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Handy Received Ideas

Post #1804 • March 6, 2018, 1:19 PM

[Image: Gerhard Marcks, Prometheus Bound II, 1948, courtesy of the Harvard Art Museums]

Gerhard Marcks, Prometheus Bound II, 1948, courtesy of the Harvard Art Museums

I.

I reread Homemade Esthetics over several days in a sickbed. I continue to marvel at Greenberg's insights into the process of taste and his comprehension—seemingly as total as could be—of the nature of art quality. A couple of times he mentions what a shame it is that people aren't paying more attention to Gerhard Marcks. Harvard's Marcks, Prometheus Bound II from 1948, is in its "Inventur" exhibition (which I reviewed) and I was just admiring the hell out of it. I sketched it during the press preview while the curator spoke about other art in the room.

A couple of months ago, Danielle Wu charged Greenberg as a nationalist and a xenophobe based on his observation that Asian art had not had much influence on the work of the Abstract Expressionists.

Art critic Clement Greenberg opposed the perceptible link between Abstract Expressionism and Asian discourse, writing in 1955 that, “[N]ot one of the original ‘abstract expressionists’ — least of all Kline — has felt more than a cursory interest in Oriental art. The sources of their art lie entirely in the West.” Not only was this xenophobic statement untrue, it also served to erase Asian-American Abstract Expressionist artists who were drawing from their own cultural roots while relegating them to be perpetual foreigners in the United States.

While some have claimed that Philip Guston’s paintings reinvent the sublime, the fact that he drew upon Zen and Chinese painting’s dissolution of form into nothingness often goes uncredited. On view together are Guston’s “Ceremony” (1957) and George Miyasaki’s “Green Landscape.” Made the same year, both feature ghostly shapes of sea foam green and dusty red swim against each other as if lost in fog. While Mark Rothko is revered for his studies of vibrant color as a locus for meditative contemplation, this was also explored by artists such as Tseng Yu-ho, Isami Doi, and Bumpei Akaji.

That "fact" she mentions, I would guess, "goes uncredited" because there's no evidence for it. Guston briefly shared a studio with Bradley Walker Tomlin, who was known to be interested in Japanese calligraphy, but the arrangement didn't last long because Tomlin died. Tomlin, by then, had basically rejected that influence in favor of a less calligraphic and less expressionist method. Guston also knew John Cage, the only figure of that milieu who studied Zen in any depth, and that's allowing for quite a lot of dilettantism on Cage's part. In Night Studio, Guston's daughter Musa Mayer recalls,

My father went with Cage and [Morton] Feldman to hear D.T. Suzuki lecture and, for a time, became interested in Zen Buddhism and the significance of "The Void."

But that was in the 1950s, by which time Guston had been painting abstractly for years, having expressed no prior interest in Chinese painting or Zen, and working his way out of Cubism like just about everyone around him. As for Rothko, the idea that because he and Isami Doi were contemporaneous and sometimes working on similar concerns, they were therefore acting under similar influences, shows you what kind of colossal presumption is going on here. (How the middling and not particularly germane works of Tseng or Akaji figure into that consideration, I have no idea.)

Here's Greenberg in Art and Culture, from an essay dated 1955 with revisions from '58:

It was in 1945, or maybe even earlier, that Gorky painted black and white oils that were more than a tour de force. De Kooning followed suit about a year or two later. Pollock, after having produced isolated black and white pictures since 1947, did a whole show of them in 1951. But it was left to Franz Kline, a latecomer, to restrict himself to black and white consistently, in large canvases that were like monumental line drawings. Kline's apparent allusions to Chinese or Japanese calligraphy encouraged the cant, already started by Tobey's case, about a general Oriental influence on "abstract expressionism." This country's possession of a Pacific coast offered a handy received idea with which to explain the otherwise puzzling fact that Americans were at last producing a kind of art important enough to be influencing the French, not to mention the Italians, the British and the Germans.

Actually, not one of the original "abstract expressionists"—least of all Kline—has felt more than a cursory interest in Oriental art. The sources of their art lie entirely in the West; what resemblances to Oriental modes may be found in it are an effect of convergence at the most, and of accident at the least. And the new emphasis on black and white has to do with something that is perhaps more crucial to Western painting than to any other kind. Value contrast, the opposition of the lightness and darkness of colors, has been Western pictorial art's chief means, far more important than perspective, to that convincing illusion of three-dimensionality which distinguishes it most from other traditions of pictorial art. The eye takes its first bearings from quantitative differences of illumination, and in their absence feels most a loss. Black and white offers the extreme statement of these differences. What is at stake in the new American emphasis on black and white is the preservation of something—a main pictorial resource—that is suspected of being near exhaustion; and the effort at preservation is undertaken, in this as in other cases, by isolating and exaggerating that which one wants to preserve.

