Extreme Eccentrics


“Those who maintain that modern art was started by mental cases would seem to be right,” admitted Clement Greenberg in 1946, less than a decade after the Nazis’ notorious exhibition of Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art). Only “mental impulses so strong and so disconnected from the actual environment” as those that plagued Van Gogh, Cézanne and Rousseau, he offered, could have allowed them the courage or naïveté to venture so far into the unknown; and only after them could cooler, cannier figures like Matisse and Picasso begin exploring this new terrain in full consciousness of the consequences. Writing just after the war, Greenberg could have had no inkling that such a pursuit might one day at least promise to become a normal profession with a clear career path and, for some, a fat paycheck, pretty much like law or dentistry. But if in the beginning the pursuit required, at minimum, “an extreme eccentric” who could “shut his eyes with Cézanne’s tenacity to the established examples before and around him,” how much more maladjustment or nonconformity must it have taken for the early collectors of this art, even coming as they did a generation or more later, to bet their fortunes on its future?

more from Barry Schwabsky at The Nation here.