The artists themselves spoke of it simply as “the Club.” “Painters’ Club” was my own expression when I had to identify it for some of my literary friends as the place where I might have picked up this or that odd bit of information. But the addition of the extra word came to convey to me the sense of an alien terrain, a place of very different attitudes and habits from the New York literary circle, centered on Partisan Review, in which I moved in the years just after World War II. So much so, indeed, that it was for a while something of an adventure to go there.
In fact, it was not a club in any usual sense: there were no formal requirements or rites of membership. A group of artists had simply pooled their resources to rent a floor-through loft in an old red-brick building on Eighth Street, which in a few years would be torn down for one of the tasteless apartment buildings that were to spring up throughout the neighborhood right after the war. Thus the Club, both in its setting and character, belonged to the ambience of an older Greenwich Village that would fade and virtually disappear in the following decades. Nor were the members all painters; there were artists in other media, and some with a mysterious and unspoken relation to art that I was never to know and who remained mere nodding acquaintances for as long as I frequented the place. But the nucleus of the Club that was to become famous consisted of the painters later known as Abstract Expressionists.
At this time they had yet to make their big splash before the world and they were not rich, but rents then were very cheap and they had managed enough money for a place of their own to hold meetings and parties. When the party mood was on, an old hand-crank phonograph would turn up with some borrowed records to dance by. Clement Greenberg, the art critic, who was the earliest champion of these painters, nevertheless disdained to socialize at the Club; but I do have one solitary memory of him there once far into the night doing the jitterbug, which was the dance that had come out of the war. It was part of his program for becoming the well-rounded highbrow, the intellectual who can move easily into more popular ways of life.
Sometimes the entertainment was more elevated in tone. A friend of a friend knew somebody at Juilliard, and shortly the Juilliard String Quartet were down to play at the Club. Nor was their playing perfunctory; in that informal atmosphere, they flung themselves at the music with extraordinary energy, and the meaning of “chamber” music seemed to take on some of its old dimension in that loft. There was a thunder of applause at the end, and the painter Willem de Kooning leaped to his feet and presented the musicians with his latest opus, a lovely black-and-white wash drawing, amid a burst of more applause—this time for the picture itself. The incident in itself almost dates the occasion: just a few years later, more likely than not de Kooning’s dealer would be there to snatch the picture out of his hand. The price of success is the tyranny of the dealer: the artist cannot bestow his works so freely.
Mostly, however, the cultural efforts of the Club took the form of lectures and discussions. The folding chairs would be lined up, the members took their place as serious and intent listeners, and their discussions afterward were heated and lively, though not always directly to the point. It was in this connection that I made my own entree to the Club, to deliver a lecture on the subject of Existentialism. The invitation came through Elaine de Kooning, who was, socially at least, the liveliest spirit of the group, perpetually concocting possible programs and entertainments. I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to a more attentive audience, yet I wasn’t sure they heard what I said. That is, they listened to my words, but I’m not sure they heard their meaning. Ideas, abstract ideas, have a way of bouncing off the minds of artists at curious angles and ricochets that are a marvel to behold and a puzzle to try to follow. I was invited to give a second lecture, but somehow the date got mixed up, and in the confusion I was able to get off. In excuse I remember remarking to one of them that perhaps they had had enough of ideas and should stick to their art, and that anyway it wasn’t necessarily a good thing for artists to mess too much with ideas. My tone was kidding, but it turned out that I was in fact prophetic. The subsequent history of the New York School was to be, at least in part, an indecent traffic with ideas, in the course of which it is really remarkable that some good painting managed to get done.
There was something quaint and touching in all this bohemian camaraderie. It was at the farthest remove from the literary cocktail party, where each guest measures the other as a possible target in which to stick darts. A cynic like Philip Rahv, who with William Phillips owned and edited Partisan Review, would have found the activities at the Club corny and naive, and he would have immediately set about hunting for hidden motives. I doubt that he would have found many, at least at this stage of the Club’s history. The artists were simply bound together by an enthusiasm for art, and particularly the art that they, or some of them, were going to create and bring before the world. In this kind of innocence they harked back to an older bohemian way of life in Greenwich Village earlier in the century, or perhaps before that to the vie de bohème of the previous century. One of the members, I’ve forgotten who, sat around one evening with a doleful face; and after questioning, he revealed that he had not been able to pay his rent and his landlady was threatening. Thereupon a hat was passed around and a collection made that was sufficient to bring back a smile to the poor man’s face. This little episode might have been a scene out of Puccini’s La Bohème. But would this innocent camaraderie be able to survive the advent of success for some of these artists? The jostling for galleries, the intrusion of the art dealers, and the competition for the favors of rival art critics?
For the group that was centered around the Club was shortly to pass from being unknown to being nationally and internationally famous; they were to be celebrated as the first American artists to have created a truly international style, and with their arrival, it was claimed, the center of art had now definitely passed from Paris to New York. Yet here too, as in life elsewhere, the fruits of success did not mean unalloyed bliss, and their new-found affluence was to bring some of the artists personal problems they had not experienced before. The breakthrough of the Abstract Expressionists was to bring with it a fundamental change in the situation of the American artist within his society. The international acclaim for an American style was to enhance the status of the native artist, as a result of which the artist’s relation to his public, to the dealers, and to the museums, was to undergo fundamental change. The change that was beginning to happen in those years, which of course we could not see at the time, was a radical alteration in the role and position of the avant-garde within modern culture: from its traditional role of the rebel and outsider, the avant-garde now stormed into the establishment itself, and gradually came to occupy seats of power within the museums and the universities. For the most part, these changes were beneficial to the artists; certainly they benefited, or some of them did, financially; but whether all these changes would prove to be for the ultimate benefit of art itself, still remains to be seen.
And none of these rather awesome developments was to be suspected in the humble beginnings of the Club.
Its founder, organizer, and general factotum was a sculptor, Philip Pavia, whose own works were kept hidden, though I understand they really do exist. No matter; Pavia had his identity as the tireless and disinterested worker in the service of the Club and its members. His two right-hand men in the venture, the two stalwarts who were really the artistic and moral center of the club, were the painters de Kooning and Franz Kline. Bill and Franz were the champions who gave confidence to other members that their own gropings in art might also be significant. Neither had yet attained public eminence; de Kooning was not to have his first one-man show until 1948, and that was at the small Egan Gallery, a transient showplace that seemed almost conjured up for this single purpose; but in the eyes of the other members they had already arrived artistically and it was only a matter of time before the rest of the world caught on.
