Meyer Schapiro: The Presence of the Subject

Marshall Berman

[from New Politics, vol. 5, no. 4 (new series), whole no. 20, Winter 1996]

Marshall Berman, author of All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity (Penguin), teaches at CUNY and writes on culture and politics. He is a member of the editorial board of Dissent.

I FELL IN LOVE WITH MEYER SCHAPIRO the first time I saw him. As I write this, more than 30 years later, I am just about the age now -- middle 50s -- that he was then. I think it's important to reconstruct the feel of it -- the shock, the rush -- to give him the homage he deserves. My friends at Columbia were saying, You have to see this guy, he's a living legend. I was cynical about living legends, but at last I went, and jammed against the wall in an overheated, overcrowded room. Inside five minutes I was knocked out. He talked about Gauguin and Van Gogh -- and Zola and Shakespeare and Augustine and Engels and William James and Tolstoy and Picasso and Non-Euclidean geometry; as he spoke, he projected an amazing flood of images, modern and medieval, paintings and newspaper photographs and blueprints and cartoons, representational and abstract, high and low, works thousands of years old and works that he said weren't finished yet. He made dazzling jumpcuts into the past, into radically different cultures, into visions of the future.

His talk reached a dramatic climax a couple of minutes before the bell, and finished exactly when it rang. But it sounded like he could go on forever. I sighed: did he have to stop? The friend who had brought me and some of the people around us said they were "regulars," they had been going to his lectures for years, and they still felt the pull, the flood, the intensity, the desire. DON'T STOP! It was like sex, or music, or a few other peak experiences: he had shown us the richness of being. And every one of us seemed to feel he had done it for ourself alone. "So what did he say?" my girlfriend asked that night. I felt I could spend my whole life trying to explain, and never reach the end.

I DIDN'T GET TO KNOW MEYER RIGHT AWAY. For one thing, I was dazzled by his brilliance: could I offer a coda to Beethoven? For another, I was already in love with Columbia's other larger-than-life figure, Lionel Trilling. Trilling had a very different style and human touch: he appeared genteel (although shabbily genteel), where Meyer was proudly plebian; Meyer was open and expansive in a lecture room, while Lionel was uneasy, brooding, melancholy, full of Beckettesque hesitation about communication (it was in seminars, in small groups, in dialogue, that he opened up and soared); where Meyer bathed us in art that made us see the joy and beauty of modern life, Lionel forced us to read modern literature in ways that made us wonder whether we could live at all.

When I was 20, there seemed a great gulf between those titans; I felt I couldn't love both. As I got older, it became obvious how much of a world they shared. Both were children of the century -- Meyer was born in 1904, Lionel in 1905 -- products of Jewish immigrant culture and the New York public school system, brilliant upstarts in a university that still belonged to Anglo-Saxon gentlemen, granted tenure and recognition only grudgingly, when it turned out that lots of people in the rest of the world knew their worth. Both were intellectuals engagés, close to the Communist Party in their youth, liberal democrats in their mature years (in Meyer's case, through much of the '30s and '40s a militant left-wing socialist, later, a liberal social democrat, a founding editor of Dissent), dialectical in sensibility, oriented toward history and social development, always focused on the politics of culture. Both built their careers around the exploration of Modernism. They asserted the dignity of modern art and literature, and fought for recognition of its permanent value; they showed how this art and literature could help us -- and also force us -- to see into the heart of modern life. That life, they both believed, was animated by contradictory drives, both around and within us, and was at once a thrill and a horror. The writers and artists they loved most were radical critics of their culture, yet expressed its deepest values. In their feeling for cultural contradictions, Schapiro and Trilling both gave a new subtlety and depth to intellectual Marxism. Along with a few other children of the century -- Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Harold Rosenberg, Paul Goodman -- they were just the sort of "freethinking Jews" that T.S. Eliot warned his readers against: they expressed "the modern spirit" better than anyone, but were menaces to "the idea of a Christian society."

Listening to Meyer, it seemed that all he said was, as Goethe said, "part of a great confession." All those who had ever heard him looked forward to seeing the great work in print, the work that would tell the whole story of mankind through art. Yet it never seemed to appear. His writings were spread out, fragmentary, hard to get hold of. (I remember the thrill when I finally tracked down the 1937 Marxist Quarterly, which contained one of his most exciting pieces, "Nature of Abstract Art.") He was rumored to hold back his best work, including some of what we had heard in lecture form on the grounds that it wasn't as full, as complete, as exhaustive as it could be. This reticence created an aura of mystery around him. Why couldn't he accept imperfection and let go, like the rest of us mortals?

