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A Kind of Cultural Imperialism?

Patrick Heron (1968)



I think it is about time that we all became more conscious of what is happening in the sphere of American art promotion. The only occasion in the last ten years when I have been driven to write was in December, 1966 when Studio International published my article, The Ascendancy of London in the the Sixties. In that piece I did five things: I asserted that London now leads New York in painting; I accused New York of intense artistic chauvinism, giving examples from the writings of leading American critics ('For twenty years or more almost all the best new painting and sculpture has been done in America': Michael Fried's idiotic claim, made in 1965, remains undefended and unexplained); I accused British art critics of displaying gutless obsequiousness' towards the Americans; I analysed the failure, after 1950, of American painters to develop their own discoveries - a development which younger British painters had therefore taken over from them; and I showed in some detail how it was that a very small group of what are now called British 'middle generation' painters - of whom I was one - did in fact render the first Abstract Expressionist generation of New York the uniquely useful service of giving them their first enthusiastic foreign acclaim - without which their recognition in New York itself would have been delayed, as many over there have admitted. Mr Clement Greenberg now challenges this point - but I will deal with that later on.

One might think that this attack would stimulate some defensive response, especially as my article was forwarded, as a courtesy, to a number of New York critics in advance of publication. There have indeed been lengthy references to this article by British critics; but Dore Ashton is so far the only American to have made an explicit reply - and the burden of what she has had to say is that perhaps I am becoming a British chauvinist. Actually, a dash of chauvinism on the part of the British would be a very salutary thing right now: I would welcome it profoundly, as an antidote to our almost universal over-reaction away from our imperial past, which takes the form on all sides of insidious self-denigration. Denigration of ourselves can safe be left to foreigners at the moment. Anyway, it has recently been suggested to me that, if no American has been either able or willing to refute the perfectly explicit criticisms which I made a year ago, there is nevertheless a sort of reply visible in Gene Baro's very muddled article on British Painting: the post-war generation published in Studio International in October, 1967. At first glance this article would seem to constitute a partial refutation of my charge of chauvinism among American critics, because Mr Baro is American, and what he appears to be doing here is giving the stamp of his approval to an entire generation of British painters. In point of fact, this article is really doing something quite different: it is designed, it seems to me in the best tradition of the new American cultural imperialism (as I'm afraid we must now label so much art criticism  - or, rather, art promotion - now emanating from the United States). That is to say, it seeks to 'divide and conquer", by giving an undiscriminating blanket approval to twelve British painters of one generation in order to use them as a stick to beat all their British predecessors with. The painters Mr Baro seems concerned to go on record as having praised - en masse, rather than as individuals, it may be felt - are Peter Blake, Patrick Caulfield, Bernard Cohen, Harold Cohen, Robyn Denny, David Hockney, John Hoyland, Allen Jones, Peter Phillips, Bridget Riley, Richard Smith and Joe Tilson. This is excellent as far as it goes: by all means let Mr Baro lend a hand in publicizing the achievement of this brilliant generation of British painters. In my own article I made it crystal clear that my claims for British painting were made on behalf of 'three generations': and I have recently assisted at the awarding of prizes to some of the twelve painters on Mr Baro's list. But let me name just one of the points where I find this whole exercise suspect - it is where he is giving reasons for singling out this after all very varied and diverse group of twelve; he seems to be saying that they are less influenced by America than their predecessors are! 'They are certain less derivative and imitative than earlier generations [of British painters]. American influence, where it has reached them, has been special and personal, relevant to individual sensibility, not just a good idea to try...'. The clear implication being that the 'middle generation' painters reacted to American painting with an abjectly uncritical acceptance?

All this means that Mr Baro thinks that the twelve painters just named are further removed from American influence than, say, Pasmore, Davie, Scott Frost, Wynter, Hilton, Lanyon or myself. As anyone can see, the very opposite is the truth! I could be specific about the European characteristics of many of the younger painters on Mr Baro's list (and Bridget Riley's brilliant inventiveness owes nothing to America), but on the whole the more prominent among them are still more visibly related to New York (though rapidly moving away from it) than is the case with any member of the 'middle generation'. And, of course, most of them have worked in America at some point, whereas my own generation have tended only to visit. So Mr Baro is demonstrably wrong in his principal claim. He is also so outrageously patronizing towards British painting as a whole, throughout his article, that one can only imagine the recipients of his Imprimatur wincing under the sheer weight of his condescension. Again, it is obvious throughout that Mr Baro is eager to imply that any painting of significance in Britain exists solely under the aegis of American painting: indeed his final pat on the head for his chosen promising twelve is typically insulting - let us look at his words: 'The post-war generation is asserting an independence within the broad spectrum of what might be thought of as characteristically British interests. At the same time, it is connected with the international scene in a healthy way' (My italics). And so on. Could condescension and pomposity be more obviously expressed in every word? The American critic hereby concedes to British painters the freedom to operate within the limits of Britishness, as preconceived by the Americans! I ended my article la year with a warning to Americans: "There is still time to stop yourselves becoming the Mid Victorians of the Twentieth Century but only if you make an effort to see that in Europe, and particularly in Britain, there is a pictorial scale of values which differs very considerably indeed from your own.' Mr Baro is clearly incapable of heeding this warning.