Toward Jackson Pollock the attitudes of the group had to be more complex. He was looked up to, of course; he had “broken the ice” artistically, as de Kooning himself had said of him, by opening the way to a new style; and he was also in the process of breaking the ice publicly by being the first to come before the attention of the art world. And in both these senses they had to acknowledge him as a leader. But he was a leader who had to be approached at something of a distance; for Pollock would get drunk, and when he got drunk, he would get violent, and so had to be handled cautiously. On one occasion Franz Kline had to stand at the entrance of the Club to keep Pollock from entering. Kline was tough, sturdy, and very strong, and one of the few who could and did stand up to Pollock when the latter was in his cups.
At this time Pollock had already moved from the city to the Springs, Long Island, and he used to come into town only once a week for a session with his psychoanalyst. It was an interesting but rather peculiar arrangement, which may or may not be to the credit of psychoanalysis. Pollock’s big personal problem was his drinking. So long as he stayed out all week on the Island, he would be sober and working—and this was usually credited to the efficacy of his analysis. Then he would come into the city for his weekly analytic session, after which, as if some great burden had been lifted, or as if he were rewarding himself for a duty fulfilled, he would proceed that night to get roaring drunk on the town and tear things apart. Thus I never had any really satisfying conversations with him. When I met him on a few occasions in more formal company, he was sober and chastened, and usually sat through most of the evening in utter silence. On other occasions, he would be in the process of launching himself on his weekly bender; and though he would be affectionate and rambling in his talk, one always felt he was on the edge of erupting into violence. You did not know whether the next moment he might embrace or assault you.
With de Kooning and Kline it was an altogether different story. I saw a good deal of them and got to know them well; I would run into them around the neighborhood or go to their lofts, and I was able to talk with them at length and at ease. For me these conversations were a fresh adventure after the intensely verbal argument or articulate chitchat of my fellow intellectuals. With the painters one moved into another area of sensibility; our talk had a different human and sensuous “feel” about it.
No doubt, my intellectual friends at Partisan Review, where I, along with the poet Delmore Schwartz, was working as an editor in those years, would have found many of the ideas of the painters crude or naive; but then the suspicion was beginning to dawn on me that the way that the intellectuals looked at things might not be the only or in all cases the best way of looking. And, in fact, these conversations with the painters were one of the things, among others, that were feeding this suspicion.
Meanwhile back at the ranch, at Partisan Review itself, some indications had arrived that something might possibly be going on in the art world, and the news provoked some very personal repercussions.
Clement Greenberg was our art critic. He was also the art critic for the Nation, but his more theoretical and assertive pronouncements appeared in Partisan Review, and at this time he had begun to push very strongly for Jackson Pollock and the tendency in art that Pollock represented. And when Greenberg advocated something, he jumped in with both feet. The generosity of spirit in a critic who seeks to assist a movement that is struggling to say something new is certainly to be applauded; and Greenberg’s enthusiasm in the cause of the new painting was to his credit. Besides, the audience for art in this country had to be prepared for the large and bold abstractions of the new style. And some of this audience would even have to be persuaded that abstract art as such was a perfectly legitimate style. But Greenberg went on from this minimal argument from legitimacy to contending that abstract art was the only significant style for this time and place. What American painters like Pollock were doing, he claimed, was not merely another interesting experiment; it was the right and historically inevitable—right because historically inevitable—direction in which painting must now move. Painting had evolved to the point where it had at last discovered that it was really about visual form and nothing else. The term “Abstract Expressionism” had not yet been coined; Greenberg used the term “American Style Painting” or the “New American Style,” and he had now become the dedicated prophet in its service. But like many another prophet, he tended in his pronouncements more and more toward dogma, and his tone became more solemn. And here some questioning murmurs began to arise in the Partisan Review office.
There was no love lost—to put it mildly—between Philip Rahv and Clement Greenberg. Rahv would never forget, or forgive, Greenberg’s presence at, and part in, a bitter “confrontation” between Rahv and William Phillips over personal relations at the magazine. At times he even thought of Greenberg as the real agent provocateur who had instigated that unhappy meeting, which I and Delmore Schwartz had also attended. Worse still, Clem and William had since become very close friends, and the thought of this made Rahv toss even more painfully on his bed of uneasiness. Rahv himself knew nothing about the visual arts and did not care very much for them. It is really remarkable that he, the autodidact who had educated himself so tenaciously and scrupulously in the New York Public Library, had rarely, if ever, taken a trip uptown to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Nevertheless, he began to murmur against Greenberg’s articles that they were too dogmatic and one-sided. At which William Phillips challenged him, “What do you know about it?” And Rahv, who could himself be so very dogmatic on any matter that came within his ken, had to retreat into the vague statement that he had heard such adverse comments in “certain quarters.” He did not name names, but he did locate the sources as in “mid-town,” thereby implying they came from the art establishment. His wife, Nathalie, was an architect and designer, and undoubtedly had such contacts. After all, there was some ground for saying that in his enthusiasm Greenberg had gone overboard on the new painters.
But Rahv would not have been Rahv if he had not worked out a whole theory not only of Greenberg’s motives in his art criticism but also the reasons why he had become an art critic in the first place. Greenberg, according to Rahv, was pushing the present trend among painters because he expected to ride in on the wave of their success. As for his becoming an art critic in the first place, the reason for that was quite simple: the fact was there were too many literary critics around, and Clem thought it would be easier to avoid the competition by going into the field of art.
Delmore Schwartz, for his part, had his own misgivings about Green-berg, though he did not voice these at any editorial meeting, for he was too aware of the close friendship that had grown between Clem and William, and he did not want to say anything that would embarrass William in his continuing tension with Rahv. But Delmore kept bugging me on the subject. For some reason, he had a certain animosity toward Greenberg, not the consuming hostility he was to develop toward Lionel Trilling, but a kind of impish desire to see Clem taken down a peg or two. He had written a story in which Clement Greenberg appears as Claude Vermont; and having created a comic persona for Greenberg, he seemed intent on translating this into life. Delmore was nettled by what he thought was a certain pomposity about Greenberg. I defended Greenberg. I didn’t think Clem was pompous; he was slow of speech and, in the company of articulate talkers, would have to insist slowly and deliberately on what he had to say—and the effect could come across to some people as pompous.
