Words of Caution

Clement Greenberg:

One cannot condemn tendencies in art; one can only condemn works of art. To be categorically against a current art tendency or style means, in effect, to pronounce on works of art not yet created and not yet seen. It means inquiring into the motives of artists instead of into results. Yet we all know — or are supposed to know — that results are all that count in art.

These words should give pause to anyone contemplating engaging in Style Wars criticism. (h/t to Leonard Pierce)


  1. Anonymous12:27 PM

    Might this also apply to broad brush criticism of individual living composers as well?

  2. OK, I can see the broader point, but criticism of style is no vice if it is honest. Seriously, I'm of the "something good comes of everything" school of thought, but many stylistic avenues of the twentieth century (And indeed, every century preceeding) were nearly dead ends with very little reverabitive consequences (Other than within rarified academic circles, which are... rarified academic circles, and have almost nothing to do with reality).

    I'm still waiting for an audence member of mine to request that I play a twentieth century atonal work.

    I'm not a fool, so I'm not holding my breath.

  3. Thanks for the comments.

    I do think it can apply to individual composer (living or otherwise). The danger is the same: missing out on something. But if you've heard everything by a given composer and still can get anything out of the music, have at it.

    It's important to remember that Greenberg was a critic, and that he saw it as a professional responsibility to be open to seeing something even in styles that he didn't care for.

    If a style is past, and one can't see anything good having come out of it, then have at it. Though I can't think of any style that hasn't produced a single worthy art work.

    "Atonality" and "tonality" aren't styles; they're ways of organizing materials, so that's an even broader brush stroke.

    And every artist has to decide for him- or herself what their relationship to the audience should be.

  4. Anonymous10:15 AM

    "Atonality" and "tonality" aren't styles; they're ways of organizing materials, so that's an even broader brush stroke.

    Excellent, and important, point, Steve!