Post #1250 • October 30, 2008, 10:07 AM • 24 Comments
This started out as a comment at Looking Around, but I'm not going to create a uniquely named Wordpress account just to comment on a blog. Sorry.
I respectfully challenge Richard Lacayo to provide any writing of Greenberg's that says that "abstraction was the only road that art could go down." One of the astonishing things about Greenberg's oeuvre is the enormous extent to which it is known (if you can call it knowing) in the form of canard.
One of the main canards is this notion that Greenberg tried and failed to direct art history in a particular direction. Lacayo says at the article linked above that he sublimated his Marxism thusly. His actual writings, however, evince an author with an aversion to prescription that only ever grows more acute. What he calls "polemical certainty" is really a certitude of aesthetic judgment that can be quite unkind to polemics. Greenberg was passionately untheoretical. Given the dependence of much contemporary art upon theory, what has happened to his reputation is not terribly surprising. You can see a similar sort of thing played out when fundamentalist Christians try to characterize certain vocal atheists as equally fundamentalist in their way. It doesn't work because atheism is not a belief that there is no god, but skepticism that there is one. It's this refusal to believe that angers them so.
Temperamentally empirical and skeptical, Greenberg paid attention to what his eyes told him and wrote accordingly. He had plenty of opportunity to witness the "proliferation of practices that we live with now" (1994 was only 14 years ago, and we're not being subjected to anything more outré than we endured the decade before then), and if they "horrified" him he never noted as much in his writings. They sometimes amused him and often disappointed him. He observed that later art, even later abstraction, was largely not measuring up to masterpieces of postwar painting and sculpture. One may disagree with that, but for fundamentalism and horrified reactions you have to go look among his detractors, among those who believe that ideas have aesthetic value.