But whatever his reasons, Delmore found himself amused by making small sideswipes from time to time, and he wanted me to get into the action. At this time Greenberg was reaching out for any corroborating authority for his ambitious theorizing about art, and he was particularly fond of citing Kant’s aesthetics in support of his own formalistic views of art. After all, Kant had insisted that the essential and basic condition of beauty lies in the relations of form: the beautiful object is one which, in its own relations, conforms to the formal conditions of our own sensibility. There was a special sense of triumph when Greenberg trotted out the reference to Kant; for one thing, the reference was a little arcane, and there was a special cachet in citing a philosopher who did not fall anywhere within the Marxist canon. But sometimes the reference did sound rather sententious coming from Greenberg’s lips, and Delmore would growl, “Clem is always putting on the dog—intellectually speaking.” And then he turned to rebuke me for my silence: “Listen, you know Clem doesn’t know what he’s talking about when he mentions Kant. Why don’t you show him up?” And then Delmore, his anger gone, would chuckle at the prospect; he had no particular malice here, it would just add to the fun to see Clem embarrassed. Delmore was always fascinated by the aesthetic possibility of some small social comedy happening around him. If for the moment he was blocked from writing the social comedy he wanted to, he might at least help create some of that comedy in his immediate environment.
I never followed Delmore’s prompting. For one thing, my memories of Kant’s aesthetics, brushed over rapidly somewhere in my graduate studies, were now very vague, and for all I knew Greenberg might be right in invoking his authority. Besides, I had been learning from him as he explored this new painting, and I was disposed to follow him patiently to the end to see where his ideas would lead him. But there was another and deeper reason why I would not then have done anything deliberately to add to his embarrassment: he had befriended me in a number of small but significant ways, and I felt a genuine friendliness in his attitude toward me to which I had responded naturally by liking him. From time to time, and without being heavy-handed and obtrusive about it, he had taken on the role of an older friend offering counsel; and there was one particular occasion, puzzling at first, that was to assume more and more significance for me as time went on.
On that occasion he had taken the opportunity to warn me that I might perhaps be overadapting to my environment. Those were not his words, as I remember, but I am trying now to give the sense of what he said. I had entered the Partisan Review world with enthusiasm, and, naive about its ways, had nevertheless proceeded to identify—perhaps overidentify—myself with the spirit of the magazine and its editors; and that overidentification could be crippling to me. There was nothing malicious in any of Greenberg’s words here; he spoke, in fact, with admiration of Rahv and Phillips as editors: they were “two of the most intelligent men in the country.” Yet in all that intelligence there was something lacking. . . . What was it that was lacking? Here he could not quite nail it down for me. Above all, there was something “negative” in their thinking: it canceled the possibility of any infectious enthusiasm unless it be calculated and measured beforehand. Greenberg might here have been covertly defending his own tremendous enthusiasm for the new painting. Even so, I would say now in retrospect that if one had to choose between going overboard on a new movement and not being capable of any spontaneous or previously unsanctioned enthusiasm altogether, the former might be preferable. At least, as an art critic, Greenberg was capable of a generosity of spirit in welcoming what was new.
Yet it was the word “negative” that caught and fixed my attention, and more so as time went on. It was not a question of Rahv and Phillips as individual personalities. It was something that had to do with modern intellectuals generally. What was it that was “negative”—or nihilistic, if you prefer the more philosophical word—about modern intellectuals as a class?
Clem was speaking to me as an older brother, but in no way that was either pompous or objectionable; and even though I did not fully understand what he was driving at at the time, I felt a wave of gratitude toward him for it. I happened also to admire him for his deliberate concern with his own personal integrity, his efforts to establish a kind of moral code for himself, however corny and quaint this seemed to some people in the circle.
Yet despite this affection and admiration, I too began to be troubled by some of his critical attitudes—especially when I went back to the Club and talked with the painters.
For one thing, they were not nearly so dogmatic. The artist does what he can, and is grateful to any favor of luck or inspiration that can make a particular style at the moment compelling and convincing to him. Greenberg was insisting that abstraction was the only really valid way for painting now to go, that it was the historically inevitable style for our time, and that any attempts at representative painting were historically outmoded and bound to be mere pastiche. The artists were grateful to him for his support but not quite sure of the ideology that came with it. Franz Kline shrugged at the big abstractions about historical necessity. Painting was painting, and the painter confronting his canvas faces the same age-old problems. “You work from nature, away from nature, back to nature.” He was now on a certain swing of the circle and doing abstractions; but who was to say that the circle might not come around again and he would be doing representative painting?
Kline was not a verbal or glib character. His talk was usually the smallest of small talk; so that when the occasional bursts of generalization came, they could carry a kind of simple and earthy eloquence. He was also a very physical man, short, stocky, and powerful; and his stubby fingers, when they sketched an occasional gesture in conversation, seemed to be testing the sensuous feel of what he was saying. He couldn’t escape being a painter even when he talked. In comparison, de Kooning was the more intellectual, though this last word has to be taken with some qualification. He had the more complex, restless, and darting mind, and he dabbled a little in ideas. But the intellectual excursion was always held in rein by the painterly intuition, which the ideas after all were to feed. He could take in an idea only as a visual image.
Both men, de Kooning and Kline, struck me as absolutely steeped in tradition. Their talk moved back and forth between the present and the past as if there were no break between, and whatever they themselves might be fumbling toward in their art must find its place alongside the work of the past. Nor did they squint at the old masters merely to extract their “formal” values. That way of looking at pictures became the fashion after the Abstract Expressionists had broken through. I remember a class in painting in the 1950’s where the instructor—himself a painter of talent and taste, but now an evangelist in the cause of abstract art—had hung upside down a large black-and-white print of El Greco’s “Burial of Count Orgaz.” By looking at it that way, disregarding the human and representative content, we were to learn what the painting was really about: namely, the distribution of masses and the patterns of light and shade. I looked dutifully, and think I extracted the lesson intended; but as the print continued to hang there upside down week after week, I began insensibly to have the uneasy feeling of all those noble gentry of El Greco’s brush now hanging with their heels to heaven. Painting was really about painting: what would El Greco have thought of that? I began to think that perhaps we had turned him on his head.
But de Kooning came at the work of the old masters with the wonderful directness and energy of a child. There was one show in particular that he had found overwhelming. At the outbreak of the war the paintings in the various Austrian galleries had been collected together and placed in secret hiding so that they might be spared the destruction of bombing. When the war was over, some enlightened official had the bright idea that, since they were all gathered together, they might be sent on tour before they went back to their separate locations; and so it was that the collection came to the Metropolitan Museum, an absolutely gorgeous display mainly of the great 17th-century masters that the House of Hapsburg had collected in the days of its power and affluence. De Kooning lost himself in this show with the delight and absorption of a child at a toy fair. He had a beautiful naiveté of response which, together with the Dutch accent that he never lost, gave a kind of charming spontaneity to his talk. The Dutch masters were plentifully represented in this collection, and with them de Kooning always felt he was coming home; but this time another picture, a Velázquez of a man on horseback, had taken such hold of him that he had immediately decided, “Gee, I’d like to do something like that.” And here de Kooning mimicked the pose of the rider nonchalantly and arrogantly holding the reins. And in fact he spent several days thereafter doing nothing but sketches of men on horseback. Some of them weren’t bad either, he said now; but in the end he had given it up, he simply didn’t know enough about horses and horsemen. Notice, however, that it was the arrogant beauty of a man on horseback and not a pattern of light and shadow that had gripped his imagination.
