As for a universal human nature, or illusion of it, and how that might affect a peasant’s response to Art or Kitch; it seems to me Greenberg would admit a peasant, given the proper instruction, could be made to value high modernist art. Greenberg in fact admits this in his ’39 essay, in which he seems briefly to attempt an entry into the mind of the peasant who initially stands bewildered before a cubist canvas. The problem Greenberg sees is that the peasant, even if he were to have the inclination, simply doesn’t have the necessary time, to say nothing of other resources, to develop anything other than a fleeting curiosity regarding high art. The material and social conditions simply do not exist under which it would be possible to dedicate himself to the prolonged intellectual study and practical experience requisite for a genuine and lasting appreciation of modern art. About this Greenberg is quite explicit.
Culture of the highest order is of one of the most fragile achievements of humanity. It does not simply emerge on its own but requires constant vigilance and nurturing if it is to endure. It is for this reason that culture, in virtually every society we have ever known, has always been the province of the wealthy and leisured, and those few talented and determined individuals for whom the wealthy and leisured are willing to act as patrons. Those forced to work for their survival – peasants, factory laborers, bourgeois types, and even a majority of intellectuals (me!), who these days are also worked to death – simply don’t have the available means whereby to cultivate a genuine sense of discernment. Increasingly, Greenberg adds, even the ruling classes, now that work and leisure have become ever more distinct from one another, are becoming excessively addicted to work.
This cannot be otherwise than the case in a capitalist society, because competition, which is a fundamental component of that system, requires that everyone attempt to get ahead of everyone else. The moment anyone relaxes in any aspect of the total process of production, that person can rest assured that the competition will gain the upper hand. Capitalism, by definition, must constantly expand into new markets, creep into and colonize ever more minute areas of private life. Leisure time, to the extent it exists at all anymore, increasingly has come to mean idle time, those remaining moments in life when we are too tired to do anything other than chill out with cheap beer and stare at the TV. Who today would ever consider spending not just a couple of hours but their weekend or summer vacation studying difficult philosophy texts or doing a detailed comparison of the Picasso and Braque? Everyone today, regardless of their class, is equally exhausted (and if someone is not exhausted – which increasingly the new state of nature – we have products which, either sooner or later, will make them that way). Today, everybody is equally determined, either inwardly or outwardly, simply to escape any immediate encounter with hard reality. The human organism, if not the muscles then certainly the brain (Greenberg mentions this explicitly) is simply too tired. And so we reach not even for a decent wine but instead a cold, watery “beer”. Culture, in general, is in a state of danger.
The genuine danger, at least for Greenberg, is that we will lapse back into a state of utter barbarism, interested only in fulfilling our most instinctual needs and desires. This we might this call a lapse back into animal nature, which for Greenberg would be something quite distinct from “human nature”. Genuine culture, valid culture, can exist only on a higher, properly abstract level. Human consciousness certainly can and does evolve, just as the human body evolves. The problem both Greenberg and Eliot identify is that technology, most recently in the form of large-scale industry, is evolving far more rapidly than are either the human organism or human consciousness. Modern humanity is drained by his work and alienated from genuinely meaningful activity. The understand this, one only needs to look at the woeful state of contemporary higher eduction. The name of just one of the symptoms of this new set of relations of production is Boredom – something which Greenberg claims is a relatively recent invention. Capitalism’s cheap and easy remedy for this is Kitsch.
Eliot’s solution to the problem, which Greenberg attacks in “The Plight of Culture” is call for a return to an earlier pre-industrial age. Greenberg finds this highly problematic for all the reasons we mentioned in class. The masses simply would not allow it, and the totalitarian leaders we have today do not dare contradict the will of the masses. Look, for instance, as the candidates running for president and their dire fear of suggesting any degree of credulity in the conclusions of the best modern science. Further, history, which in the final analysis is the result of overall economic development, simply does not go backwards. Greenberg’s response to what he deems the ‘callowness’ of Eliot is to argue that technological revolutions have always caused social crises in their earliest phases, though he argues that with time these crises do work themselves out.
