Wednesday, November 22, 2023



Knowledge or Pleasure, Subversion or Acquiescence?


                  …Man is only individualized through the process of history. He originally appears as a generic being, a tribal being, a herd animal….Exchange itself is a major agent of this individualization…Once the situation is such that man as an isolated person has relation only to himself; the means of establishing himself as an isolated individual have become what gives him his general communal character… The forming of the five senses is a labor of the entire history of the world down to the present day.


                        —Karl Marx, Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations 



            While war rages in Ukraine, Palestine and all over Africa, is it perverse or foolish to engage in the perennial question of art’s function today? Art’s function, however, has been contentious since the social division of labor began and ramified from primitive times. While reflecting social consciousness and human activity in general, art as a form of creative labor is shaped by concrete historical conditions that determine its methods and intentions. It is no easy task to unravel its complex mediations. Once linked to priestly rituals and symbols of authority, art coincided with the productive-reproduction process. But with the rise of capitalism and labor as commodity, artistic work became alienated, dehumanized. Profit-making converted the arts to “the status of conformist, repetitive, worthless things, whose function is to ensure political quietude” (Wolff 6). For Ortega y Gasset, this vulgarization of art, the mass production of the “commonplace” or kitsch, signalled the “triumphs of a hyperdemocracy”; thus, “Whenever the new Muses [of the avantgarde] present themselves, the masses bristle” (6-7).

            With the advent of the Cold War, the new Muses—laissez-faire American avantgardists Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, etc.—served the “free world” masses, thanks to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Expert managers of the CIA, via the Congress of Cultural Freedom, deployed the art of evangelical geopolitics in the international arena. It was both astute diplomacy and wily propaganda.  As Thomas Braden the CIA technocrat explained it, non-conformist artists were recruited “to demonstrate…freedom of expression,without any rigid barriers” or prescribed code of norms. This was in contrast to the Soviet Union which enforced Socialist Realism and its “very rigid patterns” (Saunders, “Modern Art”). It funded museums, writers’ organizations, conferences, exhibits, and magazines like Encounter edited by Stephen Spender, and Solidarity edited by F. Sionil Jose in the Philippines. Intellectuals such as Archibald MacLeish, Raymond Aron, Lionel Trilling, Hannah Arendt, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., John Ford, and nameless others, were harnessed to the CIA stable for PsyOP fabrications, including Clement Greenberg, editor of Commentary and Partisan Review, aside from being a well-known anti-Stalin Trotskyite intellectual (Levine; Newberry).


Remapping Disjunctions/Conjunctions


            We ordinarily assume that art is distinguished as a non-utilitarian object or activity. Reduced to “significant form,” art is not meant to deliver learning or induce ecstasy. Do not expect catharsis or wisdom from Finnegans Wake or Waiting for Godot. We have travelled far from the classic notions of Plato, Aristotle, Longinus, and Horace whose Ars Poetica encapsulated art’s twin tasks of “prodesse” and “delectare” (quoted in Brooks and Wimsatt  92)—a double function resuscitated in the pronouncements of Shelley, Kenneth Burke, and Bertolt Brecht’s theater for pleasure and instruction. Is the artist today forced to choose either one of the alternatives, or refuse outright the terms of categorization? But the Cold War made art useful and seductive (utile if not dulce), as documented by Saunders, Wilford, and other scholars.

            Today, sadly, we are familiar with the neoliberal marketization of almost everytning— bodies and body parts, your grandmother’s soul, memories, fantasies, dreams. We are in the postmodern realm of narcissistic end-times, utopia’s apocalypse. The fabled culture industry encompassing corporate investments in museums, Christie’s auction of art-works, films, mass media, etc., has been with us since the last two centures.  It emerged from its antithesis, the religion of art-for-art’s sake, which germinated from the romantic movement premised on the Kantian axiom of art’s disinterestedness, its absolute uselessness.  Has Kant’s ghost become the demiurge of orthodox modernism and the postmodern sublime? 

