Greenberg, Kant, and Modernism?

Source, Notes in History of Art
Vol. XXIX No.1, pp 42-48
Fall 2009

The end of modernism—in 1962—occurred at a time when Clement Greenberg was the foremost critic and champion of the American avant-garde that had flourished since World War II. Fifteen years after his debut as a defender of new art in America, Greenberg experienced the turn of the 1960s as a time for reflection—and summary and doubt.

In 1960, Greenberg wrote “Modernist Painting.” This was a critical moment in his career, as can be intuited by the ambivalent tone of the text, which oscillates between self-satisfaction and defensive self-justifica- tion. Here is the opening of Greenberg’s text:

Modernism includes more than art and literature. By now it covers almost the whole of what is truly alive in our culture. It happens, however, to be very much a historical novelty. Western civ- ilization is not the first civilization to turn around and question its own foundations, but it is the one that has gone furthest in doing so. I identify Modernism with the intensification, almost the exacerbation, of this self- critical tendency that began with the philosopher Kant. Because he was the first to criticize the means itself of criticism, I conceive of Kant as the first real Modernist.1

There is no doubt that Greenberg was cor- rect in assigning Kant a pioneering role in having introduced a self-critical force at the core of philosophy. With Kant, it became central for philosophy to check its own ac- tivity and establish its own boundaries. At the beginning of the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant states: “Pure speculative reason has this peculiarity about it, that it can and should measure its own capacity.”2

For Kant, critiquing is a never-ending activity inherent in reason. Reason has this peculiar double edged gift: it is capable of producing the most absurd illusions; but it can also examine itself critically, gauge its own limits, and prevent itself from falling into the traps of its own illusions. This is, of course, a model that appealed to Greenberg.

Kant established the radical finitude of subjectivity in the first chapter (“Tran- scendental Aesthetic”) of his Critique of Pure Reason by defining sensibility (aesthesis, meaning in Greek “sensibility” or “sensitivity”) as the capacity to be affected by the outside world. In other words, subjectivity is conceived for the first time as an open entity. This led to confronting one’s own limits. As Kant explains, understanding needs external things to enact its power; if there is nothing to think about, there is no thought: “Although understanding is a fully active power and, to this extent, an independent power, it still needs external things for its action and is limited to them. . . . Without its external things our understanding would be nothing.”3

Whereas Kant focuses on understanding, Greenberg focuses on painting and sees the enormous potential of this concept of radical limits as applied to the history of painting. To Greenberg, these “external things” that both establish the limits of the act of painting and enable painting to become “an independent power” have a heuristic value. The conceptual place of these external things is occupied by the medium in Greenberg’s system—a medium that itself has a limit because, when applied on a flat surface (such as a canvas), it necessarily becomes two-dimensional. The history of modernist painting, as constructed by Greenberg, consists in a reconciliation of the act of painting with the confrontation of its own limits.

What was unprecedented in the history of philosophy up to the eighteenth century was the status and importance Kant granted to those limits. The limits of understanding are to be found in sensibility (and the realm of aesthetics). The senses were traditionally described by philosophers as passive, defi- cient, and limited—as opposed to absolute knowledge or understanding, a divine attribute that belonged to the realm of meta- physics. Sensibility was contingent on the limitations of the senses and, by the same token, regarded as unreliable: this had been one of the principal axioms of classical philosophy from Plato to Descartes and Leibniz. In contrast, Kant established sen- sibility (or aesthetics), with all its inherent limitation, as the cornerstone of his system. Rather than consider the finitude or the limitation of knowledge as some sort of human weakness—the sign that mankind was not equal to God—Kant turned this notion on its head and argued that human finitude is not a mere flaw, but an a priori dimension of human knowledge. Finitude is the unchangeable, irremediable condition of our knowledge: the outside world must come to us (passive recipients) before we may claim to form any concept or construe any knowledge of it. Put differently: no intuition (no passive reception of outside data)—and, therefore, no sensibility—implies no con- cept. (Greenberg ? no paint = no painting.) This radical finitude is, therefore, posited by Kant as some sort of absolute: it is the ultimate condition of knowledge. A dire consequence of this decision, however, is that the absolute (i.e., the identity of concept and reality, as understood in classical metaphysics) is demoted: it loses its privileged status and becomes unreal, unrealizable—a mere idea (or “eine bloße Idee”).

The Kantian criticist system aimed to establish the limits of rational activity—or, to put it differently, it aimed at exploring the conditions of possibility of the act of representation. With Kant, the question was not so much “What does one think?” as “How does one think?” Analogously, the question with Greenberg—and the modernist tradition—stopped being “What does one paint?” to become “How does one paint?” To this extent, Greenberg was right in referring to Kant as the first real modernist.

