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The Decorative, Abstraction, and the Hierarchy of Art and Craft in the Art Criticism of

Clement Greenberg
Author(s): Elissa Auther
Source: Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 27, No. 3 (2004), pp. 341-364
Published by: Oxford University Press
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The Decorative, Abstraction, and the of
Art and Craft in the Art Criticism of Clement

Elissa Auther

Idon't want [the decorative] to be used in any interview of mine, connected with my work. To
me that word, or the way Iuse or feel about it, is the only art sin.
1. On Karl Scheffler's criticism see Jenny Eva Hesse, Artforum, 1970

Anger, 'Forgotten Ties: The Suppression of the

Decorative in German Art and Theory, 1900? you have to avoid ... the decorative . . .
[W]hen you work in the school of abstraction,
1915', in Christopher Reed (ed.), Not at Home: Louise Bourgeois, Art International, 1979
The Suppression of Domesticity inModern Art and
Architecture (Thames and Hudson: London,
Art-historical research the of the decorative has
1995), pp. 130-46. About Loos' notorious regarding concept focused,
'Ornament and Crime' (1908) see Miriam on the of artists and turn of the
critics active at the
understandably, writings
Gusevich, 'Decoration and Decorum, Adolf a
and the of the twentieth in which the
Loos's Critique of Kitsch', New German Critique, century opening years century, period
no. 43, Winter to the Modernist aesthetic from 'mere decoration' was
1988, pp. 97-123. See also struggle distinguish
Naomi Schor's chapter on Loos in her book acute. Between 1897 and 1908 the decorative was transformed from that of a
Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine feature of the Modernist aesthetic to its antithesis the
(Methuen: New York, 1987). positive through
demonisation of mass culture, ornament, and in the of
2. Nancy J. Troy, 'Abstraction, Decoration, femininity writing
and Collage,' ArtsMagazine, vol. 54, no. 10, critics such as Karl Scheffler and Adolf Loos. The effort to divorce art from
June 1980, p. 154. See also, Nancy J. Troy, decoration was
especially pronounced
in the case of
at the dawn of
'Domesticity, Decoration and Consumer abstraction in the twentieth The anti-decorative of
Culture: Selling Art and Design in Pre-World early century. position
War I France', in Reed, Not at Home, Albert Gleizes and Jean evident in their co-authored text,
painters Metzinger
pp. 113-29. On Cubism as well as the Neo-Plastic of Piet Mondrian was
(1912), theory
3. See Naomi Schor, Reading in Detail: Aesthetics central to the 'reinstatement of the of easel in a of
primacy painting' period
and the Feminine (Methuen: New York, 1987) to its and status from the field of
increasing challenges autonomy coming
and Mark Cheetham, The Rhetoric of Purity:
decorative and arts. In related on the of the
Essentialist Theory and the Advent of Abstract applied scholarship category
'detail' in Western aesthetics and the notion of in abstract
Painting (Cambridge University Press: purity early
scholars have helped to roots
Cambridge, 1991).
painting, clarify the historical and philosophical
4. On the subject see Norma Broude, 'Miriam of the decorative's association with and its under
femininity suppression
on the
Schapiro and "Femmage": Reflections Modernism in the twentieth
Conflict between Decoration and Abstraction in early century.3
Far less attention has been to the of the decorative in
Twentieth-Century Art' (1980), reprinted in scholarly paid category
Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard (eds), Modernism of the War Two This is curious the
post-World period. given
Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany
term's in art discourse late into the twentieth as the
currency century,
(Harper and Row: New York, 1982), pp. 314
29. Also see chapter two, 'CraftyWomen and to this essay attest. in art histories of the
epigraphs Although largely ignored
the Hierarchy of Art', in Rozika Parker and the of the decorative a renewed in art
period, category enjoyed visibility
Griselda Pollock, Old Mistresses: Women, Art and
critical discourse in the mid to late twentieth as relevant to the
century equally
Ideology (Pantheon Books: New York, 1981).
of the Modernist aesthetic as that attributed to its use in earlier
5. To my knowledge, only Donald Kuspit's conception
the renaissance in the use of the term was Clement
study of Greenberg's criticism, in which periods. Leading
chapter is devoted to the conception of the Greenberg,
repeatedly employed
of the decorative in his art
decorative, precedes my own study. See Donald criticism to advocate for an 'advanced' Cubist-derived abstraction. In such
Kuspit, Clement Greenberg:Art Critic (University as a critical device
work, used the decorative to
of Wisconsin Press: Madison, 1979). Kuspit's Greenberg distinguish 'high'
was invaluable as a as a form of attractiveness
analysis starting place for my abstract
from 'decoration' defined surface
own use of the
investigation of Greenberg's as art. One aim of the which examines
decorative. masquerading present essay, closely
extensive use of the decorative in his criticism between 1940 and
1967, is to redress this imbalance in art historical
The aim of this is to demonstrate how the decorative functioned
larger essay
in its ostensible role as a critical tool for
Greenberg's writing beyond making
distinctions between works of art. I contend that the rhetorical

Oxford Art Journal 27.3 ? Oxford University Press 2004; all

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Elissa Auther

of the of abstraction to decoration in his work derives from

power opposition
the of art to craft. To be sure, of a
opposition Greenberg's conception pure
and autonomous Modernist abstraction was in the decorative. 6. Clement Greenberg, 'Avant-Garde and
deeply grounded
But his of in achievedwas an obsessive Kitsch'(1939), in Perceptions and Judgements,
pursuit purity painting through
1939-1944, vol. 1 of John O'Brian (ed.), The
of the decorative that also functioned to maintain the of
suppression hierarchy Collected Essays and Criticism, 4 vols. (University
art and craft with for artistic in the of Chicago Press: 5?22.
significant consequences practice post-1945 Chicago, 1986), pp.
era. As I to demonstrate, while the decorative as a
hope Greenberg presented 7. 'Review of Exhibitions of Joan
of aesthetic value in art, it also formed the basis for Mir?, Fernand L?ger, andWassily Kandinsky'
theory categorical
distinctions between distinctions anterior to value in art. What follows (1941), in Perceptions and Judgements, p. 65.
is an of use of the decorative that demonstrates its 8. For an excellent analysis of Monet's varying
analysis Greenberg's
to the decorative, which mirrors the
function within a narrative of modern art that to link abstract relationship
purifying sought critical rise and fall of the category, see Steven
to the Western tradition the covert and Z. Le vine,'D?cor /Decorative /Decoration in
painting 'high' through reproduction
maintenance of the of art and craft. Claude Monet's Art,' Arts Magazine, vol. 51, no.
6, February 1977, pp. 136-9.
9. As quoted in Gill Perry, 'Primitivism and
The 'Modern', Part I: Going Away', in Charles
Greenberg and Aesthetic Hierarchy
Harrison, Francis Frascina, and Gill Perry (eds),
With the publication of 'Avant-Garde and Kitsch' in 1939, Greenberg Primitivism, Cubism, Abstraction: The Early Twentieth
established himself as an art critic intent distinctions between Century (Yale University Press in association with
upon making New Haven and London,
Open University:
and 'mass' culture and this with aesthetic
'superior' preoccupation hierarchy 1993), p. 61.
manifested itself in different ways throughout his critical uvre. Like others
of his intellectual circle, in this early essay, Greenberg exhibited a frank disgust
for American middle-class taste, which he as
perceived rapidly appropriating
'authentic' culture for mass For him, the as
consumption. avant-garde figured
one of the few forces in the modern
remaining oppositional society, obligating
artist in a relentless battle to cultural achievement from the
protect genuine
ever threat of commodification.
concern with aesthetic remained an
Greenberg's hierarchy important
feature of his after 'Avant-Garde and Kitsch', but the terms
organising writing
in which he articulated the the 'low' over time and he
'high' and changed
would never imbue the with the same social The
again avant-garde efficacy.
of the 'decorative', introduced to his readers in 1941, constitutes one
site in his criticism where distinctions between the and the
important 'high'
'low' in art continued to be constructed.7
use of the decorative reflects the term's in
Greenberg's ambiguous meaning
the of art. Since the late nineteenth when it entered art critical
history century
discourse the decorative has characterised a mode of that,
according painting
to one view, had the to restoreas an art of the
potential genre's significance
or, a mode of the divide
profound insight alternately, painting blurring
between art and or commerce with an attendant loss of artistic
design identity
and For instance, in the 1880s, Monet's work was acclaimed
meaning. by
some critics for its 'decorative effect', the work as modern in its
of the surface. At the same time the term could be used
organisation pictorial
as it was in 1888 the painter Camille Pissarro to describe an
pejoratively, by
exhibition of Monet as 'skillful decorations'. In the latter case the
remark attributed to Monet's work an aesthetic as
superficiality accepted
to interior ornamentation.
both connotations of the term. For
Greenberg masterfully exploited
instance, he the decorative as a to describe he
employed pejorative painting
as a form of ornamentation rather than art, and in that
perceived superficial
sense the connection between his use of the decorative and the terms

'decoration' or the 'decorative arts' constituted its critical Of

negative power.
late work, wrote, 'There is still that same effect of
L?ger's Greenberg
reconciled flatness and which was one of the most of
solidity pleasing qualities

342 OXFORD ART JOURNAL 27.3 2004

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The Decorative, Abstraction, and the of Art and Craft in the Art Criticism of Clement
Hierarchy Greenberg

earlier but this has become too facile and too decorative. . . .
L?ger's work,
When the abstract artist tired, he becomes an interior decorator'.
There also exist similarities between kitsch and a use of the
10. Clement Greenberg, 'Review of Exhibitions key pejorative
of Joan Mir?, Fernand L?ger, andWassily decorative in criticism, that the of the
Greenberg's suggesting power
in Perceptions and Judgements,
Kandinsky' (1941), to in art is
p. 64.
decorative signify the 'low' partly fuelled by the opposition
between and false culture formulated in 'Avant-Garde and
11. Greenberg, 'Milton A very' (1957), in genuine previously
Kitsch'. the 'decorative', like kitsch, referenced art forms that
Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957?1969, vol. 4 Significantly,
of The Collected Essays and Criticism, p. 43. The a threat to culture: 'Decoration is the that haunts modernist
posed high specter
complete sentence reads: 'Decoration is the warned in 1957. Likewise, he characterised
painting', Greenberg
specter that haunts modernist painting, and part as derivative a falsification true
decorativeness of Modernist innovation, of
of the latter's formal mission is to find ways of
sentence artistic and notion of modern art
using the decorative against itself.' The feeling original
Hartley's '[Marsden]
echoes Marx and Engels' well-known utterance was that of he wrote.12
from the CommunistMan ifesto: 'A spectre is stylization',
? the used the decorative to describe the or
haunting Europe spectre of communism.' Conversely, Greenberg 'honesty'
'dramatic interest' of the Modernist all-over This of
12. Greenberg, 'Review of Two Exhibitions of picture. quality
Marsden Hartley' (1944), in Perceptions and abstraction was achieved the decorative, or in his words
by transcending by
Judgements, p. 246. 'using
the decorative
described this

