In comparing the accounts by Clement Greenberg and John Berger of Cubism, as in assessing their approaches to painting and its history in general, it’s essential not to pit one against as if their theories were in opposition, “formalism” and “Marxism” as two mutually exclusive and incompatible monoliths. This would be untenable not only historically—Greenberg was at least during the Thirties and Forties a Marxist, and more specifically a Trotskyist—but descriptively. John Berger’s concern for art is not simply a concern for a mode of ideological production but for a specific material practice, which concern is central to my understanding of formalism as a descriptive rather than a pejorative term.
To quote from Thomas Crow’s comparison of Greenberg and Meyer Schapiro, who occupy in his argument roughly the positions Greenberg and Berger occupy here, “Both see the commodification of culture as the negation of the real thing, that is, the rich and coherent symbolic dimension of collective life in earlier times; both see beneath the apparent variety and allure of the modern urban spectacle only the ‘ruthless and perverse’ laws of capital; both posit modernist art as a direct response to that condition, one which will remain in force until a new, socialist society is achieved. Given these basic points of agreement,...how do we explain the extent of their differences?” (“Modernism and Mass Culture in the Visual Arts,” reprinted in Francis Frascina, editor, Pollock and After: The Critical Debate).
It seems to me more productive to approach these two positions, for which “Greenberg” and “Berger,” “formalism” and “Marxism,” may be made reductively to stand, dialectically, as mutual rather than exclusive poles; the poles of an opposition are, after all, defined each by the other. Far from negating one another, the viewpoints of Greenberg and Berger are necessary to one another. Each by itself is partial and thus, when pursued to its extreme, untrue. To quote Adorno on the dichotomy of “high” and “mass” culture, “Both are torn halves of an integral freedom, to which however they do not add up” (Aesthetics and Politics).
In the broadest terms, which inevitably distort as much as they clarify, the two positions can be stated quite simply. For “formalism,” each art is motivated by its own internal forces and laws of development of technique, resources, and possibilities toward an ever-increasing consciousness of itself as medium, an ever-increasing emancipation not only from psychological or social demands but from the norms and demands of other art forms. This is the argument of Greenberg’s 1940 essay “Towards a Newer Laocoon,” though nowhere stated in the form I have given it here. For “Marxism” in its crudest form, that form dismissed as “vulgar Marxism” by many who then proceed to be equally vulgar (for example, art historian Nicos Hadjinicolaou, whom I have discussed in my essay “How Not to Read a Rembrandt”), art is an ideological superstructure of an economic base: “it belongs in the superstructure rather than the base of a historical process which moves on two levels, only one of which is effective” (Arthur C. Danto, The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art). Art, as an epiphenomenon of political economy has by definition no internal motivations for its development.
In Berger’s version of the Marxist position, the development of art is determined by the development of social relations and forces: to which art, when “real,” is a response; of which, when merely a part of “the normative tradition,” it is merely a reflection. In this view, art’s increasing autonomy is illusory, a concealment of art’s social bonds and a denial of its continuing ideological role. Berger, however, allows that this illusory autonomy can produce real benefits in the explorations and experiments which it makes possible, experiments which are always at least implicitly experiments with reality. Berger does not deny the internal, technical development of painting as a medium, and indeed discusses technical developments at length, but he sees this development as an expression of social, political, and technological developments in the world at large. Berger is never very precise in his treatment of “society,” tending to treat it as a largely undifferentiated whole in exactly the fashion against which Marxism developed the concept of contradiction, i.e., social classes in constant struggle. Berger writes in his influential 1967 essay “The Moment of Cubism” (reprinted in The Moment of Cubism and Other Essays) that “Cubism changed the nature of the relationship between the painted image and reality, and by so doing it expressed a new relationship between man and reality.” This is not a statement with which Greenberg would disagree, though he would object to making the relationship between the two lines of development closer than a parallel. Indeed, Greenberg writes in the first paragraph of his 1940 essay “Towards a Newer Laocoon” that “It is quite easy to show that abstract art like every other cultural phenomenon reflects the social and other circumstances of the age in which its creators live, and that there is nothing inside art itself, disconnected from history, which compels it to go in one another direction or another.”
What strikes me in even this most broadly-sketched picture of the two supposedly opposed positions is that both are true: a phenomenon quite common in life, though rarely acknowledged in polemic. Neither includes the other, but neither negates the other. Indeed, the degree to which the two arguments acknowledge one another is striking. Greenberg examines one part of the development and within the explicitly laid-out limits of his field of examination his arguments and conclusions are perfectly assentable. Similarly, Berger, in addition to sketching in the “world” which gave birth to Cubism, which cannot “explain” why Cubism as an artistic phenomenon came into being or took the forms that it did, examines the Cubists’ practice as painters, though his focus is on the external, non-artistic “meaning” of this artistic practice. Berger sees art as having a “function” of producing new knowledge through interpreting (in “artistic” terms) new experiences and realms of experience. Greenberg sees artistic practices and the art objects they produce as forms of knowledge in themselves. The knowledge that art produces within and about itself is on a par with the knowledge about “society,” “man,” and “reality” that Berger sees it as the function of art to produce and convey.
Near the conclusion of “Towards a Newer Laocoon,” Greenberg writes that “The imperative [for developments in art] comes from history, from the age in conjunction with a particular moment reached in a particular tradition of art.” It is the conjunction, and the particularity of the items conjoined, on which I would focus. Greenberg’s purism, which springs from similar roots as Adorno’s, that is, the desire to preserve a realm of human activity from the logic of the commodity and of instrumental reason, instantiated for both of them in the culture industries, too often isolates the artwork from its context and thus separates being from meaning. What Thomas Crow has, with some exaggeration, called Greenberg’s “eventual modernist triumphalism” belongs to a later phase of his thought, certainly not to that in which he writes that “it is necessary to examine more closely and with more originality than hitherto the relationship between aesthetic experience as met by the specific—not the generalized—individual, and the social and historical contexts in which that experience takes place” (“Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” first published in 1939, reprinted in Art and Culture: Critical Essays). Berger’s referentialist utilitarianism too often reduces the artwork to a representation and an example of sociopolitical forces and circumstances taken as the “real,” neglecting the artwork’s status as a reality in itself as well as an image of a reality, what Danto calls “a semi-opaque object.”
That art is conditioned, and its development often motivated, by social forces is both obvious and undeniable. That its relation to these forces is determined by its own development as art and by the changing relationship of the activities and objects designated “art” to other social practices is equally obvious and undeniable. In artistic practice the two realms of forces these two positions represent (in both senses) operate in dialogue: this interaction is the dialectic of modern art. Aesthetic theory would benefit if it followed the lead of its object of investigation, rather than demanding that art conform to its theoretical and/or polemical strictures and reductions.