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cia support of abex?

Post #578 • July 12, 2005, 10:17 AM • 76 Comments

Via Davee, Tim Boucher investigates whether the Postwar American government supported the birth of Abstract Expressionism as part of a campaign of psychological warfare.

The American government undertook an ambitious effort to "spread the truth" and win the hearts and minds of the world away from the threat of Communism. One prong of this many-armed attack was supporting the nascent Abstract Expressionist movement. ... The Rockefeller-owned MOMA trumpeted the virtues of Abstract Expressionism, while Nelson Rockefeller purchased some 2,500 paintings to decorate his Chase Manhattan Banks. Meanwhile the Marshall Plan was instituted to "help" the Allies repay war debts, but it also meant that a certain amount of American products were allowed to be foisted on them. One of these products was Abstract Expressionism. The thinking was that if we could flood Europe with the grandeur and freedom of American culture, then the intellectuals of countries on the fence about Communism would be won over to our side. The CIA meanwhile exerted it's Operation Mockingbird influence with the media to further promote their agenda, the prime example of which is Jackson Pollack's famous spread in Life magazine, owned by Henry Luce - a Mockingbird-CIA asset.

Is this nuts, or is there something to this?

Comment

1.

oldpro

July 12, 2005, 10:42 AM

This "issue" has been worked to death for years. The academic "subtext" here is to disparage a lot of good painting by calling it a tool of the bad US government. Usually these dumb diatribes forget that at the time the US instituted the culture war against communism (which was a very good idea, by the way), with the Voice of America, etc. President Truman was calling AbEx "scrambled eggs" and it was held in very low esteem by everyone.

It was not until 1959 that a large show of AbEx went to Europe and it knoked the socks off everyone, as it should have. it was good art, a good idea, and excellent propoganda for the US. A win-win situation. Making it into anything else is just stupid.

2.

flatboy

July 12, 2005, 10:47 AM

It's a plot, obviously, to misspell Pollock's name.

3.

alesh

July 12, 2005, 10:49 AM

I agree. I think there is a grain of truth to this, but the interpertation is the key. I think the CIA saw this very uniquely American thing going on, and maybe threw a little bit of support behind it. No more then that, although it certainly is messed up.

4.

alesh

July 12, 2005, 10:50 AM

oops . .. i meant i agree with O/P's statement.

5.

mek

July 12, 2005, 12:15 PM

yes it's true.

6.

ahab

July 12, 2005, 12:20 PM

The case for a conspiracy theory can be made directed at so many different directions. The government, is obviously conspiring to promote its own interests and retain political power. The art historians are conspiring to make literariness the most important characteristic of art, and would gain from it by then writing more literature, thus elevating their drudgery to an art form itself. The dealers are conspiring to make money. And oldpro, well, he's just conspiring to hit it out of the park again.

7.

Jack

July 12, 2005, 12:29 PM

All one needs to do is compare the AbEx work in question to the dreary, stale, lifeless Social Realist work that was promoted by the Soviets (not that anybody bought it, except those in the Soviet orbit that had no choice). What matters is that the AbEx stuff was good work that deserved whatever promotion it got. That's good enough for me.

And yes, everybody is pushing some sort of agenda. I suspect the people who keep harping on this supposed conspiracy are either politically motivated or/and still carrying a grudge against AbEx ideas, success or what have you. This is sort of like complaining that Michelangelo was somehow tainted because he had papal backing and was thus implicated in the Catholic Church's agenda. Give it a rest.

8.

oldpro

July 12, 2005, 12:33 PM

Well, thanks. I didn't expect anyone to agree, but maybe this one is so old it is not a big deal any more. I teach it in my AbEx seminar, had a professor who wrote a book on it audit my class and give a report on it, and my father-in-law was inviolved directly with it, so I do claim some knowledge of this period and have endured a lot ignorant conspiracy nonsense over the years with it. As if the AbEx painters could ever conspire to do anything but paint and disagree with each other and everyone else!

9.

Franklin

July 12, 2005, 12:35 PM

Yeah, I'm glad my first reaction was that it sounded nuts. I had never heard it before though.

10.

flatboy

July 12, 2005, 12:37 PM

ahab, you hit several nails on the head here:

"The art historians are conspiring to make literariness the most important characteristic of art, and would gain from it by then writing more literature, thus elevating their drudgery to an art form itself."

I like your "drudgery" observation the best. Looking at art from the past is one thing, studying "art history" is not at all similar. The former is a joy, the latter is purgatory without any visible exit.

Seems like too many artists are cooperating with the art historians too.

11.

ahab

July 12, 2005, 1:35 PM

I was sure I'd seen some socialist realist sculpture that I liked. I don't much like the posters or architecture though. I googled "soviet sculpture" and came up with a fascinating article on...well read it for yourself if you care.

http://www.balticsww.com/lenin_to_zappa.htm

12.

Jack

July 12, 2005, 1:37 PM

I was thinking of the paintings, Alesh. They're not exactly well known, as tacit propaganda tends to sink under its own weight, especially if it's uninspired academic stuff.

13.

ahab

July 12, 2005, 2:33 PM

Are the Americans present made nervous by references to things Soviet? I think the Lenin-Zappa article has enough meat in it to chew on here at Franklin's artblog for a long time. And it is apropos to today's post. Something of a relief from recent topics I would say.

14.

Hovig

July 12, 2005, 3:33 PM

Oldpro's reference to the 1959 exhibit is explained briefly here: The Power of Images: Abstract Art, MoMA and the Cold War [Deutsche Bank's "db-artmag," issue 18, 05/06/04-05/20/04, page 2 of 5].