It was a thrill to see that, in 1978, he finally did let go, and brought out a splendid collection, Modern Art: 19th and 20th Centuries, Selected Papers, published by George Braziller. More volumes were said to be coming soon.* Modern Art, whose contents span five decades, contains the 1937 "Nature of Abstract Art" essay, a tour de force that situated abstract art amid the conflicts of modern history, and highlighted the combative impulse that drives it: in leaving nature and society out, or distorting them drastically, the abstract painter "disqualifies them from art"; this essay explained, a decade in advance, why Abstract Expressionism would have to happen, and happen here. The book includes two shorter, more recent pieces on abstract painting; his brilliant 1941 essay, "Courbet and Popular Imagery"; fascinating studies of Van Gogh, Seurat, Mondrian and Gorky; and my all-time favorite, published in 1956, "The Armory Show: The Introduction of Modern Art in America." Like Schapiro's lectures at their best, these essays were dense but intensely dramatic: he captured the subjectivity and inner life of modern artists, the totality of historical forces around them, the rivers that ran through them, the spiritual twists and leaps they experienced, the breakthroughs they finally achieved.

IN THE LATE 1950S, WHEN THE BEST OF SCHAPIRO'S "modern" essays were written, the idea of modernism was important in aesthetics. But the only concerns for a modernist painter were supposed to be the purely formal attributes of painting: the nature of the canvas and the nature of the paint. Those boundaries were proclaimed with dogmatic ferocity by Clement Greenberg and his followers, border guards along a cultural Berlin Wall. For a modern painter to transgress formalist boundaries -- to explore his own feelings or fantasies, or the modern world itself -- was condemned as a betrayal of the artist's calling, a reduction of art's dignity to "illustration," to "entertainment," to kitsch. This critical vocabulary was imprisoning art, constricting its imaginative power, narrowing it into a still point in a turning world. In the suffocating 1950s, Schapiro helped create breathing space, not (so far as I know) by entering into polemics with Greenberg, but by telling better stories. He situated modern art in the midst of the volatile, explosive atmosphere of fin de siècle European social life.

Actually, Schapiro presented several closely related but distinct visions of modern art and the society it came from:

1. Modern art is a liberator of human feeling from social and cultural repressions, a breakthrough to the self's deepest unconscious sources, and an ongoing force for transparency, gaiety and joy in modern life:

It affirmed the value of the feelings as essential human forces unwisely neglected or suppressed by a utilitarian or hypocritically puritanic society....This corrective simplicity and intensity seemed to revive a primitive layer of self, like the child's or the savage's...[and] gave a new vitality to art. The painters admitted to their canvases, with much wonder, gaiety and courage, uncensored fantasies and associations of thought akin to the world of dreams.....they joined hands with the moralists, philosophers and medical psychologists [Freud?] who were exploring hidden regions and resources of human nature....The artists' search for a more intense expression corresponded to new values of forthrightness, simplicity and openness, to a joyous vitality in everyday life.
2. Modern art generates intense pressure, in audiences as well as in artists, for metamorphosis and self-development. The endless succession of modern periods and styles makes people obsessed with history: they "seek history-making effort through continual self-transformation." They come to feel they must overcome tomorrow everything they are today.
...The modern movement has provoked a perpetual uneasiness from its followers. It is keep up with history. The world-shaking art of the revolutionary period has become a norm; one expects a revolution every decade. This strenuous ideal breeds in the artist a straining for modernity and a concern with the historical position of his work; it often prevents him from maturing slowly and from seeking depth and fullness as much as freshness and impact.
3. Modern art, in both production and consumption, is intensely private and individualized:
Formerly tied to institutions and fixed times and places, to religion, ceremony, state, school, palace, fair, festivity, the arts are now increasingly localized in private life and subject to individual choice; they are recreations and tastes entirely detached from collective occasions....[Every work is] offered to the spectator as one among many.
This opens up new possibilities for original creation:
This character of culture as a sphere of personal choices open to the individual who is conscious of his freedom...affects the creation of new art, stimulating inventive minds to a fresh searching of their experience, and of the resources of art which enter into the sensory delight of the spectator and touch his heart.
But it also constricts the scope of imaginative life and cuts artists off from other people and from society as a whole:
Artists today who would welcome the chance to paint works of broad human content for a large audience, works comparable in scope to those of antiquity and the Middle Ages, find no sustained opportunities; they have no alternative but to cultivate in their art the only or surest realms of freedom -- the interior.
4. On the other hand, this very loneliness gives modern artists the power to see through their culture, a culture based on class and lies. In his 1957 lecture on "Recent Abstract Painting," Schapiro celebrates modern art in an Existential Marxist way, as a model of authenticity in a world built on bad faith:
Paintings and sculptures, let us observe, are the last hand-made objects within our culture. Almost everything else is produced industrially, in mass and through a high division of labor. Few people are fortunate enough to make something that represents themselves, that issues entirely from their hands and mind, and to which they can affix their names. . .

