The Great Schapiro/Is a Master and a Hero — Delmore Schwartz, 1942
In 1987, when I was an assistant professor at Brandeis University, I read Alan Wald’s The New York Intellectuals: the rise and decline of the anti-Stalnist left from the 1930s to the 1980s, hungry for some history of the Trotskyist movement. I had been a pretty useless recruit to the IMG — the International Marxist Group — in 1976 when I was a student at Oxford, having rejected the advice of my parents and friends to join the Poetry Society, and instead, I stepped out on my own to meet the crowd that had good politics (I had lost my Reed College Hegelian Marxizantisme by the end of my first year in Terry Eagleton’s Friday Seminars and got it back when I came back to the USA) and a whole lot of very cool people.
Reading Wald’s history was a revelation to me because it was about New York writers and intellectuals, and it was filled with people who I had met as a child or heard about throughout my adolescence. I rang my mother up and said, incredulously, “I didn’t know that Meyer was a Trotskyist.” My Ma snorted and replied, “Of course he was; everybody was a Trotskyite in those days, except me, I was only interested in Ahhrrt”. That was also when I understood that Trotskyites were bad guys, Trotskyists were my guys.
My Ma was certainly interested in Art, and as a 6-year-old, I had accompanied her weekly to a vast lecture hall at Columbia University while she listened to a series of lectures by Rudolf Wittkower on Bernini. When we got home, my mother and I would look at black and white photos of Bernini sculptures and memorise their titles. These days, what with the age thing, I only remember the one called “Angel with the Superscription No. 1” because it caused merriment among the grown ups when I stumbled over ‘superscription’.
MY mother knew Meyer Schapiro, (one of the most loved and respected of the anti-Stalinist left at Partisan Review and a long-time friend of Delmore Schwartz) from 1937, since that was the year she entered the Columbia Phd programme in Art History, with the project of producing a catalogue raisonne of Manet’s work. Of Meyer, she said, “Oh, we adored him, he was young and handsome and he spoke with light and brilliance in his eyes. We all had crushes on him”. Later on my father became his physician, and when Meyer died in 1996, my mother was more distressed than when others of their friends had died along the way. When we get to the war years, I will return to my Ma’s analysis of Schapiro’s way of being a scholar. But that’s not until 1943. Here is Addy and her friend Miriam Rosenthal in Paris in 1936, walking along a quai in Paris. This was around the time they got to know Schapiro. Miriam married Nicola Chiaromonte, an Italian intellectual who wrote often for Partisan Review and who were close friends of Mary McCarthy.
Meyer Schapiro grew up in Brooklyn. Born in Lithuania in 1904, he came with his mother to New York in 1907, to join his father, who taught Hebrew in the city. Shapiro was interested in art and in politics from an early age, and his work as an art historian was marked by his concern for the social and cultural influences on art, and as experienced by the artist. He wrote for the Nation, Partisan Review, and the New Masses. Although he worked on ancient art and sculpture, he was fascinated by and wrote much about contemporary art as well. My sense is that his academic credentials were so strong that many on the Left left him out of the set of those who were pilloried for not being activists. But it is also the case that most of the Partisan Review considered him to be the creator of a new kind of art history — that was as engaged with the issues of class struggle as with those of technique. If you want to read some great articles he wrote, I recommend you go to rosswolfe’s The Charnel House blog on WordPress, where you will find a number of Schapiro’s most interesting papers, including his 1950 critique of Heidegger’s “The Origin of the Work of Art.” Its a very satisfying read. It was only in 1943, during theWWII, that Sidney Hook and Schapiro got into a debate in the pages of PR in which Schapiro’s commitment to revolutionary Leninism was adamant and polemical. Alan Wald tells us that Schapiro remained a committed Marxist through the 1940s and 1950s. Later he became a social-democrat.
But here and now, in the second issue of the 1938 Partisan Review, Meyer Schapiro, the handsome young Assistant Professor offered a review of Thomas Hart Benton’s Autobiography. You would think that Benton, being known as a ‘realistic’ painter,part of the ‘regionalist’ school, would be judged as a type of Stalinist ‘socialist realism’; and the first sentence of the review sets up that programme: “Benton’s autobiography is a manifesto addressed to abstractionists,radicals, and true Americans.”
but Schapiro is too interested in the motives and techniques that Benton drew on to entirely dismiss Benton’s work. Benton may have repudiated formalism and abstraction, Schapiro argues, but he carries its elements into a rural terrain of imagery peopled with the simple and the down to earth, the anti-intellectual, the suffering, and the plain spoken, and turns away from urban, arty, abstract, and essentially ‘un-American’ New York intellectual and art producing radicals. So Benton is something of an intellectual scaredy-cat, while also preserving a sort of empathy with everyday life.
Benton began with abstraction and constructivism, and then he moved on to what was a central genre of the 1930s and which remains vital today as a mode of activism, murals. These, “of which the originality lies, I think, in the coincidence of homely popular genre, and artificial , energetic, monumental effects”, nonetheless are “well-adapted to the casual eye of the tourist or the hearty philistine spectator.”
Schapiro’s review is titled, “Populist Realism,” and when you read it, you will find many correspondences with current Trump Populism. When you get the issue up, go to page 53. The Review begins at the bottom of page 53.
What is very compelling about the piece is Shapiro’s negative capability — he allows himself to be in doubts and uncertainties, even while making a strong critique.
There is also the fact that Benton was Jackson Pollock’s teacher and mentor for many years — he clearly had something to offer mid-century urban art.