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Justifying the Art Critique: Clement Greenberg, Michael Kimmelman, and Orders of Worth in Art Criticism

Toby A. Ten Eyck and Lawrence Busch Cultural Sociology 2012 6: 217 DOI: 10.1177/1749975512440228

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440228 CUS 6210.1177/1749975512440228Ten Eyck and BuschCultural Sociology 2012 Article

440228 CUS6210.1177/1749975512440228Ten Eyck and BuschCultural Sociology



440228 CUS 6210.1177/1749975512440228Ten Eyck and BuschCultural Sociology 2012 Article

Justifying the Art Critique:

Clement Greenberg, Michael Kimmelman, and Orders of Worth in Art Criticism

Cultural Sociology 6(2) 217 –231 © The Author(s) 2012 Reprints and permission: sagepub. DOI: 10.1177/1749975512440228

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Toby A. Ten Eyck and Lawrence Busch

Michigan State University, USA


Art critics straddle the boundaries between art worlds and the public. To legitimate and maintain this role, critics must be able to justify their standing as judges of the creation and display of art. This article draws on Boltanski’s and Thévenot’s work on the sorts of justifications which arise when joint action is interrupted. Specifically, we look at the justifications embedded in two seemingly disparate critiques – one from Clement Greenberg dating from the 1950s and another by Michael Kimmelman from the 2000s. An investigation of the justifications used within these critiques – separated by over five decades – reveals how boundaries between art and its public have been generated and maintained over the years.


art critics, art criticism, Boltanski and Thévenot, Clement Greenberg, justifications, Michael Kimmelman, sociology of art


At the centre of debates over the definition of art and art forms stands the critic (Crane, 1987). Social scientists studying the critic often think of this individual as a gatekeeper between the public and larger art worlds that include everything from what a new move- ment should be called to the value of a piece of work (e.g. Becker, 1982; Shrum, 1996). We extend this idea by situating critics within a perspective that focuses on one of their own tools – justifications. Justifications are used to legitimate action, and those used by art critics have helped to create and maintain boundaries around an art scene that has

Corresponding author:

Toby A. Ten Eyck, Department of Sociology, 316 Berkey Hall, Michigan State University, East Lansing,

MI 48824, USA Email:

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changed dramatically since the 1950s but is still considered a component of avant-garde society (Crane, 1987). We take inspiration from Boltanski and Thévenot (1999, 2006), who examined justifications employed in non-violent conflicts. We analyze two pieces of art criti - cism written by leading critics that are separated in time by some 50 years – Clement Greenberg’s ‘Art Chronicle’ which first appeared in Partisan Review in 1952, and Michael Kimmelman’s ‘The Art of Being Artless’, which appeared in the book The Accidental Masterpiece published in 2005. Both Greenberg and Kimmelman have been critics for the New York Times 1 and have written books about the larger American and world art scene. They have negotiated the boundaries between writ - ing about the arts and writing for a mass audience. While there are some differences in how justifications were used by these writers, we also found similarities across time, art venues, and media outlets. Both critics controlled specific types of cultural knowledge and provided justifications that they and others could use to define art as an arena of social distinction.

Justification in the Arts

It has been argued that knowledge, appreciation and ownership of the arts stem from upbringing (habitus) and education, and that art is an important component of wider class structure (Bourdieu, 1984; Lamont and Fournier, 1992). While there is little doubt that institutions create and help maintain value systems within social hierarchies, an indi- vidual must have access to information pertaining to new cultural production, products, and events to maintain a ‘leisure class’ label (Peterson and Kern, 1996). Personal experi- ence is one such source, though an individual can only visit so many museums, galleries, operas and other cultural arenas or events. Mass produced media sources – television, radio, books, etc. – also provide information, and the critics who write for these outlets are expected to provide information to help an audience make sense of the various offer- ings (Shrum, 1996). Bourdieu (1984) has shown the difficulty of this position, as news- papers – and by association those who work for the press – must engage their core readers while constantly seeking new subscribers. The critic as a member of the press is expected to define art and art forms from a relatively straightforward and objective, or at least disinterested, vantage point, though that is not always the case (Crane, 1987). According to Elkins (2003), many critiques have been written to promote a specific inter- est. Elkins argues that this has been driven in part by museums and galleries hiring critics to write positive statements for exhibits which are expected to lead to more visitors and sales. Visitors think of critics as objective observers having seen their names in the press. The critiques that appear in the museum or gallery documents, however, are not news articles but paid endorsements. Whatever the motivation for creating a piece of art, writing a critique, or making a purchase, the artist, critic, and consumer each has particular (although perhaps inchoate) notions of what constitutes good work (e.g. Dewey, 1934; Shrum, 1996). This leads to challenges over various value systems among actors competing to define what is good art (e.g. Fine, 2004), or even society more generally (Boltanski and Thévenot, 2006). Some believe that there must be ties to tradition (e.g. King, 2006) while others believe that