The role of formal experimentation under the present phase of economic and technological development, which for Greenberg amounts to Capitalism going through its death throes, is not to produce a style of art which will be appropriate to all people in all places and at all times, but rather to produce a style of art which for the present moment does not debase itself to the level of Kitsch. As I said in class, we do not know what kind of art the new society of the future will bring. The material conditions under which it would be possible to know that do not yet exist. In the future it may once again be possible realistically to depict the human form in a painting without that image inevitably functioning as a mere illustration, or unavoidably reminding us of an ad for outlandishly overpriced brandname underwear. The future, for Greenberg, remains open here.
Greenberg does predict that a new kind of art, possibly realist in style, will emerge only after industry develops to a point at which we have a classless society, one in which work, and indeed consumption (here, once again a kind of intellectual and bodily labor), has actually become interesting to us again. This is not a nostalgic return to folk culture – at least Greenberg does not think so – but it does bear a resemblance to folk culture insofar as artworks under this new system, will, like folk art, be collective productions resulting from a synthesis of work and play. This, as far as the early Greenberg is concerned, is one of the first signs of cultural decadence, the replacement of great schools of art by the occasional exceptional individual.
As for all new art arising in rebellion against older forms, Greenberg will not argue that this is entirely the case. He will say instead that art, in our own culture at least, has developed as a result of artists’ need to identify and work within the limitations of any given medium. Rather than offering us a million things to process at once – which is precisely what the multi-tasking we do at work today offers us – great art strives to focus our attention on one task at a time, by appealing to only one of our sense at a time. This is the ‘purity’ Greenberg mentions in his essay “Towards a Newer Laöcoon” (1949), and which he insists Kitsch is bent on destroying. Genuine art will progress insofar as it is able to break free from external and pathological influences and emerge as simply what it is. Greenberg, then, draws a very hard and fast line between true art and junk, and insists, in the final analysis, a person likes either one or the other. Further, he will insist that most stuff passing itself off today as art is in fact junk. Greenberg does not say that it is always easy to tell the difference between the two, precisely because some junk is produced by people with real talent. We call these persons “sell outs”. Further, the few artists who spend all their time working to produce something which isn’t Kitsch don’t always tend – and this should surprise no one – to be particularly good at marketing themselves. Whereas producers of Kitsch, who invariably work for large industry, one way or another, inevitably have vast armies of PR and marketing experts who specialize in nothing but the selling of product. Consequently, junk insinuates its ways into all areas of our lives, just a Greenberg said, and the available opportunities for the appreciation of genuine art become daily fewer.
Last thing I’ll say about Greenberg – and this is crucial, if only to keep the historical record straight – is that his view of things changes over the years. I won’t go into all the details, but do note these. Sometime after WWII Greenberg begins to abandon his dogged optimism with regard to the possibility of human progress. Whereas in the 30’s his commitment to Marxism expressed itself in the belief that there was no such thing as human nature, by the time the ’50s roll around, Greenberg is arguing strenuously in favor of transcendental categories of aesthetic experience, and the absolute value of certain works of abstract art. In a word, the Marxist has become a Kantian, or a disciple of Eliot. Why? The answer to this question is complex. One possible reason is that Greenberg suddenly felt a renewed allegiance to Humanism after the horrors of the war. He may also have lost his faith in deliverance through technology. From a more negative perspective, perhaps Greenberg was seduced by the power of his own analytical skills. Or, perhaps he became demoralized when he saw Capitalism’s refusal to fail according to Marx’s predictions. Most cynically, perhaps Greenberg became seduced by the money and prestige to be gained by trading art in an market which for the very first time was beginning to buy and sell works of art for millions of dollars – a condition Harold Rosenberg deplores. This outrageous practice, a shock which now no longer shocks us, is something which NEVER was the case before the ’60s, the moment in history during which today’s technologically sophisticated and highly bureacratic multi-national corporations – think IBM – first emerge. Nor, prior to this time, did it ever make sense to anyone to invest in difficult art. Sure, some millionaires collected it; but they didn’t buy it on sites like the one linked here (artfacts.net), which thinly veils itself as an educational resource when in fact it functions as nothing more than a brokerage that may as well be selling real estate or barrels of crude oil.
Anyhow, it’s only after WWII that Greenberg shifts from being highly influential to downright notorious. If you want to read about this shift in greater detail, here’s the book to check out of the library.