But pontificating pompousness towards British painting in general is by no means the full extent of Mr Baro's sins in this article: he also enlightens us on the changing scene in Britain; as if we didn't know a great deal more about it than he does; '...the new generation is born into a promising time The art schools have a more democratic atmosphere...There is increased opportunity for education and for economic betterment...there is a bit more money about etc.' Yet even such breathtaking banalities cannot compete with his thoroughly false and misleading setting of the scene for his discussion of modern art in Britain. Consider this: "These painters [the twelve already mentioned] were born too late to be asked to believe in the innate superiority of British art, a legacy of nineteenth century academism that was still supporting a few tottery heirs in the thirties and forties'. What in the blazes is this all about? Is he referring to aged Royal Academicians? Or is Mr Baro just plain ignorant? Because, as everyone knows, the most oppressive and ever-present psychological obstacle for ALL British painters and sculptors in the thirties and forties was the universal assumption that British art was innately inferior. The long battle towards recognition and fulfilment of such artists as Moore, Nicholson, Hepworth and Hitchens was primarily a battle against this assumption of national inferiority in the visual arts - and their ultimate victory is the more heroic in the light of this. The same battle awaited my own generation of painters: the international triumphs of Henry Moore had paved the way for younger sculptors; but not for the painters. We had to start from scratch - after first losing five or six years at the outset of our careers, due to the war. Nicholson's great international success was delayed and was thus not a factor in our early struggles.

It is impossible to list all the tendentious nonsense in Mr Baro's article. But should one should not omit to mention that he prefaces his comments on what is going on at this moment in British painting by reminding us that 'The dominating strain in English painting has been romantic and narrative, at least since Tudor times' and 'The romantic disposition in English art is pervasive'. Now, this sort of analysis was frequently made immediately after the war, when it was both perceptive and pertinent to the situation which then existed. And it was we ourselves who made it! For an American now to drag us all back into that sort of discussion in 1967 is either just stupid or wilfully obtuse. It is in any case totally irrelevant to any consideration of 90 per cent of what is taking place NOW. Equally irrelevant is another hoary generalization made by Mr Baro - the suggestion he solemnly makes that 'a good deal' of British abstraction (prior to his post-war generation' of course) is only landscape imagery in disguise. This is a hangover from the days of Alloway's anti-St Ives campaign. Does it apply to William Scott in 1952? To Hilton in 1953? to Pasmore since 1951? To my own vertical stripe paintings of March 1957? The British had a great master of total abstraction in Ben Nicholson in the early Thirties - a master whose stature is now seen to be greater than that of his friend, Mondrian: yet Baro, by implication weeps Nicholson's white reliefs aside with the following: "The avant garde of those decades [the Thirties and Forties] had felt attracted to programmatic artistic internationalism. They busied themselves in defining an aesthetic absolute in the wake of Gabo and Mondrian, or they joined one department or another of the School of Paris. This, too, the post-war generation escaped'.

If one can contain one's astonishment at the calculated impudence, the arrogance and the ignorance of all this, one may note the 'divide and conquer' technique in full view again, dividing the British generations - flattering one and maligning another. Those of us who were friends of Gabo when he was still living in Cornwall are better able than Mr Baro, I should have thought to judge his influence. Perhaps one might remark here that no important American painter, except perhaps Tobey, had shed his obvious European influences until approximately fifteen years after Ben Nicholson had achieved his own complete individual independence of style in the white and painted reliefs. Indeed, it has been possible, in New York, to achieve the status locally, of a 'master' without in fact emerging from a patent eclecticism: I'm thinking, for example, of the Miro influence from which Gorky never emerged.

