Skip to main content

Clement Greenberg

Clement Greenberg (1909-1994), although an art critic, not an artist, is to me the most fascinating figure in 20th century U.S. art history.

He first made a splash with the essay "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," published in the Partisan Review in 1939. Here, BTW, is a link to a discussion of the history of the PR. But I'm more interested in that word "kitsch." Nowadays it has a somewhat more favorable, or at least a less unfavorable, meaning than Greenberg meant to give it, in appropriating the German word for tacky.

Greenberg would dislike the note of sentimental indulgence that has crept into some usages of the word. He wrote, "Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money -- not even their time." No fondness of any sort there.

Moving on ... Greenberg is perhaps best remembered as the great enthusiast of the New York School, the abstract expressionists around Jackson Pollock, after the war. I've pasted a photo of Pollock's Lavender Mist (1950) above.

Amongst his writings in that vein, the one that comes to mind first is an essay, "The Crisis of the Easel Picture." A painting the right size to allow the inference that it was created on an easel is also a painting of the right size to hang on a wall, and create what Greenberg called "the illusion of a box-like cavity" in that wall.

Pollock didn't paint on an easel. At least those works for which he acquired his own notoriety weren't created that way. He used much larger canvases than those we associate with easels, they were affixed to the floor of his studio, and he poured or dripped paints down upon them. Here's a discussion and demonstration. of the technique on YouTube. Greenberg was saying that this dripping is one response possible to a crisis created by, for example, Matisse and the attack upon three-dimensionality.

I bet you didn't recognize, when I referred to Greenberg's first "splash" at the start of this post, that I punning.


Popular posts from this blog

Great Chain of Being

One of the points that Lovejoy makes in the book of that title I mentioned last week is the importance, in the Neo-Platonist conceptions and in the later development of the "chain of being" metaphor, of what he calls the principle of plenitude. This is the underlying notion that everything that can exist must exist, that creation would not be possible at all were it to leave gaps.

The value of this idea for a certain type of theodicy is clear enough.

This caused theological difficulties when these ideas were absorbed into Christianity.  I'll quote a bit of what Lovejoy has to say about those difficulties:

"For that conception, when taken over into Christianity, had to be accommodated to very different principles, drawn from other sources, which forbade its literal interpretation; to carry it through to what seemed to be its necessary implications was to be sure of falling into one theological pitfall or another."

The big pitfalls were: determinism on the on…

A Story About Coleridge

This is a quote from a memoir by Dorothy Wordsworth, reflecting on a trip she took with two famous poets, her brother, William Wordsworth, and their similarly gifted companion, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

We sat upon a bench, placed for the sake of one of these views, whence we looked down upon the waterfall, and over the open country ... A lady and gentleman, more expeditious tourists than ourselves, came to the spot; they left us at the seat, and we found them again at another station above the Falls. Coleridge, who is always good-natured enough to enter into conversation with anybody whom he meets in his way, began to talk with the gentleman, who observed that it was a majestic waterfall. Coleridge was delighted with the accuracy of the epithet, particularly as he had been settling in his own mind the precise meaning of the words grand, majestic, sublime, etc., and had discussed the subject with William at some length the day before. “Yes, sir,” says Coleridge, “it is a majestic wate…