Clement Greenberg

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Tuesday 22 November 2011
Ron Brownson

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A few days ago an artist told me how he admired Clement Greenberg’s writings. I was not able to respond sufficiently as it is some years since I read Greenberg’s essays. Also, he has a reputation of being a formalist that despised the social and cultural significance of visual art. A sort of proto post-modernist without the European theoretical underpinnings.

Today, Greenberg is considered a fusty and opinionated critic. Upon re-reading a few volumes I find that he is more impressive a writer than I recalled. His humour is delicious and is totally yiddish in its genesis.

Greenberg’s important essay on art criticism was published posthumously inPartisan Review 1981 Volume XLVII Number 1, the issue dedicated to The State of Criticism. It is also published in Clement Greenberg - the Collected Essays and Criticism, volume 4, edited by John O'Brian. You can access this fantastic essay here.

Here is a selection of Clement Greenberg’s statements:
All profoundly original work looks ugly at first.

The making of superior art is arduous, usually. But under Modernism the appreciation, even more than the making, of it has become more taxing, the satisfaction and exhilaration to be gotten from the best new art more hard-won.

The essence of Modernism lies, as I see it, in the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence.

You do most of your talking about the works and try to say why you think every artist is a law to himself. There's no method.

The trouble with Michelangelo's sculpture is that it's too slick. He was damned good, but he was too arty.

You like it, that's all, whether it's a landscape or abstract. You like it. It hits you. You don't have to read it. The work of art-sculpture or painting-forces your eye.

When you're young and you maybe can't see art, you're interested in the story.

We have differences but we're not made different. If you don't agree with me, you're wrong.

If you want to change your art, change your habits.

When photography's good, let me put it that way, it's as good as painting.
If you really want to get a taste of how incisive Clement Greenberg was about art, watch him speaking about Marcel Duchamp:


Russell Bingham conducted a fascinating interview with Clement Greenberg, which is published in the Edmonton Contemporary Artists’ society newsletter volume 3, issue 2 and volume 4 issue 1:

Russell Bingham: Do you think photography is art.

Clement Greenberg: Of course it is. You're making me rehearse things I've already written. Anything can be experienced aesthetically and the line between art and non-art is so indefinite

RB: Major art, would you say? Have you seen any photography that is major art?

CG: I've never been asked that question before. I don't know. The photographer I admired most in my own time was Walker Evans because in a manner of speaking he told a story. The other was Atget, in the early part of this century, who everybody admires, and they're right to. His pictures don't exactly tell a story, but what I've noticed about good photography is that a good photograph always has some evidence of humanity in it. So you can get a good photograph of a road because humans have built the road. And here's where the subject matter determines everything and not formal qualities.

You will be interested to know that Clement Greenberg visited New Zealand in July 1968. He is recorded as being impressed with the art of Colin McCahon and Toss Woollaston. More about this visit later!