Clement Greenberg
By: Joshua Glenn | Categories: Browbeating, HiLo Heroes, Most Visited, Semiotics, Theory

CLEMENT GREENBERG (1909-94) started out as a critic of Middlebrow — one as fierce as his contemporaries Dwight Macdonald, George Orwell, Mary McCarthy, and T.W. Adorno. Unlike them, though, he championed Nobrow (particularly, after World War II, in the form of Abstract Expressionism)… and that’s how Middlebrow eventually suborned him. Greenberg’s 1939 Partisan Review essay, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” expresses horror about low-middlebrow cultural productions (aka “kitsch,” “pseudo-culture”) and insists that America needs avant-garde/modernist art which is “valid solely on its own terms.” This sort of thing has been a key plank in every Nobrow platform since Gautier’s introduction to Mademoiselle de Maupin; and it explains why, in his influential art criticism, Greenberg was skeptical of hilobrows (e.g., Picasso, the Dadaists, the Neo-Dadaists) whose art was insufficiently cool and detached. Alas, the nobrow’s faith in his own detachment makes him extra-susceptible to the snarky, above-it-all tone with which Middlebrow speaks when (in a liberal capitalist society) it’s dismissing challenges to the way things are. In 1950, Greenberg joined the CIA-fronted American Committee for Cultural Freedom; and in ’53 he published “The Plight of Our Culture” — an essay that begins as an insightful analysis of the Highbrow/Lowbrow/Anti-Highbrow/Anti-Lowbrow sociocultural matrix, but ends by cautiously praising high-middlebrow productions. As we know, Nobrow plus Middlebrow equals Quatsch. So is that what Abstract Expressionism was, all along?

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On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Susan Sontag and John Carpenter.

READ MORE about members of the Partisan Generation (1904-13).

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Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based semiotic culture and brand analyst. He is editor/publisher of HILOBROW and the Radium Age science fiction imprint HILOBOOKS. In addition, Josh is co-author of several books, including (with Mark Kingwell and the cartoonist Seth) THE IDLER'S GLOSSARY and THE WAGE SLAVE'S GLOSSARY, the object-oriented story collections TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY and (with Rob Walker) SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS, and (with Elizabeth Foy Larsen) the family activities guides UNBORED, UNBORED GAMES, and the forthcoming UNBORED ADVENTURE. In the ’00s, Josh was an editor and columnist for the BOSTON GLOBE's IDEAS section; in the ’90s, he published the high-lowbrow zine/journal HERMENAUT.