What is most important is that the practical activity by which we live is not satisfying: we cannot give it full loyalty, and its rewards do not compensate for the frustrations and emptiness that arise from the lack of spontaneity and personal identifications in work: the individual is deformed by it, only rarely does it permit him to grow.

. . . All these qualities of painting may be regarded as a means of affirming the individual in opposition to the contrary qualities of the ordinary experience of working and doing.

In his focus on work, identity and growth, Schapiro sounds a lot like the young Karl Marx -- whose "Alienated Labor" and other early essays had just appeared in popular editions, with sensational impact -- and like the young writers of the emerging New Left. This critical vision does not exactly contradict the earlier ones, but the tone color is harsher, the indictment of contemporary life is bitterer and angrier. Schapiro's earlier vision of modern art as a source of "joyous vitality in everyday life" seems to fade away. He believes, more ardently than ever, that we need modernism to make us authentic, but he may have given up hope that it can make us happy.

This new collection, Theory and Philosophy of Art,* lacks the focus and dramatic power of the Modern Art volume. It is surprising, and disappointing, that it fails to reprint Schapiro's great 1936 lecture, "The Social Basis of Art," one of the all-time classic statements of Marxism. Still, it includes several splendid essays, some well-known, others obscure till now. The most striking pieces are a classic 1962 essay on "Style"; a meditation on Perfection and Completeness in art; a dispute with Freud's study of Leonardo; an argument with Martin Heidegger about Van Gogh; and, at the book's end, a passionate indictment of Bernard Berenson.

Now, it is always a thrill to feel Schapiro's mind at work; but people who have grown up on his work may feel something missing here. In his lectures, in the best pieces in Modern Art, and in his work on the Romanesque, his intellectual powers are like a sorcerer's: he spreads a whole world before us, with what seems like a magical fluency, so that we feel instantly at home there. We miss those magical expansive gestures here. These essays seem to be pointed strangely inward; they often read like parables, and we have to interpret. The luminosity is still there, but it is hidden, as if in eclipse, in a subtextual underworld; we have to work harder to make contact with the magic, to get the golden tripods back from the night.

Schapiro's argument with Heidegger, "The Still Life as a Personal Object" (1968, 1994), is about a Van Gogh painting of an old, worn-out pair of shoes. This painting plays a central heuristic role in Heidegger's celebrated 1935 essay, "The Origin of the Work of Art." Van Gogh's painting, Heidegger argues, conveys one of the primal truths of life, "the equipmental being of equipment." The boots in this painting, the philosopher says, belong to a peasant, and moreover, he thinks, to a peasant woman. This premise generates an evocative picture of peasant life: "In the stiffly solid heaviness of her shoes," Heidegger says,

there is the accumulated tenacity of her slow trudge through the far-spreading and ever-uniform furrows of the field, swept by a raw wind....Under the soles there slides the loneliness of the field-path....This equipment is pervaded by uncomplaining anxiety about the certainty of bread....The equipment belongs to the earth, and it is protected in the world....
Schapiro asks Heidegger what seems like an innocent art-historical question: Which Van Gogh painting of boots are you talking about? It turns out he wrote Heidegger about this in 1965, and Heidegger's reply was vague. Schapiro thinks he knows which painting it must have been (it is reproduced), but he also thinks Heidegger could have developed his peasant rhapsody without looking at the painting at all. But if he had tried to look, he would have had to see that Van Gogh represented boots in two sharply different ways: when they belonged to peasants, he painted them clear, smooth and unworn, as an unproblematic element in still-lifes; when he painted them old, wrinkled and worn-out, in the way Heidegger describes, they were his own.
Heidegger ignores what those shoes meant to the painter Van Gogh himself....[They] are seen as if endowed with feelings and revery about himself. In isolating his old, worn shoes on a canvas, he turns them to the spectator, he makes of them a piece from a self-portrait....a memorable piece of his own life, a sacred relic.
Reading Van Gogh's letters and diaries, and other people's accounts of conversation with him, Schapiro finds "the idea of the shoe as a symbol of his life-long practice of walking, and an ideal of life as a pilgrimage...." So the truth about the shoes turns out to be a truth about "the artist's presence in his work." And Schapiro, in returning the boots to their owner, has acted as a sort of ontological detective.

