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clement's lament

Post #97 • September 2, 2003, 8:17 PM

Clement Greenberg, “Complaints of an Art Critic,” Artforum, October 1967:

Aesthetic judgments are given and contained in the immediate experience of art. They coincide with it; they are not arrived at afterwards through reflection or thought. Aesthetic judgments are also involuntary: you can no more choose whether or not to like a work of art than you can choose to have sugar sweet or lemons sour. ...

Because aesthetic judgments are immediate, intuitive, undeliberate, and involuntary, they leave no room for the conscious application of standards, criteria, rules, or precepts. ...

Of all the imputations to which this art critic has been exposed, the one he minds the most is that his aesthetic judgments go according to a position or “line.” There are various reasons for this imputation, not the least among them being, I suppose, the flat, declarative way in which he tends to write. ...

To impute a position or line to a critic is to want, in effect, to limit his freedom. For a precious freedom lies in the very involuntariness of aesthetic judging: the freedom to be surprised, taken aback, have your expectations confounded, the freedom to be inconsistent and to like anything in art as long as it is good – the freedom, in short, to let art stay open. Part of the excitement of art, for those who attend to art regularly, consists, or should, in this openness, in this inability to foresee reactions. You don’t expect to like the busyness of Hindu sculpture, but on closer acquaintance become enthralled by it (to the point even of preferring it to the earlier Buddhist carving). You don’t, in 1950,anticipate anything generically new in geometrical-looking abstract painting, but then see Barnett Newman’s first show. You think you know the limits of 19th-century academic art, but then come across Stobbaerts in Belgium, Etty and Dyce in England, Hayez in Italy, Waldmueller in Austria, and still others. The very best art of this time continues to be abstract but the evidence compels you to recognize that below this uppermost level success is achieved, still, by a far higher proportion of figurative than of abstract painting. When jurying you find yourself having to throw out high-powered-looking abstract pictures and keeping in trite-looking landscapes and flower pieces. Despite certain qualms, you relish your helplessness in the matter, you relish the fact that in art things happen of their own accord and not yours, that you have to like things you don’t want to like, and dislike things you do want to like. You acquire an appetite not just for the disconcering but for the state of being disconcerted. ...

The dishonest reporting of aesthetic experience is what does most to accustom us to the notion that aesthetic judgments are voluntary. Not only are you ashamed to say that a Norman Rockwell may move you more than a Raphael does (which can happen); you are also afraid simply to sound inconsistent – this is because it is also taken for granted that that aesthetic judgments are rational as well as voluntary, that they are weighed and pondered. Yet rational conclusions can no more be chosen than aesthetic ones can.

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