There was another small, but hardly insignificant, aspect of this occasion that has a bearing on the change that was soon to take place in the painters’ situation. We had been talking in my apartment (de Kooning lived then little more than a block away in a cold-water flat on Carmine Street), and I offered him a drink. He asked for it neat, and I poured him a shot, from which he took occasional and tiny sips and hardly had finished it at the end of the evening. He was not then a drinker; but only a few years later, when success and affluence had come, he was to have problems with drinking. He could even take a kind of rueful pride in the story of how, leaving the Cedar Tavern one night in his cups and rather unsteady on his feet, he had been followed and “jack-rolled” in a doorway (“mugging” had not yet become the common word at this time) and had been relieved of four hundred dollars. That was a very sizable sum of money at the time, and that he carried it around with him in his pocket was taken as a sign that he had really made it. He could take further satisfaction in the fact that to lose four hundred dollars had not been catastrophic and he could even tell the story as a joke on himself. A few years earlier a loss of that sum would have left him bankrupt.
Just when the change set in I cannot say, but signs of it were beginning to be visible early in the 1950’s. Word had got around that the Cedar Tavern, just off Eighth Street on University Place, was the place where the painters hung out, and now the visitors began coming in. Some were the merely curious, who wanted to gawk at anything that might be going on, but some were eager aspirants, hoping to jump on the bandwagon of a successful movement while it was getting under way. It was not exactly the Klondike gold rush on a small scale, but the bar was now noticeably noisier; and some of the regulars began staying away on busy nights, dropping in instead in the afternoon. But the change was not all noise and unpleasantness; occasionally there was some small incident that carried with it the sweet bloom of success. Once the painter Marca-Relli came in with an Italian visitor in tow. The Italian was from Venice, and had insisted on being taken to the bar for the express purpose of meeting de Kooning. After the introduction was made I pointed out the historical significance of the occasion to de Kooning: Venice had once been the center where the pilgrims from Northern Europe had come to learn about painting; now the scene had shifted, and a Venetian had come to New York to meet him. De Kooning blinked for a moment, trying to take in the full sweep of the idea, and then his face lit up with a grin: “Gee!”
At this point the writer Harold Rosenberg, who had turned art critic, entered the scene as another champion of the cause. Clement Greenberg had led the way, but Rosenberg now made the more dramatic and splashy impact. They were antithetical personalities, and naturally took up the new art from very different angles. Greenberg was trying to construct a neat formal aesthetic to accommodate what American painters were now doing within the canon of modernist art. Rosenberg was the glittering phrase-maker, who flung himself at the existential struggle of the painter, both with himself and within society, to bring something to life on the canvas; and so he Coined his own term for the new style, “Action Painting,” the implications of which were not purely formalistic. The two critics even chose different painters for their exemplary figures: for Greenberg it was Pollock, and for Rosenberg it was de Kooning; and this rival choice set off a certain tension among their followers.
Subsequently, Rosenberg and de Kooning became close; and when de Kooning was affluent enough to move out to the Springs, Long Island, they were neighbors. Rosenberg, who had been educated as a lawyer, was helpful to the painter in a number of practical and personal ways; but I had my misgivings whether he was a help intellectually. It may not be the best thing in the world for the concrete mind of the painter to drink too deeply of the waters of ideology, especially when dispensed by so subtle a hand as Rosenberg, who had the bewildering habit, even while he dazzled you, of leaving any subject more complicated and puzzling than when he took it up. But I kept these misgivings to myself. I remember one occasion when I found de Kooning in rather vehement but friendly argument with someone—I forget whom—at the Cedar Tavern. I didn’t get the thread of the argument, but at the moment I stepped in, de Kooning was sputtering passionately, “Atheism! Atheism!” He stammered, momentarily at a loss for words, and then the simple and spontaneous image came: “It’s like an empty lot between warehouses where they’ve just torn down the buildings.” At that time a lot of tearing down had been going on around the edge of the Village, and walking east from Fifth Avenue one encountered those desolate gaps; de Kooning had walked that beat often enough, and at the worst hours of the night, and he could find no more vivid image for the emptiness and desolation of non-belief. I remember thinking at the time, “I wonder how long Harold is going to let him have that thought.” De Kooning thought more profoundly when left to the visual material of his own images. If ever a man might have profited by being born into a different culture, it was he.
In the meantime a new threat to Green-berg’s position on Partisan Review seemed to be in the offing. The magazine had suddenly acquired an angel, Allan Dowling, who had seemingly appeared, as angels do in the Bible, out of nowhere. The financial aspects of the patronage could not have been very large; everything was so much more modest in those days. But in any case these were matters that Rahv and Phillips, as owners of the magazine, kept to themselves, and I did not ask. The magazine would not now be swimming in affluence, but there would be nevertheless a greater sense of ease in meeting the more urgent bills. The editors felt elated at this new prospect, but also just a little worried about the possible pressures this new benefactor might bring to bear upon editorial policies. As it turned out, they did not need to fear. Dowling was a gentleman; he did not want to bring pressures for any drastic change; we were to continue to do what we had been doing, but perhaps a little better now with a small financial boost. There was only one troubling note for William Phillips in this new arrangement: Dowling had let slip that he was not very enthusiastic about the art criticism in the magazine, and this meant that William would have to be even more nervous about protecting Green-berg’s position.
Rahv, on the other hand, was thinking along another tack. With his perpetual quest for hidden motives, he was puzzled at the arrival of this angel. What did this man expect to gain by putting his money into a “little” magazine? The immediate, Freudian, answer to which Rahv’s mind leaped was that this angel might be looking for girls, and might have thought that a literary circle was where they could be found. But this supposition was quickly disproved, for Dowling seemed to be well provided, or as well as he wanted to be, in that direction. The real motive, as it turned out, was not so far-fetched as any of these speculations, and at length even Rahv himself seemed to accept it: Dowling wanted simply the gratification of sharing in an intellectual enterprise and perhaps thereby of having some sense of belonging to an intellectual community, however small. And it was in this latter connection that he was to make his only positive suggestion about a change in the magazine’s structure: he would like there to be a board of advisory editors which would meet every month or so to discuss matters of general policy.
