Reading For The Rest of The Week of January 29th

Posted: January 25, 2018 in Readings

Here is our next author, Clement Greenberg. I’m furnishing all four essays we’ll discuss, though imagine we will only have time to get to “Avante-Garde and Kitsch,” and perhaps “Towards a Newer Laocoon,” on Monday. We can discuss the other Greenberg essays later.

For the record Greenberg was an American critic who is widely considered one of the most important theorists of modern art. Just one bit of evidence to support this is the painting of Greenberg, by Mark Tansey, which depicts the critic as a victorious general Patton at the Versailles/Bonn Convention(s). We’ll have an occasion to discuss the complexity of Greenberg’s position of authority (along with Tansey’s depiction of him) very soon. Good luck with a handful of reading which may prove to be a formidable challenge. I hope this challenge will be a rewarding experience however. Again, I don’t imagine we’ll have time to discuss all these material in a single day, but here they all are for anyone wishing to get ahead.

Finally, I really enjoyed our meeting today, and I hope you did too. It’s been a good semester so far and I thank you for the efforts and contributions you’ve made so far. Keep up the good work, and see you soon!

Clement Greenberg

“The Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (1939)
“Towards A Newer Laocoön” (1940)
“The Pasted-Paper Revolution” (1948)
“The Plight of Culture” (1953)

(click here for all four essays)


Mark Tansey (American)
The Triumph of The New York School
oil on canvas, 74″ x 120″
The Whitney Museum of American Art
New York City, New York

(click image for names of artists depicted)

  1. Nat says:

    Oh no! The “Art Czar” image links to a “page not found.”

  2. Nat says:

    There’s a phrase that keeps popping up and if I can’t find out what it means on my own, we should address it in class: what are the “plastic arts?” Is he referring specifically to sculpture? Or everything that isn’t written or musical? I’m confused

  3. Kaden Plewe says:

    I thought I had a pretty clear picture of what Greenberg perceived as kitsch when he was explaining the comparison between Repin and Picasso. Then I looked at some of Repin’s paintings and was confused 1) by the decision to compare Repin and Picasso and 2) by Greenberg’s decision to make Repin the primary example of Kitsch.

    Do you know of any Repin paintings that exemplify the kitsch traits that Greenberg describes?

    I was imagining a clear distinction between what Greenberg perceived as great art versus shitty art but it seems to be super subtle; at least to my inexperienced eye.

    • Repin is a prime example of Kitsch because his work requires no particular background knowledge or experience to appreciate. No one would deny that he has technical skill. But his skills are those developed decades prior in a very different part of Europe. Repin only borrows these techniques to ‘illustrate’ more local events. In a word, his paintings are Alexandrian. Meanwhile, Picasso, for all his seeming lack of perfection, is breaking open genuinely new ground.

    • Collin Andersen says:

      A Critique of the Clement Greenberg’s Framework of thought on Art and Culture


      Last time we met on Wednesday, our class was informed we were “free to disagree with the writings, but only if you can support your criticism. Think carefully before you open your mouth, because you can be certain the author put a lot of thought in as well”

      There’s my green light. Would I have written criticism if express permission hadn’t been expressly enumerated? Most certainly. I didn’t need a go ahead to raise my eyebrow at Coleridge’s writing style. But to lay open the CONTENT of a piece, in earnest? That’s a calculated risk. The ideal instructor is passionate about the material, and grade system rewards students who play it safe in criticism to avoid antagonizing the teacher.

      Before even touching on points of disagreement, I’m giving credit where credit is due. Greenberg has re-framed the way I view unconventional art – and when I say re-frame, I mean that in the sense “put it back in its physical frame where it belongs.” The argument that artists pretend the canvas is an invisible window as though the artist is ashamed she had to use paper at all? Instant chills. An excellent defense has been put forward for the relevance of the Avant-garde, and this juror-of-one is convinced. As I walked down the hall following discussion, I smiled at the odd black and white canvases on the wall. So compelling were the arguments for the art that inspires “reflection”, I found myself instantly fond of unusual art everywhere.

