“A Lot of Being Inside Your Own Head Here”

(Criticism & Loneliness in The Work of Joe Brainard and Clement Greenberg)

Joe Brainard, “Untitled (Whippoorwill),” 1973

Joe Brainard, “Untitled (Whippoorwill),” 1973

This is me feeling sorry for myself.

This is me thinking I assume too much when I say “we.”

This is me loving myself and not loving myself both at the same time.

This is me truly not understanding this moment.

This is me trying to write a poem.

—from “How to Be Alone Again,” by Joe Brainard

Until the mid-50s, a little later, the isolation felt by those whom I considered the best artists of the time was—uh, can you mitigate isolation?—alright, it was unmitigated. And that’s changed, the art boom took care of that. And now famous artists are celebrities. They wanted what we all want: fame and money…but they weren’t mercenary. They wouldn’t do a thing just in order to sell. Good god no, that was unthinkable. …You couldn’t dissolve your own anxieties, your own aspirations, in larger ones.

—T.J. Clark interview with Clement Greenberg

I find it a useful exercise to pay attention to shapes and colors, accents and inflections, topics and epistemes that have recently passed out of popular favor. To examine the consensual, unspoken cultural motivations for the replacement of an old mode with a new one, is to acknowledge the particular set of restrictions upon personal comportment that one’s present milieu implicitly draws. Rules governing ordinary human behavior—how to walk, what kinds of expressions to use, how to communicate likes and dislikes—are among the most harshly unforgiving.

To be denied membership in the realm of the culturally appropriate facilitates a strategic position in postmodernity, a paradoxical point of access into a manner of grounded communion with the material world, a relationality that is otherwise intercepted by the divisive processes of commercial branding.  The figure of the castaway becomes a figure for critique, with both a privileged awareness of the normalizing mechanisms used to enforce mass consensus, and the capacity to imagine other possible modes of human intercourse.

In Clement Greenberg the art critic and Joe Brainard the draughtsman, collagist, diarist and poet, I find two very different versions of critique. Greenberg was a powerful arbiter of taste relegated to the category of patriarchal elitist once institutional critique and sociopolitical analysis replaced formalism as the reigning interpretive mode in art criticism. During his tenure as the dominant critical voice of the New York art world in the fifties and sixties, he promoted the importance of aversiveness in art writing: the willingness to express dislike for a work was an indispensable responsibility of the critic. With antagonism thus stated as a crucial element of his ethical modus operandi, it is not surprising that he was gradually edged to the margins of popular favor. His writing now speaks from a place that is doubly outcast: the critic who refused to participate in the popular experience of liking ultimately falls into widespread dislike.  Brainard, on the other hand, a generation younger than Greenberg, is among the most likeable figures in post-war New York art. He speaks with a self-effacing candor that treats his audience as one would a long-time friend. He is warm and agreeable, the opposite of cantankerous Uncle Clem.  But despite how he draws us in, there’s a certain unyielding resistance in his persona. The meta-consciousness of his confessional style harbors a kernel that we just can’t get to. His charming invitation seems to come to us from a great distance and his co-ordinates are tough to locate.

As a reader of Joe Brainard, one can find great pleasure in stepping into his particular brand of loneliness. It is a paradoxical pleasure, because once I’m invited in, the lonely room has become a minor party scene.  Brainard’s jolly confessions read as analgesic—the willingness to share feelings stages a soothing comraderie—but object to taking the remedy seriously.  And his claim to loneliness is mostly inextricable from his claim to being a poet.  “This is me trying to write a poem” is also “me” hamming up my character as a writer: to write is to articulate oneself, to isolate oneself as an entity with the capacity for expression and a self that is worth expressing.

