As Criticism: From Cultural Criticism to Art Criticism

Leclere, Mary, History of Art and Architecture - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Higginbotham, Carmenita, Department of Art, University of Virginia

As a member of a loosely affiliated group that came to be known as the New York Intellectuals, Clement Greenberg started out writing cultural criticism for Partisan Review in the late 1930s. By the 1950s, when he began to contribute to the art press, he was known as an art critic. This shift resulted from a “change in the order of discourse” that occurred when the critical discourse that originated in the little magazines of the 1930s merged—or converged—with the art discourse of the interwar period in the mid-1950s, leading to the formation of a critical field and the emergence of a critical art discourse in the early 1960s.

This trajectory started with the establishment, in the first decades of the twentieth century, of an “independent social criticism” by the “young intellectuals” (a group that included Randolph Bourne and Van Wyck Brooks), who sought to develop a more generalized critical discourse outside the academy with its disciplinary divisions and discourses. Cultural criticism evolved out of this practice. What counted as criticism between the wars had more to do with a certain kind of critical engagement than a particular critical approach: social criticism and cultural criticism were broader in scope than the literary criticism (and art criticism although there was much less of it) that was published in the little magazines and journals of opinion, but all of these practices exhibited an intellectual engagement that was not found in the descriptive or impressionistic “journalism” that passed for criticism in the popular press and the art press. By the late 40s, with the rise of New Criticism, literary criticism had become professionalized, which meant that it was on its way to becoming a discipline. Cultural criticism took a divergent path as its practitioners endeavored to establish the social role of the intellectual. By the 50s, cultural criticism had lost its political focus and was beginning to disperse. As cultural critics, including Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, began to write for a rapidly evolving art press, a new discourse emerged that combined the disciplinary specificity of art discourse and the analytical rigor of critical discourse.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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