At this point we can consider two possibilities. One: Greenberg, who was there on the scene, knows what he's talking about. Two: Wu, who in 2012 won an award given to undergraduates at her college for "cultivating their own unique research project exploring identity, social justice, and diversity," and therefore was probably born after Greenberg died, nevertheless knows what really happened—this "handy received idea" for which there is no evidence is in fact the truth, for which there is still no evidence, and Greenberg is disdaining it not because it simply wasn't the case, but because he's a nationalist and a xenophobe. After all, she perceived a link! That's gotta count for something, right?

I replied to Wu:

As someone who has studied Greenberg and his circle in depth and was a serious enough Zen student at one time to have done a dozen sesshin or so, I went looking for substantive links between the art of Zen, or even Asian art in general, and abstract expressionism. I was not able to find them. Even monographs devoted to the topic such as Jacqueline Baas's Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art were reluctant to make too great a case for influence. Consequently I am endeavoring to understand this passage [of Wu's]:

...The Club met several nights a week at a community space on Eighth Street to discuss important concepts such as Zen. Artists, including Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Ad Reinhardt, Philip Guston, and John Cage, took a liking to the many lectures on Zen’s principles: its embrace of emptiness, chance, and oneness with nature.

Is Ms. Wu under the impression that lectures on Zen were taking place at The Club? Does she mean these artists were attending them elsewhere? Excepting Cage, either would be a surprise to me. "The many lectures" by whom? If there's new scholarship I'm unaware of I would very much like to be edified.

Greenberg seems to be correct that the original abstract expressionists had little interest in Asian art (which is not to say that they had none) and that the sources of their art really did lie entirely in Western painting (which is not to say that Eastern painting had no effect on it). That's not so much a "xenophobic" or "nationalist" view as one that comports with what we know about the artists.

The idea that the monochrome Western work represented a convergence, as Greenberg characterized it, is convincing to me because I briefly studied Chinese calligraphy and my prior experience in high-volume abstraction put wholly incorrect ideas in my head about how to make it.

I was never edified and I assume that there is no such scholarship.

It's hard to understate just how much Wu got wrong in this article. Daniel Elster, from the comments:

I studied with one of the actual founders of "The Club" on East Eighth Street. He would have disputed every single syllable of what this author has written. I remember specifically my professor recounting how, at the one, single time a Zen calligrapher was on a panel, waxing poetic about how his work had so much in common with Kline's—and other "Action" painters—Kline interjected, saying, "The difference between what you do and what I do, is I have to paint the whites". That shut down the comparison once and for all. The Club never had any panelist broach the subject again.

But that sort of insider knowledge wouldn't have been necessary to know better. Just a perusal of Homemade Esthetics would have been enough. In it Greenberg complains that Americans are parochial and provincial and that foreign artists don't get nearly enough attention when they are shown in New York. Nevertheless, here's her conclusion:

Perhaps, though Clement Greenberg was incorrect in denying any “Oriental” influence in Abstract Expressionism, his suggestion that it was a uniquely American movement still holds. The critic’s nationalistic desire for an aesthetic attributed to the United States must simply accept that non-white cultural production can be authentically American too. As we continue to unravel the ancient empires built upon small boys clubs, I yearn for even more narratives beyond those that uphold white creativity as the historical measure of greatness and propositions that Asians or other minorities can also meet this bar.

Which I translate as:

Perhaps, though Clement Greenberg was incorrect in denying any “Oriental” influence in Abstract Expressionism, his suggestion that it was a uniquely American movement still holds. A critic may harbor a nationalistic desire for an aesthetic attributable to the United States, but he must accept that non-white cultural production can be authentically American too. We continue to unravel the empires built upon boys clubs. I yearn for narratives beyond those that uphold white creativity as the historical measure of greatness. I propose that Asians and other minorities can meet the bar set by those narratives.

Which I revise for journalistic integrity, since Hrag Vartanian is not going to do it, to produce this:

I suspect, though I can't prove it, that the influence of Asian art and Asian thought on Abstract Expressionism was greater than Greenberg allows, but perhaps his suggestion that it mainly continues a Western art tradition still holds. Greenberg remarked on Isamu Noguchi in the 1946 Whitney Annual in bluntly critical but ultimately positive and accepting terms, and regarded Kikuo Saito and his work fondly, so we have to eliminate the possibility of anti-Asian animus on his part, either professional or personal. His stated desire for more respect for foreign artists and his utmost support for many foreign-born American artists likewise precludes his harboring any nationalist impulses. But doubtlessly someone out there, I don't know who, thinks that only white cultural production is American cultural production, that white creativity is the measure of greatness, and that Asians and other minorities cannot meet the same standards. That person is incorrect.

