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Nattering nabobs of... wait, that was someone else

Post #1043 • August 30, 2007, 3:11 PM • 12 Comments

While I was unpacking books, Brushes With History fell open to a 1945 review by Clement Greenberg that begins thusly:

Academicism shows itself nowhere more nakedly than in painting and sculpture, being much more immediately depressing there than in literature. One brief glance at the recent annual exhibition of the National Academy of Design was enough to fill the visitor with gloom. Van Wyck Brooks's resentment of advanced literature's lack of "affirmation" would find greater justification if it were directed to backward art. These painters of purple and emerald landscapes, of glazed figurines and wax flowers, these nigglers, these picklers of nudes and bakers of mud pies plumb depths of negation and pessimism T.S. Eliot or Joyce, much less Picasso, could never remotely reach. But it is in the very nature of academicism to be pessimistic, for it believes history to be a repetitious and monotonous decline from a former golden age. The avant-garde, on the other hand, believes that history is creative, always evolving novelty out of itself. And where there is novelty there is hope.

Ah, to still be excited by novelty.

a

Comment

1.

Thomaz

August 30, 2007, 5:37 PM

Good site..
Thanks [You're welcome. Yours is unlinked. - F.]

2.

opie

August 31, 2007, 5:52 AM

Well, at least our age has shown us how even novelty can become academic. One by one the easy answers fall by the wayside.

Maybe someday the art business will wake up and realize that better art is the only way to go.

3.

opie

August 31, 2007, 5:54 AM

BTW there is a drug ad posted back under "hearsay".

4.

catfish

August 31, 2007, 6:17 AM

Yes opie, it gets down to "there is hope where there is hope". The Lone Ranger may have had silver bullets, but the rest of us must struggle and struggle to make causal connections. It is somewhat like the stock market, what works for a while quits working as soon as the herd piles on. A different way to put it is that the novelty thing has been worked to death. (Though it is very much alive in art schools and art institutions.)

Poor Clem. We pick over everything the guy said and find these little bummers. I wonder what he would say about the final two sentences now. They seem similar to his remarks about socialism in AVANT-GARDE AND KITSCH. Perhaps it is the plight of youth to always seek and imagine that you found the silver bullet.

5.

Dizzy Simulacrum

August 31, 2007, 6:37 AM

Greenberg's scathing vitriol on highly skilled academic painters who pursue ideal beauty through their work as "picklers of nudes and bakers of mud pies" relies totally on his worshipful belief in the importance of "novelty." That is not just an easy answer falling by the wayside it is a total misunderstanding of the nature of art.

6.

Franklin

August 31, 2007, 6:38 AM

Drug ad is gone.

It doesn't read as a bummer to me. In 1945 novelty probably still had some virtue left in it, and the avant-garde (which existed at the time) was essentially forward-thinking if not downright optimistic. I think he called it correctly like he often did.

7.

catfish

August 31, 2007, 7:52 AM

Interesting response, Franklin. Yes Clem was on target for 1945, but he did not qualify his assertion about pessimism being intrinsic to academicism and the value of novelty to just that moment ("It is the nature of academicism to be pessimistic"). I speculate he would qualify them now. In fact, he came to call Pop and what followed "novelty art" and he did not mean to praise those developments with that term.

And consider, academicism today is hell bent optimistic - it believes it has not just discovered silver bullets, it owns all that exist, and novelty is one of its most treasured and respected. Just as pessimism was not the nature of academicism in 45, neither is optimism its nature now.

And ... just as socialism did not save culture (AGK, 1939), neither novelty nor optimism were intrinsic to the magic of that period. It is a case of what works, works - until it quits working. Art is the only thing that endures. The magic of culture at that time resided in its art.

8.

opie

August 31, 2007, 8:19 AM

Dizzy, you have to be careful you know what you are talking about. Greenberg's "scathing vitriol" was not directed against some mythical class of " highly skilled academic painters", but against the crap that was being shown then which was just as crappy as the crap which is being shown now. It just came in a different form.

Greenberg preferred "academic" art, or perhaps I should say realist, art. Whenever he went to an unfamiliar museum he went straight to the "old masters", and he often said he wished realist painting was better in his time, becase he would be more comfortable with it. He had no "worshipful belief in the importance of novelty", he merely wanted to be able to see something more interesting than the crappy art he was referring to at the time he wrote this extract.

You have to understand that back then crappy art was self-consciously conservative and wary of "newness". Nowadays everyone is on the barricades literally "worshiping novelty" and "newness", so they make a different kind of crappy art. Now you go to a museum and ache to see a decently painted realist "academic" painting. I know I do. But if it is new art it is unlikely to happen.

Art is either good or bad. That's all that counts, and that's all that Greenberg ever really insisted on.

9.

Marc Country

August 31, 2007, 8:21 AM

"Yes Clem was on target for 1945, but he did not qualify his assertion about pessimism being intrinsic to academicism and the value of novelty to just that moment ("It is the nature of academicism to be pessimistic")"

Bu it was the nature of academicism to be 'pessimistic', up to the time when Clem wrote this. Then, academicism changed, adapted to take on the trappings of the avant garde. In '45, Clem didn't antipate this, perhaps, but... who did?

10.

Marc Country

August 31, 2007, 8:27 AM

Maybe the academics mined this very quote for their strategy: "Ok, guys... this academic stuff is getting tired, there's no use denying it anymore. But check this out: Greenberg says what we need is novelty!"

Of course, the prescription didn't work, since it only promised to deliver 'hope', and not results...

11.

catfish

August 31, 2007, 9:53 AM

My central point, if I have one, is that you gotta be careful when you make statements about the "nature" of anything. If the "nature" of academicism changed 180 degrees, it is unlikely that what was said to be its "nature" was in fact its nature.

I'll now enter the swamp and say what I think the nature of academicism is: to apply formulas that are considered to be necessary for something to be considered art by the majority of "art experts". Today part of the formula is "novelty", other times it has been different. What seems to endure is the mandate that it isn't art unless it fits into what art is "supposed to" look like. How to satisfy "supposed to" is a volatile variable when looked at over the long haul, but "everyone" seems to always agree in the short run, as if the short run is eternal.

Another way I characterize the academic mandate is to refer to it as "artiness". There is some difference between the two phenomenon but, as a congenital lumper, I will use the terms almost interchangably.

So I've made the plunge. Hit me with your best shot.

12.

Marc Country

August 31, 2007, 9:58 AM

"My central point, if I have one, is that you gotta be careful when you make statements about the "nature" of anything. If the "nature" of academicism changed 180 degrees, it is unlikely that what was said to be its "nature" was in fact its nature."

Fair enough.

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