Part I. vol.6, No. 2 Winter, 1939.


Harold Rosenberg is credited with inventing the term “action painting” in 1952 to describe a central strand of abstract expressionist painting from the late 1940s through the 1960s. He was an advocate of the work of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and others, and this painting above was made by the artist, Elaine de Kooning, Willem’s wife and an active member of the “New York School” of art. Among art critics and practitioners he is also known for a protracted debate with Clement Greenberg about the meaning of modern art within progressive theories of art.

Rosenberg was born in 1906 and went to the City College of New York. He did a law degree but moved to writing soon after. He wasn’t in the CPUSA and though he wrote for the New Masses  and the earlier Partisan Review — when it ran under the auspices of the CPUSA through the John Reed Clubs — Rosenberg moved to the left with the anti-Stalinist Marxists.  After WWII, he lost much of his interest in revolutionary politics, and it is his writing in the 1940s and 1950s that secured his place as a central interpreter and writer of Abstract Expressionism. He later became the much admired art critic for the New Yorker

For those of you who have been following this blog, you will know that Thomas Mann served as a touchstone for thinking and writing about the differences between liberalism and revolutionary socialism. There are a number of essays about Mann in the 1938-1939 issues of Partisan Review. {See blog posts: July 13, 2017; October 14, 2017, November 4, 2017, February 17, 2018 }. The topics engaged by William Phillips, William Troy, James Burnham, were, in addition to the liberalism/revolutionary socialism debate, myth versus reality and science versus art (and its dark sibling, irrationalism).

There is no doubt that Rosenberg was a talented thinker and a keen theorist of cultural practices. In 1940, when Dwight MacDonald, was thinking of leaving Partisan Review and starting a new journal (in fact he stayed on as editor of PR until 1943), he described one potential new partner in the enterprise this way:

“Also, there is Rosenberg, whom even Rhav admits would be an excellent addition as an editor, –he’s extremely brilliant, with original and often profound ideas of his own. Again he is given to positive ideas and wants to try things,do something. And like Clem [Clement Greenberg] , he can write and work hard.” 

In his essay on Mann, Rosenberg has shaped and organised the partial claims and arguments of the earlier essayists in the clump of Mann discussions.  It is clear and logical, and though in places I found it wavering in front of what Coleridge called “my swimming eyes,” that is, soporific, I think it more or less gives an impressive mastery of the issues floating, and sometimes, drowning, in the earlier essays.

Harold Rosenberg, sketch by Saul Steinberg, Amagansett, 1962



Rosenberg begins this, the first polemical article of the volume, by counterpoising Thomas Mann’s ‘sentiment of artistic culture to political utilitarianism.’: “Asserting that culture is menaced by its own action and affirmation.”   Rosenberg sees Mann’s arguments against revolution as being based in communism’s rejection of the individual, while his comfort within liberalism is a result of the importance of the individual to a cultural renaissance. Mann, Rosenberg goes on, sees in art and culture a way of conserving and changing in society.  But this was ‘perverted’ by the Nazis: “The outworn and decadent have been preserved through terror. Politics subjected everything to itself and trampled underfoot and the free human spirit, opposing itself, too, to Christianity upon which, Mann insists, all Western values are based.” Mann’s ideas about this link between socialism and religion, opens a space in which much criticism of Mann by the revolutionary left will increase.

Rosenberg then describes the three principles of Mann’s position:

  1. “That the mass dissemination of revolutionary ideas, regardless of their truth of falsehood, constitutes a ‘lying propaganda’ which must lead to the destruction of industry and individual development.”
  2. “That defeat of the Nazis will be the result of a cultural act of conservation, restoring social equilibrium through the revival of Christianity and individual metaphysics….”
  3. “That the socialist order will be attained through culture itself without the aid of, and even in conflict with, Marxism and the materialist analysis of history”.

From the first principle, we find Mann’s position that revolutionary culture is usually reducible to mass propaganda, as the force within communism that denigrates both individual creation and labour.  The defeat of the Nazis, mobius-twisted, will become the reconstitution of the principle of ‘conservation,’ those traditions through which Christianity and philosophical reflection prosper. And finally that it will put Marxism in the shade.

So, turning for a moment to William Troy’s essay about Mann’s use of Myth. [see this blog, October 14, 2017 “What are we to do about Thomas Mann?”], Rosenberg argues that Troy has missed the point about the materials of Mann’s myth-making, and “It is not in his eternal truths that Mann is a master mythologist, not in his access to a level above time and change,  but in his artistic building with the materials of contemporary belief.”

This engages with the on-going debate within the pages of Partisan Review about the meaning of science in relation to Marxist analysis.  Rosenberg makes the point that when frightened or intellectually suspicious by claims of science, writers have taken a kind of refuge in writing things that “surpass” the limits of science by “the counter-concept of mystery and creation…. its aim is philosophical, not ritualistic.”  Rosenberg substitutes ‘system’ for ‘myth’ and leads him to explicate the sort of work that myth, in his analysis, does.

 “Modern thought poses in a thousand different forms the opposition between science and the irrational – between the known and the living.” Rosenberg defines the distinction between them in art as the antinomies of  “statues, machines, geometrical abstractions, and sex, dreams, biomorphic shapes.” Strangely enough, the distinction between the known and the living operates on analogy with the late 20th century ones of digital/on-off and analogue/more -less.

Next week — April  Ms. Partisan will be in Cromarty, in the North of Scotland, and probably without access to internet. So the week after will be the second part of the Rosenberg essay.  Apologies for the delay.    Annie J.