In the July-August 1940 issue of Partisan Review, the Marxist-Trotskyist intellectual journal, there appeared an essay on modern art by Clement Greenberg titled Towards a Newer Laocoon. The arguments in this essay, T.J. Clark writes, “stake out the ground for Greenberg’s later practice as a critic and set down the main lines of a theory and history of culture since 1850 – since Courbet and Baudelaire.”1 The essay, then, is a historical explanation of the course of avant-garde art since the mid-nineteenth century. Most of the arguments in the essay reappear in Greenberg’s 1960 theoretical study Modernist Painting.
Greenberg’s conservative writing reflects on artistic “quality,” “taste” and value. He essentially links “high modern” art with artists who worked to perfect a medium, who took a specific approach to their work. Although he does not mention names, he prefers, above all, Abstract Expressionist painters. For Greenberg, the highest form of art was that which concerned itself so strictly with its medium and essential materials that the work was about the medium and nothing else. Painting should be about painting – not subject matter, not space, not forms, just painting. Thus, the work, according to Greenberg is “rendered pure, and in its purity finds the guarantee of its standard of quality as well as of its independence.”2
According to Greenberg, it is a historical characteristic of the modern arts that each has had to define itself in terms of the limitations of its proper medium. At a time when claims were being made for the “realism” of various forms of figurative art, Greenberg aimed to both establish the quality of certain abstract art and “justify abstraction as the fulfillment of an inexorable historical tendency.”3 For Greenberg, every historical epoch has its own particular aesthetic requirements, and artists who overlook those requirements risk becoming artistically weak and useless. “The imperative,” he concludes, “comes from history, from the age in conjunction with a particular moment reached in a particular tradition of art. This conjunction holds the artist in a vise from which at the present moment he can escape only by surrendering his ambition and returning to a stale past.”4
Greenberg offers little explanation of the reasons for his abstract art apologetic beyond the historical argument. While I understand the value to art history of his work, I disagree with some of his methods and views (especially regarding Cubism and Surrealism, as it seems he did not approve of any movements that did not move toward purer art forms.) I also found disturbing his comment that Romantic painters lost respect for their medium. For the first time, he argues, academicism emerged, and while academicism produced some good artists, painting on the whole sank “to a level that was in some respects an all-time low.” But while Greenberg argues that abstraction was a movement whose time, for whatever reason, had come, he acknowledges that he has “offered no other explanation for the present superiority of abstract art than its historical justification.”5
“Yet it seems to me,” he adds, “that the wish to return to the imitation of nature in art has been given no more justification than the desire of certain partisans of abstract art to legislate it into permanency.”6
2: Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Paiting”
4: Clement Greenberg, “Towards a Newer Laocoon.” From the Collected Essays and Criticism.