Vocabularies of Appreciation: how to distinguish things which are art from things which are only things
conference contributionposted on 19.08.2009, 12:59 by Peter Armstrong
It's just stuff , you know. It's not an artistic challenge. it's just stuff ... It's completely irrelevant. . . It's almost not art. I'm going to go as far as to say it's not art." Anish Kapoor on Damien Hirst. Reported in The Guardian, Saturday November 8th 2008. This paper is concerned with the rhetorics of cultural entrepreneurship in the visual arts: the process by which ‘things’ are transmuted into art and vice-versa. Specifically it examines a well- known intervention in the appreciation of abstract art in 1960s New York by the critics Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried. Since the work of White and White (1966), we have become accustomed to the idea that new movements in art do not succeed through the unaided persuasion of the work itself. Nor do they do so through spontaneous movements in taste. Following the prototypical promotion of French Impressionism by the dealer Paul Durand-Ruel and critic-publicists such as the poet Guillaume Appollinaire, new movements in art have typically succeeded through alliances of interested dealers and critics: the so-called ‘dealer-critic system’. Alliances of this kind work in part by the promulgation of new ‘vocabularies of appreciation’, new protocols for the viewing of art, that is, and new ways of thinking and talking about the encounter with it. These vocabularies are an important means whereby artistic movements know themselves, cohere as communities and differentiate themselves from outsiders. Vocabularies of appreciation are precisely the medium of the critic, and there is much at stake. As in other fields of cultural production, there is an enthusiastic public for a limited number of ‘important’ artists but much less interest in the many who fall short of that level. And since it is through the vocabulary of appreciation that importance is created, it is fitting that the critic who has championed important artists should prosper along with them. At the time with which this paper is concerned, Clement Greenberg was an important critic because of his role in the triumph of American Abstract Expressionism, and it was from that position of influence that he was in a position to create a new vocabulary of appreciation. The vocabulary in question was one which sought to create difference where formerly there had been continuity. Such vocabularies of differentiation arise from the stress on originality within the avant-garde ethic and the consequent tendency towards fission within artistic movements. It is at the moment of manufacturing just such a fissure that this paper catches Greenberg and Fried. Where once there had been a relatively unitary ‘minimalism’, practised in the media of painting and sculpture, the two critics, working in tandem, developed a vocabulary of appreciation which divided those things which were deeply meaningful from those which remained merely ‘things’, art from objecthood as it was expressed in the title of Fried’s famous essay (1967). The resulting ability to perceive difference where the uninitiated see little or none serves important social functions within the world of art appreciation. Firstly it legitimises the connoisseur’s claim to a cultivated sensibility, the act of discrimination being its outward manifestation. Secondly it intensifies the dependence of that sense of connoisseurship on critical attestation, since the work itself, to those who have not yet mastered the appropriate vocabulary of appreciation, offers little indication of where and whether difference should be found and of how that should be read.