Florence Rubenfeld

Clement Greenberg

A Life

Scribner, 448 pp., $ 29.50

Even bad books have their uses. Florence Rubenfeld's new biography of the art critic Clement Greenberg is a case in point. It is a very bad book indeed, littered with errors large and small, and reading more like an exercise in character assassination than a biography of an important cultural figure.

To be sure, Greenberg, who died in 1994 at the age of 85, was not nice. Arrogant, lecherous, and manipulative, he managed sooner or later to alienate everyone he dealt with. His consumption of alcohol was prodigious, with predictable results on his behavior.

But it was not Greenberg's depressingly common personal failings that justify Rubenfeld's writing or our reading his biography. On the contrary, it is his impersonal achievements that make his story worth commemorating: Greenberg was one of the greatest art critics America has yet produced. Rubenfeld knows this, but only from the outside, from hearsay. Greenberg was a man steeped in high culture. His professional life was a series of battles to preserve the integrity of art in the face of myriad efforts to cheapen, debase, or trivialize it. Rubenfeld represents the party of trivilization. Her discussions of Greenberg's ideas are like a game of Russian telephone: A message gets through, but it is garbled in transmission.

Still, Rubenfeld's book is useful as a mnemonic. In the art world and the academy today, Clement Greenberg's work is mostly remembered only to be rejected. Greenberg was a critic who believed firmly in the irreducibility of aesthetic experience -- that "a work of art has its own ends," as he put it in 1946, "which it includes in itself and which have nothing to do with the fate of society."

This idea -- and the corollary that criticism must strive to be disinterested in its judgments -- is of course unacceptable to the many critics who seek to subordinate art to some extra-artistic agenda (feminist, Marxist, homosexual, or whatever) and who view criticism as a continuation of politics by other means.

A second thing that makes Greenberg unacceptable to the cultural establishment today is his insistence on clarity. Like George Orwell, Greenberg was a critic who believed that lucid prose was a moral as well as a stylistic imperative. In a time when polysyllable hermeticism is widely regarded as a sign of profundity, Greenberg's spare, bluntly formulated prose is about as welcome as a slap in the face.

In fact, whatever one thinks of Greenberg's particular judgments (his most famous enthusiasm -- for Jackson Pollock and Abstract Expressionism -- was wildly excessive), his seriousness and integrity as a critic make him very much worth returning to.

"How Art Writing Earns Its Bad Name," an essay that Greenberg published in Encounter in December 1962, has particular bearing on current trends in art criticism. Greenberg's point of departure is a celebrated but incoherent description by the critic Harold Rosenberg of "action painting" (a phrase that encapsulates an entire tradition of critical nonsense). Greenberg's larger target in the essay, however, is the growing trend towards obfuscation and pretentiousness in art criticism. "Vistas of inanity open up," he wrote, " that would have made Apollinaire or Elie Faure blanch. Things that would get expelled from other kinds of writing by laughter multiply and flourish in art writing."

Greenberg was writing before Jacques Derrida and his minions spread the disease to writing about literature and other subjects. The pattern, however, is everywhere the same. Heavy with a load of pretentious terminology cribbed from other disciplines, such writings is no simply fake criticism, it is fake everything: "pseudo-description," Greenberg calls it, as well as "pseudo- narrative, pseudo-exposition, pseudo-history, pseudo-philosophy, pseudo- psychology, and . . . pseudo-poetry."

Perhaps the most common way that art writing earns its bad name is through simple inflation. The aim is glamour by association: A battery of important names is requisitioned to enhance the status of some second- or third-rate talent. Consider the contemporary artist Frank Stella. For some time now, his works have looked liked nothing so much as car wrecks hauled off to a vacant lot to rust and collect litter. An exhibition of Stella's work currently on view at the prestigious Knoedler Gallery in New York is accompanied by a glossy pamphlet in which Dante, Beethoven, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Goya, and T. S. Eliot are enlisted to add luster to Stella's reputation. And that is just in the first paragraph.

Inflation operates in other ways, too. One common procedure is inflation through contradiction. An artist produces shopworn work that is pornographic or blasphemous or both -- but claims that his work is full of deep philosophical and spiritual significance. The critic's job is clear: Take what the artist says at face value and embroider it. In England, Gilbert Proesch and George Passmore -- the artistic duo known as Gilbert & George -- have accomplished prodigies of obfuscation using his technique. Their artworks belong essentially to a species of scatological Pop Art: huge photographic collages of the two men, often naked, generally accompanied by images of excrement or other bodily effluvia. The scatological title of one recent exhibition, "The Naked Sh-t Pictures," admirably sums up the spirit of their work.

But it is part of Gilbert & George's act to prose as moralists whose art is wrestling with profound religious questions. "We believe our art can form morality in our time," George modestly remarked in one typical statement. What is amazing is the extent to which even well-established critics have acquiesced in this nonsense. Writing about "The Naked Sh-t Pictures" in the Daily Telegraph in 1995, Richard Dorment invoked famous altarpieces as a precedent. In the Sunday Telegraph, John McEwen, spoke of the duo's "self- sacrifice for a higher cause, which is purposely moral and indeed Christian." Not to be outdone, David Sylvester wrote in the Guardian that"these pictures have a plenitude, as if they were Renaissance pictures of male nudes in action." The most egregious example -- so far -- of such Gilbert-&- Gergeolatry came last spring when Robert Rosenblum had this to say about their exhibition in New York:

Brilliantly transforming the visible world into emblems of the spirit, Gilbert & George create from these miscroscopic facts an unprecedented heraldry that, in a wild mutation of Stations of the Cross, fuses body and soul, life and death. Once again, they have crossed a new threshold, opening unfamiliar gates of eternity.