This article also discusses the CIA story, including some references. It nicely supports oldpro's description of the win-win situation, and shows why a simple conspiracy theory can't explain the complexities of reality. To say the US Gov't and CIA tried to exploit AE is to say nothing more than they tried to take advantage of a popular american movement.

The irony is that I came across this page after looking up the book on conceptual art which alesh recommended in the previous thread on duchamp, reading in one of its amazon reviews about Ad Reinhardt's "what do YOU represent" cartoon, and finding this page. Total coincidence.

Or maybe a CIA conspiracy. You decide.

15.

Franklin

July 12, 2005, 3:39 PM

Ahab, I'm just busy with this. Looks boring, but it's using PHP to select between several syllabi written in XML and transform them with an XSL document.

Hovig: lol!

16.

oldpro

July 12, 2005, 4:36 PM

Hovig - Thanks for bringing up Reinhardt's cartoons. Anyone interested in AE and the period should look at them.They are a contemporaneous capsule one-shot take on the people and the politics of the movement and they are very clever.

Reinhardt is the one who said "Art is too serious to be taken seriously"

There is a famous one "how to look at modern art in America" at

http://silversteingallery.com/futurePopmain4.html (click the title)

and probably more on Google images.

17.

nikki

July 12, 2005, 4:45 PM

Yeah, I’ve heard this before. You can read the essays in the book Pollock and After: The Critical Debate to see various viewpoints on this topic. Another good read is David Craven’s Abstract Expressionism as Cultural Critique: Dissent during the McCarthy Period.

The more 'watered-down' idea is that during the post-war period, anti-communism became the primary justification for overseas expansion and enabled government officials to silence any criticisms of the American administration at home. And in any time period under any government, culture often becomes one of the first targets of social and political indoctrination.

So even though most Abstract Expressionists were unquestionably leftist (Pollock was active with the WPA back in the day and Newman was a self-professed anarchist) and their work was, in the words of the artists themselves, tied to social and political concerns (the non-figurative and extremely vanguard aesthetics as a marked opposition to the overwhelming conformity of post-war American society, as one example, or even Rosenberg’s observation that “the gesture on the canvas was a gesture of liberation, from Value – political, aesthetic, moral” was used as a political statement against conservatism) -- their work was marketing in such a way as to encourage anti-communist ‘Americanism.’

So I think its all just a matter of finding the difference between the work of art itself, the art as the artist experience it, the art as the viewer/critic discusses it, and the ways in which it becomes appropriated, promoted and marketed.

It is thought that Greenberg’s emphasis on formalism contributed to this move away from the artworks’ socially and spiritually ‘liberating’ qualities, whether or not that is what Greenberg intended to do. Some would argue that the more politically conservative promoters of Abstract Expressionism were in favor of Greenberg’s criticism, which is why Rosenberg’s writings were not as publicly celebrated in spite of their insight and authenticity to the artists and their work – Rosenberg’s talk was just a little too close to socialism, whereas Greenberg’s analysis was devoid of anything but the art object itself, so you could insert what purpose for it you wish.

18.

Franklin

July 12, 2005, 4:54 PM

Greenberg considered himself a Marxist for a while.

Tim Hilton: Clement Greenberg

Quote: Politically, the young Greenberg belonged to the leftward side of humanity and in particular to American “cultural Trotskyism.” ... By 1948 Greenberg was describing himself as a "disabused former Marxist."

19.

McCourt

July 12, 2005, 4:56 PM

Interesting theory.. except Greenberg was a well know Marxist.

20.

McCourt

July 12, 2005, 5:00 PM

That last comment was meant for nikki, not you Franklin. I think Greenberg latched onto the "disabused former Marxist" label out of a sense of self-preservation in an american climate that was not very forgiving of "current Marxists".

21.

Franklin

July 12, 2005, 5:14 PM

Further down in the same article:

The next artistic movement of any value, he predicted, would come from the "middle ground," not from youngsters whose only desire was to be "far out." These are not unreasonable opinions, and they are shared by very many cultivated people. But Greenberg was labeled a reactionary, a tyrant, a would-be manipulator of the art market, a simpleton, and probably an agent of the CIA, for had he not contributed to Encounter and broadcast on the Voice of America? ... All these things, and more, are said and printed by people who have not read Greenberg’s writing. There was something like a vendetta—which still goes on, years after his death in 1994—and it is a discredit to the art world.

22.

nikki

July 12, 2005, 5:18 PM

Sorry if i wasn't clear -- i meant to emphasize that conservative supporters of AbEx favored Greenberg's writings because they could insert their own agenda more easily than they could in Rosenberg's writings. I did not intend to say that Greenberg was involved in promoting anti-ommunist Americanism with his art criticism. Its a matter of his writing on one hand and how it is interpreted/preceived on the other.

23.

oldpro

July 12, 2005, 5:18 PM

Nikki:

A few corrections, if you will.

1. One could say that the WPA was a "leftist" program (my father and his friends though everything Roosevelt did was leftist, to an extreme), butworking for the WPA was not at all "leftist". it was just a job. Most of them had little other income.

2. American "expansionism? Can you tell me what that means?

3. The Government never "silenced criticisms" to my knowledge. Maybe in soms specialized cases.

4. The AE artists were fairly unified in one thing, and that was their distaste for connecting their work with anything political. This partly came out of a distaste for the Social Realism of the time. And The AE artists distaste for "polluting" their art with politics was pretty well formed before Greenberg even started writing criticism.

5. "Formalism" had no meaning to the AE artists. At the time it was an obscure term for Russian art of the 20s. and certain literature. It did not get its present association until sometime in the 60s.

Greenberg was a Marxist in the 30s and later, but much later said he had "disabused" himself of it. However it did affect his patterns of thought.

Thanks for the Tim Hilton piece, Franklin,. I don't know how I missed it.