13. Greenberg, 'Milton Avery', p. 43. relation to Paul Klee's work in 1941:

14. Greenberg, 'Art Chronicle: On Paul Klee

Klee produced some of his best work when he most consciously and deliberately incurred the
(1870-1940)' (1941), in Perceptions and
an extended dangers of decoration; as in the picture Pastoral, which is composed only of horizontal bands of
Judgements, p. 68. For analysis of
the concept of the dialectical transcendence of uniformly spaced linear motifs repeated symmetrically from left to right. Nevertheless it is a very
the decorative in Greenberg's writing see successful easel-painting and has little of the static quality of decoration.14
Donald Kuspit, Clement Greenberg:Art Critic
(University of Wisconsin Press: Madison, 1974). In Klee masters the decorative his
Greenberg's view, despite dangerous
15. Greenberg, 'Art Chronicle: On Paul Klee flirtation with the static uniformity of ornament by the 'the problem
(1870-1940)' (1941), in Perceptions and versus
of decoration Matisse achieved
Judgements, p. 69. easel-painting'.15 Similarly 'unprece
dented success' decoration to the of the easel
in by 'assimilating] purposes
16. Greenberg, 'Feeling is All' (1952),
without at the same time the of the latter'. Like
Affirmations and Refusals, 1950-1956, vol. 3 of picture weakening integrity
The Collected Essays and Criticism, p. 100. Matisse mined the tension between 'decoration and non
Klee, profitably
17. Greenberg, and his motifs for the sake of a
'Milton Avery', p. 43. decorative means', by 'flattening generalizing
18. Greenberg, is more . . . effect'.
'Feeling All', p. 101. About abstract, "purer",
rescue of Matisse's work from the
see Norma Broude,
stigma of decoration Greenberg and the Status of Craft
'Miriam Schapiro and 'Femmage': Reflections
on the Conflict Between Decoration and To be sure, in neither 'Avant-Garde and Kitsch' nor his art
Abstraction in Twentieth-Century Art' (1980), criticism did
Greenberg directly address the status of 'craft' or the 'applied
reprinted in Broude and Garrard (eds), Feminism encounter art
and Art History, pp. 3H?29. As Greenberg's arts'. The of his with the
picture Greenberg provides regular
response to L?ger's late work demonstrates, to exhibited inNew York at the time he was in combination with the
city writing
be labelled decorative in his writings did not a sustained as tacit
absence of of craft therein could be
critique interpreted
mean, of course, one actually practised craft, or
of the low status in the of the arts.
the decorative or applied arts. Rather, it derided approval category's traditionally hierarchy
one's painting or sculpture as minor, derivative, One could conclude that craft was beside the for the critical
simply point
or too close to function. A
superficial, shallow, about art and culture. However, his review of The
decorative work was something less than art; for questions Greenberg posed
Museum of Modern Art's exhibition of 1944, Art in
instance, something ornamental and therefore fifteenth-anniversary
inessential or meaningless, or alternately otherwise. In the not revealed his
Progress, suggests piece Greenberg only
use ?
something of potential 'pleasant curtain awareness of the of craft within the art world, but also
material' as E. H. Gombrich put it. Jenny growing visibility

Anger has cogently addressed the

curious expressed his disapproval of its artistic pretensions.19 While he generally found
in source it as
flexibility of the meaning of the decorative in Art 'another of and 'the modern
Progress pleasure', recognised
to its position as art's opposite in
regards early movement as it is embodied in the more visual arts and crafts', his sole
twentieth-century aesthetic discourse. She states,
remark the of the exhibition devoted to the latter
'The imprecision and mobility of the term regarding segment registers
"decorative" ? signifying at once an exterior his of the field: 'If the remainder of the exhibition is no better
general dismissal
embellishment and an interior, linear structure, it is, it
than be because modern architecture, industrial and their
a useless a - allow may design,
arabesque and useful curtain are no better
... for its allied fields than are.'
repetitive usurpation and the denial they
thereof by "pure" modernism'. See also Anger, At MOMA in 1944 these 'allied fields' were the applied arts and crafts, and
'Forgotten Ties: The Suppression of the in the museum were subsumed under the of Industrial
they Department

Design directed by Edgar J. Kaufmann Jr, and after 1948 under a combined

OXFORD ART JOURNAL 27.3 2004 343

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Elissa Auther

Department of Architecture and Industrial Design directed by Philip Johnson.

handmade in traditional craft media were collected under both
Unique, objects
Kaufmann's and direction in these under the Decorative in German Art and Theory, 1900?
Johnson's departments category
of In addition, between 1950 and 1954 Kaufmann directed the Good 1915', in Reed (ed.), Not at Home, p. 132.
a between art and that also featured 19. Greenberg, 'A New Installation at the
Design programme, partnership industry
of skilled The Good was a Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a Review
examples craftsmanship. Design programme of the Exhibition Art in Progress1 (1944), in
collaborative venture of the museum and The Merchandise Mart of
Chicago, Perceptions and Judgements, pp. 212?13.
the wholesaler in the US at the time and consisted of semiannual
largest 20. 'ANew Installation',
exhibitions of home and of innovative The
furnishings appliances design.22 pp. 212-13.
main exhibits, held at the Mart in Chicago, were followed a survey
by 21.
'ANew Installation', p. 213.
exhibition at at MOMA. While
year's end these exhibitions generally 22. On the history of the MOMA's Department
the utilitarian, of Design see Terence Riley and Edward
emphasised mass-produced, professionally-designed object, Eigen,
also featured of handmade, one-of-a-kind the 'Between the Museum and the Marketplace:
they examples objects straddling
Selling Good The Museum of Modern Art
various borders between and Mildred Assistant Design',
art, craft, design. Constantine, at
Mid-Century. Studies inModern Art, no. 4 (The
Curator of Architecture and Industrial at the time of the Good Museum of Modern Art: New York, 1994). See
Design Design
has noted that the exhibitions often featured hand also Mary Anne Staniszewski, The Power of
programme, weaves,
the work of Sue Fuller and Lenore others.23 The co Display: A History of Exhibition Installation at the
including Tawney, among Museum ofModern Art (MIT Press:
of works of art, and craft was of or decorative
mingling design, typical design MA, 1998).
arts expositions in the US in the late 1930s. The artist Ed Rossbach's 23. Mildred Constantine and Jack Lenor
recollection of the decorative arts
pavilion of the 1939 Golden Gate Larsen, Beyond Craft: The Art Fabric (Van
Nostrand Reinhold Company: New York,
International Exposition provides a helpful description of such exhibitions and
1972), p. 38.
their He recalled that:
24. Ed Rossbach, 'The Glitter and Glamour of
no. 6,
The main part of this exhibition consisted of 15 full-sized rooms designed by prominent Dorothy Liebes', American Craft, vol. 42,
December 1982/January 1983, p. 9. The
architects, decorators and designers, containing the new furniture, textiles and other objects, as decorative arts pavilion was curated by the west
well as sculpture by Brancusi, Calder, Gabo, Moholy-Nagy, Giacometti, and Moore. The rooms coast weaver
Dorothy Liebes. About the
were stage sets that invited viewers to imagine themselves living beautiful modern lives. Ina see Decorative Arts:
pavilion Official Catalog,
way, the displays were a variation on The Museum of Modern Art's crusade for good design, Department of Fine Arts, Division of Decorative Arts,
Golden Gate International Exposition, San Francisco,
showing the public what was "good" and how to livewith beautiful objects.24
1939 (Schwabacher-Frey Company: San
Francisco, 1939). The catalogue offers an
The mission of the public with amodel of in the hope of excellent overview of what constituted the
providing good design
the of modern art was also the architect applied arts and crafts in the 1930s and 40s.
encouraging appreciation pursued by The exhibition included a huge range of media
and MOMA director Ren? d'Harnoncourt, who
designer Serge Chermayeff including: enamels, ceramics, glass, jewellery,
co-authored the to the section of the for Art in lace, modern metals, wall papers, and textiles.
prefatory essay catalogue Progress
to or are in use Bookbinding, architecture, and 'sculpture in
design applied art. 'The quality of objects that daily by were also featured. Herbert Fleishhaker,
wrote 'cannot fail to affect the taste and visual of setting'
everyone,' they imagination Chairman of the Fine Arts Committee for the
as a whole. article that derives form from
society Every good efficiency helps exposition, described the objects exhibited as
to make the of art an intrinsic
of Elsewhere originating from and executed by 'artist
enjoyment living.'25
craftsmen', a characterisation that accurately
d'Harnoncourt stated, 'Of 100 who come to the Museum we
every persons describes the indeterminate status of unique but
estimate that no more than 10 a abstraction Piet functional objects.
actually accept geometric by
Mondrian as valid art . . . but when of a
principles good design permeate 25. Serge Chermayeff and Rene d'Harnoncourt,
Art in Progress (The Museum of
home, the
tend to be more tolerant, more
to new ideas in 'Design for Use',
, ? 26 Modern Art: New York, 1944), p. 191.
art .
Interestingly, the growing field of 'craft',
saw MOMA's Good as more than an not
Greenberg Design programme nothing although explicitly represented in the
exercise in taste that was at odds with his vision of culture. MOMA exhibition, was still acknowledged by
good radically high
This is evident from his 1967 essay 'Recentness of Sculpture' commissioned Chermayeff and d'Harnoncourt in their
catalogue essay for the Department of Industrial
for the Los Museum of Art's American in Progress. In the
Angeles County exhibition, Sculpture of Design's installation for Art
the Sixties, in which the Good Design programme explicitly figured. Here, his main
body of the text
they recognised 'specific
values in the direct contacts between man and
reference to the was used to illustrate minimalism's 'far out[ness]
programme material that call for a re-evaluation of
as end in a condition he found to be akin to the of
itself, production craftsmanship in light of the demands of the
'handsome' but 'non-art' The 'conventional modern world', announcing in a footnote the
ultimately objects. sensibility'
... establishment of a Department of Manual
attributed to minimal art, 'turns out to be in safe taste I
Greenberg good
Industry at MOMA devoted to 'the study and
find back in the realm of Good he asserted.27 The modern, stimulation of craftsmanship'. See Chermayeff
myself Design,'
and d'Harnoncourt,
object, which, despite
its claims to the
contrary by way
of a new 'Design for Use', p. 191.

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The Decorative, Abstraction, and the Hierarchy of Art and Craft in the Art Criticism of Clement