All that one can answer to such a sermon is, Amen.

There are other ways besides inflation that art writing earns its bad name. Linguistic terrorism is one. Able practitioners of the art of writing badly about art are legion, but a few rise above the multitude by combining barbarous prose, preposterous ideas, and unremitting pretentiousness. A long- standing champion is Rosalind Krauss, founding editor of the reader-proof Marxist quarterly October and professor of art history at Columbia University. Krauss's works are a gold mine for connoissuers of intellectualized cant. In her book The Optical Unconscious, for example, she explains the relation between the theories of Jacques Lacan and modernist art:

Would it be possible to modify the L Schema as the basis for mapping a visuality that both subtends and subverts the field of modernist vision in the same way that Lacan's psychoanalytic circuity erodes the structuralist relations from within? For if the mirror relation as it is graphed in the L Schema divides the subject from the unconscious, by driving a wedge of opacity through the diagonal center of the graph, it is nonetheless true that the subject is the effect of the unconscious, or what needs now to be called a "subject-effect."

A third way in which art writing earns its bad name is through sex, the ickier the better. Artists long ago caught on to the advantages of using perverse sexuality to endow their works with a "transgressive" glow. But critics have not been content merely to extol such works as Robert Mapplethorpe's obscene photographs. The entire history of art has been turned into fodder for outre erotic imaginings.

One typical example was offered recently by Svetlana Alpers, a distinguished professor of art history at th eUniversity of California at Berkeley, in her book The Making of Rubens. The mildly obscene pun in the title -- such puns are a staple of trendy criticism today -- is a first clue to the contents of the book, and perhaps Alper's most memorable claim is that Peter Paul Rubens's picture Drunken Silenus (c. 1618) is a self-portrait that depicts a scene of anal rape. This may or may not be a shocking claim, but it is certainly a ridiculous one.

But of such stuff are large reputations made today. A classic example of the genre is found in the well-known critic Michael Fried's discussion of Gustave Courbet's 1856 painting of a hunting scene. Depicting a moment of rest after a successful hunt, Courbet's The Quarry shows, in the left foreground, a vanquished deer hanging from a branch, its head lolling sideways on the ground. To the right, receding into a shadow, the hunter -- generally thought to be a self-portrait -- leans back dreamily against a tree. Further to the right, the piqueur, the master of the hounds, sits in a brilliant slip of light blowing a hunting horn. In the right foreground two dogs, also brightly illuminated, frisk playfully.

One might wonder where in this forest scene one could conjure sex. A tired hunter, self-absorbed piqueur, two dogs, and a dead deer may not seem much to work with. Not to worry.

"I for one," Professor Fried confides, "am struck by the implied violence of the exposure to the hunter's viewpoint of the dead roe deer's underside, specifically including its genitals." From here it is but a short jump to a stratosphere of rebarative verbal eroticism: "The last observation may seem excessive," Professor Fried allows.

For one thing, I am attaching considerable significance to a "side" of the roe deer we cannot see as well as to a bodily organ that isn't actually depicted. For another, the hunter isn't looking at the roe deer but faces in a different direction. But I would encounter that we are led to imagine the roe deer's genitals or at any rate to be aware of their existence by the exposure to our view of the roe deer's anus, a metonymy for the rest. . . . I would further suggest that, precisely because the roe deer's anus stands for so much we cannot see . . . such an effect of equivalence or translatability may be taken as indicating that the first, imaginary point of view is more important, and in the end more "real," than the second.

Of course, once one accepts that "the imaginary point of view is more important" than what one discerns with one's own eyes, anything goes. Which is precisely why Fried's procedure of giving precedence to the imaginery is so popular among those contributing to art writing's bad name.

But if art writing has earned its bad name many times over, it remains to ask why this form of fatuity is so popular among our intellectual elites. Part of the reason is a kind of emotional dissociation from first-hand experience of art that seems to be a perennial temptation for intellectuals. The early nineteenth-century English critic William Hazlitt touched on this is his description of "hieroglyphical" writers. "Such persons," Hazlitt wrote, "are in fact besotted with words, and their brains are turned with the glittering, but empty and sterile phantoms of things. . . . Images stand out in their minds isolated and important merely in themselves, whithout any ground-work of feeling."

But another part of the reason that bad criticism has been so successful has to do with that perverted but widespread romanticism that mistakenly elevates art over life and gleefully dispenses with accepted canons of taste and morality for the sake of aesthetic effect.

Greenberg was right to criticize the "art-adoration that prevails among cultured people, . . . that art-silliness which condones almost any moral or intellectual failing on the artist's part as long as he is or seems a successful artist. . . . As it is, psychopathy has become endemic among artists and writers, in whose company the moral idiot is tolerated as perhaps nowhere else in society."

What is saddest, of course, is that the effect of such "art-adoration" is not to enhance but to distort one's appreciation of art. As critics busy themselves earning art writing its bad name, they do a great deal to discredit the art they profess to exalt.

Roger Kimball is managing editor of the New Criterion.

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