24.

oldpro

July 12, 2005, 5:23 PM

One more thing: Rosenberg was just as "celebrated" as Greenberg in the years around the emergence of AE, if I am not mistaken, and remember correctly. The reason Greenberg prevailed in the end was that he wrote better and made more sense.

I am unclear how either one of them would fit any agenda better.

25.

McCourt

July 12, 2005, 5:26 PM

Perhaps Greenberg should be a topic for a new, separate discussion. It'd be a good opportunity to dispell some myths, or at least to be amused by his more fervent and irrational detractors... If Duchamp merits discussion, surely Greenberg does more so.

26.

mek

July 12, 2005, 5:29 PM

yes i am in favor of a whole greenberg blog topic

27.

oldpro

July 12, 2005, 5:42 PM

If you want a good start on Greenberg, first read the excellent Tim Hilton piece that Franklin linked above, then go to:

http://www.sharecom.ca/greenberg/default.html

28.

nikki

July 12, 2005, 5:54 PM

For Old Pro:

1. Okay – I’ll give it you that one could paint murals for the WPA and still be politically conservative. But Pollock’s statements at the time show that he was definitely leftist, and saw the organization as a means to help the community and working class concerns. Book for reference: Such Desperate Joy: Imagining Jackson Pollock by Helen Harrison. The books I listed early include appropriate quotes/passages as well.

2. American expansionism: globalization, colonization, outsourcing – American culture going to other countries, etc. The kind of economic boom experience immediately following WWII.

3. Fine. Others disagree with you on this. I was simply stating that this is the argument that is given by revisionist art historians, whom you can freely disagree with.

4. Again – this doesn’t jive with what the artists are noted as saying. Read: Jackson Pollock, Interviews, Articles, and Reviews edited by Pepe Karmel for Pollock specifically and the other reference i gave, too. Yes, abex'ers wished to move away from the aethetics of socialist realism, but that move itself was political -- to break away from the confines of the current art making and socio-political systems in order to, as pollock said, destroy painting as well as create it. to create a new social and political way of being -- the kind of creativity that becomes an event, a way of life, like in the vein of automated surrealism. this was very political, which is not to say it was tied to overt 'protest' or government politics.

5. I totally agree with you. I was not talking about what formalism meant to abstract expressionists painters. I was referring to the way in which the concept of formalism worked well for conservative supporters, thus lending to the argument that AbEx was marketed as Americanist and conservative. And that, of course, is not to say it can’t work well for liberal ones, too. Greenberg’s writings have been interpreted many ways, and of course I wouldn’t discourage any one for seeing some of those interpretations as twisted version of what he may have meant!

And I always wondered if Greenberg disabused himself of Marxism given the political climate of the times…. That would be more than understandable.

While art lovers at the time may have celebrated his criticism, Rosenberg's writing was not used to promote the 'triumph' of american painting oversees by conservative supporters, and he isnt given the same amount of art historical weight when discussing post-war american art history.

29.

mek

July 12, 2005, 5:57 PM

many moons ago (when i was just a half moon), i attended a lecture of his and he was just this humble small man with his little hat and overcoat.

30.

nikki

July 12, 2005, 6:06 PM

Greenberg focused on the formal qualities of the works in question. The omission of it's revolutionary core, the impetus for making art as talked about by the abex painters, leaves room for conservatives to hail simply the art object and make the claim that art is not tied to its social context at all, allowing conservatives to ignore the social and political need to destory the art market and art prodcution as it was -- which is what the abex'ers actually desired to do.

Contrast Greenberg with Rosenberg:

Greenberg: “By means of subtle variations within the minimal illusion of depth, [Pollock] is able, moreover, to inject dramatic and pictorial unity into patterns of color, shape, and line that would otherwise seem as repetitious as wallpaper.”

Rosenberg: “The big moment came when it was decided to paint – just To Paint. The gesture on the canvas was a gesture of liberation, from Value – political, aesthetic, moral.”

Believe it or not, the implications in Rosenberg's statement is pretty loaded. Art becomes an 'event' -- the empahsis is on the ACT of painting and not the final object. That can produce rather revolutionary trajectories of art making and it doesn't fit well with conservative interpretations of the purpose of art. It was a political statement against the art market as a way to objectify and sell the small, handheld, decorative art object as 'decoration' or 'investment.'

Again, i'm not saying greenberg was in cohorts with conservatives, or that there even existed a 'conspiracy'. The ways in which culture and society and art production and art market are all tied together is more complicated than that. i'm just saying this is what some put out there as a something to consider.

31.

oldpro

July 12, 2005, 6:18 PM

Nikki

1. All I said was that working for the WPA was not leftist. Whether Pollock and the rest were leftist is beside the point.

2. Expansionism is increasing territory. That grab-bag of words you threw at me has nothing to do with expansionism, except for colonization, which we did not do after the war.

3. If "others disagree", give me an instance. I do not know of any government policy of overt censorship. There may be some, but they would be the exception.

4. The word is "jibe". Saying that the AE painters art was political because wanting to move away from Social realism was a "political act" is just Jesuitical. I said they wanted to keep politics out of their art and that is what they did, period.

5. You have not indicated why Greenberg's writing lent itself to the effort to use AE for propaganda purposes, you just once again said it did. I don't see it. And what does it mean that AE was "marketed as conservative"? Conservative because done by conservatiove governments? It doesn't make sense.

Greenberg explained to me that he turned against Marxism because he "caught onto" it, meaning he learned that it was bullshit. Whether he was influenced by the virulent anti-communism of the early 50s is unclear to me, but probably unlikely because he was "disabused" before then.

Again, what you say about Rosenberg is explained not by this nebulous "conservatism" you keep bandying about but simply because Greenberg was a better critic.