            All these contentious reflections were broached sometime ago in the expose of some American artists’ complicity in the Cold War strategy of the U.S. state apparatus by Frances Stoner Saunders, The Cultural Cold War—The CIA and the World of Art and Letters, supplemented by Hugh Wilford’s The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America. This dicey, hazardous topic of art’s entanglement with ideology, politics, and history requires a lengthy, thorough investigation that exceeds the space allotted here. Other scholars have addressed the topic with more depth and elaboration. What follows is a heuristic gloss on one of the critics implicated in this historical conjuncture, Clement Greenberg, who has been labeled, even stigmatized, as impresario/apologist of abstract expressionism (one variant of it). What follows is a footnote to the politics of time and space investigated more thoroughly by Peter Osborne and other scholars of post-conceptual art.


Framing the Field of Antagonism


            We venture for now an exploratory contextualization of our discourse. As we go through another global crisis of ecological meltdown, portents of nuclear war, and collapse of US hegemony, it seems extravagant to indulge in speculations on art criticism, formerly known as aesthetics evoking the names of Kant, Croce, Langer, Beardsley, etc. Commentaries by Arthur Danto, Fredric Jameson, and others have argued the fungibility of art theory—anything goes now as art, such as dead sharks, bloodfests, plastic surgery, and infinite modalities of installation art. Discriminations are worthless. It seems a horrific fulfillment of Nelson Rockefeller’s rubric of “Free Enterprise Painting” to descrine abstract expressionist work  (Saunders, “Modern Art”). 

            Cynthia Freeland has concluded that given the historical contingency of tastes, values, and institutions, all we can do now is to explain meanings and demonstrate their embodiment (39). Meanings themselves have become disposable or redundant. Hence all art analysis becomes either appetizer or after-dinner nostrum of some kind. This approximates Jacques Ranciere’s notion that the aesthetic regime eliminates the hierarchical distribution of the sensible characteristic of representational and realist art, promoting “the equality of represented subjects, the indifference of style with regard to content, and the immanence of meaning in things themselves.” But Ranciere also points out the irony in State utilization of high culture/art: “the egalitarian regime of the sensible can only isolate art’s specificity at the expense of losing it” in the form of the commodity (81). This paradox manifests itself when the CIA reconciles the abstract-expressionist formalism and its ethical purposiveness in conducting the Cold War, as will be argued later.

For this occasion, I survey one motivation in the discourse of Clement Greenberg, the foremost advocate of abstract expressionism in the latter half of the last century. He has also been labelled a Cold War CIA flunkey together with other accomplices (Saunders). We reserve for another time investigating fully the “weaponization” of art and literature in the ideological/political contestation of our time (San Juan).

Duration versus Dialectics


The measurement of time’s passage has obsessed philosophers since Heraclitus and Aristotle up to Bergson, Deleuze, and Heidegger. The query, When? is often detached from Where? From the corpus of Greenberg’s literary criticism, one may extrapolate a concept of duration and historicism that may qualify the perceived technical aestheticism of his critical practice. Formalism becomes inflected and nuanced by temporal spcification. I would like to broach this adhoc remark on this perhaps neglected aspect of Greenberg’s achievement in the context of the controversy on the obsolescemce if not demise of traditional aesthetics as practised from Croce to Dewey and Sontag (for pragmatic aesthetics, see San Juan, Peirce’s Pragmaticism).

By consensus, Greenberg is considered the critic most responsible for formulating the principles of modernist art in the U.S. One of the key documents that established Greenberg’s moral vantage-point is the 1939 essay, “Avant-garde and Kitsch.”  While avantgarde art embodies the drive toward originality and innovative resourcefulness, for Greenberg, kitsch is “the epitome of all that is spurious” in our time (1961, 10). What distinguishes kitsch from avantgarde is that the latter “imitates the processes of art,” while the former “imitates its effects.” In other words,  the interaction between viewer and avantgarde art requires a duration of “reflection upon the immediate impression left by the plastic values,” whereas, for kitsch, there is no such process because “the reflected effect has already been included in the picture.” No temporal distancing occurs; the awareness of time is repressed because kitsch “predigests art for the spectator.”

