It is generally accepted that American modernism had principles that came from within, that is, from the demands of reason itself. These demands were meant to be unconditional, even if they conflicted with the artistic challenge of implementing them in the real world.1 We all know the stories of the honourable struggles of the abstract expressionists, and the way these artists set aside personal gain for the moral high ground of a truly modernist painting. As the painter Mark Rothko (1903–1970) put it, ‘Truth must strip itself of self, which can be very deceptive’.2
If Kant’s work on moral reasoning refigured European enlightenment ethics and American modernist art criticism, by Greenberg’s day it also had to contend with psychoanalytic work on the Oedipus complex and the superego, work that Rothko and the artist Robert Smithson (1938–1973) knew well. This work drew analytic attention to the fact that the command of reason as lodged in its maxims was always accompanied by an imaginary figure. Indeed, even Kant recognised Freud’s basic point when he says that, in the subject’s sublime assent to universal law there is always ‘an indeterminate relationship between the faculties of the imagination and of reason’. It is in this register of ‘the imagination’ that Freud sees the function of the superego.