32.

oldpro

July 12, 2005, 6:31 PM

OK, you made an attempt to compare the two, which I had not read when I posted the above.

I appreciate the effort, but, really, it doesn't wash. There is some logic in the idea that the political neutrality of Greenberg's criticism makes it apolitical and smoother to swallow in a political context, but it is far fetched to conclude that this was a guiding reason for the cold warriors who used the art for political purposes. Furthermore, under those circumstances, that Rosenberg's words of "liberation!" would have had far greater utility. The whole approach of the American culkture warriors was to show us as a country of freedom and liberation. That was what the Voice of America preached. That's why they sent jazz bands all over the place. Revoliution against oppressive regimes was exactly what we were trying to promote, at least in the early going in Communist countries.

I think you should be more critical of what you read. a large portion of most expository writing in print is bullshit.

33.

Hans

July 12, 2005, 7:21 PM

...I was just wondering, how it came that the Abstract Guys started to paint American Flags ;-)
1954 Jasper Johns
http://www.artposters.cn/Flag-1954-posters-10009215.html

Hans

34.

ahab

July 12, 2005, 7:26 PM

Conspiracy, Hans, conspiracy.

35.

nikki

July 12, 2005, 8:41 PM

Oldpro, I think you assume that I agree with the point of view I described.

I tried to make it clear that explaining one point of view as neutrally as possible, not my own. Apparently i didn't do that well enough.

My comments were simply relating to the topic Franklin posted, explicating the point of view of those who have considered the relationship between abex and conservative agendas, since Franklin asked if we had ever heard of it before. I was simply showing where I had heard it before, and summarized those opinions a bit, and gave some book references if anyone wanted to look into it further for themselves.

1. I used Pollcok’s WPA involvement as one example of his leftist political leanings. I took your point as implying that perhaps that his involvement in the WPA was not evidence of his radical politics, and his feelings about the relationship between politics and art, as that would have something to do with the conversation. But simply stating that the WPA was not leftist or that not everyone in the WPA felt that it accomplished leftist goals has nothing to do with the conversation. There is then no point in making that point.

2. I’m not trying to preach to you about what American expansionism is or means….. I used the term because it is one that is commonly used to describe the political/cultural activities of the time (and the present) and of course the details of American expansionism is loaded and convulted. I am certainly the least equipped to try to go into and understand the details of it. In fact, i don't know of anyone who is, If you are really confused about what is meant by American expansionism, I'd suggest reading some books on it as a start, but i wouldnt be of any help there!

3. I gave you two good books in my first post.

4. Thank you. But there is no need to be petty. I know you have made grammatical and typographical errors yourself before.

5. You are right, I didn’t name specifics! Tim Bouchers’ comments in Franklin’s post gave a few examples in a nutshell. The books I listed go into detail.

If you feel Greenberg was a better critic, that’s fine, but that had nothing to do with my posts or the topic. I never argued that one was a better critic or than the other, just that they had different ways of discussing art.

My opinion? Quite honestly, I don’t have enough information myself to make a strong decision, and I don’t know that I ever will! There’s a hell of a lot I don’t know, and I don’t like to make assumptions either way until I feel absolutely confident of my own knowledge. And I learn new things everyday.

I wasn’t posting to argue, I was just showing one point of view. To discuss. I hope that continued posts have made what I was trying to say more clear.

Oldpro, if you disagree with revisionists, that’s totally cool. Then discuss. And talk about the topic. All you have said so far is you disagree but haven’t given anything substantial. And I'd be curious to hear something substantial on the other side of the argument, as that would help me make a more informed opinion myself.

For instance, the idea that art can become a pawn in psychological warfare -- do you think that's possible? If so how? or why not?

36.

oldpro

July 12, 2005, 9:31 PM

Nikki, Good Grief!

L. I said the WPA WOULD have been considered leftist. Get it straight!

2. Expansionism has a specific meaning. I stated it.

3. Don't give me "two good books" Give me one good example.

4. My point was not grammatical correction. My point was that the AE painters wanted nothing of politics in their art. Once again, they didn't.

5. You said that Greenberg prevailed because his criticism lent itself to the cold war effort. i said this was probably not so and gave very good reasons. I was the one who said he prevailed because he was a better critic. That is my opinion.

I don't know what you refer to by "topic". I was reacting to your statements, that's all. If you want something "substantial" let's talk about something substantial.

As for can art become a pawn in psychological warfare, well, of course. Isn't that what we were talking about?

37.

Franklin

July 12, 2005, 9:51 PM

Nikki, thank you for all of that. Just a couple of things bother me.

First of all, it's quite true that these ideas are out in the environment and I realize that you're presenting them neutrally. But if the ideas themselves are errant, then we got a different critter to deal with. If CIA memos expressly stated that they intended to use AbEx to promote what have you, then okay, but here we have Tim Boucher citing Annabelle Shark citing a single exhibition in 1952 that may or may not support that assertion, followed by a quote from one Eva Cockcroft from 1974 that is pure pomo cant ("To understand why a particular art movement becomes successful under a given set of historical circumstances requires an examination of the specifics of patronage and the ideological needs of the powerful.") Requires? Whatever. We can do it, sure, but just because a style can be seen to support someone's ideological needs doesn't mean that it did so. I know where we're headed already: to the attribution of AbEx's success to the elitist power-holding cultural paradigm. Been there, did that, bought the t-shirt. I don't know why that didn't jump out at me earlier.

Secondly, your posts slide from talking about political conservatism:

I was referring to the way in which the concept of formalism worked well for conservative supporters, thus lending to the argument that AbEx was marketed as Americanist and conservative.