Filipino art-critic Rodolfo Paras-Perez reformulated Greenberg’s thesis in this way. While traditional artists (classical, romantic) focused on the object to be imitated or represented, or reconstituted (as in Cubism), abstract expressionists fashioned forms asserting the “objectness of painting per se.” They emphasized  “the structure—the relationships of elements within the pictorial cosmos rather than the element as an element…The relationships of elements…becomes itself the carrier of the expression rather than the figure or object” (26). Paras-Perez quotes Hans Hoffman’s proposition: “One shape in relation to another makes the expression; not one shape or another but the relationship between the two.” In effect, the significant form achieved by any modern artist is one that poses a new solution to the basic form-problem faced by the artist in his historic situation.

It is questionable how Pollock’s gestural style and his focus on flat surface evoke “awareness of time.” What is foregrounded is the artist as subject, the individual performance, the aristocratic virtu of exhibiting distinction. This conflicts with any democratizing impulse. Jameson once descrbed de Kooning’s “metabrushstroke as the last gasp of some individualizing art” a pastiche of modernist subjectivity” (Jameson, “Jameso” 63. This subjectivity or agency refers to the charismatic, reason-endowed subject on the verge of metamorphosing into the decentered or schizophrenic subject-position in post-structural textualism.  

In any case, the theme of the individualist, ego-centered artist-agent versus the popular/plebeian organic intellectual is a recurrent leitmotif in modernist discourse. However, Greenberg’s disjunction between high/aristocratic culture and plebeian/low culture seems quite dogmatic or unhistorical. As Louis Kampf noted, Caravaggio’s realism shifted visual/perceptual paradigms so that “some see Caravaggio as an earlier version of Rembrandt and therefore a great-grandfather of abstract expressionism” (132). Postmodernism has dissolved the canonical boundaries between elite, sophisticated and vulgar, popular tastes into pastiche and hybrid, liminal compositions and their ludic extrapolations.

Critical frames mix in various interfaces so that avantgarde and kitsch becomes dialectically fused in moments of crisis. The same applies to changes in music where folk, popular and aristocratic trends seem indissociable. But when there is a sharp discrepancy between avantgarde taste and kitsch, ideological reverberations are registered in the praxis of social classes: “An escape from reality does not lead to peaceful life and art, but to more violence. Just as esthetics becomes one of pessimism and violence, all the more harrowing because these storms now seem to come ‘from within.’ “ (Finkelstein 77). Still, a dialectic between oonsciousness and the phenomenal world needs to be pursued to forestall the vertiginous abyss of logocentrism.

Historians trace the origin of abstract expressionism to Wassily Kandinsky’s painting between 1910-14. But the avantgarde New York group (Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Hans Hoffman, etc) all had their own personal signatures. United in rejecting traditional styles and techniques and their finished product, they valorized above all the physical act of painting/creation, as exemplified by Pollock’s “action painting” of pouring, splashing and dripping paint on the canvas. However, Rothko superimposed fields of colors. Styles vary but the trajectory of focusing on formal qualities and techniques over mimesis of objects/nature predominates.

 Finkelstein’s judgment (cited earlier) applies to the political-ideological ramifications of Greenberg’s medium-specific focus ascribed to flat picture planes, color-field painting, and lyrical abstractions. Whether they can be weaponized for Cold War objectives, depends on their institutional articulation, that is, whether they can be integrated into the mechanisms of the ideological-state apparatuses centered on private property, the cash-nexus, capital accumulation. One can find a more informed and historically contextualized evaluation of kitsch and avantgarde styles/modes of embodiment in Stefan Morawski’s Inquiries into the Fundamentals of Aesthetics, or in Max Raphael’s art-criticism than in most voguish deconstructionist or postmodernist treatises.