Rahv chuckled at the naiveté of this very minimal request. What harm could an advisory board do? It would be the easiest bone to throw to the patron if that was what was needed to keep him quiet. Everybody knows that advisory editors do not want to be bothered, that in fact they never do anything and, consequently, can’t make much trouble. Besides, we would put on this board of advisers old friends like Lionel Trilling, Sidney Hook, and James Burnham, who would be on our side in case any dissension arose. For a while William Phillips joined his fellow editor in the fun, and they were even able to slip back momentarily into their old camaraderie. But suddenly there was a menacing note in this new set-up. Dowling was a friend of the art expert James Johnson Sweeney and insisted on putting him among the advisers. Sweeney was then an official in the Guggenheim Museum, very active in the cause of modern art, and a vigorous partisan of abstract art, but his views were different from Greenberg’s and it was known that he did not admire the latter’s art criticism. Here was a new source of possible trouble that William Phillips would have to be on the lookout for if he were to protect his friend Greenberg.
The monthly dinners with the advisers turned out, in fact, to be pleasant occasions. Ideas were thrown out and discussed, but nothing of a kind seriously to alter the actual course of the magazine. On only one occasion did Sweeney indicate, and then in an indirect but nevertheless cutting way, his dissatisfaction with what Greenberg had been writing on art. But the incident requires a slight preparation.
Allan Dowling had come up with the idea that Partisan Review might give an annual prize for literary achievement. What he had in mind was something like what the Dial, the great literary magazine of the 1920’s, had done in its period. The Dial prizes had established a certain standard for avant-garde excellence, and in turn had brought fame to the magazine. Who could forget that the Dial prize in 1923 had been awarded to T.S. Eliot for “The Waste Land”? And with this wistful remembrance something was revealed of his motives that should have satisfied even so confirmed a cynic as Rahv. Part of the aspiration that led him to become a patron was that he wanted Partisan Review to fill the role that the Dial had once played and which, it seemed, had been one of the stirring memories of his youth. Why is it that in this period immediately after World War II the dream of a flowering of the arts took the form, at least for some people, of a reincarnation of the 1920’s? And it would be a minor but not altogether unenlightening bit of research to find out when these dreams began to give way. I think by 1950 it was clear that we were coming to face another world from that of the 1920’s. It was not simply that the political configuration of this world had begun to jell into its present grim mold. The earlier decade had been able to cash in on the presence of traditions that no longer seemed available to our period. It was all very well to daydream about a prize for another “Waste Land,” but where was one now to find a poem like it? The question of genius and talent aside, the circumstances that had converged to make Eliot’s poem so electrifying a statement of contemporaneity for its period no longer seemed to be potently at work in our world.
The conversation turned from this difficult question of a possible recipient to consideration of the form the award might take. And the mood began to be a little more playful: if there was no one around to give the prize to, one could still dally with the idea of what the prize might be. A great outlay of cash was out of the question, for our patron was not that generous; and besides it would seem inappropriate: the special cachet that this prize would carry was that, though small in comparison with other more public grants, it represented the verdict of select and avant-garde taste. One or two casual suggestions were made, and it was then that Sweeney launched his sally.
Now it so happened that in the current issue of the magazine Clement Greenberg had used a slightly more dogmatic tone than usual, and had solemnly pronounced on the historical death of “easel painting.” The painters in the “New American Style,” he declared, needed large areas to work out their motifs, and this effort, even when done on canvas, carried with it the scope of something like a mural. The easel painting, which always suggested a window open on space, with all the accompanying illusions of perspective, was now a thing of the past, historically obsolete by the evolution of painting. He did not use the Marxist phrase, the “dustbin of history”—but the thinking was along that line.
What then, we were discussing, should be the prize if it were ever to be awarded? Sweeney was a hearty Irishman with a booming laugh; and now the laugh erupted: “Give the winner an easel painting.” The sarcasm was possibly lost on those present who had not yet absorbed Greenberg’s current pronouncement. But William Phillips was not one of these, and across the table I could see him wince.
But any serious trouble from Sweeney never did materialize. He wrote one piece for the magazine; but writing was slow and laborious to him and more was not forthcoming, so that he did not become the alternate and Greenberg remained in sole possession as art critic—at least for as long as he needed to work out and disseminate the views which have now become more or less canonical with the art establishment, or an influential portion of it.
For, make no mistake about it, these views have wielded and still wield a potent influence. The reader may think that we have been engaged here in the intramural bickering within a small circle about ideas that might seem quite special and remote; but in fact, if he is a museum-goer, he will have been exposed to these ideas and perhaps already shaped by them. An exhibition of Cézanne, say, is held in one of our museums. Here and there alongside the paintings will be a printed card instructing the viewer what to look for. (And the crowds, more likely than not, will usually spend more time milling around these instructions than looking at the paintings.) And what is the controlling interpretation behind those little printed instructions? That the significance of Cézanne is his being a forerunner of Cubism. The viewer then looks for the underlying Cubist skeleton and strips off all the flesh of the painting. Or is it a show of Monet that we go to? (I am, of course, thinking of an actual museum and actual shows.) He will be told that the culmination of Monet’s art is “The Water Lilies.” Why? Because it looks most like a painting of the Abstract Expressionists. The emphasis—or should I say dislocation—of taste is always in the direction of the formal element of the painting.
It was only natural that Greenberg’s ideas should infiltrate the university. Academicians, and especially young academicians, are usually attracted to formalist theories of any kind, for these theories seem to promise some kind of rigor and exactness. They seem to give one something definite and precise to talk about, in comparison with which the realities of the spirit look vague and insubstantial. In time these younger historians of art graduate, become professors in turn, and teach other students; or they find positions in the museums, whence they are able to write illustrated monographs that become the books the public reads for their authoritative instruction.
My own disenchantment with Greenberg’s ideas came slowly. I had followed his lead in learning to appreciate the new painters, and on a few occasions he had taken me to see their works. I went with him to see my first Pollocks at a little gallery that Peggy Guggenheim had for a while on Fifty-seventh Street. It was night, the lights had not yet been fixed for the show and the paintings, unhung, stood around the walls. What with the garish light and Miss Guggenheim’s nervous fluttering, these were not the best conditions for taking in a new painter. I came away with my first impression of Pollock as a great sprawl of yellow paint. Later on I saw his work under better conditions and began to appreciate it; but even then something of this first impression lasted: Pollock was not a painter in pursuit of strict form.