formal in remained a utilitarian also failed to meet its

rigour design, product,
'idea'. For this was evidence of an artist's lack of true artistic
26. As quoted by Riley and Eigen, 'Between and and his or her failure to the
inspiration conception, explained uphold
the Museum and the Marketplace: Good boundaries between art and mere a failure he described as 'the
Selling things,
Design', p. 155. infiltration of Good Design into what purports to be advanced and
27. Greenberg, 'Recentness of Sculpture' art . . . \28 comment a continued
The belies with the
highbrow preoccupation
(1967), inModernism with a Vengeance, p. 254.
of art's from the of the commercial or
preservation autonomy degradations
28. Greenberg, 'Recentness of Sculpture',
p. 254. everyday world that, as I hope to demonstrate, had informed much of his
earlier criticism where the maintenance of the of art and craft was
29. On the subject see Janet Kardon (ed.), hierarchy
more at stake. On the basis of comment about
Craft in theMachine Age: theHistory of Twentieth directly Greenberg's cursory
Century American Craft, 1920-1945 (The Art in
and his later reference to the Good
Design programme,
it is fair
American Craft Museum: New York, 1995).
to conclude that he was well aware of this of functional, or
See also Marcia Yockey Manhart, a type decorative,
New Educational Vision', in Kardon (ed.) Craft craft but its claim to status with art.
object repudiated equal
in theMachine Age, p. 62. attack on also underscores his resistance to the
Greenberg's 'good design'
idea of an art
easy embrace
30. Howard Singerman, Art Subjects:Making of modern facilitated d?cor and the idea
Artists in the American University (University of that art and life could be reconciled. It is that his to
plausible negative response
California Press: Berkeley, 1999).
craft, one of the 'allied fields' of industrial design he referenced in his review
31. S. David Deitcher,
'Teaching the Late of MOMA's Art in have been an to the Bauhaus
Modern Artist: From Mnemonics to the Progress, may implicit response
ideals that were American art institutions in the 1940s. A
Technology of Gestalt', PhD dissertation (City infiltrating great
University of New York, 1989), p. 303. As number of artist
to the US from the Bauhaus were master
quoted by Singerman, Art Subjects, p. 70. craftsmakers. Scholars of art education and American studio craft that
32. 'Modernist Painting' in the impact of their work, artistic
sensibility, and pedagogical method in US art
Modernism with a Vengeance, p. 85.
schools in the late 1930s and 40s can be overstated.29 Howard
33. 'Review of Exhibitions of
Greenberg, research on the effort to rethink the visual arts as a scientific or
Jackson Pollock, and Josef Singerman's
Adolph Gottlieb,
in Arrogant Purpose, 1945-1949, intellectual akin to research in US art schools at this time
Albers'(1949), project laboratory
vol. 2 of The Collected Essays and Criticism, p. 286. that could have been to the introduction of new
suggests Greenberg reacting
34. Kuspit, Clement Greenberg:Art Critic ideas about the role and status of art and the artist the Bauhaus
promoted by
(University of Wisconsin Press: Madison, 1979),
Likewise, David Deitcher has that this new vision for the
emigres.30 postulated
p. 70.
arts included artists with the skills of
35. Albert Gleizes and Jean '[training] designers, while educating
Metzinger, On to conceive of their in terms hitherto reserved for the
Cubism (Paris, 1912) reprinted in Robert designers profession
work of artists'. Such a
Herbert (ed.), Modern Artists on Art. Ten
blurring of disciplinary boundaries stood in direct
Unabridged Essays. (Prentice-Hall: New Jersey, to cherished of medium set out in
opposition Greenberg's concepts specificity
1964), pp. 1-18. a Newer
'Towards Laocoon', of 1940 and the Modernist 'self-critical
articulated later in 'Modernist in which he the
tendency' Painting', posited
'essence' of Modernism 'in the use of the characteristic methods of a
to criticize the itself ... to entrench it more in its area of
discipline firmly
called the of the Bauhaus a form of
competence'. Greenberg goals
'doctrinairism' that resulted in an to rise above decorative
'inability merely
motifs'. it was the of the aesthetic and the
Presumably levelling hierarchy
of art into life the Bauhaus that fuelled this reaction.
integration represented
To such a led to a cheerful artiness that
Greenberg, programme only
life as a realm of or in Donald words about
misrepresented harmony, Kuspit's
this of a realm of 'reconciliation'. On the
aspect Greenberg's thought,
to viewed life as a realm of conflict and
contrary, according Kuspit, Greenberg
art as the studied to it. Decoration was a
response simply 'magically applied
that the aesthetic as an received
style' misrepresented experience easily
attractive look.

Greenberg's dismissal of the Bauhaus legitimation of the decorative can be

linked to conceptions of the
category posited in the early twentieth century in
to the of full-blown abstraction. In this
response emergence regard, important
to were the Cubist Albert Gleizes and Jean
precursors Greenberg painters
who between decoration and abstraction in their co
Metzinger, distinguished
authored treatise of 1912, On Cubism.35 In fact, of the
Greenberg's description

OXFORD ART JOURNAL 27.3 2004 345

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Elissa Auther

decorative in 1957 as a that haunts modernist is

'specter painting' closely
related to the of the decorative the two
conception posited by painter
theorists . 'Milton Avery', Modernism with
36. Greenberg,
Gleizes and which to secure the of easel a Vengeance, 1957-1969, p. 43.
Metzinger's text, sought hegemony
and Cubism's within the reflected the 37. For a more thorough analysis of On Cubism
painting superior place genre, growing
into decorative Nancy Troy, 'Abstraction, Decoration, and
anxiety about the potential slippage of painting superficiality Arts Magazine, vol. 54, no. 10, June
that coincided with the blurring of boundaries between art and design or
1980, pp. 154-7.
decoration on the of abstraction. decoration
brought by emergence Rejecting 38. Gleizes and Metzinger, On Cubism, p. 5.
as 'the antithesis of the ridiculed its conditional status as a
picture' they single 39. Gleizes and Metzinger, On Cubism, p. 5.
element within a ensemble:
larger 40. Gleizes and Metzinger, On Cubism, p. 7.

41. Troy, and

Many consider preoccupations must govern the spirit of the new painters.
that decorative 'Abstraction, Decoration,
Undoubtedly they are ignorant of the most obvious signs which make decorative work the Collage', p. 155.
antithesis of the picture. The decorative work of art exists only by virtue of its destination; it is 42. Gleizes and Metzinger, On Cubism, p. 4f.
animated only by the relations established between it and the given objects. Essentially
43. Henry Havard, Dictionnaire de l'ameublement
dependent, necessarily incomplete, itmust in the first place satisfy the mind so as not to et de la d?coration depuis le XIHe si?cle jusqu'? nos
distract it from the display which justifies and completes it. It is an organ.38
jours, 4 vols. (Maison Quantin: Paris, 1887?9).
44. As quoted in Nancy J. Troy, Modernism and
Not the two toward the the Decorative Arts in France: Art Nouveau to Le
surprisingly, given painter-theorists' hostility
Corbusier (Yale University Press: New Haven,
decorative work's lack of believed icarrie[d]
autonomy, they genuine painting
... 1991), p. 1.
within itself its raison d'?tre. It does not harmonize
Essentially independent.
45. As quoted in Troy, Modernism and the
with this or that ensemble, it harmonizes with the totality of things, with the
Decorative Arts, p. 1.
universe: it is an
Of concern to Gleizes and was the realisation of a mode
primary Metzinger
of abstraction to rather than borrowed from the realm of the
specific painting
decorative arts, and their treatise considered at the Cubist contribution
to the evolution of of form, colour, and in
pictorial properties light, space
modern art as internal to the of Cubists, to the
history painting. according
two, form and the space which it and
'tirelessly study pictorial engenders',
therefore avoided work that into decorative
producing slipped superficiality.
As has observed about this text, to otherwise would be to
Nancy Troy proceed
threaten 'the of as a kind of aesthetic
independence painting particular object
and the traditional role of the as a
consequently jeopardise painter visionary
creator of art'.41 'Cubism ... is the of
high today only possible conception
art. . . .
We to a for decoration, if we
pictorial ought regard preoccupation
find it in a as an anachronistic artifice, useful to conceal
painter, only
is how Gleizes and it.
impotence,' Metzinger put
To understand Gleizes and as well as
fully Metzinger's Greenberg's
of decoration as 'the antithesis of the it is to
conception picture' helpful go
back to at least the nineteenth with the of decorative arts
century writing
authorities such as Havard. In 1887, Havard defined decoration and its
in his four-volume Dictionnaire de l'ameublement et
adjectival form, decorative,
de la d?coration depuis le XIHe si?cle jusqu'? nos jours. In it he
d?coration from d?coration defined as an 'ensemble of
fixe mobile, respectively
ornamentation that decorates a room, a townhouse, a house, an edifice' and

that which 'consists in art chairs, armoires, wall curtains'.

objects, hangings,
the term decorative Havard wrote, 'One of an
Regarding {d?coratif), says
that it is decorative when it ornaments the In it ...
object occupies. place
recent the custom has as decorative
of arts
years developed designating
ornamental ceramics, woodwork in a word,
sculpture, wallpaper, glassware,
all the industrial arts, which have as their aim the interior or exterior
ornamentation of a
Havard's definition that decoration and those deemed
emphasised objects
decorative were elements within a aesthetic scheme. As has
single larger Troy

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The Decorative, Abstraction, and the Hierarchy of Art and Craft in the Art Criticism of Clement

made clear in her on French decorative art of the late nineteenth

and twentieth centuries, the decorator too, 'whether architect,
early painter,
or . . . to submit to the demands of the to be
46. Troy, Modernism and theDecorative Arts, p. 2. sculptor [was] obliged object

47. Greenberg, 'The Crisis of the Easel Picture'

decorated' ,46 It was the subordination of the decorative arts to both the
(1948), in Arrogant Purpose, p. 221. interior ensemble and the commercial market in which such circulated
48. Greenberg, 'The Crisis of the Easel that marked the as anathema to modern artists such as Gleizes and
Picture', p. 22If. and critics such as who in favour of a
Metzinger, Greenberg, argued
49. Greenberg, 'The Crisis of the Easel of autonomous artistic innovation unfettered social or market
conception by
Picture', p. 224. constraints. These distinctions between the so-called decorative and 'fine' arts
50. Greenberg, 'The Crisis of the Easel remain to the association of decoration with craft and unreflective
key labour,
Picture', p. 223.
and art with creative, intellectual achievement.
51. Greenberg, 'The Crisis of the Easel
in the
Beginning 1940s, Greenberg
took up the question of abstract art's
Picture', p. 222.
inherent decorative and its threat to the tradition of easel
52. Greenberg, 'The Crisis of the Easel liability painting
confronted Gleizes and some three decades earlier. After them,
Picture', p. 222. by Metzinger
defended the autonomous status of
Greenberg painting, expressed dismay
about the loss of artistic identity represented by the fall
into the decorative,
and described as 'weak' the artists he with the decorative.
charged adopting

The Decorative and the Crisis of the All-Over Painting

It is in his essay from 1948,
suitably titled 'The Crisis of the Easel Picture' that
the decorative as a threat to the Western easel
Greenberg positions painting
tradition, a tradition which unlike 'the Persian miniature or Chinese
had remained of the 'demands of decoration'
painting', independent imposed
architecture or convention. The of the easel
by pictorial uniqueness painting
was further in his view the artist's subordination of 'decorative
augmented by
to dramatic effect' within the frame. It is the of easel
self-sufficiency painting,
indeed its and as art, that in this as
identity autonomy Greenberg targets essay

in the modern
period by the tendency toward flatness and an
all-over treatment of the surface that inverted the of the
emerging priorities
mimetic tradition.
isolated as the 'crisis' the of the sense of
Greenberg power heightened
surface to the of as the art.
problematise stability painting pre-eminent 'high'
When the artist flattens the he wrote, 'for the sake of decorative
picture plane,
structure and its elements in terms of flatness and the
organises frontality,
easel to feel itself in its nature' ,48
picture begins compromised very Uniformity
in abstract could result, the to a
composition reducing picture purely
decorative surface and the boundaries art from
threatening separating
ornamentation. the notion is antiaesthetic,' he asserted.
Of course, not all abstract succumbed to decorative
painting superficiality,
as to Klee's and Matisse's work referenced earlier
Greenberg's response
demonstrates. These two artists transcended the decorative in
view, in tension and in the all-over
by holding 'unity' 'variety' picture.
Likewise such as Mondrian and as well as others who
painters Jackson Pollock,
the 'new "polyphonic" kind of were described as
anticipated painting',
element of their 'different but 'No
rendering every composition equivalent'.51
matter how much the is flattened as as its
picture [Greenberg wrote], long
forms are sufficiently differentiated and kept in dramatic imbalance it will
remain an easel
picture definitely enough.'5
To describe this effect in the work of the masters he admired in this
set associations. The of their work to
Greenberg up revealing comparison
modern music stands out in this that 'these
regard. Greenberg explained

