Clement Greenberg was not a shy man. He was convinced that his taste was impeccable and that his gift of judgment was close to unerring. He would look at a painting and decide whether it was good or bad in an instant. With little pity, he dismissed the vast majority of the art he viewed. “Superior art continues to be something more or less exceptional,” he wrote. “And this, this rather stable quantitative relation between the superior and inferior, offers as fundamentally relevant a kind of artistic order as you could wish.”
But his chutzpah went even further. Greenberg believed that Kant had been the first critic to recognize that esthetic judgments, decisions about the quality of individual works of art, can’t be proved. Here’s how Greenberg put it in his essay, “Esthetic Judgment:”
I don’t think it’s appreciated enough that esthetic judgments, verdicts of taste, can’t be proven or demonstrated in the way it can be that two plus two equals four… that the earth is round… and so on. In other words, that esthetic judgments fall outside the scope of what is ordinarily considered to be objective evidence.
You either have good judgment (and thus good taste) or you don’t. Greenberg also believed that people could develop their taste, that looking at good art shapes and guides one’s capacity to judge. But in the end there is still an essential mystery. As Greenberg himself explained, “to try to prove that a good deal of Shakespeare’s verse is effective poetry to someone who hasn’t already arrived at that judgment by himself and for himself is like trying to make a color-blind man acquainted with the redness of red.” It’s a vicious circle. The amazing thing about the essay, and about Greenberg in general, is in how completely he accepted both that we have a real and objective capacity to judge works of art, and that such a judgment is not in the realm of rational argumentation.
A cynical person would say that Greenberg put himself in a rather enviable position. He is claiming, essentially, that his judgments are correct (because he has good taste) and that there is no way to argue about it, to prove it, one way or the other. But Greenberg embodied his position so fully, with such Greenbergian hugeness, that the very term “esthetic judgment” is now virtually synonymous with his person. That is greatness, to be an idea. Especially when it’s your own.
The critic and philosopher Arthur Danto tells a wonderful story about how Greenberg would visit an artist at her studio and stand with his back toward the work to be viewed. He wanted to be fully in the mode of esthetic judgment, to be a clean slate so that the pre-cognitive work of taste could work its magic through his gaze. Once everything was ready he would spin around and just stare. As the story goes, he would already know, esthetically, whether the work was any good even before the rest of his mental faculties caught up. Then he would leave. I’m sure Greenberg took a certain amount of pleasure in the theater of this approach, but it is thoroughly consistent with his position. Esthetic judgment was a god to Greenberg and he was its central prophet. He was willing to live under its rules, to worship at its feet. In doing so, he gave himself over completely to the self-enclosed logic of esthetics. He never shied away from it as the absolute. He wrote in “Esthetic Judgment” that, “The esthetic or artistic is the ultimate, intrinsic value, an end-value, one that leads to nothing beyond itself…. anything relished and cherished for its own sole sake, including any person you genuinely love, is experienced esthetically.” That’s right. Greenberg took his own argument so seriously that he was willing to make ethics subordinate to esthetics. It is a beautiful thing to read that essay, to witness a man at one with his ideas. It doesn’t matter so much that the idea is crazy (which it is). As Greenberg himself would have argued, it is the beauty of the idea that made it live and the beauty sustains it still, a unique diamond of thought as crystalline as it ever was and ever will be. • 14 January 2009
From Clement Greenberg’s “Esthetic Judgment”…
“To try to show in some detail just how impossible it is to prove an esthetic judgment, I’ve chosen a case from literature (verbal art is the easiest to deal with on paper). Here are two passages of verse, both about the month of April … The first is by Sir William Watson (1858-1935), who was knighted for his poetry and just missed becoming a poet laureate of England:
Laugh thy girlish laughter
Then, the moment after,
Weep thy girlish tears!
The second one is by T.S. Eliot from The Waste Land:
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
There’s no question for me but that the four Eliot lines are far better as art. But try to prove, in the compelling way that belongs to proof, that this is true, that everybody in his or her right mind has to agree with me in accepting it as true that Eliot’s four lines are better art than Watson’s.”
“It has yet to be shown that anyone has ever learned anything at all about anything other than art from art as art, from esthetic experience as esthetic experience. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is (off and on) a great work of art that also happens to afford a great deal of information; but the experiencing as art of the Decline and Fall does not include the receiving of information as information. You can come away from a reading of Gibbon’s book without possessing an item of it as knowledge but still having had, and knowing that you’ve had, a tremendous esthetic experience. That’s the way it is with esthetic experience: All you need with respect to it is to have it, nothing more; it’s only there to be had, not to be profited by (except in the interest of improving your taste).”