To aesthetic conservatism:

...the implications in Rosenberg's statement is pretty loaded. Art becomes an 'event' -- the empahsis is on the ACT of painting and not the final object. That can produce rather revolutionary trajectories of art making and it doesn't fit well with conservative interpretations of the purpose of art.

They're not the same conservatism, and we need to deal with that if we're going to continue to discuss it. A modernist attitude may be aesthetically conservative now, but at the burgeoning of AbEx it was radical. Not long ago I talked about why I considered myself aesthetically conservative (link, #43), but this may again have become a radical position, to whatever extent Art Basel represents prevailing values. Frederick Turner talks about a similar idea in the form of Radical Classicism. I'm not sure political sympathies have anything to do with this.

Thanks for bringing your points to our attention.

38.

nikki

July 12, 2005, 11:12 PM

Yes!

I was talking about two kinds of conservatisms – political and aesthetic. Apologies if I made it look like they were two sides of the same coin.

I can imagine a political liberal being aesthetically conservative, but its harder for me to imagine a political conservative defending liberal aesthetics. In other words, it makes sense to me that a political conservative would be turned off by Rosenberg, but able to make Greenberg work for them. A political liberal, on the other hand, might be more comfortable taking something from both?

Whether or not Boucher’s claims hold water, I think it’s important to discuss – many people out there still view Abstract Expressionism as mostly decorative or conceptually empty. I think it’s important to ask why it isn’t discussed in radical terms – to try to uncover what is happening in the social culture that seems to mask the radical drive of abstract painters and their work…..

So – I think that significance of this ‘elitist cultural paradigm’ shouldn’t be dismissed so easily.

I don’t know that art that becomes successful does so because the ‘elitist power holding cultural paradigm’ finds something in the art that they can directly use as brainwashing propaganda, but it does seem convincing to me that when a particular aesthetic is widely disseminated, the ‘elitist power holding cultural paradigm’ views the art through a lens that speaks to its interests and will then talk about the work in a way that fits its language and needs. Since those in high places have loud, powerful voices, the voices of the artists and the critics who might have slightly different take on why the art is significant get swept to the side, heard only by those who are in the circles and listening carefully.

Abstract Expressionism, it seems to me, was going to be big whether those in power wanted it to be or not. Personally, I think it was powerful because of the radical elements it inspired. However, I would not be surprised if certain conservative folks in prominent places during the McCarthy era took hold of the opportunity to bank on the popularity of AbEx work to promote it as one the glorious products of America.

I think that this kind of appropriation and manipulation of the work has very little to do with the art itself, and even counters the liberal qualities of its aesthetic.

Of course, it happens today with a lot of contemporary art. There’s plenty of work being done currently that I love -- once its appropriated by the art market, however, it’s presented through this marketing gloss that hides the very reasons why I liked the art in the first place.

39.

catfish

July 12, 2005, 11:19 PM

Hello nikki,

You picked two really good quotes that represent each critic at one of his better moments:

Greenberg: “By means of subtle variations within the minimal illusion of depth, [Pollock] is able, moreover, to inject dramatic and pictorial unity into patterns of color, shape, and line that would otherwise seem as repetitious as wallpaper.”

Rosenberg: “The big moment came when it was decided to paint – just To Paint. The gesture on the canvas was a gesture of liberation, from Value – political, aesthetic, moral.”


Both these guys generated a lot of electricity. Of the two, Rosenberg is the one you must be most careful about when reading, I think. It so happened that he too was writing (more or less) about Pollock, though the essay never named any names. Pollock did not like being the unnamed subject, as I understand it, precisely because of the assertion about "liberation" from aesthetic value. Rosenberg was like that, he poisoned an otherwise great statement by adding just that one careless word. For me, I just disregard that word and find lots to ponder - "it was decided to paint - just To Paint" is as good a description as any I've read telling why American painting surged in the 50s, maybe the best. (This cia theory certainly doesn't describe it.) And the liberation from political and moral value, while less original, is also to the point. Rosenberg just blew it when he decided to extend the liberation to liberation from art itself, which is what denying aestheitc value amounts to. Later on, as he matured, he criticised artists who had gotten "too big" for art, the "post art artists" he called them - and that was not praise. In the same essay you quoted, Rosenberg descended into seeming nonesense - the it's not wallpaper section. Yet, in your choice of words from Greenberg you provided the key to untangling Rosenberg's less lucid treatment of that subject. (But the frantic nature of it is compelling in a different way.)

Greenberg, on the other hand, was a careful, very careful writer. The drama of what he says runs deeper even if it runs slower because his basis was more responsive to the art, rather than any desire to engage the audience's attention. His charisma was for the long haul, and that seems to have played out by his becoming the one so many love to hate, while Rosenberg is forgiven his sillynesses (there are many) and rightly admired for what he got right. (Have you ever read Rosenberg on "coonskinism"? It is a gas.)

In the end, whether you are a writer or an artist, the most important things are those you get right. What you get wrong, such as Greenberg's idea that socialism was a necessity for the best art or Rosenberg's denial of aesthetics, it all fades. Both of those guys got a lot right. You have picked some good reading material and provided good selections for the bloggers here to contemplate.

40.

craigfrancis

July 12, 2005, 11:27 PM

dear nikki

thanks so much for your comments! your self deprecation is a breath of fresh air.

i've heard the story about abex as american propaganda a thousand times and always assumed it was common knowledge. in canada for expo 67 in montreal it was much the same thing. don't governments always use culture in this way?

OP i think that what nikki is saying is that the abexer's denial of political connotation in their art is in itself a political act. whether you like it or not, politics comes into everything we do, even if we're claiming to be apolitical, though i certainly don't what to put words in anyone's mouth... but that's what i thought she was getting at.

franklin: i don't think that an examination of art in context neccasarily leads to pomo cant as you put it. but it does reveal certain political commonalities between certain artists and a given government's status quo. which is why i also belive that paintings of flowers are inherently fascist.

anyway, whatever, hope you're well. nice work nikki

41.

craigfrancis

July 12, 2005, 11:30 PM

holy fuck!

how lovely!

who are you people?