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Elissa Auther

render element, of the canvas

painters every every part equivalent'.
Futhermore, they:
53. 'The Crisis of the Easel
Weave the work of art into a tight mesh whose principle of formal unity is contained and
Picture', p. 224.
recapitulated in each thread, so that we find the essence of the whole work in every one of its
54. 'The Crisis of the Easel
parts. . . . But these painters go even beyond Sch?nberg by making their variations upon
Picture', p. 223.
equivalence so subtle that at first glance we might see in their pictures, not equivalences, but
an hallucinated 55. Greenberg, 'The Crisis of the Easel
Picture', p. 222f.
56. Greenberg, 'Review of Exhibitions of
The use of in this to illustrate the of
metaphoric weaving passage 'principle Worden Day, Carl Holty, and Jackson
formal in modern abstract that an art form in Arrogant Purpose, p. 201.
unity' painting suggests historically Pollock'(1948),
as craft to the Modernist of 57. 'Review of an Exhibition of
categorised might positively correspond imperative Greenberg,
aesthetic or What followed the makes Mordecai Ardon-Bronstein and a Discussion of
autonomy purity. passage, however,
the Reaction in America to Abstract Art'
clear that the ordered structure of a weave, its material
repetitive, uniformity,
(1948), in Arrogant Purpose, p. 217.
is, in fact, that which would have to be overcome if the discipline of painting
was to remain As even Mondrian, whose
meaningful. Greenberg explained,

pictures 'constitute the flattest of all easel still succeeds

painting' by
the surface, or rather, 'the scene of forms rather than . . .
dramatising presenting
one indivisible of texture'.
single, piece
The endeavour to a modern work of decorative
produce high quality
without decoration was a one as described for
being risky by Greenberg,
the all-over
although picture:

still remains easel painting somehow, at least when successful, and will still hang dramatically
on a wall, this sort of painting comes closest of all to decoration-to wallpaper patterns capable
- and in so far as it still remains easel
of being extended indefinitely painting it infects the
whole notion of this form with ambiguity.55

Wallpaper is amotif would employ several times in his writing as

short hand for decoration or the of abstraction into a lesser decorative
mode. In his criticism abstract from
Greenberg distinguished painting
while to trade on the latter's low, decorative status, a
wallpaper continuing
use of the that allowed him to assert distinctions of value between
different abstract at the continued of a real class of objects, the
styles expense
decorative arts and crafts. For instance, stressed Pollock's
difference from on the occasion of the artist's solo
paintings' wallpaper
show at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1947:

As before, [Pollock's] new work offers a puzzle to all those not sincerely in touch with
contemporary painting. Ialready hear: 'wallpaper patterns', 'the picture does not finish inside
the canvas', 'raw, uncultivated emotion', and so on, and so on. Since Mondrian no one has
driven the easel picture quite so far away from itself; but this is not altogether Pollock's own
doing. In this day and age the art of painting increasingly rejects the easel and yearns for the
wall. It is Pollock's culture as a painter that has made him so sensitive and receptive to a
tendency that has brought with it, in his case, a greater concentration on surface texture and
tactile qualities, to balance the danger of monotony that arises from the even, all-over design
which has become Pollock's consistent practice.56

thereafter, in to the 'even, all-over, the

Shortly regards "polyphonic" picture'
of would allow to assert abstract
example wallpaper Greenberg persuasively
art's difference from decoration a second time: 'That such should
into decoration, mere is one of the
escape collapsing wallpaper patterns,
miracles of art in our as well as a that has become to
age, paradox necessary
the As late as 1961 would still be
age's greatest painting.' Greenberg
the of Pollock's work by it from
defending significance differentiating

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By means of subtle variations within the minimal illusion of depth, he is able, moreover, to
inject dramatic and pictorial unity into patterns of color, shape, and line that would otherwise
seem as repetitious as wallpaper.
58. Greenberg, 'The Jackson Pollock Market
Soars' (1961), inModernism with a Vengeance, For the spectator the problem is to learn to recognize this kind of unity . . . and when one can
p. 110. Greenberg distinguishes Pollock's tell the difference, which is the difference between the success and failure of his pictures, then
one more time in an
painting from wallpaper one has mastered what is essential in the art of his all-over phase.
essay for Vogue, 'Jackson Pollock: inspiration,
vision, intuitive decision' (1967) (reprinted in
Macula 2, 1977) inModernism with a Vengeance, In each instance, is to what makes an abstract
Greenberg's goal explain
pp. 245-50. a a in which a decorative art form, stands
painting painting, project wallpaper,
59. Leroy wrote for the satirical journal Le for a failed of abstraction, that is, a as
example painting experienced
Charivari. In his review of the First Impressionist
mechanical or artless in execution and This allowed
composition. strategy
Exhibition, Leroy visits the exhibition with the
an to assert distinctions of value between modes of re
imaginary interlocutor, M. Joseph Vincent, Greenberg
academic landscape painter, whose hysterical at the same time in the of
establishing painting's superior position hierarchy
reaction to Impressionist brushwork and
the arts.
composition represented the mainstream art
rhetorical use of is in relation to the
world's and general public's indignation toward Greenberg's wallpaper significant
art criticism where it as a flat but trivial
history of modern
the new style of painting. For the full text of
frequently figured
the review see Linda Nochlin, Impressionismand as art
form of abstraction, with deemed and
Sources and equated painting unrecognisable
Post-Impressionism 1874?1904:
to the boundaries
Documents (Prentice-Hall, 1966). threatening separating the high from the low. In 1874, for
instance, the French critic Louis mocked Monet's Sunrise
60. Tom Taylor, 'Winter Exhibitions: The Leroy Impression,
state ismore
Dudley', The Times, 2 December 1875, p. 4. (1874) decrying, 'Wallpaper in its embryonic finished than that
See Catherine Carter Goebel, in One later the British critic Tom would
'Arrangement year
seascape'. Taylor similarly
Black andWhite: The Making of aWhistler
evaluate two of Whistler's from his Nocturne series, that
Legend' PhD dissertation (Evanston, IL, 1988), paintings asserting
in come one nearer than tints on a
p. 827. Taylor testified against Whistler 'they only step pictures delicately graduated
Whistler v. Ruskin and reiterated this evaluation, wall paper would in 1947 Aldous likened Pollock's
do'.60 Similarly, Huxley
art down to delicacy of
adding that 'if you bring Cathedral to for its unorthodox treatment of space and surface. 'It
tone, it is only like the tone of wallpaper'. As wallpaper
raises a of it when it does,' he remarked. 'The artist could
quoted by Linda Merrill, A Pot of Paint: Aesthetics question why stops
on Trial in Whistler v. Ruskin (Smithsonian on forever. I don't know. It seems like a for a
go (Laughter). panel wallpaper
Institution Press: Washington DC, 1992),
which is around the wall.'61 All three turn
p. 179f. repeated indefinitely examples upon
as art and the of the
61. 'A Life Round Table on Modern Art', Life,
the presumed absurdity of considering wallpaper levelling
11 October 1948, p. 62. of the arts abstract was as
hierarchy painting perceived enacting.
Not its rhetorical power to represent the lowest of the
62. Richard A. Etlin, In Defense of Humanism: surprisingly, given
Value in the Arts and Letters (Cambridge low in art, the of and the subtle of craft it
trope wallpaper marginalisation
University Press: Cambridge, 1996). remains central to about the value of Most
signals arguments painting.
63. Etlin, In Defense of Humanism, p. 10. As was put to use
often as wallpaper is targeted as the ultimate
recently, wallpaper good by Richard A. Etlin in his book, In
Humanism: Value in the Arts and Letters. As in the instances above,
failure in these types of comparisons, it is the Defense of
are held up as the where the of to of various levels of abstraction
paintings of Rembrandt that comparison wallpaper painting
quintessential example of achievement in art. participates
in the maintenance of aesthetic
Etlin also uses it to set
of value in the arts which, in the end, confirm
parameters painting's
to art in other media. He writes:

The goals that artists set for themselves, as well as the degree of success in realizing them,
help determine where a work of art will appear on the aesthetic scale. Decorative motifs, for
example, whether on wallpaper or along the stringcourse of a building . . .will generally offer
- shall we - of the aesthetic
simple pleasures that we can situate to one far side say, low side
scale. [On the other hand] the deep humanity conveyed by the Rembrandt self-portrait . . .
move[s] us with the manner of deep spiritual insight that can be located at the opposite end of
the aesthetic scale, at the high end.63

Etlin's, and others' use of to the low in

Greenberg's, wallpaper represent
aesthetic is of interest here
for how rooted the
hierarchy understanding
of art to craft is in Modernist discourse the
opposition surrounding
maintenance of the status of In the I have
superior painting. examples
collected functions as a straw man in the construction and
maintenance of distinctions between the fine and decorative arts that
are otherwise to defend. For instance, Etlin maintains
extremely problematic

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that the distinction between and 'low' art reflects differences

'high' important
in artistic intention and viewer to a work that to the
response corresponds
aesthetic the 'fine' from the decorative arts. In this 64. On Picasso and Braque's use of wallpaper
hierarchy separating
regard, wallpaper
is an
easy target.
But would the
have the same Christing Poggi, In Defiance of Painting:
rhetorical force if one used a different if in of Cubism, Futurism, and the Invention of Collage (Yale
example? Imagine, place
University Press: New Haven, 1992), chapter 5.
one substituted a Chinese blue and white or Andrea Del
wallpaper, porcelain See also Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art 8^

Castagno's celebrated painted leather shield David with the Head of Politics (Winter 1978).
Goliath for to name the most obvious of 65. Greenberg, 'Review of an Exhibition of
(1450?7) wallpaper, only examples
that are fashioned from traditional craft media or were once Morris Graves' (1942), in Perceptions and
objects functional
as Judgements, p. 126.
and now 'fine' art. Etlin's criteria for the distinctions between
66. For an excellent historical account of the
the high and low in art is especially questionable in assimilation of a
light of the way in which embroidery became identified
wide of artefacts to the fine arts, vessels, ritual with a certain set of feminine attributes and
range including manuscripts,
and articles of adornment. These are that were once to the category of 'women's work'
objects, personal objects relegated
see Rozika Parker, The Subversive Stitch:
functional and often in media as
craft, but
produced categorised today
Embroidery and theMaking of the Feminine
the bulk of what counts as 'Art' of the Western world
nonetheless, comprise (Routledge: New York, 1984).
at least the fourteenth as art
through century, any introductory history survey
textbook will attest.

In Etlin's (as well as in of to

Greenberg's) juxtaposition painting wallpaper,
there is an less about distinctions of aesthetic value than about media
secured ideas the or limitations of various
by preconceived regarding potential
materials to content to the Western viewer. This is
convey significant perhaps
nowhere better illustrated than in the strategic use of wallpaper by Picasso and
Braque in their collages of 1914, Andy Warhol's Cow Wallpaper (1966), or the
editors of the feminist art Heresies, who for a 1978 issue about
journal special
women's artistic traditions a sheet of
reproduced nineteenth-century
as the cover art in a to the hierarchical distinctions
wallpaper challenge
between 'fine art' and 'craft' or and 'low' culture
'high' generally.