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outsider art is the edge of creativity (Fine, 2004; Rhodes, 2000). Each actor will often critique others by referring to what Boltanski and Thévenot (2006: 71) call common higher principles. These are used in an attempt to convince the other of the validity of one’s position, to bridge gaps that have been created by disagreements or misunderstand- ings, or as a precursor to negotiations with potential allies who may also feel their vested interests would best be served by some set of common goals. According to Boltanski’s and Thévenot’s conceptual framework three basic condi- tions are pertinent in understanding these negotiations. First, there must be agreement that the actors involved in the joint action are needed for the activity to be completed. A full consensus is not necessary or even expected. There only needs to be sufficient agreement for the activity to move forward. The second assumption is that when con - flict arises it does not become violent. Critics and artists, while potentially at odds over the value of a cultural product, typically negotiate their differences in a way that does

not include bodily harm. The third condition is that there is a modicum of equivalence among actors (Boltanski and Thévenot, 1999). If we take the example of a child asking for a cookie, the parent who criticizes the child’s choice may not feel the need to provide a justification if questioned by the child. If the other parent raises a question, then a justification is needed if the parents view each other as equals (e.g. ‘I told the child she couldn’t have a cookie because dinner will be ready soon and I didn’t want her appetite to be spoiled’). We assume that all of these assumptions are met in the artist-critic relationship. Each is dependent on the other in the construction of art worlds – disputes between them do not become physically violent, and both are consid- ered competent within their respective spheres of influence. This is not to say that there is always agreement between the camps, as artists and critics expect different needs to be satisfied by their respective work (Chipp, 1968). Boltanski and Thévenot’s (2006: 160ff) approach to thinking about justifications identi- fied six worlds or orders of worth. These worlds provide scripts for making sense of differ- ences, or as Scott and Lyman (1968: 46) stated with regards to accounts, ‘[the] ability to

shore up the timbers of fractured sociation

to throw bridges between the promised and

. . . the performed, [the] ability to repair the broken and restore the estranged’. Where Boltanski and Thévenot differ from earlier research is that the justifications they studied preceded challenges. The critic, for example, must assume that his or her perspective on a cultural product will be questioned by others – the artist, the gallery owner, the audience member, or even him- or herself – so s/he provides a justification within the writing to deflect con- demnation from those who come to his or her writing with different values. Boltanski and Thévenot (2006) argue that this is a better indication of the value system from which some- one is operating than a posteriori accounts that can take into consideration the concerns of the other after those concerns have been expressed. An embattled critic, for example, may seek to placate his opponents by drawing from their value systems to clear his or her name of any wrongdoing. Boltanski and Thévenot, on the other hand, show us how to make sense of ‘how-to’ scripts such as cookbooks that are written prior to action. The art critic is also writing ‘how-to’ instructions, and must justify the critique in a way that legitimates his or her own standing as an expert on the arts (e.g. Shrum, 1996). Each of the six orders of worth consists of four aspects: worth of evaluation, format of relevant information, elementary relation, and human qualification. The actor who

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appeals to these worlds must be cognizant of how each world can and will be interpreted by others. To provide a successful justification the actor must understand the nuances of the world in terms of the proper level of worth that it will maintain, type of format and relations expected, and qualifications that should be taken into consideration. Importantly, Boltanski and Thévenot (2006) emphasize that actors do not reside in any of these worlds, but rather appeal to one or more of them as needed to justify their positions (cf. Walzer, 1983). The inspirational world is defined by grace, passion, and creativity; the opinion world by recognition and celebrity status. The civic world is based on solidarity and equality; the market world is centred on exchange relationships and desire. The industrial world relies on functionality and efficiency, while the domestic world is built on trust and authority. Actors justify contentious actions by appeals to these various worlds, often drawing from more than one to make the justification fit the situation. For example, an artist who is inspired through the nurturing of creativity may also feel the need to couch discussions of her work in the civic world to meet the expectations of censoring officials. The gallery owner who is primarily concerned with monetary exchange may also use a justification grounded in the domestic world to keep the local critic happy if that person tends to appreciate art traditions. It is imperative that appeals to these worlds are credible and plausible to those involved in the conflict. As actors or situations change, justifications may also change. The early Impressionists were kept out of government-sponsored shows since government-appointed judges used justifications based in the civic and domestic worlds to argue that the art was inappropriate for the masses, and even if the work was shown no one would understand it. This justification became obsolete as the artists developed ties to galleries and patrons became accus- tomed to seeing the new styles and techniques. Those officials who continued to draw from a civic order of worth to keep the paintings out of government shows were over- ruled as the civic order of worth expanded to include members of the middle class, and new orders of worth – inspirational – were used to situate these paintings in the expanding social sphere of art (King, 2006). Other art movements have experienced similar situations. The Dadaists, for example, ‘invited, or rather defied, the world to misunderstand it, and fostered every kind of con- fusion. This was done from caprice and a principle of contradiction’ (Richter, 1964: 9). The Dadaists had a disdain for the rich and powerful who were considered to be behind the First World War, and who also happened to be major patrons of the arts. They were determined to make their art incomprehensible for these individuals. They drew on an inspirational order of worth to justify their ‘new’ art, as well as the civic world in their calls for solidarity among the masses to rise up against the bourgeoisie. The Bauhaus is another example of an art movement that had to justify its existence. Members of the Bauhaus focused on fusing functionality and aesthetics (Hochmann, 1997). It included a number of non-traditional artists including Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Oskar Schlemmer. The institution was constantly seeking funding from government sources while battling criticisms from traditional artists and politicians from the Right (Hitler shut down the Bauhaus in 1933). Throughout its existence in Germany, the Bauhaus used the inspirational and industrial orders of worth to justify their efforts to meld art and functionality within a social environment that showed little patience for their efforts.