42.

Franklin

July 12, 2005, 11:54 PM

I should have been in bed an hour ago...

I think it’s important to ask why it isn’t discussed in radical terms – to try to uncover what is happening in the social culture that seems to mask the radical drive of abstract painters and their work…..

It isn't discussed in radical terms because its goals - beauty and quality - have become widely regarded as retrograde aspirations (i.e., craigfrancis's "I also belive that paintings of flowers are inherently fascist," which might be a joke, if so, sorry).

Personally, I think [AbEx] was powerful because of the radical elements it inspired.

Only if we're talking aesthetic radicalism. Robert Hughes once said that radicals are deeply conservative at heart.

However, I would not be surprised if certain conservative folks in prominent places during the McCarthy era took hold of the opportunity to bank on the popularity of AbEx work to promote it as one the glorious products of America.

If I had to lay bets, I'd say they threw their interests behind Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and Steve Curry. But really, we should find out if facts support one or the other or both.

this marketing gloss that hides the very reasons why I liked the art in the first place.

This is a serious issue, and why I go after press releases so often. Art world marketing is often the enemy of taste.

Catfish, that really was lovely.

Craigfrancis, re: politics comes into everything we do - that's unfalsifiable. You might as well say that everything is biological or sexual - you can reduce all behavior to any one of these. The pomo flavor was to go political, an approach I agree is not inevitable and may certainly be worth doing, but ought to be done factually rather than semiotically if we're going to avoid plain old navel-gazing.

43.

ahab

July 13, 2005, 12:06 AM

Nikki: "...many people out there still view Abstract Expressionism as mostly decorative or conceptually empty. I think it’s important to ask why it isn’t discussed in radical terms – to try to uncover what is happening in the social culture that seems to mask the radical drive of abstract painters and their work..."

I was almost going to go along with you on this. But I see now that this sort of inquiry is just another form of diversion from the task at hand. Besides, this sort of information can be had by hiring a directed-marketing agency, who will as a matter of course convene focus groups and strategically poll the populace for their answers to leading questions, which when tabulated and graphed lay out a course of action for reclaiming what is rightfully mine. Attention. And if the word 'attention' is too politically sensitive, they'll suggest a new term for to spin it with.

I do have the urge to ask, "why isn't anyone paying attention to me." But for all the whining I'm sure escapes my lips/tips, attention isn't really something I want. I strive to make work that by being as irreducible and necessary in form as possible is also as fully, intensely about whatever it is about as is possible. If the work then captures attention, I'll get some spin-off. But if I want ego-stroking attention, then I should go jump off a building, live-on-camera.

I'm not asking anyone to trust me that my work is not empty; and I don't shy away from the biting criticism of someone I trust telling me that it is. Art is not democratic, certainly not in process, nomoreso in experience or appreciation.

44.

Elizabeth

July 13, 2005, 12:20 AM

from one artist to another ....well said Ahab, well said

45.

oldpro

July 13, 2005, 12:29 AM

The reason AE got "big" was because the art was better, not for any radical or political reason. That is just revisionist bullshit. It was used as propaganda because it was viewed, (not during the Mccarthy era - 1950-54 - but later), as being excellent "power culture", which it was. it is just about that simple. "Brainwashing" is an overstatement and should not be used in this context.

We are obliged, when writing about events and things, to be specific and get the facts right. As I said before much expository writing is simply wrong, one way or another. Being between hard covers does not make it right.

Craig,I demonstrated that I knew exactly what Nikki was saying by my response. I said that the AE painters wanted to keep politics out of their art. Saying that this did was a "political act" may or may not be true but has nothing to do with their opinions or my observations about them or what I like or don't like.
.

46.

oldpro

July 13, 2005, 12:32 AM

Yes, Ahab. Elizabeth is right. You do have a tendency to bring things back down to the basics.

47.

Elizabeth

July 13, 2005, 1:48 AM

when I think of the AE painters, I think of new ground being explored, being expressed, there was raw emotion in what they created and that was their goal I think, I dont see anything political when I stand in front of their work....I see their 'great' efforts to be new and daring...I stand transfixed and it still has magic...they succeeded in my eyes.

48.

Elizabeth

July 13, 2005, 1:59 AM

oldpro what do you think of (one of my favorites)Jack Bush's work?? He was very close to Clement Greenberg, who made trips here to Toronto to see his work.

49.

Young Phdeazy

July 13, 2005, 3:19 AM

Sounds like a nice way to invade countries, to bad we us more missles now. There will be no winner here in America because we pursue the "freedom of American culture" instead of just freedom.

50.

Elizabeth

July 13, 2005, 3:31 AM

art critic = missile??........hmmmmmmmm

51.

oldpro

July 13, 2005, 7:55 AM

Elizabeth, Jack Bush was a wonderful painter, now sadly underrated, at least by the market.

Phdeazy, yes, wouldn't be great if all our wars were culture wars. Maybe in the future our species will work it out.

52.

George

July 13, 2005, 8:28 AM

Jack Bush should have never switched from oil paint to acrylic.g

53.

George

July 13, 2005, 8:38 AM

An example with two ofJack Bush's paintings

The upper one from 1965 is oil on canvas and the one below it from 1968 is acrylic on canvas. As far as I can tell somewhere between 1965-68 was the switchover. The acrylic painting surfaces lose something and deaden, even though the color may be brighter.