The Decorative, Ornamentation, and Skilled Labour

maintained the of art and craft not in relation to
Greenberg hierarchy only
abstraction but also in relation to of ornamentation and skilled
labour. To with, wrote of Morris Graves: 'He takes most of
begin Greenberg
his motifs from and embroiders them This evaluation
zoology decoratively.'65
of the artist's work characterises the treatment of the canvas surface as
covered rather than worked or 'felt out' in terms, the latter
an artistic transformation of surface as to its
process representing opposed
mere ornamentation. To describe Graves' treatment of the surface as

embroidered also connotes a set of associations about needlework that

underscore use of the decorative. Here,
consistently Greenberg's pejorative

embroidery evokes images of an applied embellishment without any

to its It follows that
relationship ground. embroidery and other related modes
of ornamentation or surface adornment are as The
perceived lacking meaning.
real bite in derives from the classification of needlecraft
Greenberg's critique
as a art form, one, in fact, that is almost
popular practised exclusively by
women, who, moreover, and follow
generally purchase mass-produced,
that are themselves often after works of art or
prepared designs copies original
This of artistic labour intensive and often of
design. type production, although
a skill level, is easily dismissed as uncreative, derivative, and a display of
as an end in itself. These latter attributes are
craftsmanship regularly assigned
to work in other craft media as well and are as evidence of
readily proffered
craft's distinction from art.66 these associations to
Greenberg openly deploys
dismiss Graves' work as shallow or without content, and, in so

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he reinforces the of the arts. criticism

doing, implicitly hierarchy Greenberg's
of Josef Albers' as the of 'decorative motifs' to the
painting application
canvas has similar as does his of Motherwell's work as
67. Greenberg, 'Review of Exhibitions of implications description
. . . ornamented
Adolph Gottlieb, Jackson Pollock, and Josef an art 'of surfaces instead of
into a canvas'.
Albers' (1949), in Arrogant Purpose, p. 286.
In a review of Marsden work, associates what
negative Hartley's Greenberg
68. As quoted by Kuspit, Clement Greenberg, he as the artist's decorative treatment of surface with his failure to
p. 74. masters. wrote:
assimilate the lessons of the French modern He
69. Greenberg, 'Review of Two Exhibitions of
Marsden Hartley' (1944), in Perceptions and
Hartley's notion of modem art was that of stylization: impressionism, expressionism, cubism,
Judgements, p. 246. abstraction for him were so many different modes of stylizing, and his effort to stylize was
70. Greenberg, 'Review of an Exhibition of deliberate - and characteristic ofthat sad misapprehension of "modernistic" art under which
Andr? Masson' (1942), in Perceptions and so many of the first attempts to acclimatize tendencies over here were
Judgements, p. 99. made. Cubism . . .was taken for something decorative, to be applied.69
71. Greenberg, 'The Role of Nature inModern
Painting'(1949), in Arrogant Purpose, p. 273. This notion as that which to the
of the 'decorative', stylistic corresponds
72. Greenberg, 'Review of Exhibitions of De la was
of fashion rather than those of toart, used
in Arrogant imperatives by Greenberg
Fresnaye and Stuart Davis' (1945),
censure a wide of American and and that
Purpose, p. 40. variety European painting sculpture
he found to be derivative or a simulation of the 'look' of modern art
73. Greenberg, 'De la Fresnaye and Stuart 'genuine'
Davis', p. 40. as he defined it. and others, to substituted mere
Hartley according Greenberg,
74. Greenberg, 'De la Fresnaye and Stuart motifs for form, motifs abstract in their and
original fully planarity repetition,
Davis', p. 41 f. but lacking in the dynamic relationship to the canvas he identified as essential
75. Greenberg, 'De la Fresnaye and Stuart to serious modern art. It was Cubism, of course, 'the direction in which the
Davis', p. 41 f. art of our times must in order to be that was
pictorial go great', ordinarily
76. Greenberg, 'De la Fresnaye and Stuart misread the lesser artists who failed to Picasso's and
by grasp Braque's
Davis', p. 41 f. new the nature of the as a
realization of, and for, itself
respect picture plane
77. Greenberg, 'De la Fresnaye and Stuart
material For this of the of the
object'. Greenberg, recognition materiality
Davis', p. 41 f.
surface was what the modern in art in
painted represented genuinely
78. Greenberg, 'De la Fresnaye and Stuart
distinction to the 'modernistic' or 'arty' work that copied the effect of the
Davis', p. 42.
modern without for the difficult essential to or
regard struggle original
'honest' artistic creation.

de la Stuart Davis, and Alexander Calder, were three

Roger Fresnaye,
artists Greenberg as of the modern
targeted particularly guilty misreading
artistic De la 'in which cubism is used as a
project. Fresnaye's paintings
decorative facade rather than as a means of
transforming space integrally'
great taste but all the and resistances'73
displayed 'suppressed] struggles
which the more artists worked to create
through important something
'Davis's 'had become more and more
original. painting,' Greenberg argued,
abstract and at the same time decorative to the where it is easel
point hardly
Both artists and make
painting any more.' 'generalize immediately pleasing
what more seminal artists at the cost of strain and error'.75
produced frequent
Calder too has 'made modern art a decorative, 'tasteful
derivative of the achievements of the French
adaptation'77 innovatory
modern masters. conclusion, which reduces all three
Greenberg's essentially
artists to interior decorators, their work to that of French rococo
conceived to harmonise with its architectural
painting surroundings:

The only salvation ... for artists such as Davis, Calder and De la Fresnaye is that society give
them fixed, exactly defined tasks that require them to fit their cheerfulness and discretion into
the general d?cor of modern life in a systematic way. Let Davis and Calder create an
atmosphere inwhich to move, not solo works of art. There are examples of Boucher and
Fragonard, whose spirit their own resembles.78

concern with the smoothness of Isamu

Greenberg's Noguchi's sculpture
connected a certain and skill, an aspect
quality of physical finish with precision
of his work that, to the critic, demonstrated a substitution of
according good

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taste for intellectual not unlike that attributed to Davis and Calder.
While on the one hand there was much about that
Noguchi's sculpture
found on the other hand: 79. Greenberg, 'Review of Exhibitions of Isamu
Greenberg compelling,
Noguchi and American Paintings from the
It is what Ifeel to be an excessive polish and smoothness of surface, an excessive clarity and Collection of the Museum of Modern Art'
precision of drawing, that weakens so much of Noguchi's other work. One wishes he had left (1949), in Arrogant Purpose, p. 296.
most of his pieces half finished, and had the courage to stand on his conceptions as
80. Greenberg, 'Picasso at Seventy-Five'
conceptions . . . .7g
(1957), inModernism with a Vengeance, p. 33.
81. Greenberg, 'Picasso at Seventy-Five', p. 33.
In other contexts, more tied surface finish to craftsman
Greenberg directly 82. Greenberg, 'Review of a Joint Exhibition of
a mode of in which of materials is often
ship, traditionally production mastery Antoine Pevsner and Naum Gabo' (1948), in
to be
held primary to the aesthetic value of the work and the repeated Arrogant Purpose, p. 226.
demonstration of such mastery key to distinction in the field of craft. Such a 83. 'Picasso at Seventy-Five',
Greenberg, p. 34.
mode of is to that of the modern artist whose work 'does
production contrary 84. Greenberg, 'The Camera's Glass Eye:
call attention to the of the medium, but only in order to Review of an Exhibition of Edward Weston'
physical properties
have these transcend themselves . . .'. It was when the 'means of art (1946), in Arrogant Purpose, p. 60.

too calculable'81 or and one's awareness of the work as a 85. Greenberg, 'Review of an Exhibition by
be[came] certain,
surfaced the slide into was was Georgia O'Keeffe' (1946), in Arrogant Purpose,
that the decorative assured. This
physical object
p. 87.
reaction to the work of a number of artists, Naum Gabo included.
About a 1948 exhibition he wrote:

Gabo's objects, small in format and excessively limited by the notion of neatness entailed by
the constructive aesthetic, exhaust themselves too often in the point they make of symmetry;
and their lightness, fragility, and transparency tend to be mechanical rather than felt out, the
automatic results of an aesthetic code that precipitates itself in repetitious arabesques akin to
those of penmanship exercises. These weaknesses, the weaknesses of decoration, are made
very evident in some small paintings by Gabo shown here.82

assertion that the decorative aesthetic is 'mechanical rather than

felt out, the automatic results of an aesthetic code' ties it to a notion of
craft as rote labour, not mass and unartistic. In
repetitive (if produced), thus,
an critical of Picasso's work of the 1930s these
essay Greenberg explained
characteristics as indicative of a loss of artistic

The picture gets finished, in principle, the moment it is started, and the result becomes a
replica of itself. With the idea of the replica there comes the idea of craftsmanship, and with
that, the idea of object, and of the polish and finish of a finished object. The eye makes these
associations instantaneously. Finish is always something expected, and the expected belongs
more to the handicrafts, to joinery and jewelry, than to fine art.83

Art, stated 'is a matter of and intuition, not

Greenberg repeatedly, conception
of finish . . . '.
assessment of O'Keeffe's work is far the
Greenberg's negative Georgia by
most in its assertion of a between the decorative and craft
explicit relationship
and the function of this in the maintenance of value-laden
boundaries between works of cultural value and those out of sync with the
of Modernism as he defined it. Her work, he wrote:

Has very little inherent value. The deftness and precision of her brush and the neatness with
which she places a picture inside its frame exert a certain inevitable charm which may explain
her popularity ... but the greatest part of her work adds up to little more than tinted
photography. The lapidar?an patience she has expended in trimming, breathing upon, and
polishing these bits of opaque celophane betrays a concern that has less to do with art than
with private worship. . . .85

We have seen in reviews of and Gabo

already Greenberg's Noguchi quoted
above that and neatness are two elements that he
precision stylistic repeatedly
to the decorative. Their in relation to O'Keeffe's work
assigned emphasis

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The Decorative, Abstraction, and the of Art and Craft in the Art Criticism of Clement
Hierarchy Greenberg

further their relation to a 'craft aesthetic' as it had been constructed

under Modernism. In O'Keeffe's case, such of her her work
aspects style give
86. Greenberg, charm and an akin to that of the tinted which is to
'Georgia O'Keeffe', p. 87. 'arty'86 quality photograph,
see in her work, not art, but the look of art. The evaluation of
87. Especially to women's traditional textile simply
craft. Greenberg's criticism of O'Keeffe's work O'Keeffe's as not of cultural achievement is secured
painting high by
overly detailed draws upon the association of characterisation of the surface finish of her as
Greenberg's paintings lapidar?an:
'woman' and the particular extending from
that related to the and of stones. The
antiquity to the present invoked to characterise cutting, polishing, engraving precious
the work of the woman artist as inherently the term calls that of the work of the saturates
image up, exacting gemcutter,
inferior. On the subject see Mira Schor, Reading use of the words and 'neatness' in the with
in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine (Methuen: Greenberg's 'precision' passage
associations of craft or hand labour, associations then on to his overall
New York, 1987). grafted
of her work as detailed-oriented, and
impression myopic, overly particular,
88. Greenberg, 'Jackson Pollock:
' "Inspiration,
to craft as well as women's art and
Vision, Intuitive Decision" (1967), in demeaning qualities regularly assigned
Modernism with a Vengeance, p. 247. taste.

89. Greenberg, 'Jackson Pollock', p. 246. around the attributes and neatness is the
Circling femininity, precision,
90. Greenberg, of skill. On the asserted his most
'Jackson Pollock', p. 247. concept subject, Greenberg position
in an written to coincide with the of the
91. Greenberg, 'Jackson Pollock', p. 247. forcefully essay opening Jackson
Pollock retrospective at MOMA in 1967. In it he repeats no less than four
times that it is 'not skill or dexterity but inspiration, vision, intuitive decision,
counts in the creation of aesthetic About Pollock's
[that] essentially quality'.88
drip paintings, he explained that they:

Eliminated the factor of manual skill and seemed to eliminate the factor of control along with it.
Advanced painting had raised the question of the role of skill in pictorial art before Pollock's
time, but these pictures questioned that role more disturbingly if not more radically than even
Mondrian's geometrical art had . . . Pollock's 'all-over' 'drip' paintings seem swiftness and
spontaneity incarnate, but their arabescal interlacings strike the uninitiated eye as excluding
anything that resembles control and order, not to mention skill.89

counters the reaction to Pollock's all-over

Greenberg popular paintings by
that the strength of the pictures reside in their 'layout' not their
execution, the to artistic vision. Vision or
subordinating drip technique
is manifested in Pollock's of the his
inspiration conception composition,
and of elements, which creates a 'tension . . .
'choosing, placing, relating'
between the connotations of and the felt and actual aesthetic
order', that accounts for the 'No matter how much
drip paintings' quality.
execution feed back to the crucial decisions still to
may conception, belong
and not to manual skill.'