      I confess to have felt genuine awe at moments of this reading. Greenberg’s power to persuade and biting arguments are, in fact, exactly the reason I choose to disagree with him. Just because one makes some good arguments in a work does not make EVERY argument good. It actually makes it easier to slip in some half-baked arguments in to make sweeping generalizations more powerful. So here’s the main areas I assert he went wrong:

      1. Narrative is arbitrarily assigned as the domain of literature. Greenberg’s argument is that when art is employed to tell a story, it has become a “subservient” art to literature. Therefore, it is valueless in this form. But why on Earth does writing get a monopoly on the description of events? I can argue that writing has been stealing from the visual, or from the theater. Many cultures have painted pictures to tell history long before they wrote words. Furthermore, words and letters are evolution of pictures.

      2. Using an art form for one purpose does not preclude the use in a second purpose. Each medium of art can be employed in a variety of ways to elevate the human experience, for instance Use of art to inform and capture the human imagination is invaluable, BOTH in “cause” and “effect”. I’m going to grant Greenberg that medium-only art is unparalleled in its field.Perhaps this is because it won’t convey cheep emotion to a viewer, leaving art-inspired feeling to surface without competition in the appreciative viewer. However, the tone of negativity towards kitche, hinting at the corrosion of culture, ect, is unwarranted. I will (metaphorically) remind Greenberg that if his puritanism of art had extended to language, his essay would have been impossible. That’s right Greenberg – your emotionally charged language and academically organized arguments are a load of language kitche. You’ve cannibalized the medium for the sake of “effect”.

      All said and done, I have come out better for reading these.

      • I’m glad you’ve chosen to read Greenberg seriously and with an open mind. It’s something which many persons find extremely hard, if not entirely impossible to do. To my mind, it’s simply more satisfying and helpful to find things to like in an author, rather than reasons to dismiss their work. I certainly don’t require that anyone accept that Greenberg, or any other assigned author, is correct. I only hope that students will find the readings interesting and instructive.

        You’re correct in saying that Greenberg believes that narrative does not belong in visual art. This is hardly to say that there is no visual art with stories in it. History is teaming with examples of this, as it is teaming with examples of authors who writing long ‘picturesque’ descriptive passages. If there were no such examples, there would be nothing for Greenberg to argue. So, his point is that the best art in his day is free of narrative, and that the best art of the past is good precisely because narrative is either avoided, or it is not the main point of interest. This is especially true of medieval and Renaissance art. As Greenberg states, because content was mandated by the artist’s patron (usually the Church) the needn’t be a consideration for the artist, who was then free to focus on form. Certainly there are no legal prohibitions (at this time in this country) to prevent someone from telling stories with paint or stone. Greenberg’s contention, which he get’s from Lessing’s statement of 1767, is that different mediums have different capacities. What one can do, out of its own intrinsic resources, another can’t, and vice versa.

        Another famous scholar, Johann Winkelmann, had tried to find meaning in the pained but restrained expression of the subject of the famous sculpture, saying it expresses something of the greatness of the Greek soul. Lessing, in a startling move, argues that the subject’s face is calm, not because of his depth of character, but rather because depicting him as screaming in pain and terror (as Virgil does in the Aeneid) which make the sculpture ugly. Simply put, things that are tastefully done in literature cannot be tastefully done in visual art. Here, Lessing flatly rejects one of the oldest dicta regarding the arts: ‘ut pictura poesis’ (poetry is like a painting). This turn toward the examination of the specificity of each medium is one of the major sources toward the emergence of modern art. The point of artistic experimentation is to throw off the burden of feeling obligated to exceed the innate capacities of a given medium and settle into what is unique to it, the result of which will be art works that are true to themselves, free of deceptive illusion, and avowedly material. For Greenberg, this new responsibility to medium specificity offers a invigorating and productive challenge. Rather than merely reproducing styles of the past, with only incidental variations and improvements, this turn toward medium specificity actually leads a number of artists to produce works which are genuinely new. In a word, medium specificity prevents Alexandrianism and academism.

        I think it’s the determination to avoid the formulaic which is responsible for Greenberg’s particular style of writing. Recall that Greenberg is a critic, not a poet or novelist. He’s under no obligation to avoid description. Indeed, his perceptive eye and powers of description allow him to offer one of the first and most influential explanations of where modernist abstraction actually came from and how it operates. Rather than simply saying, in the 20th century artists suddenly got spiritual, or suddenly lost interest in the objective world, for reasons we can’t entirely explain; Greenberg instead shows how concentrating on the medium necessarily produces abstract art, and for reasons that are materially demonstrable. While criticism is not art, it nevertheless remains the case that there are certain recognizable conventions of academic writing. Greenberg’s edgy, declarative, and unapologetic style seem to me to reflect not only his personality, but, more fundamentally, his determination not to sound like a typical academic. I picture him at the typewriter, hunting and pecking at the keys, with a smoke in his mouth and a bottle of whiskey on the table.