WHAT IS THE SUBTEXT OF THIS DETECTIVE STORY? It may be about Modernism and Post-Modernism. Schapiro has been explicating and defending Modernism for -- it's incredible! -- over 70 years. When he began, the consensus of art historians and museums in the USA and Western Europe was that art had ended long ago. The Stalinist USSR and Nazi Germany both stigmatized modern art as "degenerate," though both enlisted it in selective ways. Against them all, Schapiro (and some others, though not so many) fought for modern art as the 20th century's most authentic way of being alive. He knew he would win, knew sooner or later people would be forced to recognize modern art's overwhelming brilliance, amazing variety and ongoing power.

He won -- for about two minutes. Then, soon after 1968, the Post-Modern Weltanschauung was stridently proclaimed. It launched vicious attacks on everything and everyone associated with the Modern. But one of the pervasive post-modern themes is what the French critic Roland Barthes called "the death of the subject." Thus the modern self, subject of declarations of rights, talking cures, and abstract art, was revealed as a bankrupt fraud; the individual was simply a sum of codes, an embodiment of rhetorical and cultural conventions, and these codes and conventions turn out to be the only subjects worth studying. Everybody connected with modernism was re-examined. In condemning their predecessors to the dustbin of history, the Post-Moderns were no different from any of the other innumerable modern avant-gardes. Decertifying one's predecessors from history is one of the ways a movement certifies itself, and cultural life goes on. Schapiro has known this for at least half a century. (It was one of the themes of "Nature of Abstract Art.") But many other intellectuals who should also have known it, whose education should have given them some perspective and sense of historical irony, instead went rushing to catch the Concorde.

Now, as it happens, the philosopher most venerated as the patron saint of this Post-Modernism is the (happily denazified) Martin Heidegger. How did this happen? It will puzzle readers who are used to thinking of Being and Time as a great modernist book (and one whose spiritual desperation recalls Van Gogh). Maybe the only explanation is that that was then and this is now. In any case, it was Heidegger who folded Van Gogh's boots into markers of pure conventionality, "the equipmental being of equipment." Schapiro wants to make it clear not only that the modern subject is alive, but that he's there, at the core of the work of art. This short essay starts small, like many classic detective stories. But it expands fast, and by the time it ends, it has grown into a ringing affirmation of modernism: an art where "the artist's presence in his art" is a primary source of truth and power.

This is not only an issue in art: Schapiro has helped us see how modern art is part of a whole world culture where "the individual, his freedom, his inner world, his dedication, become primary." In 1956 ("The Armory Show") he wrote that, thanks in part to modern art, individual self-fulfillment had become a "collective value,...a matter of common striving." It was clear there that Schapiro affirmed that striving and that value. (His Marxism has always been in the humanist tradition that strives, in the words of the Communist Manifesto, for a world where "the free development of each is the basis for the free development of all.") Yet only a year later, in "Recent Abstract Painting," his vision was far darker and more pessimistic. Did he still think people were striving together for authenticity in 1968, or in 1994? He doesn't say; but there is a melancholy undertow running through the Heidegger essay which suggests deep doubts. And once we notice his doubts, we can see an intensely personal dimension in the argument about "the artist's presence in his work": Schapiro is insisting on his own presence, claiming space for his subjectivity, for his pilgrimage, reminding us only last year (1994, the essay's latest version) that, though his shoes may be worn, he's still here.

"ON PERFECTION, COHERENCE, AND UNITY OF FORM AND CONTENT" (1966) takes some big steps not only in aesthetics, but in ethics and politics as well. It refutes the idea that a work of art -- a poem, a painting, a film -- should be "a well wrought urn," self-sufficient, perfect, complete. This was aesthetic dogma when I was growing up: the New Critics (Cleanth Brooks, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren and their friends) plugged it in literature, Erwin Panofsky and his followers in the visual arts. Schapiro argues that these "perfect" qualities "are more likely in small works than in large. The greatest artists -- Homer, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Tolstoy -- present us with works that are full of problematic features." He mentions the incongruities of scale in the Chartres cathedral, in the Sistine ceiling, in Anna Karenina: "in the greatest works of all, incompleteness and inconsistency are evidences of the living process of the most serious and daring art...."