Brainard, hailing from working class Arkansas, did feel somewhat inadequate to the title of “New York School poet.” This may account, to some degree, for the distanced irony with which his poetry claimed that role.  More importantly, though, his irony enacts a heightened attention to the utter exteriority of his poetic voice: he is so outside that he excludes himself—in his light-hearted sarcasm—from the privilege of ascending to the high status of lonely poet.  He is critical of poetry, critical of himself, critical of the poem he writes as he is writing it. This insistence upon outsiderdom transcends identification with any particular group which might present an appealing possibility of admittance, as Brainard’s written self is always ejected from its present milieu—whether it be poetry on the page or a real-life gathering of poets from Brainard’s bi-coastal arts scene—into a whirl of meta-consciousness.  Brainard’s repeated aesthetic decision to leave the room constitutes an embrace of his role as critic in a move that declares a poetics of criticism rather than implying a wholesale rejection of his role as poet.

In his N.Y.C. Journals, 1971-1972, he dons the critic persona explicitly:

‘Over dinner we discussed what a tough painting Alex Katz’s Lawn Party is. (How “hard to like” it is.) My theory being that, like a painting by Pollock, it must be seen as a whole in order to be seen at all. As tho, out of the bushes, you stumble onto this lawn party by mistake, a total stranger. (As opposed to being at the lawn party.) Or something like that.’ (366)

Brainard consistently decides against any pretension to objectivity that might award him a claim to authoritative truth. The ideas he offers are always presented as the provisional inventions of a passing social moment, whether it be a late-night, horny confession to his reading audience or a group conversation about friends’ art at dinner. In the above passage, his “theory,” cleverly self-reflexive as it is, is given to us as a casual, passing thought, contextualized as chit-chat.

It is no accident that the topic of discussion is a painting of a party. A gathering of friends critiquing an image of a gathering of friends. Brainard’s notion of the “total stranger” presents a figure for critique in general: one must be outside, not immersed, in order to see a thing properly. Formally, his sentences perform an alternation between entering and leaving; the parentheses bracket off an outside space, the hedges around the lawn party.

This situation of detachment is, for Clement Greenberg, the general condition of any art made after the industrial revolution. 20th century avant-garde artists, European and American alike, were, for him, gladly exiled from the ubiquitous commercial currents that energized their respective nations. A belief in art compelled them to make work that could sidestep the profanity of market impulses by conjuring meanings that were not quantifiable.  In “The Present Prospects of American Painting and Sculpture” (1947) Greenberg draws a distinction between the way in which Europeans practiced this self-imposed separateness and how it was practiced in the U.S.  He argues that overseas, the impulse to exit oneself demonstrated a recognition and embrace of widespread disenchantment. National unease in the face of predatory commerce could be taken as indication of a persistent, non-commodifiable human spirit.  The job of Impressionist, Fauvist, and Cubist art was to express that generalized disenchantment. European Bohemia was a safe haven within which private, artistic investigation of one’s inborn material means of knowing the world could be undertaken amid the glossy artificiality of an otherwise commercialized urban landscape. Bohemian quarters offered a space for thinking akin to the preserves of one’s own consciousness. Creative self-examination was grounded in and cognizant of its political locale.

In America, art assumed more transcendental aims.  Failing to acknowledge their place within a widely shared experience of disenchantment, American artists neglected to carve out a stronghold in the here-and-now within which one’s own powers of creative resistance could be confidently explored. With Pollock as his exemplar, Greenberg both lauds the ability of American artists to maintain, by their soaring, transcendent impulses, a resistance to commercial “rationalization,” and condemns their failure to address social reality. While European interpretations of the material present—and one’s place in it—were structural, taking into consideration the real-life context and foundations of sensation,  American art treated the everyday from a metaphysical, “Gothic,” perspective.

