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Accidental Specificity:
Modernism from Clement Greenberg to Frank Tashlin 

Burke Hilsabeck


There are some surprising correspondences between the writing of Clement Greenberg and the films of Frank Tashlin. Greenberg’s 1939 essay ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’, as well as his later ‘“American-Type” Painting’ of 1955, and Tashlin’s Artists and Models, a Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis vehicle of the same year, articulate competing conceptions of medium-specificity (as that term might be applied to painting and to film), as well as revealing accounts of the relationship between high modernist or avant-garde artworks, on the one hand, and mass cultural or what we could call (after Miriam Hansen) ‘vernacular modernist’ artifacts on the other. (1)


Tashlin and Greenberg were contemporaries, and it is clear today how much their careers ran in parallel. Greenberg’s first essays were published in the late 1930s and ‘40s, largely at Philip Rahv’s Partisan Review. As Greenberg was toiling away at his government clerkship and writing for that magazine, Tashlin was working as an animator and production manager in various Hollywood studios (including, most notably, with Tex Avery). Both men’s careers changed greatly after the Second World War. After a break with his first editors, Greenberg went on to become a kind of seer of the American art market, largely through his defense of Abstract Expressionist painting. Tashlin became a feature filmmaker, mostly directing a series of physical comedies, many of which starred Jerry Lewis. (2)


These two lives are instantiations of a problematic: the split – theoretical, practical, even geographical – between so-called high and mass culture or, rather, two forms or manifestations of the modern, avant-garde and vernacular. Tashlin’s work was emphatically kitsch, to use Greenberg’s word, formally aligned with cartoons and advertisements (a fact about which Artists and Models itself has something to say). Greenberg’s chosen painters (Kandinsky, Hans Hofmann, Jackson Pollock), on the other hand, produced work that was, at least originally, consumed by a small number of elite viewers and the avowedly avant-garde. What, if anything, do these films and these paintings have in common? Or, to paraphrase Greenberg himself: a movie by Tashlin and a painting by Pollock – ‘what perspective of culture is large enough to enable us to situate them in an enlightening relation’? (3)


Greenberg intended ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’ as an answer to this question. ‘One and the same civilization’, he wrote, ‘produces simultaneously two such different things as a poem by T. S. Eliot and a Tin Pan Alley song, or a painting by Braque and a Saturday Evening Post cover’. (4) Greenberg’s picture of this cultural totality is determinedly pessimistic: the relationship between avant-garde and kitsch, the essay rehearses, is that of host and parasite. Kitsch poems, films and paintings, in Greenberg’s account, are the processed foods of the culture industry; they provide the form of experience without at the same time providing its nutriment. (As he puts it, ‘Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money – not even their time’.) (5) In response to such parasitism, Greenberg argues, ‘living’ culture has entrenched itself in the form of an avant-garde, and he suggests that the formal recalcitrance of avant-garde work has been formed in reaction to the encroachments of a cheap, surrounding, mass culture. These works refuse the easy, pre-masticated forms of kitsch in favor of strategies of resistance, difficulty and intellection. This action results in an overarching drive toward medium-specificity that Greenberg spent his career sussing out in modernist painting, becoming a consistent theme of his writing – from early essays like ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’ through later work like ‘Modernist Sculpture, Its Pictorial Past’ and his eventual championing of ‘post-painterly abstraction’ in the work of artists such as Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis. (6)


Artists and Models begins by framing the same problem, that of medium-specificity and the conflict between avant-garde and kitsch, while reaching a dramatically different set of conclusions. The opening sequence of Tashlin’s film is a response to Greenberg and, more richly, contains its own theorisation of cinematic specificity.




1. Miriam Hansen, ‘The Mass Production of the Senses: Classical Cinema as Vernacular Modernism’, Modernism/Modernity Vol. 4 No. 2 (1999), pp. 59-77.  



2. Three essential books that, in various ways, touch upon a cultural study of Tashlin are Claire Johnston and Paul Willemen (eds), Frank Tashlin (Edinburgh Film Festival, 1973); Roger Garcia (ed.), Frank Tashlin (London: British Film Institute, 1994); and Ethan de Seife, Tashlinesque: The Hollywood Comedies of Frank Tashlin (Wesleyan University Press, 2012).  



3. Art and Culture: Critical Essays (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), p. 3.  

4. Ibid., p. 3.  

5. Ibid., p. 10.  



6. Indeed, a sign of the consistency of Greenberg’s writing is the fact that the essays that he selected for Art and Culture are not arranged in chronological order but by subject. (Even within the subject areas, the essays follow a conceptual rather than temporal order.) The notable – and for this essay, relevant – exception here is Greenberg’s later renunciation of his early Marxism.