54.

nikki

July 13, 2005, 9:29 AM

“It isn't discussed in radical terms because its goals - beauty and quality - have become widely regarded as retrograde aspirations”

Beauty and quality according to whom? I cant count how many times I have heard someone say “My first grader could have made that” when referring to abex work.

Beauty and quality are such slippery and vague qualifiers – many different people find beauty and quality in such disparate aesthetics. I could consider that the artists were aiming for beauty and quality in terms of being the portal to some awe inspiring feeling or some earth shattering provoking thought, but not as goals in themselves.

For instance, Pollock’s whole “I am Nature” assertion tells me that he wasn’t necessarily after beauty and quality in the final product alone, but a way of being, a way of making art -- art more as an experience. His goal, then wasn’t beauty and quality simply as the final aesthetic but beauty and quality as the experience as well. I think that part of AbEx work is too often overlooked.

Championing Thomas Hart Benton wouldn’t have worked at that time to spread “Americanism” as his aesthetics would not have been able to penetrate international markets at that time – it wasn’t radical enough and would have been easily dismissed. Using art that would have been welcomed openly anyhow by more radical types but taking a conservative spin on it makes for more effective and far reaching propaganda as it may at first seem less obviously so.

Right? The most effective propaganda is that the kind that you don’t even realize is propaganda until its too late?

55.

Elizabeth

July 13, 2005, 9:30 AM

George, I do agree...the oil is better, its richer ......even the yellow is warmer.
OP, at least he could count Greenberg among his admirers, but yes...underated, heres a good example of where the quality of the art was disconnected from the market value.

56.

nikki

July 13, 2005, 9:30 AM

One more thing --

So I heard this rumor once upon a time that a few abex’ers – namely hoffman and de kooning – started making purposefully ‘ugly’ work.

Upset at how collectors reduced their labor into an ‘investment’, buying a ‘de kooning’ because it was a ‘dekooning’ and not because they identified with it, the artists used ‘shit browns’ and ‘puke pinks’ and sold to their favorite collectors.

The thought of haughty collector types sitting at the dinner table pretending to find the sublime in a work that was a hoax and eating their overpriced pasta in front of an aesthetic that was essentially a reproduction of vomit, was a certain type of ‘revenge’ for the painters.

A scholar on post war art told me there was a quote by Hoffman on this. Anyone else heard of that? I’d like to hear hard evidence to the effect, if its true.

57.

George

July 13, 2005, 9:35 AM

re: I said that the AE painters wanted to keep politics out of their art.

This was around the time of the McCarthy Hearings (1953-1954) so this was probably a good idea.

58.

nikki

July 13, 2005, 9:42 AM

I wish, Oldpro, that art becomes big because it truly is better.

But people need to know that something is out there before they can hail it as 'the best', and in order for any kind of art to get the exposure needed to get the backing it deserves, it usually must first have the press, the funding, the support of people in high places, etc. I doubt that it was less true during post war america.

Unless you can prove to me otherwise.....

Catfish -- i loved your comments on Greenberg and Rosenberg! Thanks. I also really enjoyed hearing what you had to say, ahab. so thanks to you, too.

59.

George

July 13, 2005, 9:47 AM

Here's another one i like...
the artists used "shit browns" and "puke pinks"
Take a look at the toilet paper, shit colors can be beautiful ;-)

Pink and brown was a 50's designer thing.

Whatever, it is all skirting the issue, namely does Greenberg have any relevance today? Frankly, I don't think so except in a retro sense. Time moves on, his observations fit his time but could not have anticipated the radical cultural changes ushered in by mass media in the 60's

60.

Elizabeth

July 13, 2005, 9:58 AM

thats what I was saying about 'artists' being ireverent...but I got shot down by Kathleen...I guess she didnt 'get it' !

61.

Elizabeth

July 13, 2005, 10:01 AM

Nikki, I have definetly read that somewhere, I just cant place it...sounds very familiar.

62.

Hovig

July 13, 2005, 10:39 AM

I almost forgot. The U.S. State Department still promotes American artists through its Art In Embassies Program, begun 1964. The search interface is unfortunately poor. You can only search city by city. The majority of work seems traditional, but with some effort (and some google) I found a few works by Rauschenberg, , , and .

63.

catfish

July 13, 2005, 10:42 AM

The CIA today:

Recently I had an interesting conversation with a Bush appointee who is placed very high in the cultural bureaucracy maintained by the federal government in Whashington.

The political "conservatives", of which she is proud to be a member, are not pushing pomo or modernism or impressionism. They want something close to the most academic of the French Academy, pictures painted in browns, well modeled, realistic subjects of course, and "uplifitng". Hudson river lighting is about as far forward in time as they would allow.

Interestingly, this troubles her deeply. She clearly separates politics and art. She does not "get" pomo, but the reason is not its rejection by her political buddies, but because it is lacking in artistry. But she also says if she had to choose between pomo and the stuff the "conservatives" (political, that is) like, she would choose pomo "because it at least has a chance to be a player". If I've ever met a person who recognizes the emptiness of pomo productions, it is her. Yet I admire her cold hard objectivity in assessing the current alternative held by the administration's bureaucracy. She understands that both camps are pushing aesthetically empty agendas and she is puzzled how it will all work out.

I speculate that the current breaucratic preference is a sign that the cultural audience to be satisfied is found in America, not abroad, and it is to be addressed at its lowest common denominator, not its highest. It is an example of how democracy can eat its own tail - the freedom to compete is consumed in order to feed the larger organism, all with the enthusiastic support of the voters, who ultimately must go along with anything the government tries to do. Plato's philosopher king could surely do a better job than that, if only such persons really existed.

At the time of abex, there was a different wind blowing in Washington and as oldpro has observed, pushing abex was a win-win situation. The time was much more optimistic. The air had been cleared and we wanted to have our place in all the sunshine that had been established. Today that sunshine is not nearly as visible and there are signs that we are in retreat so hence, the need to shore up support among the rank and file within our borders and forget the rest. We are hunkering down.