I endorse that statement.

I can almost hear Greenberg's reply: There are no measures for greatness. Over and over again he says in Homemade Esthetics that express measures fail, quality can't be described, movements run out momentum, nothing lasts. It follows that there is nothing particular about white creativity that you could expect to endure through the middle of next week, or really, anything particularly white about creativity. He did have some things to say about the historical art of Japan and China. Many of them are arguable, and as far as I'm concerned a few of them are wrong. Someone inclined to find out what they are could easily track them down and ponder them for herself.

II.

I don't know if it's an official policy, but you're welcome to make up whatever art history you like at Hyperallergic as long as it's denigrating to white men. John Yau just made the surprising claim that

When Wallace Stevens said “Money is a kind of poetry,” he could have applied it to certain precincts of the art world, where it is a kind of criticism. Those who believe that the cream always rises to the top, and that success in the marketplace is a reliable measure of an artist’s ambition, tend to be white male critics.

I read some of the most capitalistic people opining in the English language, and I can't think of anyone who espouses this, to say nothing of any critics or particular white or male ones. Laissez-faire economist Leland B. Yeager wrote an essay titled "Is the Market a Test of Truth and Beauty?" He answers no, market measures do not get at veracity or quality, and he protests to his fellow economists that it spreads odious ideas about markets when they go about their research in that way. And this is someone who praised Ayn Rand.

Getting Greenberg wrong is a longtime shtick for Yau. The painter Dana Gordon commented that Yau "never misses an opportunity to base an argument on misunderstandings of Clement Greenberg." You would not be surprised to know that the essay from which the above excerpt is taken from casts Greenberg as a villain, though it's with such obtuseness that it's hard to know what his complaint is.

This is what Whitten, Heilmann, and Nozkowski have in common. They were undoing the assumptions of a generation dominated by Clement Greenberg, Stella, and Judd. They painted on rectangles. They reintroduced subject matter. They developed their own processes rather than mimic what had already been done. Nor were they only painters doing this.

The rectangles thing is about Judd, but at what point did Greenberg speak out against subject matter? Or novel processes? (Darby Bannard once said to me that if anything, Greenberg was too fascinated by novel processes.)

In narrowing down painting, as Greenberg, Stella, and Judd did, they overlooked one of its central features — its capaciousness. Anything could be made to fit in its rectangle. The moment a narrative like Greenberg’s or Judd’s no longer dominated painting is the moment when painting got interesting.

How did he "narrow down" painting? (For that matter, how did Stella, of all people, working as he does in a sort of abstract Rococo?) How did he "overlook its capaciousness"? We never find out. But again, this is a staple for Yau, repeating one inaccuracy after another regarding Greenberg so as to cast him as the bad guy in a made-up version version of art history that has all the nuance of an episode of Scooby Doo.

As I've said before, Yau has a decent eye. It's a shame that his pronouncements about abstraction, and to a lesser degree about art in general, are soured by this evident need to position himself in opposition to Greenberg, with no commensurate need for any seriousness about the nature of the opposition. In Homemade Esthetics Greenberg finds himself agreeing or disagreeing with Susan Langer, Benedetto Croce, or Kant—he reluctantly challenges Kant—based on particular claims that they made. Yau's opposition is to Greenberg's image or reputation. The ideas, which are fascinating, never get touched. Hyperallergic is happy to assure that he is never asked to touch them.

III.

Neither Clembashing nor the denigration of white men in the name of social justice are peculiar to these writers or Hyperallergic. Separately, neither phenomenon is worth objecting to. The former is taking place inside of the tiny world of art, and thus of little consequence. The latter is connected emotionally to some legitimate objections that are worth contemplating, but beyond that, it's recognizable as a kind of signaling, even to those of us who are not the intended recipients of the signal. It would surprise me if Yau or Wu or the editors at Hyperallergic harbored broad aversions to white people, though I guess it wouldn't surprise me a lot. Even if so, well, I would just avoid them in the same way that I avoid the pro-white crowd.

(My revulsion for politicized art-world people is not targeted so much at their politics. I'm excepting the ones that delight at the prospect of violence, they're scum, but that's true of any political inclination. No, the revulsion is at their conformism. I didn't get into art to be surrounded by conformists. The idea that I have to say certain things at certain times in certain ways in order to obtain membership to a certain circle of serious regard in the art world, it makes me want to tell them to go eat glass.)

