PRINT March 1975


Discovering the Present: Three Decades in Art, Culture, and Politics

Discovering the Present: Three Decades in Art, Culture, And Politics, Harold Rosenberg, edited by Michael Denneny. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1974, 335 pages.

Rosenberg’s book consists of 35 articles which originally appeared elsewhere: in Art News, Art News Annual, Commentary, Dissent, Esquire, Jewish Frontier, Midstream, Nation, New Yorker, Partisan Review, Twentieth Century, View, Vogue, as well as in other collections, and, in one instance, an exhibition catalogue. The earliest appeared in 1943, the latest in 1972, with the majority published in the 1960s. The one previously unpublished article, “Themes” (1939-71) culled from Rosenberg’s notebooks, is a tour de force covering the whole range of his thought, and spanning his entire career. There is a certain indecisiveness in the book which has little to do with the fact that it is a collection—a grab bag of randomly related materials—and so seems fragmentary. Rather, the book’s problems are rooted in the ambiguity that results from Rosenberg’s ambition to be simultaneously philosophical and journalistic, intellectual and topical. He wants to view the present in historical perspective and yet communicate it in all its immediacy. He conceives “the present as history,” as Paul Sweezy puts it, but also as a vital personal experience. Thus, the book is, on the one hand, an incomplete attempt, using an uncertain method, to work out a theory of modern history on the basis of some of the evidence of the present (noticeably missing is attention to the effects of science). On the other hand, it is a journal—full of indiscriminate asides and fascinating aperçus—capsulating Rosen-berg’s consciousness of and response to the social and cultural scene of the last 30 years.

Above all, Rosenberg is concerned to distinguish the “mass-culture meaning” of contemporary experience from his own “rhythm of experience,” “broken and complicated by all sorts of time-lags, symbolic substitutions, decayed absolutes, experimental hypotheses” (“The Herd of Independent Minds”). Rather than generalizing about common experience, he shows how it affects his Weltanschauung. He discovers the present in his current interests, all along implying that it has coherence. However, he never quite spells out this coherence, and at one point insists that the very thought of it is a “prison cell,” a limitation deceptively stabilizing what is still in process (“Twilight of the Intellectuals”). Personal participation in the present, and frequent vehemence underlines the partisan quality of that participation. Rosenberg’s passion becomes his way of transmitting his sense of historical significance, charging the facts of the present with value implications beyond their observed impact. He updates Baudelaire’s sense of criticism with a dialectical sense of selfhood: the passionate, partisan self that is critically active finds all solutions in its clarioned subjectivity. “The tradition of critical secession” Rosenberg affirms amounts to sheer self-assertion, and the self asserted is touchily personal (“The Cultural Situation Today”).

Thus, there are three factors that control the workings of the articles in this book: (1) ideas of what is historically significant; (2) a selection of facts from the present; and (3) the presence of Rosenberg the individualist, rhetorically confessing his involvement through their dialectical interaction. Rosenberg’s presence is the controlling factor, for it integrates ideas and facts in a single momentum. This entirely personal momentum drives even his doubts into an outward direction. In a sense, the articles are a disguised form of confessional literature, for like many of Rousseau’s writings, their significance is not in the validity of their ideas but in the chutzpah that animates them.

Rosenberg’s attitude reveals itself most in his sense of comic irony, or what he calls the “comic perspective” which recognizes “irony” as a form of “social study” (“Community, Values, Comedy”). It is this irony which makes the dialectic of ideas and facts in Rosenberg’s hands a scene of spontaneous reversals and playful pratfalls, at times almost a facile farce. But this is misleading, for Rosenberg’s irony is a disguised, however disfiguring, way of dialectically reflecting what Nietzsche called the “historical sense”:

the capacity for quickly guessing the order of rank of the valuations according to which a people, a society, a human being has lived; the “divinatory instinct” for the relations of these valuations, for the relation of the authority of values to the authority of active forces. (Beyond Good And Evil.)