From its beginning, Artists and Models announces that it is not simply a kitsch product or artifact, but is concerned with the ways in which kitsch itself is presented and viewed. After the opening credits (which are accompanied by a jaunty, parodic song about the painters of Montmartre and Greenwich Village), the film opens on a giant billboard in midtown Manhattan for ‘Trim Maid Cigarettes’. Rick (Dean Martin) is at work painting the surface of the ad, which depicts the disembodied face of a pretty woman, while Eugene (Jerry Lewis) sits in a small room behind it, excitedly reading a series of comic books.



Rick and Eugene converse through a hole in the billboard, which corresponds to the space of the model’s mouth. The hole is intended to serve as the chimney for a smoke machine, which is to provide a literal, or material, dimension to the image of the glamorous, brand-defining woman whose face dominates the surface of the ad.


The sequence and its gags turn upon a situation in which the billboard is to be tested: the owner of the billboard and the head of Trim Maid have come to view the finished painting and to witness a demonstration of the smoke machine – which will provide a unified, multidimensional, multi-sensory image of the brand. But when Eugene turns on the machine, its billows suck his precious stack of Bat Lady comic books into the mechanism. Recognising that Eugene is incapable of operating the machine, Rick works out a plan: he will manage the machine while Eugene fastens the chute to the woman’s mouth from the outside of the ad. But when Rick turns on the machine in proper order, it spits not smoke but the torn pages of Eugene ’s comic books. In his frustration, Eugene manages to kick several cans of paint onto the billboard’s owner, the man from Trim Maid, and a passing policeman.





This final image is a self-conscious parody of Abstract Expressionist painting – then at the height of its cultural ascendance – and, in particular, of Pollock. Its playful smattering of paint recalls the famous 1949 Life magazine spread that depicted Pollock clothed in a paint-splattered smock, astride one of his large works; it even more closely resembles Rudy Burckhardt’s high angle (indeed, almost vertical) 1950 photograph of Pollock at work in his studio. But it is not simply parody; Lewis’s painting, if it can be called that, is a figure for the studio cinema of the mid-‘50s itself: widescreen, composed somehow of both depth and an overweening superficiality, aglow in garish Technicolor.




Indeed, the same year that Artists and Models was released, Greenberg published the essay ‘“American-Type” Painting’, his articulation and defense of Abstract Expressionism, and of Pollock in particular. The essay contains a reiteration of Greenberg’s grand theory of modernist painting (‘It seems to be a law of modernism … that the conventions not essential to the viability of a medium be discarded as soon as they are recognized’) (7), as well as a familiar gesture toward the reasons for the purifying drive toward specificity. (‘Conventions are overhauled, not for revolutionary effect, but in order to maintain the irreplaceability and renew the vitality of art in the face of a society bent in principle on rationalizing everything’.) (8) The idea here, as it was in ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’, is that the specificity of modernist painting is a result of the tradition’s desire to maintain and renew its autonomy, as part of a defensive reaction to the rationalisations of mass culture.



7. Art and Culture, p. 208.  


8. Ibid., 208.

The opening sequence of Artists and Models is a parody, if not a considered refutation, of these ideas as they might pertain to Hollywood cinema. The bright, artificial colours that Lewis unleashes from the height of the billboard, for instance, refuse the muted tones of the abstract works about which Greenberg was writing – aligning themselves both formally and diegetically with the colour of advertisements. The joke with the paint cans is a way of harnessing the exuberance of this most rationalised or instrumentalised form of aesthetic expression, while at the same time turning this exuberance against the means of its instrumentalisation, here represented – as it has typically been in the physical comedy – by figures of authority.


Artists and Models also self-consciously refuses the quality of flatness that is essential to Greenberg’s account of modernist painting. In the advertisement, this refusal occurs not in service of a projected or constructed third dimension – as it would in, say, van Eyck (the space around the woman’s face does not suggest an environment or a scene) – but in service of an ‘actual’ third dimension, which is made manifest both by the presence of smoke and by the tiny room behind the image, a room that is (more or less) large enough to hold Lewis and his crazy imagination. If modernist painting (in Greenberg’s account) works to pare itself toward a flatness made essential by the canvas support, popular film (in the Tashlinian-Lewisian imagination) is the site of a vast plurality; it does not simply refuse flatness as much as serve as the container of an infinite depth. (The scene articulates the sense that, onscreen, objects both flat and round have interiors.) In Tashlin’s hands, this is not the mimicked depth of pre-modern painting, but a constructed depth that takes on the quality of absurdity, insofar as we see that it can be infinitely repeated.