And then I began to suspect that Greenberg’s position was not even internally consistent with itself when he took Pollock as his exemplary master of the moment. Cubism was central to his historical thesis. The Cubists had developed a strict and controlled form, which took the plane of the picture as absolute, and dissolved and resolved all objects into their formal relations within that plane. The internal logic of painting had brought it to this state, and painters could do nothing but follow in this vein—or produce some inauthentic and quaint pastiche of the past. But if so, de Kooning should have been his exemplary figure among the Americans rather than Pollock. The early de Koonings of this period (the 1940’s) worked within the Cubist tradition, to which they brought something absolutely original: they made the Cubist forms move and dance, gave something of the free flow of calligraphy, and nevertheless remained essentially within the Cubist idiom. But the impulse in Pollock’s painting came from elsewhere; it did not operate within the convention of strict and controlled form; if anything, it was disruptive of form. Pollock is very much in the American grain, like the writers Walt Whitman or William Faulkner, who throw themselves on the vitality of their inspiration, trusting that its sheer flow will be sufficient to generate enough form to sustain the work. In Pollock this inspiration is not always sufficient to generate enough form, and the painting sags; when the vitality of his primary impulse carries him along, the effect is stunning. There are good and bad Pollocks, and I do not think critics have been sufficiently discerning between the two. When an artist enters the world as the leader of a movement, criticism is likely to become tendentious and insist we either swallow or reject the work as a whole.
And once these initial doubts had crept in, the formalist aesthetic began to look woefully inadequate as an account of the whole sweep of the modernist movement. Granted that modern art had made extraordinary technical discoveries, and that it had created works of an abstract and formal nature that have a singular power of their own that we do not find any where in the past. Still, can this formal aspect do justice to the full range of expression and search in a Picasso, Matisse, or a Miró? Greenberg himself did a monograph on Miró, a copy of which he kindly presented to me with the modest disclaimer that it made no pretense of being exhaustive. It was not. Miró is almost the last artist one could hope to encapsulate under a formalist aesthetic. With him the inventions of form are always in the service of expression; and the sensibility he expresses is at once poetic and surrealistic. Even within the body of Cubist painting itself, the purely formalistic aesthetic resulted in some very one-sided judgments of taste. Greenberg extolled the early works of Cubism, the so-called “Analytic Cubism,” to the detriment of the later works in which Picasso and Braque put the Cubist devices to work for their own expressive purposes. No doubt those early works of Analytic Cubism contain some massive and powerful achievements in pure form; but do they really cast into shadows a later work like Picasso’s “Three Musicians,” so haunting in its suggestiveness, at once somber and mocking?
It was not at all that Greenberg lacked sensitivity here. On the contrary. Philip Rahv’s cynical suspicion that Greenberg had taken up art only because there were too many literary critics around and he wanted to avoid the competition implied that he had only a nominal and casual relation to the subject. I knew different; I knew that Clem had a primary and direct response to visual works of art that most intellectuals, and some art critics, do not enjoy. The two other art experts in our immediate circle were Harold Rosenberg and Meyer Schapiro, and I doubt that they had the capacity for visual immediacy that Greenberg did. I went once to the Museum of Modern Art with Meyer Schapiro, an erudite and brilliant scholar in the history of art, and the experience was exhilarating; but there came a moment when I could not help thinking: if only the man would stop talking for a bit, if only that spellbinding flow of words would cease, and some painting or other would stop him in his tracks and make him go silent. I had the feeling that the work of art was noticed only as the springboard to his discourse, a mere stimulus to set the verbal machinery going. But Clement Greenberg could be stopped in his tracks by the sheer visual impact of a painting, and let it work on him in silence. He had a real and discerning response to the sheer sensuous texture of painting; and he did have taste. He looked long and carefully at pictures; and it is worth noting that in a legal suit about the authenticity of some of Pollock’s paintings years after his death, Greenberg’s testimony, very much of it from memory, turned out to be precise and authoritative.
But with all these qualities, the puzzle really began. What point is there in having taste or the capacity of immediate sensitivity to the sheer visual impact of a work if in the end the ideological machinery is going to take over and fabricate a position that rides roughshod over these qualities? An ideology is a cruel taskmaster and may require of us the sacrifice of our best perceptions. But the thirst for an ideology is also one of our modern addictions.
Greenberg came on this addiction from an earlier immersion in Marxism. There he had acquired the passion for thinking in terms of “historical inevitability,” and now with art he must situate aesthetic values somewhere along the line of an imaginary curve of history. The Marxist terminology had very largely disappeared from his presentation, but the way of thinking, the cast of mind, was the same as he had shown on an earlier occasion at the outbreak of World War II. Greenberg himself had then been an editor of Partisan Review, and he teamed with Dwight Macdonald against Rahv and Phillips on the issue of the war. The latter supported the war against Hitler; Greenberg and Macdonald were isolationists, on strict Trotskyist and Marxist principles. The war, after all, was a capitalist conflict between Germany on one side, and France and Britain on the other. Let it rage on, whatever human destruction it brought in its wake; for only out of such chaos and ruin would a truly revolutionary situation arise that would bring in the socialist future. Had not Lenin, the master, thus welcomed the outbreak of World War I as a prelude to revolution? Greenberg was a Jew and a humanitarian, and he detested the horrors of Hitler as much as anyone. But what did those personal feelings count for when the conceptual apparatus took over and one had to make one’s judgments of value in accordance with the long perspective of historical inevitability?
But if the original impulse had come from Marxism, he was quite willing to be eclectic in grasping at any philosophic props for his theory. Kant’s aesthetics, as I have mentioned, was an authority he constantly cited in conversation; but now he would reach out to another quarter of the intellectual compass and seek philosophic support in modern Positivism. No matter that Kantand the Positivists might be uneasy bedfellows; each might be used separately to lend support. Ours was an age of science, Positivism was the scientific philosophy of our time, and one had, above all, to be in tune with the deeper Zeitgeist of history.
Now, from a strictly positivistic point of view, what is a painting but a flat surface overspread with certain visual data? No matter who the artist and whatever his nominal subject matter, this is what the eye really sees when you get down to the scientific brass tacks. (He seemed at this point to forget that Kant had insisted that our basic transactions with the work of art takes place in imagination.) The measure of the painter’s achievement, then, should be merely how well he arranges the pattern of sense data on the picture plane.
Ironically for Greenberg, though he did not know it, at the moment he was seeking support from the Positivists, they themselves were in the process of relinquishing their own doctrine of sense data. We do not see patches of color, but objects in space: chairs, tables, other people. It is not just a green shape, mottled with shadow, that I see now through my window but the old maple tree on my lawn. Indeed, of all our sense organs, the eye is the one most riveted to definite objects in the external world, and it has to be for our survival; if we saw only patches of color, we could hardly go about our daily activities. And it is by the simplest and most natural extension of this power that we see through the plane of the picture the space on which it opens and the objects therein represented.