Rosenberg is an expert at such guessing, and in comic irony has a succinct method of communicating the conflict between accepted values and active forces. At the same time, comic irony becomes a way of defusing the tension generated by this conflict, for it makes it theatrical and preposterous, showing both sides to be hardheaded and gross in their pretensions. It thereby projects, if only in a utopian, esthetic way, the possibility of reconciliation—a comic possibility in the midst of tragic conflict. Rosenberg has a strong sense of history as a tragicomedy of values, in which human possibilities are realized through conflict with social authority, which claims to speak in the name of the true purpose of man. This makes Rosenberg not a humanist but an individualist. For him, humanism has a limited sense of artistic values, particularly in its inability to appreciate the “lightness, freshness, sketchiness, and ambiguity” of vanguard art (“The Avant-Garde”). Also, it is intellectually self-defeating in its yearning for “an all-real world, from which abstractions, utopias, higher states, and other projections of the mind have been banished” (“Twilight of the Intellectuals”). Rosenberg’s sense of humanism seems inadequate to me, but in any case he sides with individuality in its struggle against the “universality” of history.

Hegel has described comic irony as the individual’s consciousness of the “ludicrous contrast” between the ideal and the vulgar—between supposed absolutes and the vulgarity of their reality. Irony is thus an instrument for the “entire emancipation” of the “mere individual from the universal order,” and, in fact, is “the scorn the mere individual shows for such order” (The Phenomenology of Mind). In Rosenberg’s case, the order scorned and rebelled against is that created by mass culture, sometimes called by him nonclass culture, because of his theory that it was originally the culture of the Lumpenproletariat or “the refuse of all classes” (“Politics of Illusion”). The individual rebels against this order out of inner necessity, for his authentic existence is not based on it. Rosenberg’s most explicit and extensive account of individuality occurs in his Jewish articles. In these he is, as it were, struggling with the order out of which he himself came—struggling with an order which threatened to define him completely by grounding his individuality on historical and social conditions. But as Rosenberg asserts,

The choice between being authentic and inauthentic has to do not with any specific historical or social condition in which one may find oneself, but with one’s metaphysical situation, with the fact of being alive as a unique individual. In the particular situation we cannot choose ourselves, since our action in it is the means by which we discover ourselves. (“Sartre’s Jewish Morality Play.”)

Since individuality is metaphysically grounded, and thus autonomous and transcendental, it inevitably is asocial. It follows that it is also antihistorical, projecting utopian possibilities which are significant to the extent they attempt to undermine the given social order. Thus, Rosenberg sets the metaphysical individual, whom he describes at one point as self-created (“Themes”), i n the historically created and socially conditioned world, establishing in effect a permanent, transcendental conflict between the two. Not only is the conflict ultimate in a way conflicts between class-created individuals are not, but it is a self-conflict. For the individual is divided between his sense of himself in the metaphysical situation of uniqueness and his sense of his historical and social (class) identity. Thus the intellectual and the artist, as archetypal individualists for Rosenberg, exist in constant and hopefully fruitful tension with the worlds that claim them or that they claim as their own. They are always in revolt against being identified as belonging to any given world, as being subject to any particular conditions, and as being defined entirely by their actions.

So, Rosenberg has a sense of Jewish individualists becoming independent intellectuals, and individual artists becoming social mavericks (even within the society of the art world), not because they are attempting to break social boundaries, but because all historical societies are subtly alien to them. Society obscures the true meaning of their individuality by culturally defining it, and thus unwittingly attempting to crush it. For Rosenberg this is deliberately the case in mass culture, which cannot even admit the cogency of individual being. In general, Rosenberg’s refusal to reduce individuality simply to social identity separates him from vulgar Marxists and orthodox existentialists.