The Gothic, for Greenberg, is a kind of tense, escapist metaphysics that opens up a world one can dwell in—a celestial cathedral, a vertically-oriented self-habitation as transcendence—that is always on the verge of buckling under the pressure of the ugly external conditions from which it offers sanctuary. It is an effort to cope, but the circumstances it resists bear down so forcefully that the self is left anxious, straining, resentful. Greenberg wished to operate, as critic, in a manner which upended the Gothic “sensibility confined.” His program of face-to-face intercourse with the material qualities of an artwork construed the world as an array of things from which one could select one object and then another, picking it up, examining it, and either having a taste for it or not.  There is no need to feverishly keep the world out when one is willing to undergo the discomfort of disliking some—or most—of its elements. The constitution that is hospitable to disappointment staves off resentment. This is the modus operandi that Greenberg prescribes the critic, and I think that he wished for American art to function similarly.  How could painting and sculpture that was stanchly resistant to commodified modes of signification still remain grounded within the reality of its commercialized urban habitat? How could abstract art—as “sensibility confined”—step down from its transcendent plane so as to assume a new breadth?

Brainard’s own pre-occupation with the question of breadth is apparent throughout his published writings. The following excerpt from his N.Y.C. Journals documents an admittedly failed attempt to extend his characteristic mode of writing-as-self-exposure such that it might encompass a larger world of textual meaning:

‘Sunday, May 21st, 1972

The radio is predicting a sunny and warm day tomorrow for Nixon’s visit to Moscow.

A Hungarian who says he is Jesus Christ took a hammer to the Pieta in Rome yesterday, knocking off an ear and an arm, and I forget what else.

Got up this morning at nine.

A great article in the Sunday News magazine section about how neurotic dogs have become, written by a dog psychiatrist.

Some sketches again today for Anne’s book.

It’s four o’clock now and at five Harris Schiff reads at “Remington’s.”

Guess I’ll go get cleaned up.

(You know, I’m trying to talk about something besides myself but, is this any improvement?)

Tomorrow morning I draw David Hockney!’ (372)

In this passage, Brainard confesses a tendency to self-absorbed writing. Indeed, his regular subject matter comprises libidinous fantasies, gossipy personal observations, insecurities about his appearance, pot-induced paranoiac reveries—all indulgent forays into the pleasures and displeasures of the his interior life.  But every indulgence is reported in the half-laughing tones of a voice that disavows its own pretension to gravity. Here, he limply pays his dues as a socially responsible writer, forgoing his trademark confessional meanderings for an account of world “news.” Where does he locate himself amid dog psychiatrists, the Pieta, President Nixon, and Harris Schiff at “Remington’s”? He has no place in any of it given that these lines, which have the ring of headlines from a newsreel, fail to deliver anything of the actual events he hopes to get at.  He can’t talk about anything besides himself because his poetics demands that a piece of writing draw its materials from this or that interaction with this or that friend. To write about somewhere else would be to use the language and emphases of someone else. Dwelling in Greenberg’s “lonely jungle of immediate sensations, impulses and notions” (“Prospects” 26) Brainard desperately but ineffectively struggles to find a thruway leading to distant people and events; a means of accessing the gravity of the global. His expressed failure cynically acknowledges the shallowness of all regular ways with which to talk about something besides oneself.

I’d like to offer Brainard as a counter-example to Greenberg’s Gothic. Not to indicate that he fulfills Greenberg’s call for an art practice that is “detached and whole as people are who are at home in the world of culture” (“Prospects” 30)—quite the contrary, as Brainard explicitly shows he is not at home in that world—but rather to suggest an implicit agreement between the two with regard to the value of critique. Brainard’s effort to stretch self-consciousness into something political—“trying to talk about something besides myself”—is in sync with Greenberg’s wish for a new breadth in American abstract art. Neither can say how to achieve the transition but both are invested in its possibility.