But easily the most ludicrous part of Mr Baro's attempt to make all British painting, except his post-war generation look in turn unprofessional, craft-conscious, taste-ridden, romantic, illustrational, derivative 'story telling', etc, is his reference to (an very lengthy quotation from) Paul Nash! To use Nash's statement published in Unit One in 1934, as a stick to beat the majority of living British painters with is preposterous in the extreme. It is rather as if one went to New York and dug up John Marin (the comparison very unfair to Nash) and pretended to find in him a criterion relevant to the painting of Morris Louis, say - but to its detriment of course. No. Mr Baro had better do some homework if he hopes to stay on here educating the British on the subject of themselves. He should learn to open his eyes to the realities of the painting of three generations of modern British painters if, that is, he is interested? I suspect his real interest lies elsewhere: in a give way sentence, in this same article, he writes: 'What is of concern to me here is the nature of the impact of contemporary American art on the young, on the post-war generation [of British painters]. Quite so. The recording of American influence is his concern - rather than the unbiassed study of what we are all doing here in Britain.

I come now to Mr Clement Greenberg, in the form of the Interview (Studio International: January 1968) which Edward Lucie-Smith records for our enlightenment, if not for his own, for he introduces his subject with the words 'whom most of us think the most influential critic of modern art now writing', a compliment which might have seemed less of an obeisance if he had made it ten years ago, when others of us still thought Mr Greenberg interesting. (But Lucie-Smith was not around then.) Today we may be forgiven. If we feel that promotion has got the better of criticism, and denunciation the better, even of promotion, in Mr Greenberg's most recent pronouncement. Take this Interview: judgements and verdicts on this artist and that fall thick and fast, while the supporting critical argument shrinks into a few careless conversational phrases or vanishes entirely. Where Greenberg used to argue his way, rather ploddingly, towards his conclusions, as any self-respecting critic should, he is now so over-confident that he merely massacres his victims - a whole national at a go! He could not have presented us with a more perfect example of that 'cultural imperialism' which I am denouncing than he has in this Interview, where he suddenly says (I italicize the passage): "The renaissance of British sculpture after the war was a false one. In my opinion Moore is a minor artist: his best work was done before 1940. Butler, Chadwick, Armitage are less than minor." And why are these three sculptors, of international repute this past sixteen years, less than minor? No reason given! As for the assertion that "Moore is a minor artist" - it is possibly Greenberg's most audacious sally to date; but it will boomerang: the casualty will not be Moore's but Greenberg's reputation as a critic capable of responsible judgement in all but a very narrow field that is, in what I would call his critical 'empire building', Mr Greenberg has of course chosen his moment to attack Moore, in England, very cleverly; he must know that many of the younger artists in this country are very critical of, or indifferent to, the sculpture of Henry Moore - there was a rather shameful recent letter to The Times. Now, there is such a thing as over-exposure; there is also the passage of time: many of us in England now have probably experienced a degree of saturation of sensation where Moore is concerned. The same is true of Picasso. But critical irresponsibility can go no further than to exploit this very natural 'saturation' - which is itself after all, pretty good proof that the subject of it is or has indeed been a very major force. Any critic aspiring to real authority (perhaps this is not the same thing as influence?) should be able to hold two conflicting points of view in focus simultaneously: the fact that he personally no longer feels the urge to rush to the latest show by Moore should never obscure for him the knowledge of Moore's past achievement and indeed historic greatness. What would we think today of a critic who, in order to proclaim the validity of working Picasso, Braque and Gris in 1910, had written-off Renoir and Monet (still working then) as 'minor' artists? To submit to the temptation to deny the stature of an artist the moment our interest is engaged elsewhere is to degrade criticism to the status of fashion-picking. Greenberg in this Interview is guilty of just this.