Nor was Kant any better prop for Greenberg’s thesis. Sometime later, much later, I read Kant’s aesthetics and found Delmore Schwartz’s suspicions were right, that Greenberg had misused that venerable philosopher. Delmore had been trained in philosophy, and had even gone into graduate study for a while as a step toward a career, but he soon lost patience with the tedium of academic philosophy. Yet he retained from his immersion in it an amazing intuition about ideas, a sensitive nose, particularly for when a critic was lapsing into “idea-mongering” or “philosophy-mongering,” as he called it—the inauthentic rattling around of big terminology. And he was perpetually spotting this malady in the literary critics of his time, even his beloved idol T.S. Eliot. Even though he knew very little of the subject, he had sniffed out the same thing now in what Greenberg was doing with art.
It was not that Greenberg “got Kant all wrong,” as Delmore put it, but that he seemed to have read only the first thirty or forty pages of Kant’s work. In those pages Kant does develop a formal theory of beauty—Greenberg was right at least there; but this is only a prelude to the fuller theory. For Kant the beautiful in art is subordinate to the beautiful in nature, and indeed it would be morally pernicious to separate the two. The formalist who looks at a picture merely as a flat plane with a certain pleasing arrangement of shapes and colors would be morally suspect in the eyes of Kant: an aesthete who has cut off the work from any reference to the wider world of man and nature in which it finds itself, and is content to go on chewing the cud of his own private sensations. The experience of nature, on the other hand, leads us beyond our private self, and indeed beyond what our ordinary conceptual mind seems able to grasp. The long line of the mountain folds into the curve of the river, and there just above it, clearing the horizon, the first evening star appears; and as I stand rapt before this vision, I am invaded—and without thinking—by the feeling that we and this universe are part of some meaning that we cannot grasp. Here the formal theory of beauty takes a theological direction. If the perception of beauty consists in an accord between the formal properties of the object and the formal conditions of our own perception, might not this be an intimation that we ourselves, as perceivers, are in some ultimate attunement with this cosmos we find beautiful, that we have a place and a meaning within it? It is not a formal argument for God—Kant is too critical for that; he is simply describing the content of an experience, and I think the experience is there for anyone who surrenders to it, however confident an atheist he might be in his other attitudes.
Kant was thus the most unlikely of philosophers for Greenberg to have invoked in support of his own aesthetic. Rational and enlightened as Kant’s century might pride itself on being, it still existed within nature and in relation to God in a way that we can no longer manage, and that the art Greenberg extols would altogether forget. Indeed Kant, were he to return to our midst, would find it a sign of the spiritual poverty of our age that one of our leading critics should offer a view of art so narrow and barren, and that this view should have become quasi-official in some influential quarters.
The story I have been telling was to be a success story, of Clement Greenberg, as it turned out, as well as of the artists; but it was to bring about a transformation of the art scene in New York with consequences that were not always benign.
The transformation really set in with the 1950’s, when the art dealers began to get into the act. There was a new affluence after the war, and potentially a new group of buyers for art. This new class of patrons for the most part had little previous experience of art, and therefore no barrier of traditional taste to overcome. The works they bought may have looked strange and inexplicable to them at first, but they were easily reassured by the dealers that these works were “important,” and that if they were not at the moment the “in” thing, they were the coming thing; and that their monetary value would appreciate considerably. Had not the new American School become internationally famous almost overnight, with prices now escalating out of sight? And who was to say the miracle might not be repeated for any new style, however odd and unfamiliar it might look at first?
Thus the purchase of new art was a good investment altogether; it secured status for the buyer in several ways: in showing his collection he was also exhibiting himself as a man of culture who kept up with the “in” things; it had cultural chic; but it also represented potentially a mass of constantly growing capital. It was important to buy in early, the earlier the better: a painting acquired for a moderate price now might be worth a small fortune in a relatively short time. The dealers naturally pushed this emphasis upon novelty, the new thing, for its possible speculative purposes. One of them remarked to me in a moment of frankness: “I never ask myself whether a work is good or not, but only if it has historical importance.” The word “historical” is worth noting here; in practical terms, he meant simply whether it might start a trend, or a new direction, which in turn would give the work more monetary value in time. Again, the push toward novelty.
This attitude of dealers and buyers began to spread, sometimes for different motives, to the artists themselves. Perhaps Greenberg’s ideas led this way. After all, if you are a painter and begin to be preoccupied with historical inevitability, and what style must be pursued at this time, you are tempted to feel that perhaps you may give that line of inevitability a push in your own direction. At any rate, the younger artists now coming up began to think of their own efforts in terms of very large abstract notions about something called “Painting,” and the stage of development at which it had arrived. A friend and I (this was in the mid-1950’s) visited the studio of an aspiring painter, a young woman who had only been at her art a few years but seemed a coming talent. She had just completed a large painting that was not without its merits, and we congratulated her on it. At which she only shook her head ruefully, stared somberly at her own canvas and remarked, “Yes, but does it do anything for Painting?” Afterward, my friend and I agreed that her response seemed sadly presumptuous: instead of looking at the individual work in its own terms, she had become her own art historian and was speculating on her possible place in the line of history. She was not alone here; quite run-of-the-mill talents began to be preoccupied with “advancing the medium.” In terms of the marketplace, of course, these lofty concerns could be given a quite commercial twist: the artist preoccupied with where he stood in the evolution of painting became in fact intent on producing some new gimmick that might prove to be the “in” thing. When the constraint of subject matter has gone, the artist has only his medium to exploit, and any new twist of originality may possibly be salable as a coming trend.
We reach a stage where the great experimentation of modern art, and indeed the greatness of this art itself, begins to be trivialized. Even the success story of the Abstract Expressionists turns against them: in a short while Abstract Expressionism was to become old hat.
There followed thus a procession of new styles and names on the New York art scene. Op Art, Pop Art, Minimal Art, Conceptual Art, Color-field painting, and the rest. Clement Greenberg may have speculated much about historical inevitability, but as a prophet of actual history he fell far short of the mark. One style did not emerge as the inevitable and necessary way of painting in this time; instead, the Zeitgeist was to find its expression in a riotous proliferation of new schools, often tendentious and in conflict with each other. To be sure, some of these styles were in the general direction of abstract art: if you push the process of abstraction far enough, you end with the emptiness of Minimal Art; and with so little now left on the canvas, you have but to take a small step further and declare, with Conceptual Art, that the idea alone will do for a work of art. But the emergence of Pop Art was a raucous return to the actual visible world, often in its most crass and glaring aspects; and representative art generally has reacquired status, and is seriously pursued by many of the younger artists. The eye, it seems, is not to be denied its thirst for the external world. But even here we notice a touch of the modern gimmick in the case of so-called Photo-realism: the painter does not give himself to the objects in the world around him, but to their photographed image by the camera. In a technical age, man imitates the machine.