Greenberg could have produced a critique of pure painting, but his ambition went further, since he was convinced that Kant’s didn’t go far enough. Greenberg became fixated on a particular passage from the preface of the Critique of Pure Reason that says:

Metaphysics has the rare good fortune, enjoyed by no other rational science that has to do with objects, which is that if by this critique it has been brought onto the secure course of a science, then it can fully embrace the entire field of cog- nitions belonging to it and thus can complete its work and lay it down for posterity as a principal framework that can never be enlarged, since it has to do solely with principles and the limitations on their use, which are determined by the principles themselves. Hence as a fundamental science, metaphysics is also bound to achieve this completeness.4

This aim of completeness, reached through an enterprise of self-criticism that would entrench the practice of modernist painting, was Greenberg’s ultimate dream. He expressed it in the first paragraph of “Modernist Painting.” The fact that in the same preface Kant had dismissed back to back dogmatism and skepticism seemed irrelevant to Greenberg. That Kant launched a violent attack against those metaphysicians who barricaded themselves behind their high-minded speculations in order to avoid what the threat of the Critique of Pure Reason could do to them appeared utterly uninteresting to Greenberg (even though I will maintain that this is a crucial and radical aspect of Kant’s criticist theory).

The critique of reason is bound once and for all to prevent, by a fundamental investigation of the rights of speculative reason, the scandal that sooner or later has to be noticed even among the people in the disputes in which, in the absence of criticism, metaphysicians inevitably involve themselves, and in which they afterwards even falsify their own doctrines. Through criticism alone can we sever the very root of materialism, fatalism, atheism . . . and finally of idealism and skepticism [and one could continue the list, adding modernism and postmodernism].5

Kant then pursues his warnings with a political and social note about the implications of the establishment of an academic ivory tower that has no need to answer to the public about its own activities:

If governments find it good to concern themselves with the affairs of scholars, then it would accord better with their wise solicitude both for the sciences and for humanity if they favored the freedom of such a critique, by which alone the treatments of reason can be put on a firm footing, instead of supporting the ridiculous despotism of schools, which raise a loud cry of public danger when- ever someone tears apart their cobwebs.6

Greenberg was interested in the concept of critique only insofar as it helped him establish more solidly his own truths and principles. Critique led Greenberg to a firmer form of dogmatism.

Greenberg followed Kant—at least part of the way—on the path of his critical method but disagreed with what Kant called “the antinomy of taste,” in which (1) the taste of every individual differs from that of everybody else, and (2) we never stop discussing taste and attempting to establish rules or hierarchies that instill order on questions of taste.

We do both of these things all the time, especially as art historians. We alternate constantly between asserting our own personal preferences and striving to grasp criteria of objectivity that allow us to decide what is good art and what is bad art. This applies to all art, not just modern art. But it becomes especially acute with modern art, where one of the endemic problems is to establish new criteria of excellence. The question of the objectivity of taste that obsesses Greenberg is linked to that of tradition versus novelty. On this issue, Greenberg says two different things.

The impressionists, Neo-Impressionists and Post-Impressionists took some seventy-five years to dismantle the illusionist tradition. But in doing so, they kept within the tradition of easel painting.7

Greenberg explains that modernist paint- ing has essentially made explicit what the tradition of Western painting since Giotto had left implicit:

The Old Masters knew very well, very well, that they were painting on a flat surface, and they knew without spelling it out, without verbalizing it but showing it in their practice, that the flatness had to be acknowledged, no matter how much, how vivid an illusion of depth they might have aimed for. . . .

And someone like Cézanne made a great point, without knowing it, without ever spelling it out himself, of calling attention to the fact that pictures tended to be rectangular in shape.8

Greenberg describes a sudden wave of abstraction that took place on the New York scene of the mid-1940s and that purified abstraction of any remnant of influence from Cubism:

“Painterly” was not the word used, but it was what was really meant. . . . It was, in effect, a painterly reaction against the tightness of Synthetic Cubism that at first used the vocabulary itself of Synthetic Cubism. . . . If the label “Ab- stract Expressionism” means anything, it means painterliness: loose, rapid handling, or the look of it; masses that blotted and fused instead of shapes that stayed distinct; large and conspicuous rhythms; broken color; uneven saturations or densities of paint, exhibited brush, knife, or finger marks—in short a constellation of qualities like those defined by Wölfflin when he extracted his notion of the Malerische from Baroque art.9

Whether or not we accept Greenberg’s argument, we are forced to admit that there is a definite coherence within his system. Even if it gives the modernist enterprise a reactionary aura, the fact is that through such notions as the pursuit of excellence and the search for a consensus over time that confirms the value of good art versus bad art, Greenberg tried to reintroduce objectivity and to defuse, or solve, the antinomy of taste as laid out by Kant in his Critique of Judgment.

