In 1971 Clement Greenberg offered nine seminar sessions at Bennington College. In an effort to develop the thoughts expressed at the seminar, Greenberg wrote eight essays that were published in various art magazines between 1972 and 1979. The seminar transcripts and the eight essays are collected in a book published in 1999 called Homemade Esthetics (Oxford, 1999). The essays are less formal than the reviews and essays published in Collected Essays and Criticism, and the focus is different. Rather than dealing with particular artists or trends in the art world, the essays in Homemade Esthetics are polemical and somewhat theoretical, analyzing the nature of esthetic experience and judgment, such as whether esthetic judgments can be “objective”, the nature of intuition and aesthetic value and so on. That is, the essays were written at a time in the recent past when a college student might take courses called “Esthetics” as opposed to, say, “Cultural Studies”.
The details of Greenberg’s views on esthetic experience are, for me, less interesting than the passion with which he articulates them. That passion reflects a lifetime of looking at paintings and sculptures and Greenberg’s commitment to a practice of art criticism that is based not on theories but on the author’s personal experience of particular works of art. It was his faith in the truth of his own intuitions that showed Greenberg the uniqueness and self-sufficiency of esthetic experience, just as a person’s experience of conversion teaches the nature of religious faith; his reading of Kant’s Critique of Judgment and Croce’s Esthetics only confirmed what he already knew – that intuition is the foundation of and provides the data for any genuine esthetic judgment. Although he is popularly known as the inventor and rather dogmatic proponent of a theory of modernism as the self-criticism of an artistic medium, Greenberg was always at his best when describing how particular art works or tendencies in art work on our minds by means of the eye. More than any other 20th century critic, reading Greenberg allows one to come to terms with the fact that in the experience of great art, it is as if the mind functions as an organ of sense and the eye as a source of intellectual conviction.
The depth of Greenberg’s commitment to a particular way of looking at painting and sculpture is best measured when we consider the historical context in which these seminars and essays were produced. The late 1960s and early ‘70s were a time when the high modernism that Greenberg had championed for around three decades had run its course in the United States and Europe, and was being displaced by a different conception of art-making and appreciation. What was really new in trends like pop art, minimalism, performance art, etc., was not so much the revolutionary fervor of their proponents but their implicit and sometimes explicit declaration that the idea of quality was irrelevant to their artistic practices. For Greenberg, nothing counts as “art” at all unless it persuades the viewer as to its artistic quality, and the mode of conviction associated with quality is necessarily a matter of individual experience rather than of logic. An object doesn’t count as art unless and until it convinces us that it is good or bad art, and logically it cannot be good or bad art unless it is art. The reasoning appears to be circular, but not necessarily as a vicious circle because it accurately reflects the data provided by our own experience and by the way we talk about art. In a gallery or museum or artist’s studio we do not encounter objects that are somehow classified as “art”, and then decide whether these are beautiful or moving or not. Rather, it is only in and through our judgment of the thing’s artistic quality (good or bad) that it is treated as art in the first place.
In any event, during the late 1960s it had become apparent that the operative question was no longer “is it good art?” but rather “is it art or something else?” The eclipse of the idea of quality occurred at a time when challenges to authority had migrated from society’s fringes to become the norm, and the concept of artistic “taste” was seen as an expression of elitism based on unexamined assumptions including the anti-democratic assumption that some people (e.g., wealthy white males in coastal urban centers) are better qualified than others to judge artistic achievements and aspirations. Dispensing with the idea of artistic quality meant dispensing with the practice of evaluative art criticism, which had been Greenberg’s professional livelihood throughout his entire career. This is the context in which the seminars and essays collected in Homemade Esthetics must be read, and it explains to some extent the force of Greenberg’s rhetoric.
Greenberg response to the “elitism” of taste was twofold. On the one hand he frankly admitted that of course art-making as well as art criticism are meritocracies – how could they not be? Esthetic experience consists in the attribution of value, therefore necessarily involves evaluation, comparison, discrimination. It’s just an undeniable fact that one’s experience in viewing a painting by Rembrandt is different from that of viewing a painting by, say, Norman Rockwell – there is so much more to be gotten out of the former relative to the latter and while it may not be “fair” in an egalitarian sense to notice, not to notice the differences is equivalent to not really look at either painting, not to see each either one as a painting at all. If the difference between good painting and bad painting is given up or pushed aside for ideological reasons (reasons that by definition have nothing to do with the nature and quality of one’s own experience), you may as well give up the idea of art altogether. On the other hand, Greenberg was equally insistent that in the larger scheme of things (say from the perspective of morality or justice), the value of art is relatively low on the scale of things that are truly important in our world. To say that one person’s taste is more refined or more insightful than another’s is not to say that that the connoisseur ranks higher on the scale of moral value than the philistine, and either one may or may not be a person of moral principle in matters other than art. “Not all the art ever made, not all the esthetic experience ever relished, is worth the life of a single human being. I would deplore anyone’s risking his or her life in order to save the contents of the Louvre.” (64)
Greenberg says that the irrelevance of quality in the latest art is related to its indifference to convention – one of the provocative insights to be found in Homemade Esthetics. The medium of painting consists not in a set of material objects and tools, but in certain conventions that historically have allowed painters to use those materials to make themselves intelligible in ways that are specific to the art of painting. At any given moment in the history of painting, the artist inherits those conventions as a kind of resistance – resistance that at once forces and enables the artist to formulate or formalize personal feelings in painterly terms. Resistance – the resistance of physical materials such as paint and canvas and of impersonal norms such as flatness and rectilinearity – forces the artist to make decisions. It is in apprehending the artist’s decisions and their significance – their “intensity and density” – that the viewer finds – or fails to find – value, quality and interest in a work of art.