Parsing Language-games


But back to Greenberg’s focus on ”art’s area of competence,” the play or game of media. He contends that it is an essential attribute, not a static or ahistorical prejudice. As Charles Harrison puts it, Greenberg stresses art’s “intentional and self-critical preoccupation with the demands of a specific medium, and its originality with regard to the precedents that medium avails” (146-47). Greenberg locates the temporality of modernist art in the class-divisions of our time which underlie the vicissitudes of taste. Greenberg’s intuition of time, in particular the duration of styles, demonstrates a sharpened awareness of the dialectical tension between an established norm and divergences from it. This is evidenced by his view of method as implicitly contingent on social and historical  determinants: for example, collage as practiced by Braque and Picasso underwent mutations in their conflation of surface and background in pictorial space. Spatial relations in canvas or defined locations are triangulated with historical sites or historically specific contexts.

Thus it is not.question of spatialization alone, space trumping time or temporality, in the mutations of artistic technique. Ultimately, the use of any method depends on the fundamental question of choosing between representation and illusion, a choice that is ultimately “a question of a vision and an attitude” (Greenberg 83). Overall, it is the changing power of social forces that determines the choices at various stages in the development of productive-reproductive relations. 

The value/propriety of mimesis or representation defies simplification. It is in Greenberg’s essay on “The Plight of Culture,” published in 1953, that we see the antithesis of autonomous aesthetic value and illustrative content (realist or referential topics or themes) rearticulated in the antithesis between leisure and work. Greenberg reflects on a time when work and culture can again be “fused in a single functional complex” as in archaic societies—a utopian vision that Greenberg registers in valuing the experience of “quality” and the emergence of a new style in post World War II American artists. However, in this new millennium, leisure has become commodified, so it is not easily separable from precarious, commodified work-time. This is probably the reason why postmodern artists valorize “Desire” (an alibi for the libido or Freud’s unconscious) as defying representation, or resisting any rhetorical trope, symbol, or narrativization; hence the sublime, Lacan’s missing object, the inexpressible enigma that transcends language or any mode of sensuous figuration. 

Greenberg’s essays on literature exhibit provocative insights that transcend the rigorous rationality of his analysis of painting. His essays on Bertolt Brecht and Franz Kafka are, in my opinion, judicious and provocative. They situate discourse not only in the sociopolitical and cultural contexts but also in the problematique of the genres and literary conventions that explain the necessity of their innovations. For example, Greenberg discerns several tempos of duration in Brecht’s poetry (the momentary, the epic, the anecdotal, the ironic), while in Kafka’s enigmatic fables, he apprehends the duration of Jewishness as ”in-dwelling form.” Both writers, in Greenberg’s appraisal, dramatize a modernist intuition of duration as a topology of instances where subjectivity is created and performed as a response to the exigencies of ethnic/class predicament and individual life-circumstance.

    What I find challenging as a topic of research for cultural studies inquirers is Greenberg’s theorizing of the dialectics of tradition and innovation. By examining Greenberg’s unpublished papers in the Getty Museum, it may be feasible to elucidate further the contours of this interface insofar as it will show the historical matrix of Greenberg’s seemingly reified notion of art as technical innovation or quality that moves spectators. It may also afford some insight into why abstract expressionism became dated even as a Cold War weapon of mass distraction or deflection, reducing the Cold War into a contest between State control of the arts versus control by the military-industrial-prison complex of the hegemonic West (U.S./Europe) and its satellites.


Configuring the Passage of Time


       As a prologue, I offer as exemplary touchstones two passages where Greenberg reveals submerged texts of determinate temporality subtending his judgment of taste. It is a more sophisticated version of Bergson’s duration or Wyndham Lewis’ critique of it as applied to the mutations of the standards of taste in variegated milieux. One is his remark on the “western” genealogy of black/white pictures. It appears that the duration of an art-work hinges on the persistence of certain cultural values specific to society; this persistence is open to alteration relative to the position of the creative agent or sensibility. Greenberg subsumes cultural difference in the multiplicity of conventions in this passage where he responds to the speculation about the origin of the black/white callligraphy of Pollock and Franz Kline: 


…the new emphasis on black and white has to do with something that is perhaps more crucial to Western painting than to any other kind. Value contrast, the opposition of the lightness and darkness of colors, has been Western  pictorial art’s chief means, far more important than perspective, to that convincing illlusion of three-dimensionality which distinguishes it most from other traditions of pictorial art (1961, 220-21). 


