Clement Greenberg

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One cannot condemn tendencies in art; one can only condemn works of art. To be categorically against a current art tendency or style means, in effect, to pronounce on works of art not yet created and not yet seen. It means inquiring into the motives of artists instead of into results. Yet we all know — or are supposed to know — that results are all that count in art.

Clement Greenberg (January 16, 1909May 7, 1994) was an American art critic best known as a champion of Abstract Expressionism.

Quotes of Clement Greenberg[edit]


  • Hofmann is perhaps the most difficult artist alive-difficult to grasp and to appreciate. But by the same token he is an immensely interesting, original, and rewarding one, whose troubles in clarifying his art stem in large part precisely from the fact that he has so much to say.
  • One is also reminded of how in art the tortoise so often overtakes the hare. Not all, but too many of the best writers, composers, and artists of our time begin to be acclaimed only when they no longer have anything to say and take to performing instead of stating. This is how they first become accessible to broad taste, which is lazy taste, and by the same token to the processes of publicity and consecration. As long as they were trammeled up in the urgency of getting things said they were too difficult, too "controversial."
  • * the dividing line between the painterly and the linear [painting] is by no means a hard and fast one.
    • In: 'Post painterly abstraction', Clement Greenberg, exh. Cat. County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, 1964
  • It has become apparent that art can have a startling impact without really being or saying anything startling — or new. The character itself of being startling, spectacular, or upsetting has become conventionalized, part of safe good taste.
    • "Avant Garde Attitudes", The John Power Lecture in Contemporary Art, University of Sydney, (17 May 1968); printed by The Power Institute of Fine Arts, University of Sydney (1969)

Modernist Painting (1960)[edit]

"Modernist Painting", (Voice of America pamphlet and radio broadcast, 1960); later published in Art and Literature (Paris, spring 1965) and in the anthology The New Art (1966), ed. Gregory Battcock
  • The essence of modernism lies in the use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence. Modernism used art to call attention to art. The limitations that constitute the medium of painting - the flat surface, the shape of the support, the properties of the pigment - came to be regarded as positive factors, and were acknowledged openly.
  • Realistic, naturalistic art had dissembled the medium, using art to conceal art; Modernism used art to call attention to art.
  • It belongs to journalism — and to the millennial complex from which so many journalists and journalist intellectuals suffer in our day — that each new phase of Modernist art should be hailed as the start of a whole new epoch in art, marking a decisive break with all the customs and conventions of the past. Each time, a kind of art is expected so unlike all previous kinds of art, and so free from norms of practice or taste, that everybody, regardless of how informed or uninformed he happens to be, can have his say about it. And each time, this expectation has been disappointed, as the phase of Modernist art in question finally takes its place in the intelligible continuity of taste and tradition.

    Nothing could be further from the authentic art of our time than the idea of a rupture of continuity. Art is — among other things — continuity, and unthinkable without it. Lacking the past of art, and the need and compulsion to maintain its standards of excellence, Modernist art would lack both substance and justification.

Art and Culture: Critical Essays, (1961)[edit]

Beacon Press , ISBN 0-8070-6681-8
  • The main trouble with avant-garde art and literature, from the point of view of fascists and Stalinists, is not that they are too critical, but that they are too "innocent," that it is too difficult to inject effective propaganda, that kitsch is more pliable to this end.
  • Perhaps the greatest change that industrialism (along with Protestantism and rationalism) has made in daily life is to separate work from leisure in a radical and almost absolute way. Once the efficacy of work began to be more clearly and fully appreciated, work had to become more efficacious in itself — that is, more efficient. To this end, it had to be more sharply separated from everything that was not work; it had to be made more concentratedly and purely itself — in attitude, in method and, above all, in time. Moreover, under the rule of efficiency, seriously purposeful activity in general tended to become assimilated to work. The effect of all this has been to reduce leisure to an occasion more exclusively of passivity, to a breathing spell and interlude; it has become something peripheral.
    • "The Plight of Culture" (1953), p. 31
  • Once efficiency is universally accepted as a rule, it becomes an inner compulsion and weighs like a sense of sin, simply because no one can ever be efficient enough, just as no one can ever be virtuous enough. And this new sense of sin only contributes further to the enervation of leisure, for the rich as well as the poor.

