CLEMENT GREENBERG ON ART

 

 

 

In this essay I will summarize Clement Greenberg's later views on art (see Clement Greenberg: late Writings, Edited by Robert C. Morgan). These are largely based on a classic of philosophy, Kant's Critique of Judgment. Given the limited scope of our discussion, we will turn to an excellent analysis of that work, "Aesthetic  Judgment" by Nick Zangwill (from the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Let us begin with one of the interviews in Morgan's collection:

 

"T.E.: So what is the "instrument" for measuring aesthetic quality? Sensibility, which is all we have when it comes to art.

T.E.: And that's something we develop?

 

All people are born with the faculty, but I don't think anyone is born with taste (p. 181)."

 

So human beings are born with sensibility: an ability (or in Kantian terms, a faculty) to respond to the aesthetic. The aesthetic includes both works of art and natural objects (e.g. a horse, the nude, a sunset). Through experience (i.e. the study of art and nature) that sensibility is developed into taste. Our responses to the aesthetic reflect this developing taste and are expressed in aesthetic value judgments:

 

"Value judgments constitute the substance of aesthetic experience...They are acts of intuition, and intuition remains unanalyzable (p. 86)."

 

But our immediate responses to the aesthetic, intuitions, precede the arguments and evidence that we may later gather to defend them with value judgments:

 

"(A value judgment doesn't mean a formulation or statement, a putting of something into thoughts; a value judgment takes place; the thoughts and words come afterward.) (p. 87)"

 

However masterful a critic may be in marshalling arguments and evidence in praise of a work of art, it is unlikely to convince anyone who simply doesn't like it:

 

"...it's his (the critic's) reader's or listener's taste that he has to appeal to, not his reason or understanding (p. 89)."

 

And, unlike empirical judgments, which may be proved (or at least, confirmed by experience), aesthetic judgments may not:

 

"Well, you know you can't demonstrate aesthetic judgments, as Kant pointed out. You can't prove them. (p. 174)."

 

For this reason, our taste is a more private matter than is our knowledge of ordinary experience and science:

 

 

"When it comes to aesthetic experience you're all alone to start and end with. Other people's responses may put you under pressure, but what you then have to do is go back and look again, listen again, read again. You can only modify your judgment by re-experiencing (p. 182)."

 

Next, Greenberg explores the conceptualization of art history and our engagement with it as an audience. Our experience of the art of the past always provides a context within which we view new art. We begin with expectations and their satisfaction arising from our experience. This past experience, tradition, provides the framework in which we respond with surprise to a new work of art:

 

"Art, as I've said, depends on expectation and its satisfaction. It moves and satisfies you in a heightened way by surprising expectations...Superior art comes, almost always, out of a tradition- even the superior art that comes early- and a tradition  is created by the interplay of expectation and satisfaction through surprise as this interplay operates not only within individual works of art, but between them. Taste develops as a context of expectations based on experience of previously surprised expectations...the most sophisticated, the best taste with regard to the new art of that moment is the taste which implicitly asks for new surprises, and is ready to have its expectations revised and expanded by the enhanced satisfactions which these may bring. Only the superior artist responds to this kind of challenge, and major art proceeds as one frame of expectations evolves out of, and includes, another (p. 14, 15)."

 

Let us now turn to the Kantian foundation of Greenberg's aesthetics. In "Aesthetic Judgment" by Nick Zangwill, we are presented with an up-to-date discussion of Kant's Critique. For Kant, aesthetics is based on subjectively universal judgments. Firstly, they are subjective, in that they are based on a feeling of pleasure or unpleasure (Greenberg might express this as an intuition), unlike empirical judgments, which are based on objective facts about the world (e.g. the painting is beautiful, as opposed to the painting is twelve by sixteen inches). Secondly, our aesthetic judgments claim universal validity.

 

This is the more controversial of the two conditions of Kant's analysis. It is often suggested that there is no arguing about matters of taste ("De gustibus non est disputandum."), or, alternatively, that taste is relative. But our ordinary practice is otherwise. In matters of taste we often believe others ought to share in our judgments (e.g. that Hamlet is better than "Dick Tracy"; or, alternatively, that it is correct to prefer the former to the latter). That we would abandon this belief to the seeming tolerance of "Each to his own taste", is, according to Kant, to deny that there is such a thing as taste.