Pomo maintains its place out on an aesthetic limb because it embodies this new pessimism. Even though the government does not like it, it is compatible with the hunkering down mentality, it is hunkering down for the liberals. Pomo tells us pleasure is no longer available, that we must live in sack cloths filled with the ashes of aesthetic joy. It causes aesthetic sensibility to languish and suffer, until it is numbed down as it is dumbed down. The ultimate outcome of pomo is similar to that of the agenda now embraced by Washington - the destruction of culture by its own hand. "Understanding" the process takes the place of joyous pleasure, which is ganged up on so it can be eradicated. "Understanding" is an abysmally dry state, compared to the rush of standing before great art.

Just as pessimism is the mortal enemy of optimisim, so goes vice versa. Like most every other social process, this is a sine wave and we may have reached the bottom as far as the war on aesthetic value goes, or we could have further to go. But someday the optimists will get the upper hand again and the larger culture will once again walk in the sunshine.

64.

oldpro

July 13, 2005, 10:58 AM

George, when responding to something, read it first. I said clearly, and, once again (aarghh!), it is true, that the AE artists rejected politics from their art pretty much by the end of the 30s, or words to that effect. The McCarthy era (roughtly 1950-54; the hearings themselves the end of that period) came later. Everyone is lumping time together in this discussion, and keeping the time straight is very important.

Greenberg never tried to anticipate "radical cultural changes". He was only interested in art. As far as his "relevance" is concerned (I really have come to detest the word "relevance") he is relevant if you want to read the best art writing ever put on paper, learn about the art of the 20th C and have just about the only available experience of a great critic devoted to real art and the experience of real art with no bullshit. He has little relevance when it comes to garbage. The best stands still, like a big stone, and lets time flow past. To hell with relevance.

Interesting point about the oil/acrylic switch for Bush. Worth looking into.

Nikki, "beauty" and "quality" are well known no-no terms in contemporary art and have been for a generation, so much so that curators sometimes put on "beauty" shows just to be contrary. Both terms connote esthetic character and esthetic jusdgement, which are more or less outlawed by Postmodernism and were already held in comtempt by the AE artists who were in revolt against "pretty pictures". Whether or not they are "slippery qualifiers" doesn't matter; in practice they were kneejerk buzzwords. The succeeding generations of AE painters took good oil colors and purposely muddied the them; it was called "the 10th Street touch". I don't know that Dekooning and Hofmann would have started such a thing - they both used color fairly cleanly - but it was a conceit of many AE painters. There are those who take strong issue with all these proscriptions, as you have learned by reading this blog.

65.

oldpro

July 13, 2005, 11:16 AM

Excellent post, Catfish!

The attitude toward culture in Washington was not too elevated at the time AE was being formed in the 40s and early 50s, but by the time it had caught on, in the mid to late 50s, and continuing for about 20 years, there was about as elevated and attitude toward art as could be expected, certainly initially fueled by the spectacular spalsh made by the '59 show MoMA sent to Europe.

In the 60s, with the "great Society" and all the enormous cultural changes, we had a kind of Golden period: Art in Enbassies, Nancy Hanks & the Art endowments, huge amounts of cultural exchanges (believe me,the 60s were wonderful, all you punk kids! it is worth being an old fart now to have experienced it). It went on pretty much throught the 70s. In 1978 I testified for a national "Art Bank", sposored by Harrison Williams, later brought down in the Abscam scandal. By the 80s everything began to fall apart. There is a wonderful book about this decline and the culture wars, easy to read and full of anecdotal examples: EXHIBITIONISM: Art in an Era of Intolerance, by Lynne Munson. I recommend it to anyone who reads this blog.

66.

Elizabeth

July 13, 2005, 11:20 AM

great comment catfish, 'Understanding' is an abysmally dry state compared to the rush of standing b4 great art' ......kewl!

67.

Elizabeth

July 13, 2005, 11:42 AM

oldpro, I think Im in love with ur brain...even if you are an old fart

68.

oldpro

July 13, 2005, 11:49 AM

I appreciate the compliment, Elizabeth, but i am afraid you are going to make poor Kathleen puke again.

69.

Elizabeth

July 13, 2005, 11:55 AM

OldPro; Good , then my job is done ...hahahaha

70.

Kathleen

July 15, 2005, 1:45 PM

Elizabeth, I'm not sure why you would make it your job to make me puke. That's not so funny. You should find a different job.

OP, stop using me as part of your schtick.

71.

oldpro

July 15, 2005, 3:18 PM

Hey, Kathleen, you're the one whio told me not to be snide and then said that the idea of an oldpro fan club would make you puke.

If you dish it out you better be ready to take it, kiddo.

72.

Matty

July 15, 2005, 5:13 PM

What?


There's an oldpro fan club!



Can we all get matching satin jackets?



... puke doesn't stick to satin, right?

73.

oldpro

July 15, 2005, 5:30 PM

Yup, purple and gold, in a camouflage pattern to disguise the bits that stick.

74.

Matty

July 15, 2005, 5:44 PM

From your description, the jackets sound very New New.

75.

oldpro

July 15, 2005, 6:00 PM

Direct from the NewNew Polka Party, Marching Band and Bowling Team Outfitters.

When only the best will do
You gotta go with NewNew

76.

Kathleen

July 20, 2005, 12:08 PM

By schtick, I mean stop using my name unless you are directly replying to my comment. Please do not use my name to make someone else laugh at your posting. I do not refer to you unless I am directly addressing you. Please be as courteous. You ask us not to assign motives to you, I ask that you not create a fictional script for me.

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