Marcel Duchamp

#70. Carl Kandutsch writes on Greenberg’s Homemade Esthetics

Pablo Picasso, “Mandoline et Clarinette”, 1913, Musée National Picasso, Paris

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.

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