Individuality, then, is self-reflexive for Rosenberg, and the attempt to appropriate it historically and socially is the attempt to falsify it. He has a strong sense of society’s use of terroristic, totalitarian tactics to uproot what it conceives to be the irrationality of the individual. Rather than directly defend the individual, Rosenberg heaps ironical scorn on the society that claims to know his being better than he does. He becomes a forensic utopian fighting for a goal incompletely defined, perhaps by its very nature. Nonetheless, it is the moral purpose of the fight that matters for him—and it is exactly this, in the last analysis, that makes him a rhetorician rather than either a philosopher or journalist. Rosenberg uses all his powers of persuasion in the cause of individuality, convincing us not so much by his reasoning as by the seriousness of his purpose, and finally not so much by his seriousness as by the pungent art with which he communicates his purpose.

Rhetoric, however, is inherently ambiguous, for as Aristotle wrote, it may mean “either the speaker’s knowledge of his art or his moral purpose.” It is not so much concerned to argue correctly, as dialectic is, or to call attention to important moral issues, but to persuade, by personal art, of the value of a particular purpose. Rhetoric, in other words, is a form of politics rather than an instrument of reason, which is why it is personal and arbitrary rather than logical and substantive. As Aristotle noted, rhetoric persuades by reason of the personal character of the rhetorician, its ability to arouse its audience emotionally, and finally by apparent proof—logic, in other words, which seems to be valid, whether or not it is.

There is an implicit attempt in many of Rosenberg’s articles, particularly in those on Jewishness and politics, to show himself to be a “good man.” This is essential for a rhetorician; as Aristotle wrote, “we believe good men more fully and readily than others.“ Rosenberg’s goodness is not based on deeds but on the striving of his consciousness to comprehend human affairs in terms of “basic values.” In his articles on art, there is an attempt to put the reader in a certain frame of mind—to create a “Tenth Street” (1954) attitude in him—so that he can grasp the possibility of his own individuality. Finally, the dialectic between art and mass culture he outlines is an indirect, apparent proof of the metaphysical situation of individuality, but it by no means articulates that situation with any clarity or thoroughness. It is not, in other words, a proof that individuality per se truly exists, only that it exists within the terms of a certain ironic perspective. But Rosenberg, in the last analysis, is not concerned to prove its actuality, only to inspire us to believe in its desirability.

Rosenberg’s enduring moral idealism at times becomes so intense and aphoristically paraphrased that it hobbles his intellectual responsibility. It colors the working out of all his ideas and their consequences. His irony sometimes seems less an expression of his individuality than a symptom of intellectual stalemate. When this happens, the rich matrix of ideas and facts he weaves becomes as hallucinating as Rosenberg asserts mass culture is. Irony is then revealed to be a sign of the helplessness of consciousness before reality—or at best a fragile, desperate grip on it. Typical is Rosen-berg’s derogation of the “philosophy behind the new art” as “transcendental sales talk” (“Tenth Street: A Geography of Modern Art”). The words are witty, but the understanding is irresponsible. Irony reduces to a rhetorical flourish, conveying the energy of the rhetorician, but no longer even his sense of purpose. Often in reading Rosenberg, one has a sense only of the pyrotechnics of the professional writer, the word wit of the rhetorician. One can’t help but wonder whether his sense of metaphysical situation is also theatrical, and whether he doesn’t use dialectic simply as a device to make his rhetoric seem preordained, persuasively sweeping all before it.

What has all this to do with Rosenberg’s art criticism, for which he is famous? In the articles dealing with art, Rosenberg makes clear that he believes the process by which art is rationalized into culture is a pestilence within the art world itself. In the face of professionalism and art capitalism, he clings to his conception of the self-grounding individuality of the authentic artist. This embattled individuality has to contend with three crucial problems. On one hand, it is faced with the difficulties of innovation, endemic after the heroic period of the First World War (“1914”), while on the other, it must contend with the fickleness and snobbery of the current art world (“The American Art Establishment”). Beyond both of these, it must struggle with the difficulties of conceiving art in consciousness and motivation rather than in object and craft (“Art and Work”). The individualist Rosenberg particularly scorns the coalescence of vanguard movements into a single tradition at once academic, totalitarian, and mass-culture in meaning. In some of the later articles of Discovering the Present Rosenberg thinks that the conformist character of vanguard art is getting stronger than ever, limiting the possibilities of the individual artist and dissipating his energies.

