The Abstract Expressionists’ use of gesture was caught up with notions of authenticity and even of purity of intent. The influential critic Clement Greenberg wrote in his article ‘Avant Garde and Kitsch’ in 1939 about the good artist painting ‘cause’ and the bad artist painting ‘effect’. He also talks about what he describes as ‘the inflections of the personal’ becoming a legitimate subject. For example, the artist Jackson Pollock talked about wanting to paint from his emotions, not to illustrate them. What’s your response to these comments?

Much of art over the last few centuries has been academic art., produced by artists formed by the process of formal teaching and painting in effect to a formula.  Depicting scenes, portraits according to symbolise, criteria and by methods recognised as art by the viewer.  The viewer needed only to understand the shorthand of the painting to derive its meaning and intent.  The meaning in the painting was usual quite obvious (once you knew the shorthand).

Michael Vaughan painting

However, over the last 150 years art and artists have rebelled against the constraints of this formulaic art.  This has resulted in a (at times) painful birth of ‘modern art’.  Initially it was the methods of painting that rebelled, i.e. the Impressionists using paint to depict fleeting effects, and then it was the message behind the painting.  This art not produced to a formula or a result of any academic training has obscured the message of the painting and what the artist is saying.

Originally paintings had a common meaning, each of us would understand the same thing from the painting; however, this changed with the artist involving his emotions in what he was representing.  Previously, the artist had sought to stir an emotion in the viewer, now the viewer was pulled into art which was the artist’s emotional response and depiction.

In the present time art must be produced as an emotional response by the artist to his surroundings for a landscape, or to the sitter for a portrait.  Previously the artist had to be poor and struggling now he has to be poor, struggling and mad!

Eventually and inevitable the artist was in essence removed from the process by forms of art that produced a work through a process with little involvement from the artist save placing the materials to produce the art.  Essentially the artist was now loading the paint gun but could not really influence how the splatters landed when the paint pellet met it target!

Painting produced by cricket ball splotches

An example of this is retired English cricket captain; Michael Vaughan who paints by firing paint covered balls at a white canvas or the shotgun paintings by writer William Burroughs.

Many people without the symbolism and language which was previously used to interpret painting now dismiss art which is ‘not realistic’ a something a child could do!  Quite often it does resemble the art produced by a 5-year old but the deeper meaning behind the painting is beyond the comprehension of a 5 year old or indeed his parents in these cases.

Pollock - Summertime -detail
Summertime (detail)

In many ways the art viewer of today needs to be more sophisticated that previously without the shorthand used they must now look inside themselves rather than through the artist’s eyes to derive meaning.

Jackson Pollock said” The thing that interests me is that today painters do not have to go to a subject-matter outside themselves. Modern painters work in a different way. They work from within. … “.3

In the video by Hans Namuth Jackson Pollock notes …” I want to express my feelings rather than illustrate them  …. “.  His art was a primal elemental human experience laid out for us to also experience.

Summertime: Number 9A 1948 by Jackson Pollock 1912-1956
Summertime Number 9A, Jackson Pollock 1949



kitsch 1              Noun: art, objects, or design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality, but sometimes appreciated in an ironic or knowing way.

kitsch 1             Adjective: considered to be in poor taste but appreciated in an ironic or knowing way.

avant-garde 1   noun: new and experimental ideas and methods in art, music, or literature.           

avant-garde  Adjective: favouring or introducing new and experimental ideas and methods.

Quotes Extracts

 Avant-Garde and Kitsch, Greenberg, 1939 2

“…… They are not immediately or externally present in Picasso’s painting, but must be projected into it by the spectator sensitive enough to react sufficiently to plastic qualities. They belong to the “reflected” effect. In Repin, on the other hand, the “reflected” effect has already been included in the picture, ready for the spectator’s unreflective enjoyment.  Where Picasso paints cause, Repin paints effect.   …….”

“  ……. as long as Western art was endeavoring to perfect its technique, victories in this realm could only be signalized by success in realistic imitation, since there was no other objective criterion at hand   …………….”

 “    ………….. The avant-garde poet or artist tries in effect to imitate God by creating something valid solely on its own terms, in the way nature itself is valid, in the way a landscape-not its picture -is aesthetically valid; s …………….”


Websites access 2 Nov’17

Source:          Art and Culture – Critical Essays by Clement Greenberg  pub. Beacon Press Boston 1961

1 Avant-Garde and Kitsch, Greenberg, 1939


3  (Jackson Pollock by Hans Namuth – YouTube )

Summertime Number 9A, Jackson Pollock 1949

Support: 848 x 5550 mm, Tate Collection, Reference : T03977