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IRRELEVANCE VERSUS IRRESPONSIBILITY

Clement Greenberg

 

The recent questioning of the validity of modern painting in this, its post-Cubist stage-as we see such questioning, for instance, in Geoffrey Grigson's article, "Authentic and False in the New 'Romanticism'," in the March Horizon and in the remarks quoted indirectly therein from Gide and the late Coomaraswamy— reflects again the fallacies to which any criticism of a non-literary art commits itself when it relies largely on discourse, and when, in addition, the amateur's distance is assumed to be adequate to serious discussion. Once again we hear that by devoting himself to means instead of ends the contemporary advanced artist has reduced himself to a technician, performer, virtuoso, at best a mere exponent of his own sensibility whose work must lack real "human" import.

Modern art lacks a subject (end), lacks "humanity," etc. - how many cultivated people, literary men in particular, go on complaining this way. Thirty years ago their similars, with an equal incomprehension of the point of modern art, were so excited by the novelty of the phenomenon itself that they were willing to suspend the traditional demands for subject and form, purpose and treatment, means and ends; whether or not they realised what it was all about, they had a categorical enthusiasm for the "modern" that stilled their qualms. And regardless of the damage this uncritical attitude may have done in some areas, it was on the whole a lucky thing for modern art, for without the busy support of the amateurs of novelty in the teens and twenties it would have had much more difficulty in getting itself accepted. But times have changed again, and modern painting and sculpture have now drifted into one of the most precarious of all positions: that of a familiar phenomenon whose- familiarity has not made it any the less baffling, a phenomenon moreover that continues to resist the literary approach. And when one remembers that for the average cultivated person in our society the literary approach is the standard one with respect to all the arts, then the position of modern painting and sculpture is seen, to be precarious indeed.

Yet painting and sculpture have always been in a somewhat anomalous position. Whereas the point of music qua art is usually unmistakable enough, in practice if not in theory, that of painting and sculpture is more often than not missed by the very people who sincerely enjoy them. If the relative standings of the artists of the past have been established for the record correctly in the main, the grounds on which this has been done still remain more inaccessible to discourse than those governing the criticism even of music. "Apprendre a voir," said the Goncourt brothers, "est le plus long apprentissage de tous les arts." Does not even Valery (in Choses vues, a selection from which, translated by William Geoffrey, appears in the spring Kenyan Review) complain that the "object of painting is uncertain" and in his further remarks demonstrate how, even in the case of this enthusiast of painting, the literary approach prevented him from fully experiencing this art. And, incidentally, was the literary approach to art in general ever put more succinctly, if unwittingly, than when Valery writes of music: "I conclude that the real connoisseur in this art is necessarily he to whom it suggests nothing"? As though, when the verb "suggests" takes for its objects the relatively conceptualised images Valery has in mind, the same does not apply to painting and sculpture.

The French writers of the generation after Valery's who so enthusiastically welcomed Cubism and its aftermath did so for the most part with a magnificent incomprehension that does not seem to have interfered with their, elan. But we who write in English lack that uninhibited rhetorical exuberance which permits contemporary Frenchmen to be so irresponsible toward their subject matter whenever it happens to be art-and anyhow we make ourselves ridiculous if we try to imitate it. When we sit down to write about art we apply ourselves with an earnestness that, in the absence of a real familiarity with the medium or of a special interest like iconography, makes us grow querulous in the end. This querulousness is not confined to journalists and the editors of art magazines. A writer as enlightened as Mr. Grigson can feel thwarted enough to reproach modern art for its failure to be affirmative, noble, human, universal, etc. And it is significant that Gide, distinguished among all contemporary French writers by his lack of rhetoric and disdaining the face-saving levity with which most of his colleagues address themselves to art, can utter a similar reproach. Nevertheless, in art irresponsibility is often preferable to irrelevance, and at the moment, Mr. Grigson's or Gide's irrelevance does more harm than, say, Sartre's catalogue blurbs.

"Play-boy of means" is what Mr. Grigson calls the modern artist. "Painters need order; they need subject; which is another way of affirming that they need viable ends." Here in America our familiarity, not to say our obsession, with means teaches us that, though a means may be without an end, it can never be without a result or consequence. And art is essentially a matter of means and results, not of means and ends: for no one has ever been able to point out the ends or purposes of art with the finality any artist would need were he to take Mr. Grigson's advice and go in search of ends. If, however, by ends Mr. Grigson really means content and wants to reproach modern art for lack of it, then he has missed the whole point.

