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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 hand-
in-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.