The Vermont Notebook is a 1975 collaboration between Brainard and his friend John Ashbery, with the former contributing drawings to the latter’s poetic text. I view Brainard’s participation in this project as a thoughtful investigation of his own potential for creating linkages. Together, the two artists conduct an exercise in co-thinking which takes the objects which constitute shared political space as its topic, thus contextualizing the mergings and resistances of the particular relationship between poet and draughtsman within a larger network of civic interactions.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Brainard’s visual text and Ashbery’s poetic one follow distinctly different conceptual paths. Ashbery’s initial line, “October, November, December,” commences the book—whose first 22 pages comprise lists of nouns, with each paragraph constituting a different word category—by setting a temporal stage which the forthcoming objects will inhabit. Time-space is the first given; a background which the subsequent list will begin to populate. Brainard’s corresponding image is a drawing of a solitary figure (fig.1), countering Ashbery’s temporal mise-en-scene with the more confined stage of one person’s head-space.  The lone body becomes the original scene within which Brainard’s visual meanings will operate, rather than one thing among others inhabiting a larger scene, as is the case in Ashbery’s writing with its distinctive bird’s eye view.

Brainard’s next drawing refuses his co-collaborator’s invocation of the polis, responding to “The climate, the cities, the houses, the streets, the stores, the lights, people” with a second lonely image, echoing the black and white design of its predecessor, this time of a rainy landscape.  As Ashbery’s text proceeds, it displays a marked process of accretion; lists become longer as they progressively include more items. On the following page:

‘Industrial parks, vacant lots, yards, enclosures, fields, arenas, slopes, siding, tarmac, blacktop, service roads, parking lots, drive-in deposits, libraries, roller rinks, drag racing, karting, plazas, reflection pools, evergreen hedges, war memorials, turn-arounds, supermarkets.’ (11)

Figure 2

Figure 2

The rural motif of Brainard’s accompanying drawing—a sketchy image of farm country with a few blotchy silhouettes of grazing cows and no people—contradicts the suburban scene implied in Ashbery’s writing. Unlike the atomizing vision exercised by the adjacent text, the picture offers a perspective that is still singular, undivided. Subject is held distant from object as the mind looking out—the gaze of the viewer or reader—stands as if at a window, stuck in a one-to-one polarity between inside and outside. It is a view that can’t encompass discrete objects; only a dim externality. When it comes to Ashbery’s long list of poets on page twenty-three—“Anne Waldman, Tom Veitch, Hilton Obenzinger, Jack Marshall, Kathleen Fraser, Sandra MacPherson…”—Brainard’s illustration (fig.2), which has the look of stenciling or clipart, figures an idea of interpersonal connectedness in such a crudely literal fashion, smacking of kitsch, that one is made to wonder whether the possibility for an authentic filiality amid his peers is something that Brainard, in his aestheticized loneliness, is at all willing to take seriously.

The cute surface of his illustrations here and of his writing in general—bordering on slumber-party drama—separates his textual persona from any comprehensible image of who he really is as much as it distinguishes his work from that of his intellectual milieu. While his surface-level simplicity renders him as an ingénue-type looking in on an urbane world, it also grants him the gift of seeing things that the elegant initiate may be too immersed to recognize. Often in his writing, this vision amounts to a perspective of perspectives, isolating from a given social landscape the way in which people are circumscribed as discrete speakers, and their various efforts to breach the limits of subjecthood.

From Bolinas Journal:

‘A lot of being inside your own head here. A lot of talk about it. And a lot of talk about inside other people’s heads too.

And a lot of talk about houses.’ (291)

The impermeable shell of the subject is concretized in the image of a house; we live in our heads like we live in houses.

I think that the trope of the cutely voiced effort to discover intimacy functions for Brainard as a way to both insist upon a very real wish—a poetic project which genuinely aims toward symphathetic engagement with other bodies—and scrutinize any means to realizing it that would condone a facile, sentimental approach to relationality (i.e. the kind of relationality depicted in his Hallmark-grade drawing of a happy circle of lovers). His work never regards the window through which one views the other as transparent, yet there’s still a steadfast attempt to look out of it.

