Friday, December 10, 2021

Critique of a Critic’s Critic: Harold Rosenberg Looms Large

Harold Rosenberg: A Critic‘s Life by Debra Bricker Balken was published by University of Chicago Press in October.

“At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act, rather than a space in which to reproduce or express an object. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.” – Harold Rosenberg

Oh, how I wish that this splendid new biography of one of my favourite art critics had been subtitled A Critical Life, if only to emphasize that he was both a critical thinker on the arts but also of critical importance to our shared contemporary culture in all its facets. It’s still splendid anyway, and I hope more people begin to appreciate how important he was to the modernist art discourse and also how prophetic he was in the formation of what people now ironically refer to as the postmodernist discourse. Hint: modernism has not gone away, nor has it been eclipsed. Rather, as Rosenberg’s superb prose indicated so clearly, its chief tenet, that of deconstructing the historical purpose and social meaning of art and embracing aesthetics only in the actual language that it uses to dismantle its own history, is merely in its late and mature phase. In other words, postmodernism, as Rosenberg surveyed it so vividly from his lofty perch as The New Yorker magazine’s art critic from 1967 until his passing, is simply finally doing what modernism was always designed to do: render utter subjectivity as the sole arbiter of any expressive visual language. 

But while the discussion and appreciation of art might be permitted to explore the completely personal and relative, as his almost always did, the making and delivery of art should, as Rosenberg demonstrated in his eloquent criticism, never end up solely in a solipsistic cul de sac where only the artist’s emotions matter. On the contrary, he argued for a socially engaged and politically savvy art that placed the engaged and committed artist at centre stage of his or her society in a vitally important and ongoing battle for progressive and liberal change. And Deborah Bricker Balken’s excellent biography of the man and his ideas, A Critic’s Life, also happens to be a perfect compendium of the convoluted social and political history of the 20th century, which was so deeply embedded in the aesthetic battles raging between different artist/critic camps on the frontlines.

The greatest critics, in my not so humble opinion, do not waste their energy distinguishing what is good or bad, success or failure in the art they examine and share with us, even though at a personal level they always have highly charged opinions about those categories. Rather, they situate the art they discuss in the context of a cultural continuum; in other words, they are also art historians. Instead of value judgments, look at this/don’t look at that, they share with us their grasp of a whole civilization’s values. In America, this kind of critic was exemplified by Meyer Shapiro and Arthur C. Danto, in Europe by Gaston Bachelard and Walter Benjamin. Somewhere in between these giants stands the less preeminent but still towering presence of Harold Rosenberg, someone I would easily call a critic’s critic.

Balken deftly demonstrates how Rosenberg, who started his professional life as a lawyer and poet, and ended up as a critic and educator, was first and foremost a dramatist of artistic expression and the way it embodies, or should embody, actual and practical commitment to contemporary survival in a world gone nuts. This was inculcated in him early on by the milieu in which he grew up: the passionate debates about Marxism and radical social thought which so shaded the entire domain of progressive American ideas from the 1920’s through to the 1960’s. He was a devoted Marxist in theory but was also a vitally opposed anti-Communist in daily practice. Balken’s guided tour through the volatile youth and ascendency of Rosenberg is an exhaustive and marvelously researched edifice that often feels like an Everest-like climb, but one with plenty of oxygen provided by her clear-headed prose and almost total absence of what has come to euphemistically be called artspeak. Instead, Balken explains, with clarity and objectivity, what made Rosenberg who he was, including the many flaws which may have prevented him from becoming better known or more commercially viable than he was. She shows us who and what he commenced his life as and what he was for the rest of it: the consummate outsider. But that vantage point also had its critical advantages: he was free to think for himself.

                                      1972                                                                                                  1975

In a series of brilliant articles, such as his groundbreaking 1952 ARTnews essay “The American Action Painters,” and a flock of fully realized book-length studies, among them my personal favourite The Anxious Object: Art Today and Its Audience, and a masterful monograph on Willem de Kooning, Rosenberg himself personified his critical stance personally: “The difference between revolution in art and revolution in politics are enormous. Revolution in art lies not in the will to destroy but in the revelation of what has already been destroyed. Art kills only the dead.” By which he meant that cutting-edge art such as de Kooning’s or Arshile Gorky’s, the kind that most interested him, was all about de-definition, removing the historically smug assumptions about the purposes of visual art, especially painting and especially prior to the invention of the camera, in an active way. In his gifted hands, such a de-definition also amounted to a kind of symbolic defenestration, the act of tossing something (or someone) out of a window.