Indeed, the fact that this refusal of flatness does not result in its notional opposite (in what we could call, qua Michael Fried, an ‘absorptive’ third dimension) (9) is of significance to the understanding of the declaration of specificity at work here. Through the mechanisms both of irony and of Lewis’s plasmatic body, Tashlin’s film has the effect of declaring an aporia in classical film practice (the fact that film space is not contained, that it is infinitely repeatable) and of confronting the viewer at the plane of the film screen by means of a denial of his/her desire for absorption. (10) To be sure, this is not the full-fledged self-criticism that Peter Bürger identified as constitutive of the historical avant-garde; but it is not difficult to read it as strong, ‘system-immanent criticism’ (Bürger again) with a particular drive toward understanding and articulating cinematic specificity. (11)


A final, very interesting twist is that this specificity is declared by means of an accident, rather than by means of a declaration, a refusal, or (as is the case in other of Lewis’ films) the experience or performance of infantile regression. It is Lewis’ uncontrollable body that knocks over the paint cans which create this painting – not his ‘self’. Tashlin’s film claims that something can become an art object or artifact despite the fact that it was created by accident (or by means of a peculiar form of comedic and bodily anti-intentionality). This aligns it, at least in part, with a much older tradition that understands the photograph and then the film as constitutively automatic in character – or as built by means of a series of automatisms, to use Stanley Cavell’s suggestive word.


9. See Michel Fried’s Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988).


10. The effect is somewhat comparable to Cindy Sherman’s ‘film stills’ of the 1980s.  

11. See Peter Bürger (trans. Michael Shaw), Theory of the Avant-Garde (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).




This represents a drastic revision of the sense of intentionality that is implied in Greenberg’s account of modernist painting. It is constitutive of the meaning of Pollock’s work that he attended to his canvases, and that this attention is visible on and within his finished paintings (e.g., his ‘drips’ are demonstrably the marks of a hand and brush, not those of a machine. Indeed, they are, in this sense similar, to automatic writing: they divulge an automatism that had previously been embedded or hidden within a human being). (12) Similarly, the sense of intention in Greenberg’s account is tied to a larger historical movement within painting that is working to ensure the autonomy of the medium itself.


In all of these ways, the specificity that is at work in Lewis’ painting-film is heterogeneous and discontinuous. That is, the specificity that the film articulates is related not to a Greenbergian movement of purification (the discarding of unnecessary conventions), but to a movement of amalgamation: the absorption of new conventions and automatisms and a parody of the same. The cinema, this sequence declares, is definitively plural and inter-medial.


This movement is neither critical or negating, in Greenberg’s sense, nor is it parasitic and recuperative (in the way that Greenberg or Adorno might have imagined). Tashlin’s film merely – but crucially – declares something about the material and conventional bases of the cinema.




12. For an intriguing account of the ‘automatism’ of Pollock’s work and its relationship to rationalised processes of industrial production, see Caroline A. Jones, ‘Talking Pictures: Clement Greenberg’s Pollock’, in Lorraine Daston (ed.), Things That Talk: Object Lessons from Art and Science (New York: Zone Books, 2004), pp. 329-374, as well as Jones’ Eyesight Alone: Clement Greenberg’s Modernism and the Bureaucratization of the Senses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).



Let us return, finally, to the larger cultural issue at stake: the pas de deux of high modernist artworks and their mass, or vernacular, counterparts. We are wrong to think of the relationship between more self-consciously modernist filmmaking and the works of a surrounding mass culture as occurring in ‘fundamentally incompatible registers’, as Hansen once put it. (13) It is better to think of this relationship as dialectical in nature – as is so clearly the case for Tashlin’s film and its relationship to abstract expressionist painting. These two registers are hardly harmonic, but they change pitch in tandem.


Furthermore, neither register is dominant, in the sense that it dictates key and pitch to the other. Greenberg mischaracterised the relationship between these objects when he suggested that the movement from avant-garde to kitsch is necessarily entropic or disintegrative. The two halves of culture do often have such a relationship (Greenberg’s examples of kitsch are poet Eddie Guest and painter Maxfield Parrish), but the dance does not stop there: modernist artworks often take up and repurpose the materials of kitsch to their own ends, and mass cultural artifacts sometimes create spaces in which new forms of publicity and experience may enter, however quickly they may be re-appropriated. Tashlin and Greenberg form two sides of the same square, that of culture in its widest sense. And these ‘torn halves of an integral freedom’, as Adorno put it, seem to wish to be stitched back together, even if, as a result of that desire, they are torn further apart.




13. ‘The Mass Production of the Senses’, p. 62. 







from Issue 4: Walks


© Burke Hilsabeck and LOLA September 2013.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.