At the same time that Greenberg has a go at wiping out Moore, Butler Chadwick and Armitage (thus rewriting the history of the past twenty years: if Moore is minor', the whole world has made rather a fool of itself: and Butler did win the most coveted international prize since the war, while Chadwick merely carried off the major sculpture prize at Venice) he also very handsomely sets up his new colony of protégés in Britain in the shape of half a dozen of the youngest generation of sculptors here. As if my charge of American chauvinism was still fresh in his mind his very first words in this Interview are: 'I think certain younger Englishmen are doing the best sculpture in the world today.' To the extent that he has encouraged certain younger English sculptors, Greenberg has a perfect right to say this now. Nevertheless, this bald statement has the air of a 'cultural takeover bid'. He goes on: 'It's Caro, I gather, who set on fire the new English sculptors: King, Tucker, Annesley, Scott, Witkin, Bolus...'. And who is Caro? Where does he come in the hierarchy? Caro is 'a major artist - the best sculptor to come up since David Smith'. One rather feels that Greenberg must have been looking round for some time for someone who could play second fiddle to David Smith, to whose exaggerated stature Greenberg had for sometime been committed. In his article on Anthony Caro in Studio International (October 1967) Greenberg says: "He is the only sculptor whose sustained quality can bear comparison with David Smith's. With him it has become possible at long last to talk of a generation in sculpture that really comes after Smith's." And who, finally is David Smith, according to the prophet? "During the fifties abstract sculpture seemed to go pretty much where David Smith took it: none of the promises made by other sculptors during that time was really fulfilled." Here, again from his article on Caro Greenberg tries his hardest to paralyse memory and instil aquiescence in the great claim! "Of course" we murmur, "abstract sculpture seemed to go pretty well where David Smith took it!" Anyway this is the hierarchy of sculpture values; the family-tree of the only true sculpture of our time: Smith begat Caro and Caro begat King, Tucker, Annesley et al. And this was how an American influence spawned into Britain - and all the old local gods were cast into outer darkness! Anyone who thought that abstract sculpture in the fifties, by the way, might have had anything to do with Hepworth Arp, Gabo, Pevsner, Bill, Calder, Robert Adams, Turnbull, or Brian Wall, to name a few, is obviously out of court. In point of fact, is Greenberg right to imply that King and Tucker, to name two, are so exclusively indebted to American example? I think not. I think both are very English.

It is all very sad. Why does a critic have to harm his existence of everything outside his personal range? Why does he have to marshall his chosen artists - many of whom one admires - into this exclusive phalanx. And why make exaggerated claims for good artists? Smith was an energetic, generous, slightly ham-fisted sculptor who made a too pictorial contribution - far less original or articulate than Calder (whom Greenberg ignores); and not the great genius we are asked to believe in.

A few other points. It isn't as though Greenberg is unconscious of the way his behaviour must look to us: in this Interview he says 'we used to mind the English coming over and telling us poor Americans what we were like. That started long before Matthew Arnold's visit. You like having attention paid to you, but you really don't like being characterized. Now the tables to be turned, at least with regard to art - and maybe with other things too.' So it tooks as though his rudeness is deliberate.

His inconsistency is perhaps rather less deliberate. 'English neatness, English patness - they're your weakness, I'm presumptuous enough to say. Neatness and patness - is it not possible to feel that no two words could better describe the painting of Greenberg's chief protégé, Kenneth Noland? Indeed, Greenberg's Post Painterly Abstraction selection of 1964 looks, from the catalogue, to be the 'neatest' and 'patest' collection ever to be gathered under one ideological roof. If ever an academic movement was heralded as the latest manifestation of the avant garde, that movement was Post Painterly Abstraction. Perhaps this is why Mr Greenberg himself, asked by Lucie Smith to define avant garde, replied that today the avant garde, "has taken over the foreground of the art scene - that area of attention once occupied by artists like Bouguereau and...Alma Tadema." Perhaps this is it!

Finally, Mr Greenberg states in this Interview that: "Post-war American painting got its first serious attention abroad in Paris. When I got to Paris in the Fall of 1954 certain Frenchmen were excited about it - the late Charles Estienne, Mathieu, Michel Tapié, Paul Facchetti. The English awareness came slightly later and was more reticent. But it was keener and contained more insight, all the same." He then gracefully acknowledges that "Patrick Heron, William Scott and Roger Hilton were the first in England to see American art, to my knowledge. Whether they or the French saw it first doesn't matter - I don't quite understand why Heron has made such a fuss about that."

I think Mr Greenberg is incorrect here. First of all, as I pointed out in my article last year, Alan Davie was the first European to see the point of a post-war American - Pollock. And, as I said, Davie's great response to from 1948. If it is true that the American painters got their first serious attention in Paris, where is the evidence? What did the critics write? And where and when? Was what they wrote published in New York- where it would have most chance to encourage? as my own articles in praise of the Americans in the mid-fifties were? If the French reacted before we did in favour of American painting - where did it show? And surely Mathieu owed painting more, originally, to Wols than to New York? The overwhelming impression I have of the mid-fifties is that Paris ignored the New York painting while London welcomed it, acclaimed it unreservedly and for the time being, followed it. This was confirmed in the statement which I quoted in my article by the late Frank O'Hara, the American critic.

Published originally in Studio International, February 1968. The photograph is Patrick Heron and John Wells with critic Clement Greenberg in Mousehole in 1959. Patrick Heron is at Tate St Ives from 19/5/18 - 30/9/18. See 'exhibitions' for installation views.