GREENBERG’S TASTE

by Paul Henrickson,Ph.D. ©2006 On several levels I was attracted to the internet appearance Clement Greenberg’s Western Michigan University’s lecture appearance some nearly twenty-five years ago. I felt that many of his comments cleared the air. Others did not and for personal reasons I was reminded of comments made some quarter of a century earlier by a Miss. Lydia Siedschlag Who was then head of the Art department at the same university under the administration of Dr. P.V Sangren. Miss Siedschlag had been asked by my concerned parents the chances of my being able to make a living through my art. Like most parents mine a held a bouquet of mixed hopes and even some aspirations. In any event Miss. Siedschlag’s prognosis was that I might make a good cartoonist. Had I known the expression and possessed the necessary outspokenness I would have blurted out somewhat indignantly, perhaps, “Oi vey!”. That expression would certainly have described my private reactions. As it was I deferred to the marital aspirations of my sister who was engaged to Ward C. Sangren, the son of Paul V and Flossy. I said nothing out loud but privately wondered how this nice lady Siedschlag could know enough to say anything at all. I do not mean that she was uninformed, which, to some extent, she was of course, but merely that there are just so many things we do not, and cannot, know about each other, and social convention does its best to make sure we never find out. Even if I had had the nerve to express my reaction at fifteen years I lacked the vocabulary to express myself effectively. My doubts about Miss. Siedschlag were based on nothing more than the lack of breadth I felt she possessed. But this was not her fault alone, but a characteristic of the entire system of State supported colleges where always some middle ground must be sought for any decision and consequently it would only have been by accident that any

extraordinary personality would have been hired for any position anywhere. Ten years later, after I had been teaching art in the public system I understood more about where her point of view lodged. That, together with the understanding that where institutions of higher education are concerned their overall reputation of being expert in their areas must be preserved. It is a matter of the ideal being in conflict with reality which is fed by the terror of having, at any time at all, to deal with actuality. Everyone associated with an institution from its president to its sanitary engineer feels the pressure to live up to the image. To allow, even an uninitiated unsophisticat to detect any degree of uncertainty is nearly fatal to the next year’s appropriation. Much of the same cloak of paranoia masks the pubic comments of those viewed by the masses as expert in their fields. Be it known, now, that the level of expertness is quickly undercut by anything new the expert might hear, but manages to put the face on it that he had known it all along. Some of Greenberg’s comments have this feel about them. “Taste” was the title of Greenberg’s talk to the Western Michigan group and he began his talk with a reference to the philosopher Kant’s position that the faculty one exercised while experiencing anything aesthetically was simply “taste”. Well , now, that statement seems acceptable, I suppose. But why do I have the lingering feeling that something essential is missing here? I do not intend to limit the meaningful application of the word “taste” to that what man’s tongue experiences, and, I am certain, that neither did Greenberg. But if we use that level as an example, what conclusions about the idea of taste do we come up with if we establish that one person likes vanilla over chocolate, conclusion that we might, with understanding, apply to the matter o someone preferring Pollack over Newman, Constable over Turner, Jacque Louis David over Paul Cezanne? Somehow the idea that such questions can be readily resolved by the platitude that “it is all a matter of taste” is unacceptable, intellectually unacceptable.

Jackson Pollack

Barnett Newman

Turner: “Departure of the Fleet”

Jacques Louis David: “Amour and Psyche”

Paul Cezanne: “Gardanne”

These comments touch on an area that seems very illusive, ungraspable definitionally, but when Greenberg flatly states that “true taste doesn’t swing, doesn’t veer” and that “the very notion of taste swing is anomalous”. I find this statement more an expression of hopefulness than fact. In the next breath, however, he rescues himself by expanding, fortunately, on those astounding statements. “True taste, genuine taste, develops, expands, grows. It changes only in so far as it corrects itself, true taste.” Having just rescued himself Greenberg then proceeds to, once again, over extend himself by stating that “Growth means increasing openness, catholicity, inclusion more than exclusion.” I would disagree with the notion that there is more inclusion than exclusion in a “developing” individual taste. I would also disagree with the opposite notion that there is more exclusion than inclusion. It may be true that as one becomes more sophisticated that one’s tolerance of different or alternative ways of expression is greater—more inclusive— but one’s rejection of failed processes is broader, more severe, and unyielding…maybe. Now, I believe we have entered into a new area if consideration. It is an area that, I believe, few art critics or philosophers have entered because they may never have experienced the process of decision making that nearly defies definition because its variations and its mutations are so great in numbers. I hold that it is just this process that ought to be the focus of their concern. I also hold that it is the one focus that will likely yield the information we need in order to better distinguish between the really creative work and the one merely competent. I shall add something else, at this point, and it is that this process that concerns itself with the morphology of a work of art that will help the observant critic who attempting to be even more observant tries to shed his encapsulating chrysalis. The search of the critic for the language that adequately expresses his perceptions is essentially a moral search and only truthful accuracy, or as near to it as one can get, is acceptable. This implies that the critic himself may not, at any one particular time or another hit exactly the right note that resonates with his perceptions and those of his readers. Writing a scheduled weekly art review can be very hazardous in this