        Certainly, it will bother many persons to have a critic inform them that some of their very favorite works are not especially good. I think one of the exciting aspects of Intellectual Traditions classes is to confront persons with the opportunity to confront this challenge. I mention it hear, only in passing. But we will discuss the topic far more directly when we get to Leo Steinberg, whom I have already posted on the blog.

  4. Collin Andersen says:

    I’ve since revised some of my criticisms since my last post. I can pinpoint more specifically where I think he went wrong and what he got right. Instead than getting into all that though, I’d rather share a couple of ideas that crystallized in the process of examining the logic of these essays:

    – If the industrial revolution and the printing press has endangered art through pumping out kitche, then literature faces the same plight. “Dime novels”, comic books, Gothic poetry and Youtube troll comments are sensational and always highly in demand. Whatever shall the classics do?!
    – Kitche did not create this culture. Low humor, juicy sensation, cheap parody – these have long been popular in both the lower and upper class. Point and case – gossip and the atrociously predictable Greek theater (proud patron of the deus ex machina). But when writing a book or doing a painting had to be done by hand, there isn’t much point exhausting effort for garbage.

    – More importantly, I don’t think this is a bad thing or a destroyer of culture. Sure, maybe if you asked people for an example of quality music or writing, you won’t get as many who say Shakespeare or Beethoven. But Greenberg said that the lower class believed in the quality of the higher art “by superstition”. If you believe that Shakespeare is the pinnacle of plays because people around you speak highly of it but you’ve never seen a play, that is not better! That’s like voting for Putin in a Russian election – it means nothing because you’re never given a legitimate alternative.

    – I contend that kitche empowers the avant-garde by contrasting it. The prevalence of cheap thrill inspires select individuals to pursue the deeper and more profound. Art, rather than in a state of degeneration, is following a trajectory of culture-counter culture. This is very much a simplification, however.

    – Strangest of all the realizations might be that non-fiction art…might not be art? The English language is deficient in this area. We have two definitions of art fused into one:
    1. A work or expression of human creativity that inspires emotion or touches deeper aesthetic values.
    2. What an artist produces.
    Non-fiction artwork, like that battle scene Greenberg mentioned, is the visual equivalent of a history textbook or essay. While the artist certainly uses creativity in the work, so does the essayist. Because both attempt to minimize “artistic license” on every verifiable fact (a true non-fiction painter will not draw George Washington crossing the Delaware on an innertube holding a machine gun) creativity is only employed very conservatively on the unknown. Therefore, either non-fiction writing is art, or non-fiction artwork is not. The battle scene is not kitche it can’t meet the qualifications to be kitche.

    Who’da thought?

    Remember Anton Ego from Ratatouille? He is so Greenberg! I can totally see him saying something like this in support of Jackson Pollack or the avant-garde.

    “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the *new*. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.”

    • Seems you are racing through many topics in a single comment. You range from Greenberg, to Greek tragedy, to Shakespeare, to Putin, to animated films. That makes it somewhat difficult for me to respond thoroughly. I can offer this for the moment: what you say about the avant-garde needing kitsch is something we will address soon. It will come up for discussion in at least two future reading assignments. One of the reasons I don’t want to dwell too long in certain authors – despite appearances – is because I want to make sure we have time to get to others I have in mind. They are highly critical of Greenberg’s position. Still, it is important to note that Greenberg himself acknowledges the close relationship between avant-garde and kitsch. In his opinion, kitsch cannot exist without an avant-garde on which to predate. We shall see, though, that certain critics see the flow running in the opposite direction. There can be no avant-garde without a steady supply of kitsch. We won’t get into postmodernism quite yet. Like philosopher Jean-Francios Lyotard – one of the first and most influential thinkers on postmodernism – I believe people are too hasty to dismiss modernism, as though we’d already come to terms with it. That said, one of the foremost tenets of postmodernism is that high and low culture can’t be distinguished from one another, no more than can pure art and commercial art. Again, I don’t want to leap into this debate prematurely. I just want to assure you that none of our critics, irrespective of where they fall on the syllabus, will be allowed to have the final word.

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