Yet he performed his highly erudite academic task in a totally accessible manner, very similar in style to the great Australian-born critic Robert Hughes, the eloquent critic for Time magazine for many years, and the author of priceless books such as The Shock of the New and American Visions. Like Hughes, Rosenberg was able to be read with equal ease by cultural experts and specialists or by dentists, plumbers and taxi drivers, which I believe is the sign of a great critic in the end. This biography’s author also penned a very informative 2014 essay on Rosenberg in Art in America Magazine, the title of which, “Harold Rosenberg Versus the Aesthetes,” ably and accurately revealed the mission of the critic as he perceived it.

Balken’s book is a valuable contribution to scholarship on art of the 20th century, especially the vibrant and challenging kind which has been most associated with the American abstract sensibility centred in New York in the vanguard years of the 40’s and 50’s. She also unearths a fragile human side to the frequently gruff and abrasive 6-foot-4 bulky writer with the surprisingly high-pitched voice. Rosenberg (1906-1978) was, for some of us, the superior polarity in an often competitive and adversarial contest with the other prominent critic specializing in abstraction, Clement Greenberg, who shared some background, ethnically and politically with his chief rival but who never achieved, in my opinion, anything like Rosenberg’s breadth of vision.

One operating model for the pair would be that Clement was the Talmud of abstraction, doctrinaire and rigidly pure, while Harold was abstraction’s Kabala, visionary and metaphysical. One key difference was that while both were capable of passionate bluster and booming argumentation, Clement had to win and rule, while Harold’s approach was much more about sharing knowledge, however arcane it might be. And the evidence is amply contained in Rosenberg’s collected works themselves, which Balken situates admirably within the context of the fervent turmoil of mid-century art-making and its appreciation.

I’ve always felt, for instance, that Rosenberg’s term action painting was much more effective than the later and more famous term of abstract expressionism, with one key example being his ability to accept and champion the former abstract painter Philip Guston when that artist abruptly appeared to abandon abstraction in the 60’s in favour of a rough-hewn and almost cartoonishly neo-expressive figuration. Few critics of the time were as prescient as Rosenberg in the way he saw and appreciated in Guston’s postmodern shift of emphasis a vitally important historical landmark that set the tone for an upcoming era of art-making that eschewed limited formalist definitions of any kind. Rosenberg saw and knew that Guston was simply doing what a favourite painter of both of ours, Willem de Kooning, had always done: expanding the edgy borderlines of what great painting does as an embodied meaning. 

    1959                                                                                                  1964

Balken introduces us to the consummate outsider early on in her saga: the Brooklyn-born Rosenberg was admirably free of any interest in cliques, clubs, unions, associations, or professional affiliations (refusing to join the Community Party and thus alienating many of his fellow writers at Partisan Review) and his free-thinking attitude was the outcome of largely being a self-educated man. Apart from studying at the City College of New York, he graduated from the Brooklyn Law School but was so bored by the legal world that he immediately concentrated on writing poetry and the multitude of literary reviews for which he first became well known: “Harold Rosenberg always resisted the in-crowd. From the moment he entered Erasmus Hall, he felt ostracized by the rivaling cliques of students who dominated the social scene. He lumbered through the corridors, where he became more and more introverted and had little interactions with his classmates. As a result, studying became his primary outlet. In today’s terms, he was a nerd.”

Indeed, this brilliant nerd, being by nature something of a polymathic autodidact, claimed that his principal education took place on the steps of the New York Public Library, where he engaged in highly satisfying and extremely heated discussions and debates with fellow outsiders. He became, in fact, more of a culture critic than an art critic, a trait he shared with the great German theorist, and fellow Marxist, Walter Benjamin. He can thus be accurately described as the kind of critic whose articles, essays, books, and even his own poems, probed the manner in which ever shifting trends in painting, literature, politics and popular culture, including mass-media culture, often contained unconscious social agendas, or else, even worse, no agenda at all.