(Too, people whose politics are mostly signaling don't know why they know anything. Arguing with such people is boring. Tell them about the full scope of what's possible, that there are conservative arguments for aggressive environmentalism, or liberal arguments for eugenics, or libertarian arguments against property, and you'll be regarded like you're visiting from the moon. It's fun to ask these people, when they get huffy, what a right is, or how to solve the Diamond-Water Paradox, but it's not sporting.)

But the two impulses are uniquely combining at Hyperallergic, or at least combining there in an acute fashion, and that is interesting. From my interview with Darby in 2015:

WDB: Even last night at the opening there were people who wanted to make big points to me about Greenberg. They absolutely detest him and completely misunderstand him. This thing is still going on, even now, with people claiming that he found artists who were cooperative and told them what moves to make, and that they became his little clique. I said to one of these people last night that I used ask Clem all the time what I should do in my studio. I’d say, “Tell me what to do!” And he’d say, “No! I’m not going to do that. All I’m going to tell you is that I like this and don’t like that.” And that’s all he ever did. He never had any suggestions like, “There’s too much red over there.” But nobody wants to believe that.

FE: Why do you think that is?

WDB: That’s a very interesting question. What Greenberg did infuriated the art world. It had something to do with the authority and the quality of his writing. I can’t say forcefulness of his writing because it wasn’t forceful writing.

FE: He admitted to its being declarative, as he put it.

WDB: It was declarative but that derived from his eye, and his certainty about the rightness of his eye, his ability to see what was good and not so good. He wrote so clearly and so transparently that it just got people enraged.

But I don't think that's the whole story, and now that Clembashing is merging with the denigration of white men in the name of social justice at Hyperallergic, I see why.

Clembashing assumes a prior aesthetic failure of someone else's, against which your own aesthetic judgment can't fail. Having established, rightly or wrongly, with or without citation, that Greenberg fouled up a series of aesthetic judgments, you can present your own judgment of a related work of art as superior, and save yourself the hard work of demonstrating that your judgment is rooted in the intuited apprehension of quality, that you have seen the art part of the art and not some trapping. Taste is rare and you may be capable of no such thing, but if enough people sign on to the idea that there was once a great failure of taste—someone who should have known better just blew it—you can seem to appreciate art competently in comparison.

The denigration of white men in the name of social justice assumes a prior moral failure of someone else's, against which your own moral judgment can't fail. Having established, rightly or wrongly, with or without citation, that white men fouled up a series of moral judgments, you can present your own judgment of related moral problems as superior, and save yourself the hard work of demonstrating that your judgment is rooted in justice rather than revenge. Probity is rare and you may be capable of no such thing, but if enough people sign on to the idea that there was once a great failure of justice—some people who should have known better just blew it—you can seem to appreciate justice competently in comparison.

Clembashing is art criticism for people who don't want to question whether they're right about taste. The denigration of white men in the name of social justice is the pursuit of justice for people who don't want to question whether they're right about justice.

Clembashing saves you from having to deal with the fact that art-value approaches universality and objectivity because it is individual, local, contingent, separate from identifiable traits, and not amenable to simple rules. The denigration of white men in the name of social justice saves you from having to deal with the fact that justice approaches universality and objectivity because it is individual, local, contingent, separate from the traits of identity, and not amenable to simple rules.

Greenberg got some judgments wrong. White men committed injustices. That is both worth recognizing and beside the point. Even if Greenberg got some things wrong, and he did, you still have to work out your own taste as an individual with a conscience living in a world of individuals with their own consciences. Even if white men committed injustices, and oh my God but did they ever, you still have to work out your own sense of right and wrong as an individual with a conscience living in a world of individuals with their own consciences.

Greenberg wore clearly and transparently about a reality about art that hardly anyone was prepared to accept, or will accept now. That reality detonates much of what goes on in art's name, right into oblivion. People adore their handy received ideas. That's why people continue to pick fights with him. It's the same reason that people treat political leanings as a kind of tribe. They want things to be simpler and easier than they are. They want to belong. They're afraid.

IV.

It would be a better world if those who brought light to humanity were always rewarded. But they are not, and no one knew it better than the ancient Greeks.

Tradition has it that we owe the arts to Prometheus. He was bound and tormented for siding with humanity against Zeus. Mighty Zeus wasn't just angered at the slight that Prometheus perpetrated, he feared rebellion. The expression on the face of the Marcks Prometheus is resignation, but not regret. Time doesn't pass for the gods in the way that it passes for the rest of us. Their tortures can last for ages. But their actions are part of the order of things, and the order of things is to demand that matters be set right, even against the will of Zeus. Hercules finally frees Prometheus, and his story ends there.

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