The Decorative, Good Taste, and Femininity

The of and the decorative is a used
pairing femininity strategy Greenberg
throughout the 1940s and 50s to distinguish from bad painting. The
of his in these cases rests unexamined
authority judgements upon deep-seated,
cultural attitudes about women's intellectual and creative informed
the of art and craft and the low status of women's artistic
by hierarchy
within it.
To artists who exhibited more than taste,
Greenberg, nothing good
in art an attractive decorative look, were derivative and
promoting essentially
a characterisation that conflates the decorative with mass
feminine, culture,
ornament, and to de la
femininity. Greenberg's response Roger Fresnaye's
work as a 'decorative more suitable to d?cor' is
fa?ade' 'general
The characterisation recalls distaste for the
representative. Greenberg's
notion that art and life could be reconciled the consumption of
works of art and more him
pleasant looking significantly, places squarely
within the tradition of associating mass culture with the feminine. On this

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Elissa Auther

Andreas at least sees the

subject, Huyssen typically nineteenth-century
conflation of mass culture with woman in literature into the
existing early
twentieth the of Modernism in as a 92. Andreas Huyssen, 'Mass Culture as
century through conceptualisation painting
masculine As is evident in his of De la from Woman: Modernism's Other', in The Great
pursuit.92 critique Fresnaye 1945,
Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism
extends the conflation of mass culture and the feminine well into
(Indiana University Press: Bloomington, 1986).
the twentieth an inferior
century: Huyssen states 'the gendering of
mass culture as feminine
goes hand in hand with
Roger de la Fresnaye, who as soon as he had absorbed all that he wanted or could absorb of the emergence of a male mystique in
Picasso's and Braque's cubism to render it elegant, and
developing proceeded decorative, modernism (especially in painting)', p. 47ff.
93. Greenberg, 'Review of Exhibitions of De la
De la Fresnaye anticipated the softening and prettifying of cubism. Endowed with a feminine Fresnaye and Stuart Davis' (1945), in Arrogant
sensibility, he was quick to grasp the point of the new style and, in grasping it, to suppress all Purpose, p. 39f.
the struggles and resistances through which it has originally been developed.93 94. Greenberg, 'Present Prospects of American
Painting and Sculpture' (1947), in Arrogant
to De la 'derivative', 'decorative', 'cubistic' Purpose, p. 167.
Greenberg's Fresnaye's
to the artist's failure to
style, which he accorded apprehend the significance of
95. Greenberg, 'Review of Exhibitions of De la

Cubism and thus, characterised as a feminine weakness, as an Fresnaye and Stuart Davis', p. 39f.
posits femininity
force the of an modern 96. Greenberg, 'The Present Prospects of
emasculating thwarting development original, mature,
American Painting and Sculpture', p. 161.
art. In his review, 'The Present of American and
important Prospects Painting
of 1947, f?minisation of the decorative revealed his
Sculpture' Greenberg's
for the of an American modern art defined
impatience emergence by strength
and virility. the work of David Smith, Alexander Calder, and Stuart
Davis he wrote:

Smith's art is more enlightened, optimistic and broader than Pollock's, and makes up for its
lesser force by virile elegance that is without example in a country where elegance is otherwise
obtained only by femininity or by the wistful, playful, derivative kind of decorativeness we see in
such artists as the sculptor-constructor Alexander Calder and the painter Stuart Davis, both of
whom have great taste but little force.94

Like De la Fresnaye, Calder and Davis both 'generalize and make immediately
what the better artist achieves through difficult struggle. And
Calder's and Davis' taste was of no for taste in
exceptional consolation,
view was no substitute for the essential to
Greenberg's risk-taking genuine
achievement in art. Good taste and went hand in hand in his
femininity opinion
and the of a feminine taste in art masculine creative
juxtaposition good against
force also his frustration with an American audience
expressed unsophisticated
for serious art. This audience, not a mass a threat to the
although public, posed
survival of culture akin to that of kitsch and the taste of the masses, for the
taste this audience was motivated, as far as was
good displayed Greenberg
more a desire for or fashionableness than
concerned, by self-improvement
interest in an art of serious intent.
of feminine attributes to the 'cultured
Greenberg's assignment pejorative
American' in 'Present a of the feminine within
Prospects' conjures up tyranny
the realm of art that must be resisted in the same the decorative must be
confronted and transcended if art of cultural is to be
genuine significance
He declared:

The cultured American has now become more knowing than cultivated, glib in a kind of
fashionable koine but without eccentricity or the distortions of personal bias, a compendium of
what he or (more usually) she reads in certain knowing magazines - anxious to be right, correct
au courant, rather than wise and happy.

He or she may have minimal judgement in literature but hardly any in art... In this country
- not -
ninety-nine eighty-five percent of the art world itself is composed of tourists . . . The
discussion of American art, even in the most exalted circles, is a kind of travelogue patter - this
is what fills the three or four art magazines that live an endowed existence in New York and
whose copy is supplied by permanent college girls, male and female.96

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The Decorative, Abstraction, and the Hierarchy of Art and Craft in the Art Criticism of Clement Greenberg

In this dismissal of the American cultural elite as feminine

way, Greenberg's
constitute a of modern art in which
helped theory virility,
and are the
97. Greenberg, 'The Present Prospects of individualism, autonomy, experimentation privileged against
American Painting and Sculpture', p. 165. of As
the decorative. it: 'The modern
backdrop Greenberg put great painters
98. Rozika Parker and Griselda Pollock, Old and are the hard-headed ones ? or at least are as
sculptors they great only long
Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology (Pantheon as remain mass culture and the decorative and
Books: New York, 1981). they Conflating
borders around it to art is essential to
erecting protect Greenberg's
99. As quoted by Michael Levey, Rococo to
construction of the pure Modernist aesthetic.
Revolution (Thames and Hudson: New York,
the feminine has been associated with craft. In their co
1966), p. 121. Also quoted by Parker and Historically,
Pollock in Old Mistresses, p. 51. authored Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Griselda Pollock and
study, Ideology,
100. Ann Eden Gibson, Abstract Expressionism: Rozika Parker date the association of with craft to the
explicit femininity
Other Politics (Yale University Press: New
century when the struggle of artists to distinguish themselves from
Haven, 1997), p. 36.
an artisan class resulted in a new of the arts cast in terms of
hierarchy gender
101. Gibson, Abstract Expressionism, p. 37.
difference. Michael Levey has demonstrated that as early as 1713 the
Gibson quotes Barnett Newman's suspect claim
in aesthetic theorist Lord in rococo art for its
(supported by Franz Boas' research) that Shaftesbury, denouncing frivolity
Kwakiutl societies women's abstraction in basket and desire to the senses rather than the mind, and
please engage thought,
was decorative, while men's abstraction
weaving 'feminine taste' and called for discrimination between the
in painting on hides 'was directed toward reason, rejected
arts. asserted:
metaphysical understanding'. See Newman, The Shaftesbury
Ideographic Picture (Betty Parson Gallery: New
York, 1947). See also Franz Boas, Primitive Art So that whilst we look on paintings with the same eyes as we view commonly the rich stuffs and
(Dover: New York, 1927). coloured silks worn by our Ladys, and admir'd in Dress, Equipage or Furniture, we must of

102. As quoted by Gibson, Abstract Expressionism, necessity be effeminate in our Taste and utterly set wrong as to all Judgement and Knowledge
in the kind."
p. 37.

As Parker and Pollock out about the same call for

point passage, Shaftesbury's
the of such as textiles,
separate categorisation objects painting, jewellery,
miscellaneous of war or the hunt, and household is
equipment furnishings
of the hierarchical status of
organised along lines gender difference, affecting
these as much as their media or function.
Ann Gibson's of the of Abstract
analysis exclusionary history Expressionism
confirms the decorative's affiliation with as well as a 'tribal' or
racialised other. Craft is associated with the latter too. She submits

On the one hand, painting in excess of representation was an exemplary transgression and the
route to power; on the other hand, it could also be seen as superficial, cosmetic, unnecessary,
and therefore in the realm of the feminine. Iwould argue not that this painting has failed to
exceed what it apparently represents, but rather that this ('decorative') painting's abstraction
points to subject matter marked by American society as feminine, or as 'tribal', rather than as
masculine, conscious, and European in origin. Ornamental patterning has been associated most
often with the surfaces of African sculpture and with such domestic "crafts" as embroidery,
weaving, and furniture design, all generally regarded as within the province of the feminine or
the racialized other.100

made artists, art historians, and educators in

Arguments by anthropologists,
the 1940s and 50s the notion that women's artistic
supported production
or was decorative and that
(abstract otherwise) inherently (i.e. meaningless),
therefore, should minor arts like ceramics, textiles,
'they study (decorative)
leatherwork, and flower Women, in other words, were
weaving, arranging.
nature from able to art'.101 In 1948
by precluded being produce consequential
felt it necessary to defend the women artists exhibited in
Peggy Guggenheim
her show, Women, that their art was no means
group Thirty-One by insisting 'by
restricted to the decorative vein as could be deduced from the art
history of by
women the
throughout ages'.
In the late twentieth constructions of aesthetic value and
about women's relation to art have continued to
assumptions (or not) rely

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Elissa Auther

for their on the low cultural status of craft. Critic McEwan's

authority John
1978 review of a London show of art a collective
contemporary organised by
of women artists attests to the of associations between craft 103. As quoted by Parker and Pollock, Old
enduring power
and women's lack of creative
In McEwan's view, one Mistresses, p. 7.
presumed only
work in the show was of attention, for it: 104. Terry Smith, 'Craft, Modernity and
in Sue Rowley (ed.), Craft and
at least exhibits none of the needle-threading eye and taste for detail that is peculiarly the bug Contemporary Theory (Allen & Unwin: St.
bear of women artists when left to their own devices; a preoccupation that invariably favours Leonards, Australia, 1997), p. 20.

presentation at the expense of content.103 105. Smith, 'Craft, Modernity and

Postmodernity', p. 20ff.
* * * 106. Smith, 'Craft, Modernity and
Postmodernity', p. 20ff.
of conclusion, I'd like to consider the of
By way briefly implications 107. Smith, 'Craft, Modernity and
of the decorative and its covert maintenance of the
Greenberg's theory Postmodernity', p. 2If.
of art and craft for artistic in the I will
hierarchy practice post-1945 period.
confine comments to the three artworld formations that I believe
my following
have been in as a to of art from
shaped part response Greenberg's separation
craft: (1) the continued subordination of craft within the field of artistic
its and since the mid
production despite extraordinary expansion vitality
1960s; (2) the feminist critique of the hierarchy of art and craft and the related
elevation of textiles or fibre since the 1970s to the status of fine art
media: and the rise of installation art. Iwill at the outset that the exact
(3) say
between these formations and the of art and craft
relationship hierarchy
deserve far more attention than I will devote to them here.

Smith's work on the of craft in the art world

Terry position contemporary
'as a set of effects of [Modernism's]
own is an excellent
priorities' example
of the of use of the decorative and the
consequences Greenberg's
subordination of craft it entailed. In Smith asserts that craft was
(1) 'defeated', (2) out', (3) 'isolated, and devalued',
'separated marginalized,
(4) 'absorbed, aestheticised and rehistoricised', and finally (5) 'de-crafted'
under Modernism. First, Smith craft was defeated mass
explains, by
and in modern a in 'the
production particular by design, development making
of . . .which a of created
things developed range mass-producible products
with an to the aesthetics of their their in
eye consumption, denying origins
human and their in machine manufacture'.
making, highlighting origins
Mass and modern claims to artistic status were
production design's
enemies too, but in to Smith's second and third
Greenberg's regards points,
was one of the major offenders. art as the 'more
Greenberg Defining dynamic
Smith that the process of out and
symbolizing process', argues separating

Left a generalized sense that art and craft differ, essentially, in all ways; in their preferred
relationships to materials (for artists they are a vehicle; for craftspeople they are sacred); to
composition (for artists an arrangement of imagery or images won out of the medium or against
it; to craftspeople mostly a surface effect); to purpose (for artists a communicative act about
something usually beyond art but often about representation
of significance itself, for
craftspeople the execution of an appropriate design for the provision of an object of satisfying
usefulness). And for those who receive the artwork or craftwork, a different pleasuring of the
eye: one intimately associated with the hand, touch (haptic); the other with sight (optic), ideas,
suggestions, concepts (cognitive).107

Smith could be about as these are the

speaking Greenberg here, precisely
distinctions that he implicitly, when not in his criticism
explicitly, produced
the decorative. of use of the decorative above
through My analysis Greenberg's
demonstrates one in which these distinctions are maintained in the art
world into the latter half of the twentieth century.