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Greenberg and Kimmelman as Exemplars

Our investigation into justifications is based on the writings of two critics that have similar backgrounds, though the specific pieces we focus on are separated by over five decades, are from two disparate formats, and cover two seemingly different topics. Both Clement Greenberg and Michael Kimmelman have written for The New York Times, have been published in other media outlets, and have written their own books, while Greenberg was labelled a key player in the high arts when he was writing (Foster et al., 2004). We contend that their writings, as exemplars of the field, would have been used to model the ways in which other critics practiced their craft. This claim is based on the idea that individuals writing for the press constitute an interpretative community (Zelizer, 1993), as they often try to imitate the practices of those who are deemed lead - ers in the field. What we are seeking to understand is whether justifications are stable across time and by topic. If Greenberg and Kimmelman were leaders in the field, what were they writing that could be copied by others? The coverage of art and its discontents in popular culture – books, newspapers, television shows, etc. – has a history that spans more than a century (e.g. Gee, 1993; Schjeldahl, 2007), and critics have had a part in this coverage throughout the decades (Crane, 1987). We mention this because popular culture organizations such as the media provide ligatures between the various orders of worth, for example bringing concerns with civics into contact with the creative forces of artists. In short, these out- lets provide a broader dissemination of various forms of information, are the vehicle through which larger audiences can catch a glimpse of the inside workings of these circles and be told what is good and bad art. Our critiques come from two readily avail- able books – Art and Culture (1961) by Clement Greenberg (the specific critique to be analyzed originally appeared in Partisan Review in 1952) and a chapter from The Accidental Masterpiece (2005) by Michael Kimmelman.

Greenberg and Kimmelman in Context

On 8 August 1949, the cover of Life magazine asked if Jackson Pollock was the greatest American painter. The answer to that question was not as important to this paper as the fact that Pollock was an important enough person – and art was an important enough topic – to be mentioned on the cover of a popular national magazine. According to Foster et al. (2004:

355), it was Pollock who ‘broke the ice’ in American art in the sense that it had finally tran- scended being simply art. It was now something everyone could talk about. This was a time for both experimentation (e.g. Pollock) and pragmatism in art (e.g. Jasper Johns). American art was finally standing on its own and seeking a direction that would keep it unique, and museums were beginning to be filled on a regular basis with curious spectators. Ten years before Life posed the question about Pollock, Clement Greenberg had established himself as a force in the arts with his essay on kitsch and art that appeared in Partisan Review (Auther, 2004). Born in 1909, Greenberg would continue to write until the early 1980s, and has been dubbed by one writer as ‘quite possibly the most signifi-

cant art critic of the twentieth

century. .

.’ (Wilkin, 2000: 15). In The Painted Word

(1975), Thomas Wolfe argued that Greenberg was one of the most influential people in American culture. Greenberg’s work in the 1950s focused mainly on modernism and

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abstraction, though Wilkin (2000) contends that his most powerful insights were focused on established masters such as Chagall and Kandinsky. By the beginning of the 21st century, the American art scene had changed (Kammen, 2006). According to Crane (1987: 137), the New York avant-garde art scene of the 1940s and 1950s was characterized by very specific art forms, but the scene was ‘large, varied, and complex by 1985’. Outsider art had become accepted as serious art by some (Fine, 2004), and by the year 2000, earth matter (and even the earth itself), video, and computers

were being used to create art for the masses as well as the coveted walls and floors of major museums (Fabozzi, 2002). Foster et al. (2004: 664), for example, provide the fol-

lowing description for a display:

‘. . .

an array of abstract bulletin boards, drawing tables,

and discussion platforms, some concerning a role player of the near past

as though a

. . . documentary script were in the making or a history seminar had just let out’. ‘Mixed

media’ and ‘installation’ had become the buzz words of the industry, posing a major

rethinking not only of what constituted art, but how these forms were to be archived. Michael Kimmelman was born and raised in the 1960s in New York’s Greenwich Village, received an undergraduate degree from Yale and a graduate degree in art history from Harvard. He began his New York Times career as a music critic, and was appointed the newspaper’s chief art critic on 10 January 1990. According to the official announce- ment (PR Newswire, 10 January 1990), Max Frankel, the executive editor of the New York

Times stated, ‘[t]he change provides an opportunity to enhance the work of [a] gifted

. critic – Mr. Kimmelman, a writer of proven scholarship and journalistic flair’. His book Portraits (1998) was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 1999, and he moved to Berlin in 2007 to write about European art and culture for the New York Times. Kimmelman begins The Accidental Masterpiece in a modest way, stating that ‘[u]nfortunately, we are not all

. .

gifted artists like [Pierre] Bonnard

but we can, I think, still learn something from him

. . . about how art transforms lives’ (2005: 3). Kimmelman may be right about not everyone being a gifted artist, though he himself is a concert pianist. Both Greenberg and Kimmelman held (and Kimmelman continues to hold) the position of gatekeeper between art and the public (Bourdieu, 1984). As critics with high standing, their writings can impact the success of a show, as well as influence the trajec- tory of an artist (Shrum, 1996). While structurally equivalent, they wrote at different times and in different venues. Given the change in the American art scene (Crane, 1987), they also wrote about different types of art. Comparisons, therefore, may seem problem- atic. There are reasons, however, to place them side by side to see if time and topic makes any difference when writing about art. Our interest in justifications points to both differ- ences and similarities – enough similarities to make the argument that justifying art is done in a certain way regardless of when it was written or the topic of interest.

Clement Greenberg’s Justifications

Greenberg begins his writing with the following:

We cannot be reminded too often of how decisive honesty is in art. It does not guarantee anything – the artist has to have something to be honest with and about – yet it is essential and it can never be separated from the procedures of talent. (Greenberg, 1961 [1952]: 146)

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This is a justification that draws from the civic order of worth. Honesty, in this case, is about the artist and the viewer being true to themselves – a call to collective interests. Honesty can lead to inspiration, but only once the artist has understood what it is he is supposed to do as an actor playing a very specific role within society. If this is a civic justification, however, why would Greenberg say that honesty can be decisive? He discussed five artists – Henri Matisse, Gerhard Marcks, Barnett Newman, Franz Kline, and Jackson Pollock – all of whom he contended were at least partially true to their calling. The decisiveness, he argued, stemmed from the fact that pure art – honest art – was puzzling to the artist and the public. His review of Newman’s work, which was exhibited a year prior to Greenberg’s critique, was justified by stating:

I review them at this late date because I feel that the art public should be continued to be reminded of anything by which it has been puzzled (we must all learn that a puzzled reaction can legitimately produce nothing more than a suspended judgment). And also because I feel that works of art which genuinely puzzle us are almost always of ultimate consequence. (Greenberg, 1961 [1952]: 150)

This justification again draws from the civic order of worth in the sense that art is a col- lective interest: the public should be puzzled by – and drawn to – interesting and inspired art. Greenberg also argued that the viewer must get past these feelings since suspended judgments in the art world were not appropriate. Art was to be judged. If not, there was no need for the critic. The artist is also puzzled, as Greenberg contended that ‘the completely honest artist is not pure in heart’ (1961 [1952]: 146). This is still a civic justification, though Greenberg is now moving to a posteriori justifications for why the artists did what they did. Matisse, for example:

like any other artist

worked at first in borrowed styles; but if he appears to have proceeded

. . . rather slowly toward the discovery of his own unique self, it was less out of lack of self-

confidence than because of very sophisticated scruples about his truth. He had to make sure, before he could move towards independence, that he really felt differently and had different things to say than did those artists whom he had admired and by whom he was influenced. (1961 [1952]: 146, emphasis in original)

Here we find a domestic justification grounded in the values of reputation and the esteem of other artists. According to Hall (1996), a style based on being different is still linked to the thing one is trying to distance oneself from. As an honest artist, however, Matisse had to move beyond imitation or even thinking how he could be different. It is only as the artist becomes honest that we begin to see justifications growing out of the inspired order of worth, though again we have to take Greenberg’s word for it that this was their inspiration. When Greenberg gets to Pollock he states: ‘Jackson Pollock’s problem has never been one of authenticity; rather, it is to find means to cope with the literalness of his emotion, which is of a kind that seems foreign at first to pictorial art’ (1961 [1952]:

152). Much of the discussion is drawn from the inspirational order of worth – Pollock’s paintings were pure Pollock, inspired by his own demons. This can be seen by the vari- ous directions that Pollock was taking at the time of the review:

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Whereas Pollock had striven over the previous four years for a kind of corporeality by which he could wrest the picture surface, as surface, away from itself, now he seems to want to volatilize the paint alone and render it a fact less local to that of the surface. (Greenberg, 1961 [1952]: 152)

There is, however, a note about traditions:

Such pictures as Fourteen and Twenty-Five

attain a classical kind of lucidity in which there

. . . is not only identification of form and feeling, but an acceptance and exploitation of the very circumstances of the medium which limit that identification. Were Pollock a Frenchman, there would be, I feel, no need by now to call attention to my objectivity in praising him; he would already be called maitre and there would already be speculation in his pictures. (Greenberg, 1961 [1952]: 153)

This domestic justification – loosely tying Pollock to a tradition – is coupled with a civic one when Greenberg ends the discussion by attacking critics who do not like Pollock’s

work, saying that ‘we have at last produced the best painter of a whole

generation. .


(Greenberg, 1961 [1952]: 153). Greenberg also draws on the opinion/renown order of worth in two ways. First, his own standing should not be overlooked. His influence on art is due to his position as a critic for influential outlets such as Partisan Review and the New York Times. The ele- mentary relation in this sphere is recognition, and Greenberg was recognized as a leading figure in the arts. If someone had to ask who Greenberg was, it showed that they were not fully aware of what was happening within avant-garde art. The second use of the opinion order of worth can be found in the way Greenberg used names. Picasso may have been so well-known by Greenberg and his readers that his work does not need to be discussed. The name captures all that needs to be said. The inspirational and domestic orders of worth are no longer needed. To say that an artist

conjures up memories of Picasso is stating that the artist is creating art in a certain style. Once an individual reaches the opinion order of worth, their name becomes a marker for everything they have done. Greenberg used four of the six orders of worth at some point in his writings (there was no mention of prices – market world – or functional links – industrial world). We want to offer a closer examination of two that were also found in Kimmelman’s writings – civic and renowned justifications. Boltanski and Thévenot (1999: 371) contend that the mode of evaluation for the civic order of worth is collective interest. Greenberg used this mode of evaluation when he stated that the public should be puzzled by art, though its members should get beyond that frame of mind to reach judgment. It is not necessary to agree on the value of art – aesthetically, economically, etc. – but it is important to make a judgment so that society can continue to the next good idea. The format of relevant information in the civic order of worth is formal or official information. Greenberg relied on both the standing of the publication in which he wrote and mentioning the locations where the exhibitions were displayed, including the Museum of Modern Art. As an offi- cial institution for the arts, anyone displaying there must be of high standing. Greenberg is adding to this standing by writing for a highly touted magazine. Even the galleries of Curt Valentin, Betty Parson and Charles Egan add credence to the fact that it is not only

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Greenberg who sees this work as special. Even if the reader was not familiar with these locations one assumes that they must be important if they are named by Greenberg as places to see exceptional art. The elementary relation in the civic order of worth is solidarity. According to Boltanski and Thévenot (1999: 372), this solidarity is held together by federations and organizations – individuals are insignificant in a sense (unlike the domestic world where the old masters hold sway), as it is expected that everyone will come to a general agreement if told to do so by the right organization. For Greenberg, while he talked about specific artists, his role was to show how these individual artists were embedded within, extended and challenged ideas about art. Each artist was struggling with hon - esty to the self through their art. Even if they were engaged in different genres and media, honesty was a basis for solidarity among artists. This is also part of the human qualification for the civic order of worth – equality. These artists were not equal in terms of what they were doing, or in terms of reputation. Matisse was in his eighties and at the end of his career, Marck’s was in his sixties, while the others were still developing their trajectories (though Pollock died in a car accident 4 years after this review was written and just 2 years after Matisse). Still, Greenberg treated them as equals on the grounds of honesty – all were individuals trying to figure out who they were as persons and artists. He also thought the public should be involved and on an equal footing in the sense that they would ‘get’ what these artists were trying to do with their work. Equality is not agreement but understanding, and Greenberg wanted to help audience members understand his visions and those he critiqued. Greenberg also drew from the opinion order of worth, mainly by using names of other artists to display his knowledge of the art world. The mode of evaluation in this world is characterized by renown (Boltanski and Thévenot, 1999). Each of the artists discussed – Matisse, Marcks, Newman, Kline, and Pollock – were placed next to famous artists or movements – Matisse with Picasso, Marcks with Rodin, Despiau and Kolbe, Newman with Mondrian, Kline with Cezanne, and Pollock with the French (though Greenberg did say that Pollock was in a class by himself). These artists were not discussed – only their names were used. To say that Marcks follows Rodin, Despiau and Kolbe means that Greenberg feels these people are famous enough that readers will know where they were leading. The format of relevant information in the opinion order of worth is semiotic. Anyone with a piece of paper, writing utensil, and control over a written language can write down their opinion. Not everyone, however, can have their work published in Partisan Review. By doing so, Greenberg was providing a public forum for these artists (and the French in the case of Pollock). Greenberg’s tie between Newman and Mondrian was to say that the former’s work had few if any ties to the latter. Someone may have disagreed with this statement, but their sphere of influence was probably much smaller than Greenberg’s. Their opinion would have only mattered to their friends, who may have dismissed this person’s opinions after reading Greenberg. The elementary relation is recognition, and the human qualification is celebrity status within the opinion world. As mentioned, Greenberg did not explain any of the work of these other artists, but must have assumed that his readers would recognize them and understand the relationship with the artists he was reviewing. Their celebrity status is