 

This doesn't mean that it is always possible to decide between conflicting value judgments. Nor does it does it remove their controversy regarding new works of art. Nevertheless, most of us believe that art is not great simply because we believe it so. Nor is it just a matter of popularity. There is something objective about the superior work of art (Similar arguments about relativism are equally suspect in ethics). But what accounts for this objectivity?

 

"...the objectivity of taste is probably demonstrated in and through the presence of a consensus over time. That consensus makes itself evident in judgments of aesthetic value that stand up under the ever­ renewed testing of experience. Certain works are singled out in their time or later as excelling, and these works continue to excel; that is, they continue to compel those of us who in time after look, listen, or read hard enough. And there's no explaining this durability- the durability which creates a consensus­ except by the fact that taste is ultimately objective (p. 53)."

 

This consensus over time can be viewed as a cannon or pantheon (see Harold Bloom's The Western

Cannon , regarding literature):

 

"All the reputations that have come down to us form a kind of pantheon. There the masters are, and they are there by virtue of what has to be a consensus of taste and nothing else. The fact of that consensus should loom in the awareness of anyone seriously interested in art or music or literature or dance or architecture (p. 56)."

 

That the works of Sophocles, Shakespeare and Milton, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven,  Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Degas loom large over time is not merely an accident or the result of a popularity contest. This cannon is the product of a centuries-long competition between artists. It results in a lasting core of great art- a consensus over time. At this core's periphery is the new art that remains controversial until it is eventually absorbed by the cannon, or is left behind, judged unworthy:

 

"The disagreements show mainly on the margins and fringes of the consensus and have to do usually with contemporary or recent art. Time irons these disagreements out, progressively. Within the core, certain disagreements will continue, but only about ranking: Is Titian or Michelangelo the better painter? Is Mozart or Beethoven the better composer (p. 54)?"

 

But if a consensus over time eventually determines which works belong to the cannon,  is there any further obligation on the part of artists beyond making the best art that they can? Greenberg, coming out of the Trotskyist tradition, reacted strongly to the Stalinist domination of art known as Socialist Realism. Like Trotsky, he believed that artists must be free to express themselves within the "problematics" of the period in which they find themselves. In other words, an artist is born into a particular place and time in art history. What may and may not be done to make good art depends on this historic conjuncture (e.g. Greenberg maintained that during the heroic period of Abstract Expressionism, for instance, the best art was made within that tradition):

 

"...art is an end in itself and the aesthetic is an autonomous value. It could now be acknowledged that art doesn't have to teach, doesn't have to celebrate or glorify anybody or anything, doesn't have to advance causes...AII it has to do is be good as art...art for art's sake still isn't a respectable notion. It's acted on, and in fact it's always been acted on. It's been the underlying reality of the practice of art all along (p. 31)..."

 

Finally, we arrive at the popular belief that Greenberg was an elitist. But what exactly is he being accused of? If it is meant that he felt passionately about the art he championed and the art he deplored, then he certainly was an elitist; but I would maintain that this, in fact, is the role of the critic. If it is meant that Greenberg's taste excluded art that you or I believe to be excellent, then this is simply to admit disagreements between us as to taste. But if it is meant that Greenberg believed that only the privileged and the affluent should have the opportunity to experience great art, then this is certainly

 

false. Greenberg was well aware of the capitalist society in which we live, and the lack of opportunity of the vast majority to create or enjoy art:

 

"The best taste, cultivated taste, is not something within the reach of the ordinary poor or of people without a certain minimum of comfortable leisure (p. 54)."

 

As socialists, we mean to build a society in which all have the opportunity to experience great art.  In a capitalist society- where working people are unable to afford to visit pubic museums, or attend the symphony, opera, theater or ballet {and where art and music are currently being abolished from our children's public schools) - this is surely not the case. With his passionate love of art and knowledge of capitalist inequality, Clement Greenberg would have been among the first to champion the rights of all to enjoy great art.

 

 

© 2015 By Mark Dickman