The Magazine


May 18, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 35 • By ROGER KIMBALL
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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.