regard, just as abiding by a teaching or class schedule can be very inhibiting to growth and development. Later, Greenberg gives us examples, aspects of the careers of Pollack and Newman and credits Newman with having launched the minimalist aesthetic. Let us look at where such an aesthetic has led us and what and how that “taste” has contributed to our understanding. On first observation I should like to point out that the major differences between Pollack and Newman, that is within the general are of a destructuralization of the western traditional concept of picture making, that is the pictorialization of external visual phenomena as we see in such works as historical illustrations, landscape, still lives and portraits they are 180 degrees apart in that Pollack includes a multiplicity of elements and Newman wished to diminish the visual data quite nearly to the point of exhibiting a blank canvas. Of course, having done that he would have to have confronted the issue of the existence of the canvas itself. There is a warmth in the personality of Greenberg that comes through in his writing. I hadn’t met him so I do not know that it would still be here in the flesh. It reminds me of that warmth I did feel from Viktor Lowenfeld and Daniel Mandelowitz and that should tell us something about them and me. However, warmth or not, I kept wishing that Greenberg would not have used the word “Aesthetic” in the same way that nearly 100% of the population that uses the word at all use it. That word’s association with concepts of beauty became a stumbling block to understanding. In the word “aesthetic” there had been no idea of its having been joined, as if in marriage, to the concept of beauty. It is properly associated with simple sense perception and this can be either pleasant or unpleasant, beautiful or ugly. The use of the word “anesthetic” should help us to understand the difference. That is simply a noun which describes a substance that dulls the senses so that one feels neither pleasure nor pain, sees or hears a thing. I conclude, therefore, that the word aesthetic should simply refer to the engagement of the senses in some sensation or other, good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, beautiful or ugly. Keeping this distinction in mind it also allows us more freedom in the investigation of an aesthetic experience. When, as

currently happens, we associate the word with only one sort of experience, the beautiful as opposed to the ugly, we loose out on knowing, or being able to talk about, one half of the world, as it were. It also seriously inhibits our ability to discuss intelligently whatever differences may exist between, say, a beautiful valentine found attractive by a 10 year-old, a painting by Bougereau and an unfinished Paul Cezanne.

Borgereau: “Love Wispers” Greenberg’s use of the word “taste” which, of course, was the subject of this talk at Western Michigan might have been less troublesome for me had he tried to distinguish taste which I associate with conventional opinion and “perception” which I understand to mean an ability possessed by an individual. Now, in his discussion on the way “taste” has functioned in the Western World Greenberg tells us that it has done so in a “pretty normal way”. This statement, however, throws me into confusion for I haven’t the vaguest idea of what the “normal” functioning of that might be. I’ve done a fair amount of traveling throughout the world, including the west and would be hard pressed to describe what might be called “normal” taste for what seems to “normal” wherever you are looking for it seems to be similarity, in level and in kind, of education. This observation seems to support the contention that taste is learned and in

this Greenberg and I agree. This observation also seems to underscore the difference in meaning between the words “taste” and “perception”. “Taste” is learned and “perception” is an individual and largely independent development. I enjoyed this discussion and particularly the fine verbal distinctions Greenberg makes particularly such phrases as “a fallacious habit” and a “fallacy” in preparing the listener for the observation that some groups tend to reject a body of art “in toto”. Had the conceptual differences between “taste” and “Perception’ been developed before he brought in that thought it might have been said that it would be the function of “perception” to cut through the social glue of “taste”. The very fact that Greenberg can speak of Pollack’s paintings “really going over around 1960” referring to the sales records and Newman’s “apotheosis” referring to the results of the admiration his works encouraged, are words which refer nearly exclusively to class action, mass thought. “Perception” is a word that does not suggest “class action” or might we say “fashion”. In “fashion” one notices the right things for the wrong reasons (and we notice them in order not to disagree with our peers) and “perception” does not thrive in that environment. Of itself “perception” is a-singular behavior and, as such, is the property , characteristic, or responsibility of an individual, “fashion”, on the other hand is entirely political, dictatorial, socially determined and, generally, not insightful. Now, the handmaiden to “perception” is the creative motivation of the artist which also is a singular and particular behavior. They work handin-hand or they do not work all. The artist himself may not be fully aware of why he does what he does, nor would it be fair or appropriate for him to be expected to be, that is, if he is truly a creative artist as opposed to an individual plying a trade. The artist has a set of tools with which he creates an image and, generally speaking, the more complex and delicately balanced these tools are employed, the more richly informative the final image becomes. This does not mean that the final image need be visually complex or confusing, but only that what is there on the canvas touches a great variety of references to which the observer has access.