For Kant, the crucial problems involved in the experience of art are “problems” of taste. And yet the problems of taste do seem to boil down to one in the end—namely, whether the verdicts of taste are subjective or objective. Greenberg concludes that Kant doesn’t solve the problem satisfactorily. He posits a solution without proving it, without adducing evidence for it. According to Greenberg, Kant deduces his solution from the principles of his “transcendental psychol- ogy,” but Greenberg remains just as frus- trated because to him a judgment of taste might be objective.

One of the biggest differences between Kant and Greenberg is that for Kant the aesthetic judgment happens within our subjectivity. Greenberg confuses aesthetic judgment and history of taste, always seeking objective criteria to validate the historical importance of masterpieces.

Aesthetic judgment takes on a definite urgency, since it requires “a necessity of the assent of everyone [Kant’s emphasis] to a judgment that is regarded as an example of a universal rule that we are unable to state.”10 This necessity is of a peculiar kind, since, unlike a scientific judgment, an aesthetic judgment cannot be proven and, unlike a moral judgment, does not follow any particular law. In other words, an aesthetic judgment is not a universal prescriptive judgment: I can always say “no” to the “necessary assent” that is required of me by someone else who casts an aesthetic judgment. Reciprocally, when I pronounce an aesthetic judgment, I require others—all, if possible—to join in and confirm my views; I am more than likely to face some objections.

Aesthetic judgments are, thus, the sites of intersubjectivity or of sociability wherein everyone is expected to express an opinion. I need others and am needed by others when aesthetic judgments are made. Kant is very clear about this when he says: “Only under the presupposition . . . that there is a common sense . . . can judgments of taste be made.”11

The paradox is that we may demand an assent from all those around us and presuppose a common view that will support our aesthetic views. This agreement, however, never quite occurs as we expect it. Frustration almost inevitably follows the demand lodged inside the structure of the aesthetic judgment: “A judgment of taste requires everyone to assent; and whoever declares something to be beautiful holds that everyone ought to give his approval to the object at hand and that he too should declare it beautiful. Hence the ought in an aesthetic judgment, even once we have [nach] all the data needed for judging, is still uttered only conditionally.”12

Thus, there is at the root of aesthetic judgment a ruthless attachment to autonomy: unlike science, no one can lay down the rules or determine the content of my aesthetic judgment; no one can think for me. As Kant put it: “Taste lays claim simply to auton- omy.”13

If the story of modernism in art can be summed up in terms of a pursuit of the “self,” what happens if the “self” decides to share that pursuit with some “other”? This is how Castagnary, one of the early champi- ons of the school of the Independents (as the Impressionists were first known) defined the task of new art in 1863: “The ideal is the free product of each person’s consciousness put in contact with external realities, in conse- quence an individual conception which varies from artist to artist.”14 If, to pursue Castagnary’s equation, modern art is consti- tuted with as many variations as there are in- dividual artists, what can be the common denominator among all these variations?

The modernist stance described in a critical text by Zola—which produced clear echoes in the shared ideology of Pissarro and Cézanne—helps define this opposition:

I am not for any school, because I am for the truth of humanity, which excludes every clique and every system. The word “art” displeases me; it encompasses certain ideas of necessary arrangement, of an absolute ideal. To make art, is this not to do something outside of man and nature? For my part, I want people to make life; I want people to be alive, to create anew, outside of everything, according to their own eyes and their own temperaments.15

The solution to this antinomy, whether in Kant’s terms or in Zola’s, is that, although the two propositions would appear to contradict each other if they were uttered from the same point of view, they become compatible when uttered from a different point of view: the point of view of the senses (I love this work of art, but it is not surprising that we all disagree, given that we all have different sensibilities) and the point of view of reason (Wouldn’t it be great if everyone agreed? or, Everyone must agree with my judgment), though it is unlikely that this universal agreement will ever occur.

It was very much as a critic that Greenberg claimed to utilize the activities of reason (or of critical discourse) to critique the activities of modern art. He, therefore, proposed a critique of painting that utilized tools not taken from the activities of painting; it was not as a painter but as a critic that Greenberg offered to critique modern painting. Green- berg depicted the way the practice of painting was self-critical. But painting could only address itself to this problem with nontheoretical means:

It should be understood that self-crit- icism in Modernist art has never been carried on in any but a spontaneous and largely subliminal way. As I have al- ready indicated, it has been altogether a question of practice, immanent to prac- tice, and never a topic of theory.16

For Greenberg, this self-critical force within the pictorial activity is the engine that drives the whole history of modern art.

