PRINT February 1968

Problems of Criticism IV: The Politics of Art, Part I

I CAN IMAGINE, IN THESE days of global intercourse and indiscriminate CIA subsidy, a cultural summit meeting at a health spa outside of, say, Montevideo. Here South American revolutionaries, who might be underpaid intellectuals by day and guerillas by night, could sunbathe with their Yanqui opposite numbers, former Trotskyites who now contribute to the mass media, discussing cultural problems of mutual interest. Eventually it might hit home that American culture, and in particular American art, the commodity lately found most useful in selling the American way of life, is as unwanted and as unexportable as our economic system. For the cultural problems of an underdeveloped society on the brink of revolution are radically opposed to those of the post-Revolutionary affluent society. One crucial difference is that revolutionary societies traditionally think of art in the service of revolution, whereas a close reading of some recent American art writing will reveal that a disappointed political idealism, without hope for outlet in action, has been displaced to the sphere of esthetics, with the result that for some, art has become the surrogate for the revolution.

The first clear indication of a displacement of political ideals into the area of esthetics is Harold Rosenberg’s notion of “action painting.” Abstracted from its Existentialist and political context until it could be generalized to deal with any kind of human activity, the concept of “action” was focused by Rosenberg on the act of painting. Writing about art, Rosenberg still resorts on occasion to the vocabulary and polemical tone he used as a political writer in the thirties.

But Rosenberg’s confusion of art with politics and art writing with political writing is a typical confusion among American critics. (In all fairness to Mr. Rosenberg it should be remarked that lately Fie has assumed the relaxed, detached tone of the fashion commentator who feels his responsibility is not to set style but to describe the latest numbers as they pass by.) Content aside, if we compared merely the tone of John Canaday, Frank Getlein, Dore Ashton, and T. B. Hess, to name some of our most egregious polemicists, we would find a striking similarity. I cannot explain the tone of polemical virulence that has characterized recent American art criticism (to which this writer has contributed on occasion) except on the grounds that the degree of intensity expressed these days in discussions of art might at other moments in history have found another kind of outlet, specifically a political expression, the context in which outrage at injustice is usually familiar.

In the instances cited above, the tone is one of outrage, but the language is not unusual in any way. To this tone of outrage, however, our most brilliant critic, Michael Fried, has added the vocabulary of Marxist pamphleteering. If we examine Fried’s criticism, we find that not only the tone and vocabulary of Marxist polemics, but a certain amount of its actual content is to be found there. For example, Fried writes of a new type of disagreement among critics, “the disagreement that occurs when two or more critics agree, or say, that the work of a particular artist or group of artists is good : or valuable or important, but when the terms in which they try to characterize the work and its significance are fundamentally different.”1

Describing himself as angered and stunned when he reads what seems to him “bad or meretricious criticism” praising work he admires, he states : “Indeed, I am surprised to find that I feel more desperate about what seems to me bad or meretricious criticism written in praise and ostensibly, in elucidation of art I admire than I do about bad or meretricious art.”2 Certainly one must agree with Fried that what is at stake in any serious critical discussion is nothing less than a critic’s view of history. What ought to be questioned, however, is why Mr. Fried should feel such anger, frustration and desperation, or for that matter, as he himself put it, why it should matter that much to him.

It matters, of course, because he is such a deeply committed critic. But beyond that, Fried explains that his desperation depends on “the conviction that, in the criticism of which I’m speaking, the terms in which certain paintings are described and certain accomplishments held up for admiration are blind, misleading, and above all irrelevant to the work itself and to the difficult, particular enterprise by which it was created.”3 He imputes to such blind critics an inability to see what qualifies the works in question as paintings and an inability to understand the identity of their creators. He goes on to characterize the “openness and tolerance and humaneness and distrust of extremism of all kinds” on the part of such critics as reflective of the “values of bourgeois liberalism,” values which “amount instead to nothing more than promiscuity and irresponsibility verging on nihilism.”4

Fried is not content, in other words, to discredit his opposition; he feels called upon to annihilate it in a manner that is familiar to anyone who has read Marxist political writings. Such polemics charge the opponent with “ideology,” attempting to destroy opposition on the grounds that no discourse is possible because the opponent is not representing the same world, that in fact the entire edifice on which his thought rests is determined by class values. In other words, the bourgeoisie cannot understand the proletariat because the bourgeois thought structure and world-view is rooted in an ideology determined by its economic position in the world.

