Happy Hundredth to Clement Greenberg
Post #1277 • January 16, 2009, 10:50 AM • 75 Comments
Question: You talk about art for art's sake, and I would challenge that to this degree: I don't think that morality and esthetics can be separated at a time when civilization itself is threatened, and that implicit in art for art's sake is the denial of the responsibility of the artist to civilization itself when civilization is being threatened by militarization - a cultural and esthetic fact and a destructive esthetic fact.
Greenberg: I have an embarrassing answer to that. Just as we don't ask the shoemaker to put himself in touch with the most burning issues of the day in making shoes, we don't ask an artist in making art to put himself in relation with the most important issues of the day. And as I said, this doesn't mean that art is just as important as what human beings do to one another. I'd only repeat that when you're at art - when you're making art - it's art you're making as an end in itself, and it's art you're dealing with as an end in itself. It's rather simple, and I think St. Thomas Aquinas was the first to say something like it. The shoemaker making his shoe - of course a shoe is a means to something else - but the shoemaker has to make a good shoe first of all if he is a good shoemaker, and if he is to, let's say, fulfill the demands, the justified demands, that society makes on it. And it is, I think, as simple as that. Which doesn't mean that the artist, as a human being away from his art, has to turn his back on politics or morality. It doesn't follow at all from art for art's sake. What did happen to the slogan "art for art's sake" in the nineteenth century was it shifted over into the assertion that art was more importnat than anything else, which I feel is a very illegitimate, immoral assertion, actually.
Clement Greenberg turned 100 years old today. I'm assigning homework to everyone in the art world, due sometime in 2009 - you have to read a collection of Greenberg's essays. Not insane crap that other people wrote about him - his actual words. Make it easy on yourself - pick up Homemade Esthetics, from which the above excerpt is taken, or Art and Culture. The late writings are good too, and if you're ambitious, there's the four-volume John O'Brian compilation. I'm not telling you to agree with him. I'm telling you to find out for yourself what he said. This goes double for all you who haven't read him since grad school, quadruple for all still in grad school, and octuple for all who know him only by the reputation with which, in his own words, he had an argument.
Probably the work of no thinker of the twentieth century is known so wholly in the form of caricature. In agreement or not, that's no way to understand the single most important art writer of said century. As he was fond of saying, and as we're fond of saying at Artblog.net, go look again.
Ryan McCourt is throwing him a party. Also, the redoubtable Fugitive Ink beats me to the punch (damn you, six-hour time difference!). As always, Walter Darby Bannard's The Unconditional Aesthete is worth a repeat visit.