The intention to finally leave the house one inhabits, knocking on other doors so as to learn what’s inside; the difficulty of abandoning the dreamy subject position in which one sits gazing at a fenced off and framed image of another person’s romanticized interior; the refusal to erect a lofty cathedral for the glorification of one’s own solitude; are all invoked in Brainard’s stylistic affinity for naïve self-exposure and sheepish address. His resistance of the soaring Gothic by way of a stylized commonness is in preparation for the political breadth toward which his work is aimed, thus aligning him with Greenberg’s wishes.  The common remains an unattained ideal for both and yet Brainard’s plaintive confessions and Greenberg’s commitment to sensorial intimacy with the art-object, genuinely attempt—in two vastly different ways—an experimental relationality opposite the transcendent subjectivity that is prevalent, as per Greenberg, in post-war American art. In doing so, they also work to extricate themselves from the mire of profit-driven ideologies aimed to inform cultural means of expression on a massive scale.  I make a distinction here between “common” and “popular,” with the former indicating the potential for a broadly pluralist approach to personal, material reality and the latter denoting broadly imposed categories of taste.

The concept of loneliness, as a condition of experience and a decisive trope, informs the writerly personalities of both Brainard and Greenberg.  The lonely writer is adamantly separate from the popular, and thus is in a situation to critique it. The predisposition to criticism is what draws the distinction between this role and that of the transcendent painter-rogue; it is the difference between engaging with the scene one rejects and absolute escape from it. Clement Greenberg said in a 1981 interview with T.J. Clark: “you couldn’t dissolve your own anxieties, your own aspirations, in larger ones. It’s your own art. Your own writing” (Vimeo.com). Greenberg’s project as a critic is fundamentally an antidote to conformism. For him, to make good art was to have a hearty enough constitution such that one’s deepest, intuitive passions could ward off the compulsion to participate in those anxieties and aspirations attributable to larger social forces, to a zeitgeist. Disenchantment was always a lonely condition, one that couldn’t be shared. I think that under his formulation, making art and critiquing it are equally about desire (Greenberg calls it “taste”): the ability to insist upon the particular qualities of one’s own, non-analyzable, non-commodifiable desire via a painting or sculpture, and the willingness to describe it in connection with this or that art-object in a work of criticism.

Greenberg’s work as a formalist thinker promotes a manner of being in the world—criticism as a way of life. In “States of Criticism” (1981) he argues that evaluative criticism is not only necessary for the survival of art as such, but for the survival of the possibility for inner experience, which is endangered by ideology’s power to condition personal taste. To think critically is to maintain a reserve of the irrational in oneself and in art: “ it must, if it’s to be criticism, include evaluation, and evaluation in the first place—for the sake of art, for the sake of everything art is that isn’t information or exhortation, for the sake of what’s in art’s gift alone” (87). Evaluation—an interaction based upon a feeling of liking or not liking—is the kind of relation to an object that art requires, if art is to remain art. The unanalyzable in art—what “isn’t information or exhortation”—invokes a response of liking or not liking. This is a primal response, native to the animal in the human and. Paradoxically, it seems one cannot practice critique without  having practiced critique: that critical capacity by which one says no to popular preferences, is required in order to have the scrutiny necessary for the discovery of one’s basic intuitional likes and dislikes. How to cultivate an aversive faculty in the face of an overriding commercial pressure to like things? How to not simply treat all objects from a neutral position which regards all material as information? This neutrality leaves one susceptible to ideologies which simply vaporize all matter which doesn’t help to forward their various programs.

The difference between the anxieties and aspirations that are one’s own and those attributable to larger social forces—to a zeitgeist—is a question of critique. The critic aims to participate at the periphery of larger cultural drives in order to better articulate personal ones. In addressing the pressures to conform which faced New York School artists, Greenberg acknowledges their formidable powers of resistance.