In a remark that might have been found in Wittgenstein’s later notebooks, Greenberg writes (emphasis added), “It used to be that the tutored artist failed through wrong or incomplete decisions; but the wrongness or the incompleteness came under the pressure of conventions, which made them ‘meant’ decisions. This is why even the failed results could be interesting, at least up to a point.” (49-50) The interesting point here is the linking of the concepts of “decisions”, “pressure”, “convention” and “meant”. When feeling or intention comes up against convention, the artist must decide – he or she must choose a way around or through or over or under (so to speak) the obstacle, and the result is a release of pressure. From the viewer’s perspective, it is in perceiving the work as the result of the artist’s decision-making with regard to convention that we see that the work is meant, or not, where “meant” means something like “carries conviction.”
The problem with the self-proclaimed avant garde is, according to Greenberg, that it is indifferent to convention. Therefore, we do not feel that the artist’s decisions are meant, or that they are really decisions at all. (It is part of the grammar of “deciding” that decisions are made under pressure.) “What is relatively new about the badness of recent ‘advanced’ art – new, that is, in the context of formal art – is that it is so boring and vacuous. This, because of the large absence of decisions that could be felt as ‘meant,’ as intuited and pressured, and not just taken by default.” (49) A comparison of Picasso’s base-relief sculptures made around 1913 with Marcel Duchamp’s first ready-mades at the same time reveals the distinction between decisions that are meant and those that are not.
By the time he made Mandoline, Picasso had already engaged with and altered the norms that allow three-dimensional reality to be depicted in a painting made on a two-dimensional flat surface. Mandoline extends the logic of the collage, transposing the shallow layered planes of cubist painting into the literal space occupied by the viewer. Projecting ourselves into the position of an early 20th-century viewer (i.e., a viewer not already accustomed to the radical changes in painting and sculpture that Picasso’s work enabled), it’s easy to imagine the shock it must have elicited. I imagine it was an essential part of that shock that the piece be seen and accepted as a sculpture. Shocking because one might have assumed – without really looking, as it were – that a sculpture is a solid mass that is sculpted or worked (carved, molded, formed, etc.) into an illusion. But here is something that is intuitively (and thus undeniably) a sculpture, and it is precisely not carved or molded or formed or worked. The point is this: Mandoline (and other works similarly inspired) could not have altered the norms and conventions of the art of sculpture had it not been apprehended on an intuitive level as a work of sculpture.
On the other hand, Bicycle Wheel simply abandons the norms that Picasso challenges. I imagine that upon first encounter with the piece, the early 20th-century viewer would have asked herself, “is it a sculpture or is it something else?” And the answer to that question could only be provided by intellect, by way of a theory, not intuition. Although our 21st century sensibilities have been conditioned by decades of Duchamp-style cynicism, we may find ourselves asking ourselves the same questions today concerning the objects exhibited by Duchamp’s many artistic heirs. Are not the conventions that define sculpture merely arbitrary at the end of the day? And if those conventions are arbitrary, then by implication so are the rest of the conventions that inform us that art-objects are somehow different from other objects we encounter in the world. Duchamp’s read-made raises these questions as if a work of art were a kind of artifact to be examined and classified according to an established cultural taxonomy that is prejudicial to begin with and can simply be cast aside in the quest for the new and different. There is surely a truth buried in Duchamp’s questions, but the truth emerges as a feat of intellection, not an achievement of intuition. The first viewers of Picasso’s Mandoline knew it was a sculpture; and because they accepted it as a sculpture, its innovations must have invited them to ask themselves if they really knew why they accepted anything as a sculpture. By contrast, to see Bicycle Wheel as a sculpture would be to miss the point – the point being that literally any ordinary can be seen as a sculpture if only it is placed in a space (e.g., a gallery or museum) traditionally occupied by works of so-called “art” – and if that is the case, so is its reverse: no object, including objects made by history’s most accomplished practitioners of sculpture, must be seen as so-called “art”. It is always open to human beings to miss what it is that makes art worth the bother.
Only an object that is accepted as a painting or a sculpture can provide a criticism of and therefore, potentially, effectuate an alteration of the norms that allow us to recognize anything as a painting or a sculpture in the first instance. It follows that these norms are constantly changing (although not “evolving”), sometimes in ways that are incremental, sometimes revolutionary. Only someone committed to the art of sculpture and acting within the framework of that art is capable of changing the criteria for what counts as a sculpture. Duchamp shows us that anyone, even an outsider, can comment on the art of sculpture, but why do we need to be told that? After all, anyone can comment on anything, but that fact does not imply that just any comment is relevant or pertinent or enlightening or helpful or interesting.
Greenberg says that when criteria of quality disappear from art-making, art as such disappears. “…when no esthetic value judgment, no verdict of taste is there, then art isn’t there either, then esthetic experience of any kind isn’t there. It’s as simple as that.” (62) Why is this? The comparison of Picasso’s Guitar with Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel shows us that what Greenberg calls “taste” is not a matter of psychology but of logic. Nothing, not shaped and painted slats and sheets of wood or familiar objects placed on stools in the manner of a pedestal – no set of material objects or tools counts as a medium of sculpture – in the absence of the art of sculpture. For human beings, material things have only the sense we give them; the materials and tools wielded by the sculptor can be the medium of an art only insofar as they are used by human beings to make sense to one another. It follows, according to the logic of modernism, that the continued existence of an art is never physically assured. Rather, the continued existence of an art is something that must be achieved, and it is achieved only in the making of objects that bear up to standards of quality inherited from the historical past.