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The Decorative, Abstraction, and the Hierarchy of Art and Craft in the Art Criticism of Clement

As as 1986 art critic John Bentley just these

recently Mays upheld
distinctions in American the for the 'craft
Craft, leading journal professional
108. John Bentley Mays, 'Comment', American artist' in the US. In December of that American invited to
year, Craft Mays
no. 6, December own
Craft, vol. 45, 1985/January comment
upon his and other art critics' lack of critical
1986, p. 38. The essay was reprinted in Craft exhibitions of work in craft media. statement
Australia. For a response to Mays and the art/ contemporary Mays' opening
recalls own seminal statement about the decorative as
craft debate generally see Sue Rowley, 'Mind directly Greenberg's
Over Matter? Reading the Art/Craft Debate', 'the that haunts modernist wrote: 'A haunts
spectre painting'. Mays spectre
West, vol. 1, no. 1, 1989, pp. 3-7. the craft world of America, the about the of
writing craft, gatherings artisans,
109. Mays, 'Comment', p. 38f. ?
the studios in schools and universities the of art.' The rest of his
110. Mays, 'Comment', p. 38f. demonstrates the extent to which it is who
essay quite clearly really Greenberg
111. Mays, 'Comment', p. 38f. is the over craft:
112. That is, unique objects in craft media,
Art critics will never be paying as much attention to crafts as craftspeople . . . think they should
what is generally referred to as 'craft-art'.
. . .This is so not because craft or craft-as-art (as Ihave experienced it) are inferior to art, but
113. Mays, 'Comment', p. 39. because they are not art.109

But wait, it worse. continues:

gets Mays

Hands cannot contemplate; and the creation of works for disinterested, hands-off contemplation
has traditionally been a central concern of all Modern art production . . .Modern art itself, in all
its variety, is proof that the historically anti-hand, anti-craft strategy continues to be radical and

greatly rewarding.110

characterisation of craft, his on the hand and the

Mays' particularly emphasis
craftmaker's with the of skill as an evacuation of the
preoccupation display
values of art, throws into relief the of the
persistent power Greenbergian
Modernist the of art, its from other
position regarding autonomy separation
art forms and in the world. confirms vision that it is
things Mays Greenberg's
in the realm of the fine arts rather than 'the familiar clutter of life,
that Modern art to its ironic truth about the world not in
yields up complex,
handled and known but in
being intimately, being contemplated by the
also characterises 'non-functional craft' as the mere imitation of art,
evaluation of the decorative in art as a derivative and
reaffirming Greenberg's
false aesthetic, to those with taste but no serious commitment
appealing good
to art. to the careers of the 'ceramic Peter Voulkos,
Referring sculptors'
Robert Arneson, and David he writes:

It has always seemed to me that Voulkos merely borrowed the swagger and hot-licks stylistics
of action painting without much understanding of their precise, inalienable relations to the
history of painting, then deployed these technical gestures in a kind of popular, stylish pastiche
- a comfortable version of Modern art for
people who feel intimidated by it, but who still wish to
appear chic and knowledgeable.113

and his of essential differences between art and

Mays' language assumption
craft come close to own of craft and
strikingly Greenberg's marginalisation
serve as evidence of the force of his rhetorical subordination of craft
via the decorative.

On the side, a feminist of art and craft

of the
positive critique
from within the women's art movement
in the 1970s in the US,
emerged early
and Australia as a to the association of
England, rigorous challenge femininity
and craft, ornamentation, or the decorative and earlier
posited by Greenberg
critics. Artists and scholars associated with the feminist of the
critique hierarchy
of art and craft the of the decorative as to the
targeted gendering key
of women artists and the cultural devaluation of women's
traditional artistic Their efforts to reveal the sexist bias of the aesthetic

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Elissa Auther

and the fortification of boundaries between art and 'non-art' essential

to the subordination of craft to art constitutes one of the most
of the creation of value in the art world in this and 114. Rozika Parker, The Subversive Stitch:
analyses period beyond.
While the mounted women artists has taken various forms since Embroidery and theMaking of the Feminine
critique by
New York, 1984). Other important
the 1970s, the of into feminist works of art is (Routledge:
integration embroidery
scholarly contributions to the feminist critique
emblematic of the of this of the women's art movement. of the hierarchy of art and craft include Heresies:
larger goals segment
In contrast to its use as a for the ornamentation of a surface in A Feminist Publication on Art ^Politics, Special
trope superficial
Issue:Women's Traditional Arts and the Politics
criticism, in the hands of Kate Walker or to name of
Greenberg's Judy Chicago, Aesthetics,Winter 1978, Parker and Pollock, Old
the most well-known artists in the medium in the 1970s,
only working Mistresses, selected essays collected in Broude
feminist took aim at the made between women and craft and Garrard (eds), Feminism and Art History,
embroidery equation Judy
as as the of the Chicago, Embroidering Our Heritage: The Dinner
'natural', exposing ideological relationship utility, decoration,
Party Needlework (Anchor Books: New York,
detail, and femininity to the hierarchy of media and the
domesticity, 1980), Susan E. Bernick, 'AQuilt is an Object
of women's artistic from culture. Rozika When it Stands Up Like a Man', in Cheryl
marginalisation practices high
B. Torsney and Judy Elsley (eds), Quilt Culture:
Parker's major of and the historical construction of
study embroidery
Tracing the Pattern (Columbia University Press:
The Subversive Stitch (1984), stands as a parallel critique in the field New York, 1994), Division of Labor: 'Women's
of feminist art The continued use of women artists Work' in ContemporaryArt (Bronx Museum of
history. embroidery by
as Elaine Art: Bronx, New York, 1995), and Moira
such Reichek, Ghada Amer, or Anne Wilson, all of whom
Vincentelli, Women and Ceramics: Gendered Vessels
address connections between and embroidery in different
femininity (although (Manchester University Press: Manchester and
and toward different the cultural New York, 2000).
ways very ends), suggests enduring strength
of these associations and as a medium of 115. See Elaine Reichek, When This You See. . . .
embroidery's viability contemporary
art. Reichek's work in hones in on the terms of the (New York: George Brazilla, 2000). See also
particular very opposition Bill
of art to decoration or craft Modernist critics in the twentieth Arning, 'Elaine Reichek's Rewoven
exploited by Histories', Art in America, March 1999,
century, including Greenberg. pp. 89-95.
Reichek's (The Ultimate) (1996, 1), one of 116. For the context of Westheim's statement
Sampler fig. thirty-one
embroideries from the series When This You See . . . exhibited in 1999 at see Paul Westheim, 'Comments on the
of the Bauhaus', Das Kunstblatt,
the conflation of the decorative with and its "Squaring"
MOMA, exposes craft, emphasises vol. 8, 1923, reprinted in Hans Wingler,
the Modernist
centrality hierarchy of media privileging painting.115 Bauhaus in America: Repercussion and Further
this is dominated a Development (Bauhaus Archives: Berlin, 1972).
Compositionally piece by centrally placed, profusely The statement by Georg Muche is taken from
ornamented floral arrangement framed a black and white
by gridded border his autobiography, Blickpunkt
(Verlag Ernst
taken from an Anni Albers the central is a series
Surroundingweaving. image Wasmuth: T?bingen, 1965). The full passage
of four statements of the art world: the art critic Paul reads 'my alphabet of forms for abstract painting
by representatives larger
turned into fantasy and, in the hands of the
Westheim, the architect-theorist Adolf Loos, the Muche, and
painter Georg women weavers, into tapestries,
rugs and
the art historian Hans Hildebrandt. Taken their statements a fabrics. I promised myself that Iwould never in
together produce
narrative of Modernist
over abstraction's into the realm of my life with my own hands weave a single
'feminine' ornament or craft. Reichek's selection of Westheim's to thread, tie a single knot, make a single textile
design. I have kept my word'. As quoted by
the and Muche's revulsion toward the female Bauhaus weaver is an
square Sigrid Wortmann Weltge, Women's Work: Textile
that the of Artfrom the Bauhaus (Chronicle Books: San
especially provocative comparison highlights interrelationship
craft and in the construction of the Francisco, 1993), p. 59.
ornament, media, 'decorative':

The ultimate of Bauhaus ?deals: the individual square. Talent is a square, genius an absolute
- Paul 1923
square. Westheim,

In the hands of the women weavers, my alphabet of forms for abstract paintings turned into
fantasy ... Ipromised myself that Iwould never . . .with my own hands weave a single thread.
George Muche116

The juxtaposition of the

embroidery (itself abstract and based on the grid) and
the written word on its difference from art underscores the historical
construction of women's needlecraft as a form of surface decoration rather
than a felt or with the blank canvas used to
deeply negotiation struggle great
effect by
Installation art is characterised a vast set of and media,
by practices making
it difficult, if not impossible, to
generalise about the field as awhole in relation
to of the decorative or the of art and craft. That
Greenberg's theory hierarchy
said, I do believe there is a of installation characterised a use of
species by space

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The Decorative, Abstraction, and the Hierarchy of Art and Craft in the Art Criticism of Clement

pits?;:.-?-'*?:j||\v .;. .'?: ' 11iH-53i|^

J3?M.' *yji.^?|s??!SP?

W ? fi ^^*' ^h ?BBPv <y 3^^^B|^P?p^ ^y JSPlii.I* Bl^^~ fl|

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l.--. .- -. . .- -- - -?..j.^^,.^,^^^^^

Rg. 1. Elaine Reichek, Sampler (The Ult?mate), 1996, embroidery on linen, 54 x 54 cm. Private Collection. (Photo courtesy Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery, New

' '
within which decoration or traditional craft media is used to address issues of
or the history of the decorative itself. This form of
gender, sexuality,
installation is an all-out assault on the Modernist fetishisation of the

autonomous work of art, an ideal held in the

together, part, by separation
of art from craft. Artists utilising such an installation strategy include Robert
Gober, Josiah McElheny, Jorge Pardo, Virgil Marti, Roy McMacken, Andrea
Zittel, Polly Affelbaum, and Abigail Lane, among others. Common to these
artists' is the use of traditional craft media, elevation of and
practice design,
reference to the domestic realm.

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Elissa Auther

117. For an extended analysis of the history of

wallpaper inmodern art criticism and its
relation to the use of wallpaper in contemporary
installation art, see my unpublished paper, 'The
Rhetorical Use of Wallpaper inModern Art
Criticism and Contemporary Art', Smithsonian
American Art Museum Fellows Symposium,
May 2002.
118. On Gober's installation at Paula Cooper
see his 'Interview with Richard Flood',
in Judith Nesbitt (ed.), Robert Gober (Serpentine
& T?te Galleries: Liverpool and London, 1993).
On see
Virgil Marti Apocalyptic Wallpaper
(Wexner Center for the Arts: Columbus,

Flg. 2. Robert Gober, Hanging Man/Sleeping Man Wallpaper, Wedding Gown, Cat Utter, 1989.
Installation view, Paula Cooper Gallery, 1989. (Photo courtesy Paula Copper Gallery, New York.)

