- Artforum, Andy Warhol, and the Art of Living:What Art Educators Can Learn from the Recent History of American Art Writing
When around 1980 I began writing art criticism, Artforum was much concerned with historical analysis.1 When presenting the work of younger painters and sculptors, it seemed natural to explain artists' accomplishments by identifying precedents for their work. Much of my criticism published in the 1980s presented post-formalist accounts of abstract painting. Seeking precedents for the painting I admired, I looked to the history of art. But such pleas for the value of tradition were doomed. Commentators preaching the values of tradition lost out to the writers emphasizing a break with the past. Much of interest for art education can be learned by studying the history of this very influential, small circulation journal.
Only in retrospect did the urgency of this felt need for a break with the past become apparent. The history of responses to Abstract Expressionism suggested a different way of thinking about moments of change. HaroldRosenberg's conception of "action painting" implied that Pollock broke dramatically with the past. Clement Greenberg, by contrast, in a famous phrase said: "I do not think it exaggerated to say that Pollock's 1946-1950 manner really took up Analytic Cubism from the point at which Picasso and Braquehad left it...in their collages of 1912 and 1913."2 Greenberg's counter-intuitive analysis, asking us to see very different looking paintings as essentially similar, had prevailed. So it was not unreasonable to expect that after Greenberg, concern with tradition would remain important. But that was not what happened.
Demand for a break with the past often carries political overtones. Historians debate whether the French Revolution broke with the past, or merely developed trends of the old regime. The idea of a complete break with tradition can seem attractive, but of course such dramatic ways of thinking underestimate real continuities. Struggle among post-Greenbergian artwriters to define a new critical paradigm mimics conflicts among artists to define the [End Page 1] leading post-Abstract Expressionist tradition. Once a critical paradigm has been established, debate may proceed peacefully. But when defining a period style is at issue, the stakes are high, and so conflicts are ferocious. Of course, struggle is always accompanied also by co-operation, but failing to grasp the real role of conflict leads to all-too-pious visions of what is possible.
Greenberg developedthe most influential critical approach, and so when his way of thinking was rejected, a radically different approach was of most interest. Here we are dealing with what Harold Bloom famously called the anxiety of influence. Just as the most interesting painting after Abstract Expressionism deconstructed that tradition, so in criticism no ways of thinking too similar to Greenberg's stood a chance of being important. I think it interesting to reconstruct the process rationally in which an individual obtains such power. A totem, Freud explains, is "an animal (whether edible and harmless or dangerous and feared) and more rarely a plant or a natural phenomenon (such as rain or water), which stands in a peculiar relation to the whole clan."3 The communion bread and wine are just bread and wine, but for the believer they become Christ's body and blood. Rationally speaking, a representational painting is just pigment on canvas; and a minimalist sculpture, just shaped metal. But in what Arthur Danto calls the "transfiguration of the commonplace," "a work of art...has qualities to attend to which its untransfigured counterpart lacks...We are dealing with an altogether different order of things."4 Greenberg became a totem. He was not just an important writer whose arguments entitled him to reasonable respect. The mere mention of his name invoked irrational fears.
Greenberg was obsessed with tradition. Abstract Expressionism was rooted in early modernism, so that the era from Manet through Pollock defined a period style. Greenberg's historiography may seem inescapable. How can a young painter be understood except by seeking precedents for her achievement? Cannot the now famous artists who emerged in the 1980s be understood in these terms? Barbara Kruger comes out of John Heartfield and dada...