Figure 3

Figure 3

What Joe Brainard does, a generation behind Greenberg’s overriding formalist influence, is transform resistance into willful irrelevance. In his writing, Brainard’s unique form of critique is grounded in a claim to social inconsequence—a cute humility.  Sianne Ngai’s book, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (2013), discusses the significance of “cuteness” for twentieth-century poetry, which, she argues, has produced an abundance of “short, compact texts preoccupied with small, easy-to-handle things” (2). Brainard’s tone as a writer, and his subject matter and style as a draughtsman, win him a place within Ngai’s aesthetic category of “the cute.” His drawings in The Vermont Notebook include a number of adorable items such as daisies, teacups, butterflies, and fuzzy animal faces. Elsewhere in his visual work, cuteness prevails (fig.3). In an interview with Tim Dlugos (1977), Brainard discusses the difficulty that came with assimilating himself to the New York painters and poets scene. He characterizes his efforts to find an “in”:

TD: It takes you a long time. (both laugh)

JB: I’m better now than I used to be. (both laugh) I always find it hard to believe—this is going to sound ridiculous—I always find it hard to believe anyone…I mean I didn’t know I had any charm at all.

TD: Do you now?

JB: I know I have some. I don’t think I have a lot. My confidence wavers quite a bit; I can go higher than I should, and I can really sink. I’ve learned it’s a lot of faking, anyway. (495)

The diminutive role he regularly assumes, that of the fragile outsider looking in, is indicated repeatedly in “I Remember”:

‘I remember how much I used to stutter.

I remember how much, in high school, I wanted to be handsome and popular.’ (6)

Sianne Ngai derives from Hannah Arendt a notion of the cute that is linked to the distinction between important cultural objects and irrelevant ones. For Arendt, the affinity for cuteness arises from a widespread wish to make private objects public in response to the privatization of cultural capital and resultant disappearance of a genuine public culture. Small domestic matters—the engagement with which would require an intimate proximity—become popularly loved out of an empathy for what is cast aside by cultural materials deemed more important—that which belongs to the governmental realm, the scientific, the academic.

Figure 4

Figure 4

Brainard’s refusal of these latter categories is evident throughout his writing (recall the helpless attempts to extend his charmingly anecdotal writing to an investigation of global issues) and in his visual work. On page 85 of Vermont Notebook he places a chirpy comic book image (fig.4) of a tropical island alongside Ashbery’s loosely scientific account of the Marco Applied Marine Ecology Station and its experiments with fish spawning:

‘Since biologists know the value of the mangrove islands to spawning fish such as snook and tarpon, the Station is now experimenting with the establishment of artificial islands.’ (85)

The sort of artificiality that Ashbery alludes to here—a feat of engineering that replicates a naturally occurring land form—Brainard re-interprets as cue for an artificially cartoonish mode of drawing. It’s a rather dippy joke: here’s my fake island—funny, isn’t it? Brainard lives exiled on this doodled island, faced with the high pretensions of the avant-garde, whose thoughtfully engineered language and serious aesthetic convictions he forgoes in favor of insouciant quips and jaunty anecdotes.

In choosing to affiliate aesthetically with the cute, and moreover, in characterizing himself as a hopelessly irrelevant figure within his milieu, Brainard assumes a stance that is separate from the “important” people in his social universe—Frank O’Hara and his honorable affiliation with MoMA; the Creeleys in their reputable straight marriage and firmly institutional domestic foundations, their “house”—and this grants him, to borrow a phrase from Ngai, an “unusually intense and yet strangely ambivalent kind of empathy” (4).

In Brainard I find a subtle critique of the particular brand of passionately committed personality that was prevalent amid avant-garde practitioners and, more generally, amid the post-war, socially conscious, urban public.  In the practice of personally subscribing to a set of causes and idealistically aligning oneself—as a matter of belief—with issues of international human rights, Brainard finds a problem of sincerity. He recounts in Bolinas Journals:

‘Last night in the bar a girl Bill and I were talking to especially stands out in my head. A “hippie” type. (Sorry, but that’s what words are for.) Very sincere in what she believed in. But what she believed in was totally fucked up. But like I said, very sincere about it all.