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captured by such words and phrases as ‘Mondrian or his followers’ and ‘follows where

Rodin, Despiau, and Kolbe have already led

.’ (Greenberg, 1961 [1952]: 149). To have

. . followers is to enjoy some level of celebrity status. It is in the use of the opinion order of worth that we begin to see how the critique is situ- ated within a cultural sphere. To fully understand the discussion, one must have knowl- edge of the artists that are named. This implies a level of cultural capital that only certain people would possess (Bourdieu, 1984). The level of understanding would shed light on one’s standing within larger social hierarchies where art is used as a marker of social dis- tinction. The rise of the internet and the flattening of the avant-garde art scene by the 1980s leads to the question of whether an art book published in 2005 and focused on the American art scene would be written in the same way as did Greenberg in the 1950s.

Michael Kimmelman’s Justifications

Michael Kimmelman begins The Accidental Masterpiece (2005) by providing an inspi- rational justification for his own work. He states, that ‘a life lived with art in mind might itself be a kind of art’ (2005: 3). Simply thinking that life could be an art form means that everyone could be an artist. He goes on to say that ‘I hope to approach the art of seeing here in the spirit of an amateur. I mean amateur in the original sense of the word, as a lover, someone who does something for the love of it, wholeheartedly’ (2005: 5). Being an amateur and in love with art, however, does not make one a leading critic. Besides these inspirational justifications, Kimmelman’s introduction is replete with civic justifications. For example, just before the line about taking the view of the ama- teur, he states that ‘art provides us with clues about how to live our own lives more fully’ (2005: 5). This is a collective value that provides equality among the masses – everyone needs art to be complete. Creativity – and especially everyday creativity – is the inspiration for creating accidental masterpieces, but it is also the opportunity to bring people together around those masterpieces that inspired the writing of the book. This is the first link to how Greenberg wrote about art. Kimmelman seems to be fol- lowing Greenberg’s lead in using civic justifications for why art is important, as well as why the public needs people to write about it. It should also be noted that the title of the book – The Accidental Masterpiece – is somewhat misleading. Kimmelman is not simply looking at anything that someone decided to call art. Like Greenberg, he is focusing on works that appear in museums or have been recognized as art by an expert (including himself). The larger art scene has changed. It is no longer imperative that an art piece be linked to a famous artist who can trace her lineage back to an old European master. Even a definition of ‘avant-garde’ is now difficult (Crane, 1987). The fringe becomes a source of power if connected to the right people and organizations (Shrum, 1996), and one who holds a position of power can write a book on seemingly mundane art, though it is important to keep in mind that an expert is still setting the standard. Greenberg’s earlier work helped to expand the role of the critic, allowing Kimmelman to speak of everyday art in much the same way that Greenberg talked about the New York art scene of the 1950s. It is still Kimmelman and other art experts who are deciding what should be discussed.

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Kimmelman begins his chapter on being ‘artless’ with a description of finding two photographs of himself as a child. Notice the link to the domestic and opinion spheres:

Not long ago I fished two old photographs from a shoebox. They were shot during the late

1960s when I was a little boy on a family trip to the Soviet

Union. . . .