One of his seminal late essays, cited by Balken as the culmination of a lifelong commitment to this ingrained independent streak, “Discovering the Present: The Herd of Independent Minds” (1975), is an ideal summation of his disdain for mass-ness of all sorts: “The more exactly he grasps, whether by instinct or through study, the existing element of sameness in people, the more successful is the mass-culture maker. So deeply is he committed to the concept that all men are alike that he may even fancy that there exists a kind of human dead centre in which everyone is identical with everyone else, and that if he can hit that psychic bull’s eyes he can make all mankind twitch at once.” I’ll leave it to the reader to notice how prophetic his thinking was back in 1975, some three decades before the explosion of the Internet and social media platforms such as the FacelessBook.

Balken’s depiction of Rosenberg’s exploration of what he called “the geography of modern art” is not only masterful in content and detail but also satisfying as pure entertainment, which is more than one can say about most biographies of critical thinkers. He studied what for him was “a kind of gratuitous activity and nobody knows what the consequences of an art moment will be. Artists are people who do things without knowing what they will bring about.” To that extent, for me, and as explicated by Balken’s grand study, Rosenberg was almost more of an anthropologist, exploring the interior life of a specific cultural domain: “This enclave always held Rosenberg. Not only where his own fortunes as a writer bound up with these artists, but so was his intellectual and social life. They fulfilled his view that expression of their subjectivity was the cornerstone of modernity, that it alone had a chance of withstanding the forces of conformity. And for him, that was an audacious, daunting project. Like the artists he wrote about, Rosenberg knew that he had been an outsider for the better part of his career.”

His legacy has been long-lasting, even if it has never been accorded a front-burner location on the stove of art history. But the artists, curators, and critics know why he is so crucial to the last century, and even forward-looking deep into our own besotted century. Along with Leo Steinberg, Rosenberg was clearly represented in Tom Wolfe’s 1975 failed attempt to encapsulate the art world, The Painted Word, but Wolfe was certainly correct in showing how he was one of what he facetiously called the “kings of Cultureburg,” due to the enormous influence as a thinker his works, and, I would claim, his authentic voice, had on the often sequestered world of modern art.

Even more importantly, and as Balken’s biography beautifully illustrates, his critical insights and writing, like the virtues of painters whose work he extolled, was crafted as romantic and heroic exploration of the mysteries of personal identity, private meaning and public commitment in action. Like the canvases he most appreciated, such as those of Franz Kline, for instance, his own writing itself is a kind of arena, a gladiatorial space within which to examine and alter the nature of reality. Like the visual poems of his favourite action painters, it was not just about the art, but also about the human condition which the art embodied. He, like the action painters he loved, was an action critic.

What then, in the end, is the proper job description of a great art critic? I suppose there are as many as there are critics. However, as I’ve stipulated, for me great critics only discuss great art; they don’t caution anyone about lousy art, because in the realm of a great critic, there isn’t any. And their modus operandi as arbiters of values, not merely of value? Lev Grossman hit the nail on the head I believe while once discussing a book called How Fiction Works by James Woods. He likened it to going bird-watching “with somebody who has better binoculars than yours and is willing to share them with you.” That’s a grand metaphor, to be sure, and I wish that Rosenberg had written a tome called How Art Works and taken advantage of it, since we could have enjoyed the pleasure of, as Grossman put it, “seeing clearly what might otherwise have remained out of sight,” thus suggesting that what critics do best is to assist us in our own appreciation. 

Jack Kroll also found his own way to the clearing in Rosenberg’s vast forest by pointing out, “Like the great German critic Walter Benjamin, Rosenberg is a master of dialectics whose sense of art is continuous with his sense of society, and (also like Benjamin) bears no taint of compromised, out of work radicalism. Instead, his radicalism is very much at work, enabling him to spot and skewer fallacies and the camouflaged nudity that is a large part of the emperor’s new wardrobe.”

As his astute biographer Balken sums it up so well: “They [the action artists] encompassed more than process and the act of making. During Rosenberg’s stint at The New Yorker, he had also focused on the showcases for art and demanded explanations for the authority they exerted. He wanted curators to be attuned to how subjectivity is eviscerated by institutional programming and its alliances with the marketplace. Ultimately, he required sharper, more informed decision-making that takes its cues from history—not just the flabby carryovers of essentialist thinking with its herd instincts. Within this arena, Rosenberg’s writing does remain enduring as well as profoundly relevant. As an outsider, he knew that the edge was the only place to straddle.”

 Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the recent book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, as well as the biographies Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings2018, and Tumult!: The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner2020. His latest work in progress is a new book on the life and art of the enigmatic Yoko Ono, due out in early 2022.

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