attentively than most of those who have reproached him for his alleged Kantianism. The irony is that it is when he departs from Kant that he errs—where, for example, in “Seminar Three,” he claims that taste is objective and that Kant failed to prove it satisfactorily, something Kant never set out to do. Greenberg’s overly empirical approach and overconfidence in the “best taste” (his own no doubt included) also leads him to underestimate the fact that the dynamic of the avant-garde was often set in motion by a deliberate withdrawal of confidence in the “best taste” of an epoch, not just on the part of the artists (this much he recognizes) but also on the part of the viewers. His understanding of modernism is essentially retrospective—looked at from the vantage point of consensus achieved—as if the negative cast and oppositional drive of the avant-garde had been there solely for the purpose of arriving at an ultimate reconciliation. His understanding of a medium in terms of aesthetic conventions silences the fact that conventions are social pacts, and that artists who break aesthetically with the convention might be breaking with the social pact politically or ideologically as well.

Speaking of the social pact: It was not by chance that Greenberg, who had never ventured into theoretical aesthetics before, published his “Seminars” in the ’70s. He felt that the art world had become so deeply institutionalized that anything exhibited was proclaimed to be art by fiat, rendering judgments of taste useless (or at least beside the point). The somewhat militant tone of defensiveness that pervades the “Seminars” and, even more, the “Nights” is at times annoying. But there is something to be said for Greenberg’s irritation. Institutional aesthetics (George Dickie’s, for example, which basically defines as art anything the art institution calls art) had become very fashionable, and the reception of Duchamp’s readymades by Conceptual artists seemed in Greenberg’s mind to endorse the institutional view. (Duchamp himself is repeatedly taken to task, though Greenberg clearly regards him seriously enough to warrant discussion throughout Homemade Esthetics.) Of course, the institutionalization of the art world was only just taking off in the early ’70s. The danger Greenberg perceived and feared is still with us. I would recommend Homemade Esthetics not only to those with a genuine commitment to art but also to anyone for whom a genuine commitment to the political in art starts with distrust of art-world politics. And to the youngest and most inexperienced readers, I would recommend it the way one can recommend the reading of novels (Bildungsromanen, as the Germans would say)—as a means of accelerating their aesthetic education. Even though firsthand experience of art is irreplaceable, when it comes to reading Greenberg, there is plenty to be gained by proxy.