Here a comparative study of differing traditions with diverse temporalities is called for, precisely the opening for the play of “extrinsic” forces. It presages the larger issue of civilizational variation, alterations of mind/perception caused by adjustments to ecological presurres arising from changes in the mode of production, the metabolic interaction between humans and the natural environment.

The second passage I would like to take as a thematic focus for inquiry into Greenberg’s occluded historicism—duration as a succession of normative convention and its deviations—is the hitherto neglected lecture he gave in 1970 on “Counter-Avantgarde.” In prescient glosses on the Futurists and Marcel Duchamp, Greenberg anticipates the moment of postmodernism when he bewails the standardization of newness, innovation, and originality: avantgardism fetishized “the startling as sheer phenomenon or sheer occurrence” (1973, 435). But genuine avantgarde art springs from a dialectic of expectation and satisfaction, a syncopation of the enduring and ephemeral, whose hypothetical causality escapes Greenberg’s idealist/formalist metaphysics: 


Superior art comes, almost always, out of a tradition…and a tradition is created by the interplay of expectation and satisfaction through surprise as this interplay operates not only within individual works of art, but between them. Taste develops as a context of expectations based on experience of previously surprised expectations…. To repeat: surprise demands a context. According to the record, new and surprising ways of satisfying in art have always been connected closely with immediately previous ways, no matter how much in opposition to these ways they may look or actually have been… The classic avantgarde’s emphasis on “purity” of medium is a time-bound one and no more binding on art than any other timebound emphasis….(440-41). 


Within the thematic framework of “Duration,” I want to investigate later on Greenberg’s theorizing of duration in the shift of tastes and conventions in the history of Western art. Greenberg has been charged (by Victor Burgin, among others) as mistakenly collapsing “the project of art into art criticism,” hence the dogmatic narrowness of his strictures and formalist criteria. But an alternative reading is possible. I believe that parts of Greenberg’s discourse involves a more complex understanding of the experience of time and duration, what Micheline Sauvage calls the “superposition of temporal modes,” than what appears in his concern with technical and methodological problems of the medium in the visual arts. It is certain that Greenberg’s literary criticism demonstrates a highly nuanced and discriminating conception of culture as a dense sociohistorical field, a site of contestation and struggles among diverse political and ideological forces and agencies (see Bourdieu). 


Historicizing the Art-Politics Connection


     Earlier we mentioned Max Raphael as the most perceptive critic who inquired into the dialectic of form/content within a historical-materialist perspective. He begins with the premise that “Art is the creative act which gives the material and ideological life-contents of a concrete society adequate visible forms” (442). Adequacy is the criterion here. We have moved from the time when art was deemed adequate in the imitation of a ready-made world. Modern art assumes a disjunction between traditional fixed forms and inherited contents. It confronts the problem of the contradiction between the process of experience in alienated bourgeois society dominated by bureaucratic, instrumental forces and the process of artistic creation which aims to coalesce nature and art, spirit and sensibility. 

Raphael conceives of genuine art as based on the “assumption that the outer and inner worlds, the object and the soul, natural and social compulsions achieve unity in an autonomous element of form that unfolds spontaneously and methodically from a theme both concrete and universal into self-sufficient artistic creation” (444-45). It is an open question whether abstract expressionism has achieved the totalizing unity or the Hegelian-like concrete universal, envisioned by Raphael, given abstract expressionism’s matrix in an individualist, bureaucratic, commodifying milieu. 