Must one argue this all over again? The message of modern art, abstract or not, Matisse's, Picasso's, or Mondrian's, is precisely that means are content. Pigment and its abstract combinations on canvas are as important as delineated forms; matter—colours and the surfaces on which they are placed—is as important as ideas. Human activity embodies its own ends and no longer makes them transcendental by postponing them to afterlife or old age. All experience is sanctified, all we can know is the best we can know. These may be errors, just as the myths of religion are errors, but they are capable of producing an art just as profound and "human" as that which incorporated the myths of religion.

The inability to perceive "human" content in modern art means ultimately the inability to perceive the point of painting and sculpture in general. Mr. Grigson will allow Auden to say "love" in an oblique way, and not a painter, simply because he can always recognise the word, "love," for what it means, but has trouble deciphering paint. Abstract art is effective on the same basis as all previous art and can convey a content equally important or equally unimportant; there is no difference in principle. On the other hand, it is possible to assert—and the assertion has not been effectively refuted so far-that the great masters of the past achieved their art by virtue of combinations of pigment whose real effectiveness was "abstract," and that their greatness is not owed to the spirituality with which they conceived the things they illustrated so much as it is to the success with which they ennobled raw matter to the point where it could function as art.

Mr. Grigson's call for "viable ends" and common, universal humanity in contemporary painting and sculpture (as if anything worthy of the name of art does not strive necessarily for a maximum of humanity and universality) is echoed in essence if not at all in style by a long article called "Aspects of Two Cultures" appearing in Number 52 of the VOKS Bulletin, a cultural magazine published in Moscow in English—among other languages—by the USSR Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries. The author of the article is the magazine's editor, Vladimir Kemenov, whose pen, if not mind, functions in a sub-cellar of consciousness a Neanderthal man would have shrunk from entering. Mr. Kemenov attacks contemporary "bourgeois" art indiscriminately, sparing neither abstract art nor neo-realism and taking in everything in between (though he is careful never to use the word "academic"). Aside from the unbelievable level of intellectual probity on which it is written, Mr. Kemenov's article is remarkable for its insinuations to the effect that our country is now the chief promoter of "decadent" art (Dali and Sir Kenneth Clark are called Americans, and it is pointed out that Lipchitz has spent a "long time," in this country).

Mr. Kermenov accuses modern art of trying to convince the working man "that he is no more than a conglomeration of mechanical parts... or else a biological creature possessing purely animal instincts and desires." Lipchitz is said to be a "representative of that tendency in modern bourgeois art which utterly perverts the image of man, distorting his body, violating measure and proportion, emphasising his animal nature." Picasso's art is called "an aesthetic apologetics for capitalism" despite his own "professed sympathy for the struggle of democracy against fascism." The Impressionists and Cezanne also get theirs in passing, being accused of one-sided "rationalism."

Mr. Kemenov goes on to say that modern art is pathological, insane, mystical, irrational, escapist, etc. But it is to be noted that throughout the article he, or at least his translator, avoids the term, "degenerate art," perhaps because the Nazis used to apply it so regularly to modern art. This does not, however, prevent him from adding that the latter is a "fantastic mixture of unwholesome fantasy and fraud," "worthless nonsense," "a mixture of pathology and chicanery" tracing its origins to "daubs painted by the donkey's tail." But even our "realistic" art is only "quasi-realistic... Its purpose is to put a veneer on bourgeois reality."

Mr. Kemenov says that the decadence and deterioration of modern bourgeois art (it used to be better in the nineteenth century, he admits, when it was realistic and closer to the people) are such that it is unable to produce good war propaganda; only imported Soviet music, movies, and posters could "spiritually" mobilise people in this country and Britain against Hitler during the war. "As opposed to decadent bourgeois art, divorced from the people, hostile to the interests of the democratic masses, permeated with biological individualism and mysticism, Soviet artists present an art created for the people, inspired by the thoughts, feelings, and achievements of the people, and which in its turn enriches the people with its lofty ideas and noble images." Although Mr. Kemenov does not name a single Soviet painter or sculptor, he also writes: "Young Soviet art has already created works of world-wide significance... Soviet art is advancing along the true path indicated by the genius of Stalin." Since it would be hard to say that Mr. Kemenov is irresponsible, we have to conclude that he, too, is irrelevant.

The truly new horror of our times is not, perhaps, totalitarianism as such, but the vulgarity it is able to install in places of power—the official vulgarity, the certified vulgarity:

"From low to high doth dissolution climb,
And sink from high to low..."

 

 

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