It is at that point that the viewer’s perceptive abilities come into play. In a sense the observer recreates the process of image making and is a participant in the ultimate meaning of the work. The meaning resides with the viewer, the artist, who has sought-out these relationships transmits his observations through a medium into a form, be it a painting, sculpture, architecture, or dance. If the transmission has been successful and the observer has, through his developed perceptive talents responded, that response is an aesthetic response. He may not have liked what he experienced, but that is another matter. I found Greenberg’s short talk of considerable interest and it was probably correctly aimed at that particular audience. Had I been there I would probably have been waiting to ask him to clarify, if he could, the meanings of some words as they are used in art criticism. The relationship between the artist, critic, and possible patron, that is, why they buy what they buy, are aspects of art criticism for which I am in need of insights. One subject Greenberg does not cover at all in this talk is the nature of creative activity. Somehow there seems to be a lingering assumption that all the artists may be creative to some degree or another. One supposes there may be degrees of creativeness, but in that event what kinds of decisions are made in order to determine the particular degree of creativeness a particular artist may have. This suggests criteria and in order to arrive at a list of appropriate criteria one needs an awareness of the characteristics involved in the creation of a work of art. At some point thereafter one will need to develop a vocabulary adequate to discuss the issues. Creativity, by current definition, describes behaviors which are out of the ordinary, unusual, and, according to some, useful. This last characteristic causes something of a problem for while artistic behavior is popularly considered to be among the most “creative” of human behaviors, some might find it difficult to point out just in what ways artistic pursuits are useful. It might be nice to have a picture on the wall, a statue outside your door or to listen to certain kinds of organized noise…but is entertaining diversion a useful experience? My response to that question would be “yes”, but one still needs clarification.

Actually, Greenberg, did allude to activity which might be identified by those characteristics, but he refrained from identifying them as creative, but merely as possessing evidences that seemed to indicate the maker, or artist, was anticipating being mentioned in art history books. This ambition is not unlike one a friend of mine had of being mentioned in the Guinness Book of Records for being the one, or the first, person who had stayed aloft the longest in a commercial, regularly scheduled series of flights. The definition that creativity is simply being different from the ordinary, the commonplace, is insufficient. Being bizarre is an easy solution to developing your difference from the crowd. Besides, by and large, it is my belief that a truly creative person LONGS, painfully longs, to be a part of the crowd, being alone is most of the time not pleasant, but his perceptions and loyalty to those perceptions of reality are too great for him to cut off his nose to save his “social” face. He will not deny what his senses tell him is true. This was further indicated in research I did while at The University of Northern Iowa, but that university was too blind to accept it, (In fact it seemed that the entire structure of higher education at the time preferred to ignore it, perhaps because the report indicated that universities and public schools made a practice of punishing the perceptive and the truth teller) where the positive correlation between lying, telling lies in order to appear other than what you are, and the absence of evidence of creativity was statistically significant. The pull to be indistinguishable from the crowd is strong and the battle of survival for the individual intense. So, when Greenberg states that many artists are looking for ways to enter the history book and that they do so in ways that simply indicate a difference...and nothing more than just a difference … from the crowd, he is absolutely correct. What I, very regrettably, miss, in this Western Michigan talk at any rate, is any attempt on his part to extend his intellectual efforts further than to simply indicate the problem. I should like to see at least one suggestion as to a possible alternative behavior. I have not seen it. Consequently, it seems that Greenberg’s talk on “taste” can amount to nothing more than a friendly, somewhat rambling, seductively charming statement that amounts to nothing more than that “taste” is what the crowd decides it is and “good” taste is an agreement with that determination. When, however, he says that good taste never veers I

think he is trying to say that there are, after all, some standards and criteria of judgment that account for an unfaltering focus, but he hasn’t said that precisely, nor does he indicate what those standards of judgment might be. Perhaps it is sufficient that he has taken us at least as far as he has and, who knows, with a more sophisticated audience, if he knew more he might have dared say it. I will say this much for the time being, and let the details follow, that the identification of creativeness in the fine arts is a complex task and involves a degree of intellectual humility not often found among critics and rarely, as well, among historians. By and large what rules the majority of people also rules them, the need not to be isolated from the crowd. Elsewhere, I have tried to demonstrate how one might identify the creative aspects in the work of individual artists, but have been unable to come up with a process of analysis that would seem to be appropriate for all. The only system, then, that I can suggest is the same system that creative artists use in their work and that is a single focus on the issue you are facing, be flexible in your use of the tools you have, but do not change the focus. Seek for the aesthetic truth.