I barely make it into the

lower left corner of the picture, staring up at Pablo Picasso’s Absinthe Drinker in the Hermitage, where I was no doubt planted by my parents for the purpose of the photograph. (Kimmelman, 2005: 29)

What appears at first to be a normal setting – young child on a family trip posed for a quick photograph – is actually an opinion world justification. Moscow and Picasso stand for something besides a normal family setting. Like Greenberg, Kimmelman uses names to position his writing within larger, more exclusive, worlds. Within the context of American art, both Moscow and Picasso are exotic. This is not a typical family vacation. Kimmelman does distance himself from Greenberg in one sense. After defining the ‘artless’, he begins a discussion firmly planted in the industrial order of worth with an overview of the Eastman Kodak Company and point-and-shoot photography. The ‘art- ist’ does very little of the work, though she is led to believe that her part is integral to the successful outcome of the creative process which is really controlled by behind-the- scenes professionals. The photographer may snap the picture, but it is the manufacturer of the camera that determines variables such as shutter speeds and the developer that determines colour tones and values on the finished photograph. The industrial justifi- cation becomes even clearer when Kimmelman mentions that ‘[b]y the turn of the century more than 1.5 million of these roll-film cameras were in circulation’ (2005:

31), and that professional photographers were concerned by the proliferation of ama- teurs. They saw this as a threat to their livelihoods and to those who thought of photog- raphy as a serious art form (a market justification on their part). This point-and-shoot trend continued into the 1990s when serious painters were being challenged by various artists and art forms based on efficiency and mass production. For Kimmelman, ‘[t]he modern exemplar of the art-made-easy school of amateurism was a

bearded, bushy-haired air force sergeant

turned televangelist painter’ (2005: 33). Bob

. . . Ross may still be the best known painter on earth (he died in 1995). Ross’s easy ‘how-to’

approach gave aspiring painters (whom Kimmelman refers to as ‘couch potatoes’) of all ages the inspiration and motivation to tackle the canvas and make paintings that looked just like his.

According to Boltanski and Thévenot (1999: 373), the mode of evaluation for the industrial order of worth is productivity and efficiency. The artless may not necessarily be efficient in the sense of creating good art work. Instead, their output is more the outcome of the law of large numbers, which is a form of productivity. The more work that is done, the more likely something good – or interesting – will come of it. There is, however, heavy leaning towards efficiency when Kimmelman discusses the millions of people with cameras and Bob Ross videos. Amateur art is undertaken when the techniques and equipment become easy to use. Outcomes are secondary.

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The format of relevant information for this order of worth is measures and statistics. This is captured by the numbers Kimmelman uses when he counts all the amateur art- ists and the products they are producing. Amateur art has become an industry because one can measure how many paint-by-number kits have been sold, the size of the audi- ence watching a ‘how-to-paint a landscape in 30 minutes’ show, and the number of rolls of film being developed (or in the digital age, the number of digital storage cards sold). The elementary relation is function. Kimmelman notes that the function of ama - teur art is its lifeblood for its practitioners. People turn to practising art because it provides the opportunity to capture fleeting moments. It is not creativity that leads most people to pick up their first camera, but a sense of immortality. Finally, the human qualifications necessary in the industrial order of worth are professionalism and com- petency. Amateurs, by definition, are not professional, though they may be competent. It is not the art that makes this an industrial order of worth. Instead, it is the people like Bob Ross who are able to make audience members believe that a level of competence can be reached if one is willing to just follow along. The introduction of the industrial order is coupled by a lack of inspirational justifica- tions, something that Greenberg relied on. Kimmelman invokes divine intervention, creativity that comes from above: ‘Sometimes art works that way. It appears unexpect- edly. It doesn’t arrive through the front door. It sneaks in the back, the more startling for being the result of dumb luck’ (2005: 44). When he does mention the kind of puzzling art Greenberg grappled with in the 1950s, he says that most people were confused and turned off by it. They turned to Grandma Moses and paint-by-number kits. When an amateur did take a picture that ended up looking like something out of a surrealist exhibi- tion, then they could say they were doing art. In describing a specific black-and-white photograph, Kimmelman states:

By some act of divine cosmic grace, the reflection happens to match up precisely with the head of the man so that he looks like the woman’s ghostly, dwarflike double, a funny-surreal coincidence that, but adding a layer of unanticipated meaning to the picture, suddenly elevates it from ordinary snapshot to art. (2005: 44)

Kimmelman argues that many black-and-white photographs that have been found from the 1950s were probably only kept because of their likeness to the strange art that was being hung in America’s major museums of galleries. This is not an endorsement of that art. In fact, it is just the opposite. It is the amateur pointing to his own work and saying ‘Hey, this looks like a Dali’. Kimmelman’s borrowing of industrial justifications to make sense of the artless is nevertheless couched in his own sense of the civic world: ‘Strangers to these happen- stance images, we are blissfully free to fill the space between what we see and what we know, an anarchic, unbridgeable gap’ (2005: 47). Regardless of the reference to anarchy, Kimmelman is telling all of us – all strangers to each other’s memories – that we have the ability to find some meaning in art. It is not judgment in Greenberg’s sense, but indi- vidual reflection during a collective moment. Making the artless is also collective and draws back to the more established art scene. After warning readers not to go looking for that one photograph that will end up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art because such a