However, even when Discovering the Present describes artistic individuality as fresh and unencumbered, it seems crouched into a permanent fighting stance, forever aggressively dialecticizing its relations with the modern historical and social situation. This is self-contradictory, for if, as Rosenberg writes, individuality originates in a metaphysical situation, then the modern historical and social situation is continually irrelevant. To be an artist it should not matter, on Rosenberg’s own terms, whether the art world is a no man’s land or a potentially bureaucratic organization. Similarly, to be authentically Jewish does not require the existence of anti-Semites, as Rosenberg asserted against Sartre (“Sartre’s Jewish Morality Play”). If Rosenberg was true to himself, the threat of society against the individual would be hollow, because individuality is absolute. He is self-contradictory because he is forced to recognize that artistic individuality is dialectically grounded in—simultaneously oppressed and objectified by—society however much he dreams of the autonomous individual. Rosenberg would like artistic individuality, as an active value, to be authoritative, but he is forced to recognize the opposing authority of society. For him, the given values and set habits of any society exist like a deadweight against spontaneous self-creation.

If Rosenberg believes in heroic individuals, he sees none on the horizon of the present. He clings in this book to the old vanguard individualists—Joyce, Eliot, Rilke, Kafka, Picasso, Matisse—welcoming no new names except for De Kooning. This, to say the least, is not very venturesome, and it implies an all too abstract—overly determined—conception of artistic individualism. Equally, Rosenberg’s idea of the present is also abstract, for it is fixated on an apocalyptic vision of mass culture threatening to overwhelm the unique individual. His conceptions of artistic individualism and the present situation are a priori; their conflict is as much a matter of principle as of fact. In general, Rosenberg has a vision of modern history as an abstract psychomachia between classless, creative individuality and nonclass culture, between the hero and the dragon trying to swallow him. Rosenberg in effect medievalizes the modern experience of personal uncertainty and totalitarian community, revealing a religious disposition that tries to create ultimate issues and thinks in eschatological terms. He finds new absolutes to replace decayed ones, making of fragmentary experience a new salvation.

It is hard to say exactly when Rosenberg first felt the art world to go wrong—though it was no later than 1960, after the heyday of Abstract Expressionism. His disenchantment with the art scene—his sense of it as a fiefdom of mass culture—is subtly communicated in his review of Frank Stella’s retrospective in The Museum of Modern Art (“Young Masters, New Critics: Frank Stella” in The De-definition of Art). Stella’s art is a form of engineering, the critics who analyze and praise it are dogmatic and didactic, and Stella himself is a professional rather than an individualist, which is why he was given a retrospective privilege for which, at the same age, Cézanne, Matisse, and Miró would not have qualified-. All of this testifies to the rationalization of art into a technique, its increasing acculturation, and the loss of its ability to communicate a self-creating consciousness. Rosenberg repudiates the mass culture in the name of which this professionalization of art—the reduction of it to a kind of public relations rhetoric—occurs.

Whatever the accuracy of his reading of the present, Rosenberg is of value for the “voice” he gives it. His inability to be bland and his sense of urgency—his belief that combativeness is a kind of creativity (“Themes”)—leads him to many arresting insights. Beyond these, he conveys an amplitude of contemporary issues, making us aware of unexpected dimensions and consequences. While one might become suspicious of articles attacking the mass media, one can appreciate the irony of the social critic’s position, and see the comedy in his radical intentions. Sometimes the spontaneous reversal, or, at least suspension of Rosenberg’s seriousness—the relaxation of his argument and his casual breadth of detail—seems an admission of the jester’s role. Nonetheless, while playing clown to a mad society, he would also like to be a king—a full individual—in it. Rosenberg writes, “Looked at too closely, a work of art is always false to its principle” (“Themes”), and one might add, “Looked at too closely, a critic is always false to his facts.” But to make so much of this falseness is after all to discover personal truth.

Donald B. Kuspit