As the pursuit of novelty went on, the restraining barriers of taste became less and less visible. The disturbed decade of the 1960’s, with its squalid atmosphere of permissiveness, decended upon us, and the spirit of “anything goes” was in the air. The notion of good taste itself now appeared suspect: it sounded “elitist,” than which in the jargon of the time no attitude could be more damnable. To those who had lived with it in the past, the Museum of Modern Art now seemed to take on a new appearance; the rooms on the ground floor consigned to the newest things became crowded with dull, tasteless, and crude objects that seemed very often to have little claim to the name of art. “The junk rooms,” my wife and I came to call them, and we were glad to escape upstairs to the permanent collection and the company of the modern masters. Here in the short space of a stair flight the whole question of contemporary art seemed to be posed for one: had the period of modern art really passed, and in the post-modern period in which we now seemed adrift, what were we to build upon? The museum, of course, was now discharging its function as a documentary historian of the times, of what was now going on, and it was following the excessively democratic spirit of the period. To have exercised the discretion of good taste in what one chose to show would have been “elitist.” Besides, how could you really be sure? Had not the great works of the modern movement seemed shocking and impossible to their contemporaries? At this time the city colleges in New York had adopted a policy of open admissions—anyone with a high-school diploma was accepted as a student. At City College, which had once been a select and elite institution, professors of English were reduced to teaching remedial reading. I felt that the museum had followed suit and adopted its own policy of open admissions.
It was Harold Rosenberg rather than Clement Greenberg who turned out to have the sharper eye for the actual drift of history. Always a neat hand at phrases, Rosenberg was to baptize this restless quest for novelty as the “Tradition of the New.” The expression is catchy, but if we stop to think of it for a moment, it becomes paradoxical and puzzling, and raises more questions than it can clarify. To my ears it sounds a little like the Trotskyite phrase, the “Permanent Revolution,” about which I had mixed feelings even when I was a Marxist believer. If the revolution is permanent and unceasing, then next week you reverse what you have revolutionized this week. A tradition is supposed to be a revered standard to which you hold fast; but if your tradition is novelty as such, then out of the impulse of sheer change you may abolish that tradition too. Thus, literally and logically taken, the phrase is without meaning; but in the actual situation in which Rosenberg invoked it, the art scene of today, it is altogether pregnant with meaning. It points toward the heart of our dilemma today: toward the ceaseless proliferation of new styles and forms that is now going on, amid which there can be found brilliance and originality but also a bewildering sense of loss, and even the sense that the great tradition of modern art itself, with its depth and resonance, may be lost.
Perhaps, then, we may have reached a point where the whole question of modernism in art may be raised with some deeper understanding. Our century provides us enough of this art so that, looking backward, we may draw some conclusions.
The spirit of experimentation and novelty, of course, is not new; they were the watchwords with which the avant-garde broke in upon the scene in the early years of this century. “Make it new!” Ezra Pound proclaimed in those years when he and T.S. Eliot were leading a revolution in literary taste and in the writing of poetry. But Pound was seeking freshness and originality rather than novelty for novelty’s sake, and in his revolt against the petrified tradition of the Georgian poets he harked back to the deeper tradition of Dante and the Provençal poets, as Eliot made the Elizabethans and the 17th century live again in his own verse. Eliot was to turn his critical powers on this question in the famous essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” which was published in 1919 but gathers force now in the light of everything that has happened since. Like Pound, but not so vociferously, he applauds the search for the new: if we have to choose between a stale repetition of the past and novelty, we should certainly choose the latter. But we cannot leave the matter at this glaring confrontation of two dismal alternatives. If we are serious, we are not interested in novelty for novelty’s sake, for the mere shock of it. The genuinely new work of art must be one in which past and present enter into more intimate union. And that, of course, is Eliot’s conclusion: that the really new and original work of art is the most traditional, in the sense that it draws most deeply on the resources of its tradition even while bringing these to a surprising and unexpected expression.
Never did a critic call his shots more accurately. The whole history of our century confirms his conclusion: the great works of the modern masters, in all of the arts, are those which draw most deeply on the resources of the tradition, and which in turn enter the body of tradition and give it a deeper and richer life. The oddities of experiment in style or point of view that claimed our attention at first begin to recede in importance as these works enter the company of older masters.
We may think here, if we will, of a biological metaphor drawn from the example of mutations as they occur in nature. Most mutations are harmful and non-adaptive and quickly disappear. Those that catch hold and survive are those that fit in with the inherent structure of the species, that draw upon the resources of the gene pool even as they may give these potentialities a new direction. Meanwhile the life of the species continues through the transformation; or if the change is more radical, the life of the genus continues in a new species. The past comes to life again in another form in the present. The chemical components of our blood, we are told, are those of sea water, from which our own life originally came.
But nature has its own safeguards against random innovation, its own natural means, so to speak, of passing tradition on from one generation to the next, while in our human society at the present time the institutions that would convey tradition are in a rather shaky condition. Under such circumstances the entry of the avant-garde into the establishment, and indeed its growing dominance within the establishment, were events of signal importance.
The process began in the 1950’s, and thereafter accelerated quickly. The artists got teaching appointments; and from infiltrating the academy, they began to be the dominant voice within it. From the academy their influence passed to the museums and the staffs of museums. The critics had long since been captured, and the number of dissenting voices became fewer. All this was generally to the good; it was well that the artists should have jobs and come to occupy the seats of power; and if their voices were sometimes strident, they nevertheless had something vital to say that the academy needed. But since the modern movement is divided into contending schools and styles, inevitably a certain sectarianism and spirit of the clique crept in. We come then upon the paradox of an avant-garde, supposedly dedicated to the “Tradition of the New,” dictatorially enforcing in its students the repetition of a narrow and confining style. Also, a certain inflation of reputations set in: mediocre artists could be railroaded through, and praised immoderately, because they were following in the wake of more powerful talents.
Clique or club? We seem to come back to the image from which we started. But what a far cry now from the Club of the 1940’s, whose poverty and camaraderie seemed to come out of the vie de bohème of the 19th century! That club which met and danced in its loft has now become invisibly transfigured into a club in a different sense—a privileged circle of power; and most of the older and lesser members have long since dropped by the way and been forgotten. But when the avant-garde becomes the establishment, one is led to question whether it does not thereby lose its own raison d’être. It came into existence, after all, in the previous century in revolt against a tradition that had become too narrow and ossified; but if the force of tradition has become so weak, and standards everywhere more permissive, the rebellion of an avant-garde seems perhaps unnecessary and in any case less heroic than once.
No doubt, the avant-garde still borrows the older rhetoric of rebellion, but we begin more and more to notice the irony when a critic, safely ensconced in one of our leading universities, affects to speak in the language of the outcast. And we are also led to ask whether what has happened in politics may not be happening here: when a revolution takes over, it becomes fat, bureaucratic, and intolerant.