For instance, a feature of this of installation is the use of

striking species
a medium characterised as artless and used these
wallpaper, by Greenberg by
artists to reference a of associations attached to the decorative,

including domesticity and femininity.117 Robert Gober's untitled wallpapers

for his 1989 installation at the Paula Cooper Gallery (Fig. 2) and Marti's
Bullies (1992, fig. 3), one of his earliest wallpaper installations, are
of the embrace of the medium installation artists.118
representative by
Gober's installation at Paula consisted of three rooms: one with
bare walls with drains, one in a based on
punctuated papered repeat pattern
? one
found of two men white and the other black and
images sleeping,

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The Decorative, Abstraction, and the of Art and Craft in the Art Criticism of Clement
Hierarchy Greenberg

Flg. 3. Virgil Mart?, Bullies, 1992, flocked fluorescent wallpaper, blacklights. (Photo: Aaron G. Igler.)

119. The first installation of the paper occupied ? and a third room in crude chalk of male and
a dark boiler room of lynched papered drawings
Philadelphia's Community female a black other hand-fabricated
Education Center. genitalia against background. Among
objects made artist for the wallpapered a is
by the rooms, wedding gown
prominently displayed.
Gober's for this installation trade the medium's
wallpapers particular upon
association with the home and its function as pattern. Like his
earlier hand-crafted, distorted or displaced sinks, playpens, beds, and drains,
the unravel the and comfort of the home. In
wallpapers safety, purity,
combination with other objects in the room, the gown,
particularly wedding
Gober's 'decorative' of motivated violence, sexual difference,
imagery racially
and the rituals of heterosexual union that forms of sexual and racial
are of and sexual desire.
oppression integral aspects gender identity
concerns itself with
Virgil Marti's Bullies wallpaper also gender
and sexual
The paper is based upon a French pattern to which the artist has
added flock and yearbook portraits of various adolescent
glow-in-the-dark boys
who tormented the young Marti as he to make sense of his
homosexual urgings in junior high school.119 The pattern recalls domestic
interior d?cor of the 1970s, and his of a masculine
juxtaposition aggressiveness
and feminine decorativeness the in evokes traumatic
wallpaper generally
memories of peer harassment for to one's
failing correctly perform gender.
The idea of the home or adolescent's bedroom as a from such
harassment is threatened the faces of the that appear as
by looming wallpaper

night falls.
It seem that these to do with the historical debate
might examples have little
over art's the decorative, or the of art and craft. Yet,
autonomy, hierarchy
historical as decorative, its association with the
wallpaper's categorisation

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Elissa Auther

Flg. 4. Josiah McElheny, K?rntner Bar, Vienna, 1908 Adolf Loos (White), 2001. Installation view, Site Santa Fe Biennale, 2002. Wood display cases with
blown glass objects, glass, and metal sign. (Photo courtesy Donald Young Gallery, Chicago.)

feminine realm of the and of it as the 120. Despite the recent increased visibility of
home, Greenberg's promotion opposite as Dale
of an role in its use in installations. glass blowers such Chihuly, the medium
art, important contemporary Indeed, remains
play largely ignored within the
the of Gober and Marti's installations turn connections
potency upon posited contemporary art world.
between social and aesthetic hierarchies: those of and sexual 121. The installations by McElheny I am
orientation and that art from craft. is the locus of to are The Metal Party (2002), a
separating Wallpaper referring
reconstruction of a party held at the Bauhaus in
their intersection.
Dessau on 9 February 1929 and K?rntner Bar,
the many artists who use traditional craft media in installation, Josiah
Of Vienna, 1908, Adolf Loos (White) (2001), a partial
is perhaps the most conscious of the historical conflict between the recreation of Loos' American Bar
1907. A similar strategy was used by Elaine
decorative and fine art. Like Gober or Marti, recent installations
McElheny's Riechek. In her 1994 installation, A Postcolonial
also evoke dwelling places, but his are distinctly public and overtly directed Kinderhood, she presented a series of
toward the investigation of the hierarchy of art and craft. For McElheny, a embroideries and cross-stitches within a space
that replicated her childhood bedroom. About
blower, the creation of a scenario for his work is essential,
glass provocative the installation see, Norman L. Kleeblatt,
for is a medium saturated with associations of the decorative, into Multiculturalism', in Norman
glass especially 'Passing
skill.120 To carve out a for hand-blown within the art L. Kleeblatt (ed.), Too Jewish? Challenging
place glass contemporary
Traditional Identities (The Jewish Museum and
world, creates art-historical contexts that use the medium of
McElheny glass
Rutgers University Press: New York, 1996).
to tell the of its via the decorative.121 His K?rntner Bar,
story marginalisation
Vienna, 1908, Adolf Loos (White) (2001, fig. 4) commissioned for the 2002 Site

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The Decorative, Abstraction, and the Hierarchy of Art and Craft in the Art Criticism of Clement

Santa Fe Biennial in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is an excellent of his

, . example
122. See Beau Monde: Toward a Redeemed K?rntner Bar, Vienna, 1908, Loos is a
McElheny's Adolf (White) partial
Cosmopolitanism. The SITE Santa Fe's Fourth recreation of the interior of the
tiny, jewel-like
K?rntner or American Bar in
International Biennial (SITE Santa Fe: Santa Fe,
Vienna Loos in 1907. For the piece
2002). See also McElheny's wonderful series designed by Adolf McElheny replicated the
dimensions of the bar and the grid Loos applied to the
'Non-Decorative Beautiful Objects' exhibited in ceiling and upper walls
1997 at the AC Project Room in New York and of the to frame a coffered and mirrors. In contrast to
space ceiling clerestory
his series of works inspired by his residency at
Loos' riot of surfaces for the K?rntner Bar, a black and white
the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, including
Massachusetts in 1998. checked floor, and walls, a veined marble
mahogany- onyx-faced ceiling, glass
shelves, and mirrors, installation is rendered in a brilliant white.
123. Josef Hoffmann co-founded theWiener McElheny's
Werkst?tte with Koloman Moser in 1903. Included within it are three titled works: Bar Glass, Loos vs.
separately Adolf Josef
Oswald Haerdtl was Hoffmann's collaborator on
a number of Hoffmann and Oswald Haerdtl, Vienna (White) (2001), consisting of three white
projects beginning in 1924. cases an assortment
illuminated of white vessels hand
display containing glass
124. Adolf Loos, 'Ornament and Crime', in
Ornament and Crime, 1908, a
Ornament and Crime: Selected Essays (Ariadne
blown by McElheny; Adolf Loos (White) (2001),
Press: Riverside, CA, 1998), p. 167. For white-on-white framed screen of Loos' infamous of the same
print essay title;
vs. and American Flag at theK?rntner Bar, Vienna, 1908, Adolf Loos (White) (2001),
example, in Bar Glass, Adolf Loos Josef an
Hoffmann and Oswald Haerdtl, Vienna (White) illuminated model of the K?rntner Bar's American also fabricated
McElheny creates a face-off between the two flag marquee
in white
heavy-weights of the Viennese architecture and glass.
design community of the early twentieth As these titles
suggest, McElheny's
installation is an
of Loos'
century that references Loos' criticism of anti-decorative with the cases and the model of the K?rntner
Hoffmann as an 'ornamental artist' in agenda display
'Ornament and Crime'. Within the display cases Bar's as visual footnotes to the notorious
marquee serving designer-critic's
McElheny has produced samples of bar glass essay 'Ornament and Crime', in which he asserts that 'the evolution of culture
reminiscent of Hoffmann's somewhat bulbous
is with the removal of ornamentation from of
synonymous objects
designs for theWeiner Werkst?tte, which > 124 everyday
to level the use .
sought hierarchy of art and craft
through the production of aesthetically refined The installation of
McElheny's K?rntner Bar, Vienna, 1908, Adolf Loos (White)
handcrafted objects and interior design, and a
in a exhibition could be as evidence of
major contemporary interpreted just
simpler, rectilinear shape reflecting Loos'
insistence upon rational mass how far the art world has moved from
design, production contemporary away Greenberg's
and the rejection of ornament. To Loos, of the decorative. the constructed scenario he has
prohibition Yet, carefully
Hoffman's design aesthetic was exemplary of the
devised for his blown glass vessels iswell aware of the
wasted labour, materials, and capital of the suggest that McElheny
ornamented object. In contrast to Hoffmann's obstacles he faces in his work as autonomous
conceptual presenting sculpture
interiors, which Loos predicts in 'Ornament and its association with decoration. As a of the decorative,
given critique
Crime' would be 'unbearable' in little over a
installation underscores the of the discourse of the
decade because of the acceleration of changing McElheny's persistence
decorative tastes exacerbated by commerce, he decorative into the
present period.
. . . [which]
juxtaposes his own, 'Caf?Museum The 2002 Site Santa Fe Biennial, for which installation was
will be unbearable only when the carpentry McElheny's
commissioned, was curated art critic Dave In the
works begins to fall apart' (p. 173). McElheny's by Hickey. my opinion,
re-creation of the American flag marquee of the of K?rntner Bar to the discourse of the
negative relationship McElheny's
K?rntner Bar links to another passage in the decorative can be extended to overall curatorial vision for the
essay where Loos laments the revival of In the mid-1990s a name for himself a
ornament in Austria as anachronistic and an
exhibition. Hickey made by calling for
obstacle to social evolution and posits America return to in art, a stance used to artists whose
beauty champion work,
as a
society free from the constraints of history. to the critic, stood outside the Modernist rejection
according mind-numbing
'Happy the land that does not have many of visual institutionalised art schools and museums since the
cultural stragglers and laggards. Happy pleasure by
1970s. the work revels in associations or
America,' he wrote (p. 170). By contrast, Hickey supports
as decorative in
125. On Hickey's conception of beauty see his practices rejected Greenberg's writings: visually pleasing
The InvisibleDragon: Four Essays on Beauty (Art colour, sensual surfaces, and the of the
optical abstraction, design, pleasure
Issues Press: Los Angeles, 1993). See also his
hand-made. Likewise for the Biennial, selected a of artists whose
later collection of critical essays, Air Guitar: Hickey group
on Art and use of colour, attractive eroticism, and interest in
Essays Democracy (D.A.P.: New York, surfaces, overriding
1997). 'fabrication' created a of visual and other formal
complex provocative pairings
126. Among the works in the exhibition were connections. Artists in traditional craft media such as ceramics,
Kenneth Anger's homoerotic film, Kustom Kar costume and interior made a
Kommandos (1965), the current minimalist and glass, design, graphic design, design, particularly
in the exhibition. Decoration was not a term in this
optical paintings of Jo Baer and Bridget Riley, strong showing derogatory
it was a of radical aesthetic but the critical of
carpets by Jorge Pardo, the exotic cr?ole Mardi context, sign renewal, power
Gras costumes of Darryl Montana, ceramic as a critic and curator on the
position of that
Hickey's hinges recuperation
sculpture by Ken Price, the monochrome under the term
marginalised 'decorative'.

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Elissa Auther

To be certain, the three artworlds I've just as

highlighted being uniquely
by Greenberg's conception
of the decorative, that of 'craft-art' (as it is
still feminist art, and at least one of a flower
commonly called), species installation, paintings of Ellsworth Kelly,
have in no
way resolved the
of art and craft. In fact, one could
argue arrangement by Marine Hugonnier, and
that artists in the first two artworlds are views of their Jim Isermann's permanent installation of
plagued by partial 750 vacuum formed plastic geometric panels
to the of art and craft that often result in its on Site Santa Fe's fa?ade. the
relationship hierarchy perpetuation Hickey used
rather than its dissolution. And in the case of the installation artists I've term 'fabrication' to describe a commonality
between the works in the show in an online
the historical division between art and decoration or craft is
discussed, interview. See 'Dave Hickey and Sari Carel'
essential to the The of use of the in issue 14 of Zingmagazine at
practice. lasting impact Greenberg's
: www.
decorative is that as the
it still looms
negative example
of the
of fine <http / / zingmagazine. com>
art from craft. The term 'decorative' no be as central to art
may longer
discourse as it was under but its as a in
Greenberg's reign, importance concept
the history of Modernist art criticism of the mid to late twentieth century
remains our of artistic into the
key understanding production contemporary


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