“Art Criticism” is a short and straightforward piece by Clement Greenberg in which he reminds us what art criticism is and isn’t in the face of changing attitudes and conceptions about art. If you’ve read Greenberg’s “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” or “Modernist Painting,” you’ll know that he was kept very busy during the early twentieth century with thinking about how different parts of the art world had to change due to the rise of Modernism. “Art Criticism” is one such example in which Greenberg explores in very simple terms the purpose behind criticism, aesthetics, and value judgments—what most of us think of as “taste.”
In this essay, Greenberg essentially says that because Modernism had come and broken everyone’s previous understandings and ideas about art, critics of his time started believing that the traditional ways of evaluating art (i.e. aesthetics) had been invalidated as well. They then began to pass other things off as criticism, like description, analysis, or interpretation. They started to talk around the piece rather than about it, and would discuss things like the social/political/economic contexts of its making. But while these things are interesting and do provide value in our understanding of a piece, Greenberg plainly says that they are not criticism (although things like description, analysis and interpretation do carry with them implicit value judgments, they are not meant to communicate or justify those judgments). Everyone, when they experience a work of art, has some reaction to it and makes some value judgment on it, whether implicit or explicit. However, not everyone is able to verbalize their judgments (and not everyone is even fully conscious of their judgments). Critics, however, are obligated to communicate their value judgments.
Granted, the judgment is the most difficult part of art criticism. It’s easy to sound knowledgable or authoritative about something when you’re stating facts. To make a judgment, however, to say that a work is good or bad, is hard. These subjective measures open the door for disagreement, and it’s hard to justify why you like or dislike something (it also makes it very easy for you to be on the wrong side of history). Especially during a time like the early 1900s when everything about art seemed to be changing so quickly, it would be easy to find solace in facts rather than judgments.
These difficulties, however, are what make art criticism meaningful and worthwhile. To discuss and write about art as art, not as a document of history or philosophy, is to recognize our relationship with it and the effect it can have on us. The role of the critic is then to put into words his or her experience with a given piece of art, and it is through that criticism that we not only come to understand another person’s perspective, but can also understand our own reactions more deeply. But in order to do this, we must be honest and direct with ourselves about what we feel and how we evaluate our experience. We can only truly appreciate art when we take it for what it is.