What I suggest finally, as a provisional elucidation, may be a more nuanced way of clarifying the tensions found in all avantgarde art. This can be drawn from Kenneth Burke’s dramatistic approach (see the two essays, “Literature as Equipment for Living” and “The Nature of Art Under Capitalism” in The Philosophy of Literary Form). Burke would consider abstract expressionism (as Greenberg would delineate its form and impact) as a strategy for evaluating a situation, deployed as an “equipment for living that sizes up situations in various ways and in keeping with correspondingly various attitudes” (262). The over-all situation that Greenberg’s artists faced is of course the vulgarization/reduction of art in capitalism where the machinery of profiteering capital/private property dulls the sensory organs and corrupts principles of discrimination. Reification due to commodity-fetishism abolishes all distinctions and makes impossible the creation of the new, the truly reflective of the dynamic situations in real life. Opposed to the barbarism of class conflict and competition, avantgarde artists seek a cooperative mode of art-making that would integrate existing work-patterns with ethical patterns. They seek to revive the romantic program of defamiliarization and revitalizing our organs of perception debilitated by technology and the profit-motive. Whether conscious of it or not, Greenberg’s search for the absolute, the purified or rarefied  in the pictorial medium of flatness/two dimensionality. may be regarded as a symptom of the rupture between the cooperative work-pattern and competitive individualism.                                              

Consequently, for any species of “pure art” such as the gestural automatism of Pollock, Burke perceives a hortatory, corrective, or propagandistic function. Its objective is to call attention to “the moral breach arising from vitiation of the work-patterns” (277) caused by the intensifying conditions of economic warfare. Applying Burke’s analysis, we can claim that abstract expressionism and Greenberg’s articulation of its novelty, performed a pedagogical, forensic service in exposing the fudamental contradiction between the productive forces (artists making “new”) and the repressive, outworn social relations of finance-capital. This aspect of avantgarde art has of course been discussed before, but scarcely in relation to the scandalous liaison between the CIA’s Cold War schemes and the New York school of abstract expressionists.

Thus, the supreme irony in the scandalous collaboration of the CIA and American avangardists eluded the calculations of either party. The Cold War intermittently harmonized work and ethics, a division engendered by the social division of labor in class-divided society. Sublimating competition in cooperation, the Cold War dissolved the rupture between work and leisure, between old and new, the condition of possibility for recognizing art as an independent, sovereign realm. No need for either acceptance or rejection of symbols of authority. With distinctions gone, human desire finds its fulfillment in an unconceptualizable utopian duration.

Further reflection on this theme might yield more incisive critique of postmodenist trends in culture in general, as well as tenable judgments on the fate of art criticism in the new stage of decaying monopoly capitalism—the collapse of neoliberal absolutism and catastrophic or cannibal capitaism—an interregnum that breeds monsters and unpredictable barbarism. We cannot fail to note that with the current conflict in the Middle East, we are plunged in a crisis occurring in horizon delimited by the U.S.-NATO proxy war on Russia in Ukraine and the worsening confrontation between China and the United States. We will try to accompany Hegel’s owl of Minerva waking up and charting the ruins of Empire in its swerving flights over planet Earth.



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E. San Juan has taught English, Comparative Literature, and Ethnic Studies at several universities, among them, Washington State University, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, University of Connecticut, University of the Philippines, and University of California, Davis. Among his recent books are: US imperialism and Revolution in the Philippines (Macmillan), Between Empire and Counterinsurgency (University of the Philippines), Balikbayang Sinta: E San Juan Reader (Ateneo University Press), Lualhati Bautista, Nobelista (University of Santo Tomas Publishing House), Carlos Bulosan (Peter Lang), Peirce's Pragmaticism (Lexington Press), Sisa's Vengeance: Rizal's Sexual Politics and Cultural Revolution, and The Subversive Reader by E. San Juan (both published by Vibal Publishing Co.). He is completing a book on the work and life of Apolinario Mabini, the foremost revolutionary thinker of the anti-colonial, anti-imperialist struggles of Filipinos against Spain and the United States. He won a Philippine National Development book award last year for his book FAUSTINO AGUILAR: Kapangyarihan, Kalayaan, Kasaysayan, published by the University of Santo Tomas Publishing House.

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