Book Review: Art Czar

I just finished a biography about Clement Greenberg: Alice Goldfarb Marquis, Art Czar: The Rise and Fall of Clement Greenberg. Greenberg was a New York art critic. He helped define the turn to abstraction in art in the 1950s and '60 and along with Harold Rosenberg fleshed out in writing the meaning and description of the abstract expressionist movement. More than anyone, he made the career of Jackson Pollock.

I know the subject sounds pedantic, but I'm fascinated with how art is put into words and reviewed.

Greenberg championed modernism (as opposed classicism or post-modernism), or "the continuing endeavour to stem the decline of aesthetic standards threatened by the relative democratization of culture under industrialism." He wasn't a guy who went for the "anything-goes aesthetic." He judged art, he didn't justify or explain it.

He claimed "a stridently commercial culture and a relatively esoteric avant-garde were engaged in an unequal struggle." I can hear Goliath growl.

If we cut to the end of the book:

In a world where the word "diversity" implies the equality of all cultural manifestations, those devoted to defining high art are tagged as elitists and increasingly marginalized. Media coverage of the arts devotes itself largely to entertainment, while art critics and academics shrink from making distinctions of any kind among "artistic" expressions. 

Greenberg came of an age as a critic just as a unique window was opening, a time when quite ordinary people seeking information about art: how to look at it, how to understand it, how to profit from it, how to appropriate the objects themselves (or at least knowledge about them) as status symbols. It was a time when art mattered -- for many, art was religion -- before it shattered into a dozen short-lived, competing schools; before artists were driven by a pitiless marketplace that promised wealth and fame to the few who succeeded there. It was also a time when artists had few financial alternatives to making art; they depended heavily on the kind words of critics. It was also a time of visual scarcity; there was no television of Internet, and color was an expensive rarity in the print media.

Whoah, not exactly an uplifting statement. At least it's clear.