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photograph is one in a million, Kimmelman says, ‘[t]hen again, who knows? The world is full of amazing surprises’ (2005: 50). It is likely that Greenberg would have labelled Kimmelman’s point-and-shoot photog- raphy and Bob Ross as kitsch, and Greenberg made a point of arguing that artists like Pollock were honest because they were searching within themselves for answers. Kimmelman, on the other hand, talks about amateurs looking to experts to make art. In this sense, these are two very different approaches to critiquing art. There are also simi- larities. We have mentioned that both used civic justifications. The use of the renowned world is another gatekeeping tactic both used to position art in a way that only certain people would understand. Both Greenberg and Kimmelman mention Picasso, an artist who may have been regarded as a household name by either. Both, however, use the name in ways that point to a level of sophistication that goes beyond knowing you could buy a Picasso print at the local department store. Above, Kimmelman discusses a specific Picasso painting. In re-reading the passage, it becomes clear that little is gained by saying that his parents stationed him below Picasso’s Absinthe Drinker. Most readers would have probably understood the overall point if he had said: ‘I barely make it into the lower left corner of the picture, staring up at a painting by a famous artist.’ Greenberg men- tions Henri Rousseau, though relatively few people would probably know the differ- ence between Henri Rousseau and Jean-Jacques Rousseau – that the former was a post-Impressionist painter and the latter a political philosopher. He also drops the names of Chardin and Manet as if the reader would know how these artists connect to Matisse. The same could be said about the aforementioned link of Rodin, Despiau, and Kolbe to Gerhard Marcks. Kimmelmann links paint-by-number kits to abstract expres- sionists, but one must know the work of abstraction expressionists to more fully under- stand the connection. This is a gatekeeping technique that has been maintained for over 50 years, and it shows that if you want to write about art – and fully comprehend that writing – you need to know your art history, a topic that is as much about your upbring- ing as about your education (Bourdieu, 1984).


Justifications become the legitimating tools used to support actions and arguments (Boltanski and Thévenot, 2006). The art critic is expected to provide a ‘how-to’ guide for looking at art, and his justifications must be written in a way that legitimates his standing as an expert. We found that seemingly disparate critiques – one that was writ- ten by Clement Greenberg in 1952 for an elite publication, Partisan Review, and the other to be found in a mass audience book by Michael Kimmelman published in 2005 – drew from various order of worth to make this claim. In one sense these were very dif- ferent discussions. Greenberg relied heavily on inspirational orders of worth to discuss the works of artists like Pollock and Newman. Kimmelman used the industrial order of worth to justify a discussion about amateur art. Yet there were also similarities that pointed to an effort to maintain the high status of art and the critics’ own standing as experts. Both critics drew from the renowned order of worth to position their thoughts in a way that would make sense only to those familiar with the names being used to

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frame the critique. It mattered very little that Greenberg was focused on avant-garde art in New York, while Kimmelman discussed the everyday efforts of making art through point-and-click photography and ‘how-to-paint’ videos. The renowned order of worth relies on recognition as the elementary relation (Boltanski and Thévenot, 1999), and while both critics mentioned Picasso – a very well-known artist – the names of lesser known artists and art movements were also used to establish art as a sphere of social distinction, and the critic’s own standing as a contributing member of this arena (Bourdieu, 1984). That art and these individuals were part of high culture was tempered to a degree by the use of civic justifications. Greenberg thought everyone should consume art, while Kimmelman thought everyone should produce and consume art given the opportunities to take a quick picture or paint a landscape in 30 minutes. This may have been done to placate the average member of the mass media audience, yet these justifications did little to help the reader understand the art being discussed. Civic justifications were meant to tell the reader that they should be involved in consumption, but not necessarily in under- standing or defining art. To enter these inner circles meant knowing names and styles from the past. The critiques written by Greenberg and Kimmelman were keys not only to specific exhibits but also ‘how-to’ guides for talking about those exhibits and art more generally. They were to be used to gauge where one stands in relation to others with regards to cultural knowledge and, in turn, larger social hierarchies.


  • 1. We will refer to the writings of both critics in the past tense for the sake of clarity in writing. Clement Greenberg died in 1994, while Michael Kimmelman continues to work as an art critic for the New York Times.


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Toby A. Ten Eyck is Associate Professor of Sociology in the Department of Sociology at Michigan State University.

Lawrence Busch is University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Sociology at Michigan State University.

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