    The difficulty of carrying on a leisure-oriented tradition of culture in a work-oriented society is enough in itself to keep the present crisis in our culture unresolved.

    • "The Plight of Culture" (1953), pp. 31-32
  • Complete honesty has nothing to do with "purity" or naivety. The full truth is unattainable to naivety, and the completely honest artist is not pure in heart.
    • "Partisan Review 'Art Chronicle': 1952" (1952), p. 146
  • One cannot condemn tendencies in art; one can only condemn works of art. To be categorically against a current art tendency or style means, in effect, to pronounce on works of art not yet created and not yet seen. It means inquiring into the motives of artists instead of into results. Yet we all know — or are supposed to know — that results are all that count in art.
  • The paradox in the evolution of French painting from Courbet to Cézanne is how it was brought to the verge of abstraction in and by its very effort to transcribe visual appearance with ever greater fidelity.
    • "On the Role of Nature in Modernist Painting" (1949), p. 171
  • A large picture can give us images of things, but a relatively small one can best re-create the instantaneous unity of nature as a view — the unity of which the eyes take in at a single glance.
  • The so-called obscurity of modernist literature has, of course, a lot to do with the new stress on exegesis. When the overt meaning of a work can no longer be taken for granted, criticism is forced — or seems forced — to undertake the explication of the text of the work before doing anything else. But experience has shown us by now that the drift and shape of an "obscure" poem or novel can be grasped for the purposes of art without being "worked out." Part of the triumph of modernist poetry is, indeed, to have demonstrated the great extent to which verse can do without explicit meaning and yet not sacrifice anything essential to its effect as art. Here, as before, successful art can be depended upon to explain itself.


  • The superior artist is the one who knows how to be influenced.
    • Influences of Matisse, exhibition catalog essay 1973, Aquavella Gallery NYC: On Henri Matisse
  • Matisse's art speaks for itself through its "mechanics", it's "form" and through the feeling which that "form" makes manifest. It's not by far the first to do so and to transcend the illustrated subject by doing so. (All good painting and sculpture does that to some extent). But just as Matisse rejected verbal rhetoric so he kept every last trace of illustrational rhetoric out of his art. He may have been the first painter in our tradition to do that in a really radical way. This doesn't make his art better than a Giotto's or Caravaggio's or Goya's or David's, not necessarily. But it does make it a salutary example for all those people who find it hard, in any medium, to mean what they say.
  • "Purity" of and in art — any art, including music and dance — is an illusory notion, of course. It may be remotely conceivable or imaginable, but it can't be realized because it can't be recognized any more than a "pure" human being or a "pure" (or, for that matter, gratuitous) act can be. All the same, for Western art in its Modernist phase "purity" has been a useful idea and ideal, with a kind of logic to it that has worked, and still works, to generate aesthetic value and maintain aesthetic standards as nothing else in our specializing culture has over the last hundred-odd years.

    But this logic has also worked to exclude the decorative — the decorative insofar as it functions solely as decoration. It's as though aesthetic value, quality, could be preserved only by concentrating on "absolute" or "autonomous" art: thus on visual art — including even architecture — that held and moved and stirred the beholder as sheer decoration could not. Decoration is asked to be "merely" pleasing, "merely" embellishing, and the "functional" logic of Modernism leaves no room, apparently, for such "mereness." This is part of the pity of Modernism, one of the sacrifices it enjoins....

Quotes about Clement Greenberg[edit]

  • Clement Greenberg talked about the ideas or possibilities of painting in his — I think —, 'After Abstract Expressionism' article, and he allows a blank canvas to be an idea for a painting. It might not be a good idea, but it’s certainly valid. Yves Klein did the empty gallery. He sold air, and that was a conceptualized art, I guess.
    • Frank Stella, in "Questions to Stella and Judd' by Bruce Glaser", in Art New 65 no. 5, (September 1966)

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