By saying that certain critics are in the grip of a fundamentally divergent thought system, Fried is leveling at them a similar charge of “ideology.” This is quite clear if we compare Fried’s reasoning with Karl Mannheim’s analysis of the concept of ideology (in Ideology and Utopia):

. . . previously, one’s adversary, as the representative of a certain political-social position, was accused of conscious or unconscious falsification. Now, however, the critique is more thoroughgoing in that, having discredited the total structure of his consciousness, we con sider him no longer capable of thinking correctly. This simple observation means, in the light of a structural analysis of thought, that in earlier attempts to discover the sources of error, distortion was uncovered only on the psychological plane by pointing out the personal roots of intellectual bias. The annihilation is now more thoroughgoing since the attack is made on the noological level and the validity of the adversary’s theories is undermined by showing that they are merely a function of the generally prevailing social situation. (Italics mine.)

Obviously I view Mr. Fried’s charge of ideology and his own exclusive position as quite dangerous to any kind of appraisal of art. I feel that the sense of outrage he experiences when he reads contemporary criticism is both disproportionate and misplaced, and that it leads him to excesses in his own criticism having implications that must be considered. In Three American Painters, Fried wrote of “the alienation of the artist from the general preoccupations of the culture in which he is embedded, and the prizing loose of art itself from the concerns, aims and ideals of that culture” as characteristic of the modern period. For Fried, “the most important single characteristic of the new modus vivendi between the arts and bourgeois society gradually arrived at during the first decades of the present century has been the tendency of ambitious art to become more and more concerned with problems and issues intrinsic to itself.” What this means for Mr. Fried is that art has become purged of all political content. More than that, it means that political content can actually work against esthetic quality, so in fact it must be purged. Using Picasso’s Guernica as an example, he writes, “in this century it often happens that those paintings that are most full of explicit human content can be faulted on formal grounds.”

Paradoxically, the moment art is purged of political content coincides with the moment art criticism begins to focus on the issues of the “dialectic” of modernism and the “radicality” of specific painters. These clearly Marxist political terms gain respectability in a critical discussion because they have a certain art historical pedigree: The art historian Heinrich Wölfflin had constructed a system of analysis on a Hegelian model which is the basis for Clement Greenberg’s interpretation of modernism, on which Fried admittedly relies. That Wölfflin’s cyclical progression was already superseded in the 19th century by a more sophisticated evolutionary approach such as that of Alois Riegl seems to bother no one.

The periodic exhaustion and renewal of art through self-criticism that Fried, following Greenberg following Wölffin, brings to contemporary art allows for an ideal of, as Fried describes it, “perpetual revolution.” Politically, Trotsky’s thesis of the permanent revolution, which a phrase like “perpetual revolution“ echoes, split the socialist camp with which both Greenberg and Rosenberg were associated in the thirties. In the realm of art, however, particularly in the unfettered realm of pure abstraction, such an abstract idea can take on substance. Moreover, it makes it possible to concentrate exclusively on the formal elements in a work, to the degree that Greenberg, in a recent discussion of Picasso’s The Charnel House did not feel called upon to mention, even in passing, that the subject was a death camp, or to consider the specific expressive qualities of the vocabulary of forms employed by Picasso in its representation.5

Thus the sublimation of political issues within an esthetic context makes it possible to ignore (or even to begrudge) the political content of art. In Mr. Fried’s case it even makes it possible to discuss critical issues with a sense of passion and outrage once reserved for questions of life and death. But art has never been a question of life and death, and to address to it the intensity and sense of urgency that should be reserved for questions of life and death is repugnant. I am not objecting to the intellectual content of Mr. Fried’s criticism, which is of the highest order, but to the exclusivity of his position and the passion and urgency of his tone, which might be appropriate to a discussion of black power, urban renewal or war resistance, but which seems somehow out of context in a relatively dispassionate and morally and politically neutral activity like art criticism. It is true of course that art has already usurped religion as the refuge of the spiritual. Is it now to subsume ethics and politics as well? Even if that were possible, would it be desirable?