It always bothers me, this combination. Of sincere and wrong. It doesn’t seem fair. Sincere should always be right.’ (290).

In pointing out this woman’s sincerity, Brainard hints at a way of being that he sees as problematic, i.e. the concentration of one’s ideological enthusiasm toward a very specific social aim; emotive intensity coupled with a certainty of purpose. He would prefer to orient his own feelings toward nothing in particular, or toward a haphazard assortment of things: a new neighbor, a lascivious man on a packed subway car, debris washed up on the beach or a pesky recurring dermatological rash.  The casually inclusive nature of his emotional life is re-iterated in the content of his drawings and collages; his is a poetics of bits and pieces.

What happens to the emotive overflow that has no particular receptacle? What happens to the extroversive energy—the towardness—that never latches onto any one thing? It is an emotional orientation resigned to a permanent state of trying. In Bolinas Journals Brainard characterizes Robert Creeley as “So much alive (“in” and digging) and really trying”—and then “Trying is great” (292). The act of trying is aligned here with a state of being “in.”  This is the kind of in-ness that Brainard the queer-wallflower-stuttering-provincial, the self-proclaimed all-around irrelevant guy, can claim for himself. He is most in when he is among things, casually surveying his object environment, picking up this thing here or that thing there, relating to it in a loosely attached and merely physical—even thoughtless—manner. And therein lies his “unusually intense yet strangely ambivalent kind of empathy”; intense because it is staunchly present rather than idealistic, and ambivalent because it is given to one object as much as it is given to the next. Though he is undoubtedly choosing against certain materials in composing a piece of writing or visual art, it is not particular attachments that energize his work but rather the mere interest in finding himself in a world of materials.  His is a commitment to adjacency.  In the following passage he describes his creative practice:

‘I’ve been working on a series of small collages with stuff from the beach…

It’s fun. And relaxing. As the materials used dominate the work. (The results.) I mean—what I choose to pick up off the beach is where I am “in” the works most. Otherwise they just more or less fit themselves together. Like a puzzle.’ (314)

The time of interacting with things, of sifting through them, is the stage in his process that constitutes the essence of the resulting artwork.

As a critic, Brainard is cursory and noncommittal. His judgments are always given with a parenthetical “whatever” or a “something like that.” His propensity to browsing is very different from the deeply concentrated attention Greenberg pays to the objects of his own address, which he claims or disclaims with great conviction. But, their respective modes of connecting with the material world share a common trait of firm resistance to abstract discourse. Greenberg’s program of critique advises one to like or dislike an object—to choose it with conviction and an intensely singular focus—but not to explain it, not to give account of why it’s there and what it’s for.  To account for a thing is what commerce does. Greenberg condemns the theoretical devices of his contemporaries:

‘Art will get explained, analyzed, interpreted, historically situated, sociologically or politically accounted for, but the responses that bring art into experience as art, and not something else—these will go unmentioned.’ (87)

The aesthetic mind ought to be left to its own, unique, intuitive devices. Brainard’s aesthetic acumen, though more promiscuous than Greenberg’s, also circumvents the demand for explanation.  In his case, the shirking of discourse is achieved via a personal and personable, chatty intimacy with the object at hand. He puts himself near the thing, plays with it a little bit, tests its limits, and thereby recognizes the way in which it implicates him as a person, how it invokes his present living.



Ashbery, John and Joe Brainard. The Vermont Notebook. Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1975. Print.

Brainard, Joe. The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard. Ed. Ron Padgett. New York: Library of America, 2012. Print.

Clark, T.J. and Clement Greenberg interview. “Uncle Clem.” Online video clip. Vimeo. Vimeo,1981. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.

Greenberg, Clement. Clement Greenberg: Late Writings. Ed. Robert C. Morgan. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007. Print.

Greenberg, Clement. The Collected Essays and Criticism, Volume 2: Arrogant Purpose, 1945-1949. Ed. John O’Brian. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986. Print.

Ngai, Sianne. Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013. Print.


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