He compares the experience of a work of art as a whole to a mystic's experience of oneness with God: both experiences may lead to ecstasy, but both leave a great deal out. "We do not see all of a work when we see it as a whole." Instead of wholeness, he says, we should aspire to fullness; instead of zaps of ecstasy, we should aim for a sensibility that he calls "critical seeing":

Critical seeing, aware of the incompleteness of perception, is explorative....It takes into account others' seeing, it is a collective and cooperative seeing and welcome comparison of different perceptions and judgments.
Critical seeing does not exclude ecstasy -- it "knows moments of sudden revelation" -- but it situates those moments within a larger totality, as part of the psychic "fullness" that seems to form his aesthetic ideal.

Once more, Schapiro's subtext is even more striking than his text. It should be clear from this diction that he is not only telling us what to do at the Museum; he is telling us how to live. It is fascinating to see that, as much as John Ruskin or William Morris or Walter Pater or Oscar Wilde or any other hasid of the Aesthetic Movement, he believes our responses to art should be the model for the way we live. But his "critical seeing" is aesthetically richer than theirs, and morally more complex. First of all, he wants the world of art to be "collective and cooperative," not just the monopoly of a few smart guys at one another's throats, but truly public, as art in modern times has rarely managed to be. Next, he wants a critical discourse "extending for generations." Now this has conservative and traditionalist reverberations that might at first surprise us. But Schapiro's art world must be an open society, ever receptive to "new points of view," it must include the excluded, and must be aware that excluded groups have the capacity to renew art with "revelation." He wants art to be a channel for empathy, a parable of pluralism, a way for people (and peoples) to see each others' ways of seeing, so they can cooperate collectively, constitute a public, and strive together for a fuller future.

This is asking a lot from art, and why not? And yet, Schapiro knows better than virtually anyone how militant, combative, contentious, sectarian, tormented, extremist, perverse, how fruitfully narrow and intolerant modern art has always been. Knowledge of art can teach us knowledge and acceptance of others, can open us to empathy and pluralism, if, like Schapiro himself, we have seen so much art, and seen a long history in which so many artists and art movements evolve, and a world in which so many artists and art movements coexist with each other. But very few artists themselves have this largeness of vision and understanding. They are much more likely to strive for what Schapiro calls wholeness than for fullness, for ecstasy rather than empathy; they don't want the totality of vision, but rather the narrow revelatory zap. And if that's what they need to create what they can, in all its splendor and all its limitation, we can be pretty sure Schapiro wouldn't want it any other way. But there is a great gulf between the fullness of life and expression that Schapiro has always fought for, and the peace and healing and mutual acceptance and sense of community that he has often yearned for.

I'M SAD THAT MEYER SCHAPIRO HAS BEEN RELATIVELY QUIET for the last 30 years; that the public that loves him -- and maybe even more, the public that's never had a chance to know him -- hasn't been able to hear his voice. I'd have loved to hear him on Pop Art, on affirmative action, on Frank Gehry, on Tilted Arc, on the breakup of the USSR, on the homeless people on the streets, on Cindy Sherman, on Chinese cinema, on ethnic cleansing, on art and victimization (he, who knows Christian art so well, knows it goes back a long way), on so much of what we've had to live with and still haven't been able to figure out how, on how art can still help us be human. And yet, and yet: Look! there he is on the cover, 91 years old, his smile radiant enough to light up Grand Central. Open the book and there's that amazing flow, just as it was 30 years ago. Get into the flow, don't stop! What did we do to deserve him, a man of such brilliance, sweetness and integrity? We probably don't deserve him, but he's still here; like Van Gogh's shoes, he's worn but not worn out. The least we can do in his honor is to focus and concentrate our own minds, to grasp how the world holds together, to see how beautiful it can be, to feel how exciting, to work to keep the flow going on.


* Meyer Schapiro, Theory and Philosophy of Art: Style, Artist, and Society. Selected papers by Meyer Schapiro. New York, George Braziller, 1994. Ilustrated. 253 pp. $27.50 return

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