… It is possible that the connoisseurs of some future age may — all other things being equal — prefer the more literal space of abstract painting to the fictive kind.
This is from the essay ‘Abstract and Representational’ (1954) found in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 3, edited by John O’Brian (1993):
… What counts first and last in art is whether it is good or bad. Everything else is secondary. No one has yet been able to show that the representational as such either adds or takes away anything from the aesthetic value of a picture or statue. That a work is or is not representational no more determines its value as art than the presence or absence of a libretto does in the case of a musical score. No single element or aspect of a work of art autonomously determines its value as a whole. How much any part is worth aesthetically is decided solely by its relation to every other part or aspect of the given work. This holds as true in painting and sculpture for the element of representation, absent or present, as for that of color or physical substance.
It is granted that a recognizable image will add anecdotal, historical, psychological, or topological meaning. But to fuse this into aesthetic meaning is something else; that a painting gives us things to recognize and identify in addition to a complex of colors and shapes to feel does not mean invariably that it gives us more as art. More or less in art do not depend on how many different categories of significance we apprehend, but on how intensely and largely we feel the art — and what that consists in we are never able to define with real precision. That the Divine Comedy has an allegorical and analogical meaning as well as a literal one does not make it necessarily a more effective work of literature than the Iliad, in which we fail to discern more than a literal meaning. Similarly, the explicit comment on a historical event offered by Picasso’s Guernica does not make it necessarily a better work than an utterly “non-objective” painting by Mondrian that says nothing explicitly about anything. We can never tell, before the fact, whether representational meaning — or any other given factor — will increase and intensify aesthetic meaning, or whether it will weaken and diminish it. Until it is actually experienced, a work of art remains a law unto itself.
That those who condemn abstract art generally do so in advance of experience is shown by the completeness with which they condemn. To hold that one kind of art is invariably superior or inferior to another kind is to judge before experiencing. The whole history of art is there to demonstrate the futility of rules of preference laid down beforehand — the impossibility of anticipating the outcome of aesthetic experience. The critic doubting whether abstract art could ever transcend decoration — as Daniel Kahnweiler does — is on ground as unsure as the Hellenistic connoisseur would have been who doubted whether the mosaic medium could ever be capable of more than merely decorative derivations of encaustic panel painting. Or as Joshua Reynolds was in rejecting the likelihood of the pure landscape’s ever occasioning works as noble as those of Raphael. As long as art, and the judging of it, have not been reduced to a science anything and everything remain possible in it.
It has never been more essential than today to keep in mind the precariousness of all assumptions about what art can and cannot do. If the practice of ambitious painting and sculpture continues in our time it is by flouting almost every inherited notion of what is and is not art. If certain works by Picasso as well as Mondrian are worthy of being considered pictures, and certain works by Brancusi and Gonzalez as well as Pevsner, sculpture, then it is despite all preconceptions and assumptions, and only because actual experience has told us so. And I don’t think we have more reason to doubt, by and large, what it tells us than what it told his contemporaries about Titian.
That being said, Greenberg goes on to muse on the difficulties of abstract art:
… Not only does the abstract picture seem to offer a narrower, more physical, and less imaginative kind of experience than the representational picture, but the language itself of painting appears, as it were, to do without nouns and transitive verbs, so that often we cannot distinguish centers of interest within the abstract picture’s field and have to take the whole of it as one single, continuous center of interest, which in turn compels us to feel and judge it in terms of its over-all unity to the exclusion of everything else. The representational picture does not, seemingly, force us to squeeze our reaction within such a narrow compass — otherwise how could we like the Flemish primitives as much as we do?
It is the language, then, the space, of abstract painting that causes most of the dissatisfaction we feel with it — not the absence per se of recognizable images. And if, as I believe, abstract sculpture meets less resistance than abstract painting does, it is because it has not had to change its language as radically. Whether abstract or representational, that language remains three-dimensional and literal. The construction, with its transparent, linear forms and its denial of mass and weight, may jar eyes accustomed to the monolith, but it does not require them to be re-focused in the way that the abstract painting does.
But in painting, shall we always regret the other kind, the transfigured kind of space the old masters created for us? Perhaps not. It is possible that the connoisseurs of some future age may — all other things being equal — prefer the more literal space of abstract painting to the fictive kind. They may indeed find the old masters wanting in physical presence, in corporeality, preferring instead the physical emphasis of the more or less flat, more or less opaque plane surface that is declared as such. There have been such reversals of taste before (only in this case, I hope, it will be an expansion rather than a reversal, and leave the old masters even safer in their eminence). These hypothetical connoisseurs may be more sensitive than we to the condensed, very concrete and literal play of color and shape, they may even find this richer in “human interest” than representational painting. And who knows but that they may not point to our age as one that produced a great school of art (especially in this country), yet was unable to supply it with an adequate audience. Just as we tend to think that the contemporaries of, say, Velasquez were not as adequate to him in the way of appreciation as we ourselves are.