According to Greenberg, the modernist artists did not know what they were doing: they were modernists, almost unbeknownst to themselves. “No artist was, or yet is, aware of it, nor could any artist ever work freely in awareness of it.”17 This quote is far from isolated and echoes Greenberg’s claim that modernist artists were incapable of producing a theoretical text; they had no ideas and no awareness. In other words, they led the modernist revolution in art uncon- sciously. “Someone like Cézanne made a great point, without knowing it, without ever spelling it out himself, or calling attention to the fact that pictures tended to be rectangular in shape.”18

At times, it sounds as if Greenberg stands outside of modernism. He gauges the modernist phenomenon, conceptualizes it, canonizes it; but he remains on its margin. Therefore, the rules that apply to modernism do not apply to the theoretician. He is like a referee who makes sure that the rules are clear to everyone but adds that the rules don’t apply to him because he doesn’t play the game.
Greenberg explains himself as follows: “I want to repeat that Modernist art does not offer theoretical demonstrations. It can be said, rather, that it happens to convert theoretical possibilities into empirical ones, in doing which it tests many theories about art for their relevance to the actual practice and actual experience of art. In this respect alone can Modernism be considered sub- versive.”19

For Kant, aesthetics is about communicat- ing one’s views to others. The central posi- tion of communication in Kant’s system was something Greenberg completely ignored, had no need for, and could not deal with. Ac- cording to Kant, one cannot think well or think very much when one is alone, as he wrote in “What Does It Mean to Orient One- self in Thinking?” In a later text, “Conjec- tures on the Beginning of Human History,” he argued that communication is not only central to the aesthetic and theoretical spheres, but should be regarded “as the prin- cipal end of human destiny.”20

Greenberg, in opposition to Kant, seemed most concerned with entrenching the validity of his own aesthetic judgments so that they would owe nothing to communication and would not be prey to doubt or public debate. This “urge to communicate” is more than ever reactivated today by artists’ interests in developing “new languages” in a variety of directions and from a variety of media that Greenberg would have had trouble imagining —although it is also true that little seemed to surprise him.


    1. Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting,” in Forum Lectures (Washington, D.C.: Voice of Amer- ica, 1960); repr. in id., Clement Greenberg: The Col- lected Essays and Criticism, IV: Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957–1969, ed. John O’ Brien (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 85.
    2. Immanuel Kant, Preface, Critique of Pure Rea- son, ed. and trans. Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 113.
    3. Id., The Conflict of the Faculties, in Immanuel Kant, Religion and Rational Theology, trans. and ed. Allen W. Wood and George di Giovanni (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 291 (my em- phasis). In the same text, Kant emphasizes again the radical finitude of human understanding: “As for un- derstanding, it is, by its form, intrinsically limited to this terrestrial world; for it consists merely in cate- gories, that is, modes of expression which can refer only to sensible things. Its limits are therefore sharply defined: where the categories stop, so too does under- standing” (ibid., p. 289).
    4. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, p. 114. 5. Ibid., pp. 118–119. 6. Ibid., p. 119. 7. Clement Greenberg, the Bennington College
    Seminars, 6–22 Apr. 1971, Night Four; published in Clement Greenberg, Homemade Esthetics: Observa- tions on Art and Taste (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 125.
    8. Ibid., p. 126.
    9. Clement Grenberg, “After Abstract Expression- ism,” Art International (25 Oct. 1962); repr. in Green- berg, Collected Essays, IV, p. 123.
    10. Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner S. Pluhar, (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987), §18, p. 85. Also see §22, p. 89, entitled “The Neces- sity of the Universal Assent That We Think in Judg- ment of Taste Is a Subjective Necessity That We Present as Objective by Presupposing a Common Sense.”
    11. Ibid.,§20,p.87;thisparagraphisentitled“The Condition for the Necessity Alleged by a Judgment of Taste Is the Idea of a Common Sense.”
    12. Ibid., §19, p. 86. 13. Ibid., §32, p. 137. 14. Jules-Antoine Castagnary, “Salon de 1863,”
    Nord (Brussels) (14 May–12 Sept. 1863); republished posthumously in Salons (1857–1870), 2 vols. (Paris: Bibliothèque-Charpentier, 1892), I, p. 102.
    15. Émile Zola, “Mon Salon” (1866), in Émile Zola, Mon Salon, Manet, Ecrits sur l’art, ed. An- toinette Ehrard (Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1970), p. 60.
    16. Greenberg, Modernist Painting, p. 91. 17. Ibid., p. 91. 18. Ibid., p. 90. 19. Ibid., p. 92.
    20. Immanuel Kant, “Conjectures on the Beginning of Human History” (1786), in Kant’s Political Writ- ings, ed. Hans Reiss, trans. H. B. Nisbet (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1970), p. 222.

    • Clement Greenberg
    • Immanuel Kant