January 16, 2011
CLEMENT GREENBERG (1909-94) started out as a critic of Middlebrow — one as fierce as his contemporaries Dwight Macdonald, George Orwell, Mary McCarthy, and T.W. Adorno. Unlike them, though, he championed Nobrow (particularly, after World War II, in the form of Abstract Expressionism)… and that’s how Middlebrow eventually suborned him. Greenberg’s 1939 Partisan Review essay, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” expresses horror about low-middlebrow cultural productions (aka “kitsch,” “pseudo-culture”) and insists that America needs avant-garde/modernist art which is “valid solely on its own terms.” This sort of thing has been a key plank in every Nobrow platform since Gautier’s introduction to Mademoiselle de Maupin; and it explains why, in his influential art criticism, Greenberg was skeptical of hilobrows (e.g., Picasso, the Dadaists, the Neo-Dadaists) whose art was insufficiently cool and detached. Alas, the nobrow’s faith in his own detachment makes him extra-susceptible to the snarky, above-it-all tone with which Middlebrow speaks when (in a liberal capitalist society) it’s dismissing challenges to the way things are. In 1950, Greenberg joined the CIA-fronted American Committee for Cultural Freedom; and in ’53 he published “The Plight of Our Culture” — an essay that begins as an insightful analysis of the Highbrow/Lowbrow/Anti-Highbrow/Anti-Lowbrow sociocultural matrix, but ends by cautiously praising high-middlebrow productions. As we know, Nobrow plus Middlebrow equals Quatsch. So is that what Abstract Expressionism was, all along?
READ MORE about members of the Partisan Generation (1904-13).