In an article on “didactic art” I expressed my reservations about a prevalent attitude, derived from Surrealism, which seeks to extend the esthetic to encompass all modes of behavior. My objection was that such an infinite extension would act to destroy the esthetic. Mr. Fried’s position, which is equally extreme, seems to me far more dangerous because it would destroy more than the esthetic. Instead of extending the esthetic to encompass various types of human activity, he would extend it to encompass systems of ethical and political value. Such a displacement of ethical and political values to the sphere of esthetics has already produced inferior art; but as a critical position it threatens to deprive the esthetic of its only real justification—the giving of pleasure, an aspect I do not remember Mr. Fried referring to once. Moreover, this kind of exaltation of the life of the mind, in which political acts take place only in the imagination and the “perpetual revolution” is available only in art but never in life, permits precisely the accommodation with bourgeois liberalism to which Mr. Fried alludes in his condemnation of open-minded critics. His position here, I believe, is based on a psychological projection: it makes it possible not for radical art, but for the radical critic, to achieve a modus vivendi with bourgeois liberalism.

When esthetics becomes the arena for action Rosenberg has described it as, or the sphere for political thinking Fried makes it out to be, the idealistic, Utopian mind, frustrated by a lack of genuine political outlets, constructs rationales like action painting and ethical criticism which permit it to continue to function in a political manner. The result in Rosenberg’s case is that idealism turns to cynicism, and the critic of the mass media becomes its employee, using his podium to hurl epithets at himself. When idealism turns to fanaticism, as it has for me in Fried’s case, the opposition is liquidated, that is, denied its right to exist at all, since its mere existence is predicated on a state of error determined by the values of “bourgeois liberalism.” Ultimately the pleasure giving source of esthetic value is replaced by its capacity to subsume ethical and political value. In an esthetic context the ethical spirit can discharge its passion without any economic, social or political risk. In fact, even the concept of risk itself is transferred to esthetics, where all dramas may be harmlessly and inconsequentially played out. This kind of thinking is a case of pure sublimation. We have indeed come full circle from David: from a concept of art in the service of the revolution to one of art instead of the revolution.

For some time now I have found certain of the assumptions of a criticism that confines itself to a discussion of exclusively formal issues, denying that others exist, obnoxious for the reasons I have tried to qualify here. The strictness with which a criticism of pure visibility that allows for no esthetic relevance to be assigned to subject matter or subject content as currently practiced is,of course, in part, a reaction against the excesses of iconographical studies, which have neglected the importance of exclusively esthetic elements of form. But this criticism has by now itself become a form of excess. And I am not talking now about academic followers of Greenberg and Fried, who are writing dry, pointless, formal analyses that are the sixties’ equivalents of the purplest passages of action criticism. I am talking about Greenberg and Fried themselves, whose original contributions must be acknowledged and appreciated by anyone writing today. I see their necessity to purge art of all social and political meaning as issuing from a frustrating inability to come to terms with a political position calling for action in a situation in which action is virtually impossible. That this purgation of subject content from art takes place at exactly the moment when a vocabulary of politically charged terms is adapted to a discussion of art is no accident. The bizarre possibility of constructing a Marxist criticism in order to purge art of political content could only come to pass in America, where history is constantly twisted into a dialectical pretzel.

Better suited to the complexity of the current situation than a linear or cyclical view of art history is perhaps a criticism based on a general field approach. Such an approach could contrast and compare material horizontally instead of trying to organize it vertically as a series of radical advances constituting a “perpetual revolution.” Evaluation would necessarily be part of such a criticism, but it would not be all of it, and such evaluation would come after, not before, classification and investigation.

Already a synthetic criticism, which has no vested interest in ignoring subject matter or subject content, is being practiced by a small group of art historians including William Rubin, Robert Rosenblum, and Leo Steinberg, who keep pace with developments in contemporary art. This type of rational, inclusive criticism should be the aim of younger critics entering the field. In the meantime, however, criticism is dominated by an element of the disenchanted American left, led by Rosenberg and Greenberg, which has managed to achieve a rapprochement with the society it once rejected. Traumatized by Stalinism, anesthetized by McCarthyism, and pacified by affluence, it has found a home, and a comfortable home at that, in art criticism. Although its excesses may be understandable as the excesses of a misplaced zeal, its transferal of the ideals of the active life to the context of the contemplative life constitutes a perversion of idealism.6

Barbara Rose

Part II of The Politics of Art will be published in a subsequent issue.



1. Art Criticism in the Sixties (Symposium of the Poses Institute of Fine Arts, Brandeis University), 1967.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Clement Greenberg, Picasso Since 1945, Artforum, Oct 1966.

6. The Value of Didactic Art, Artforum, April, 1967.