PRINT March 2002


Jonathan Weinberg on The Nation

The Nation was launched in 1865 with seven objectives. The first six concerned the political and economic state of a country emerging from the devastation of civil war. Almost as an afterthought came the seventh: “sound and impartial criticism of books and works of art.” The connection between the goals of good government and encouraging the arts must have seemed self-evident—there was no justification given for the decision to include cultural reviews. And so from its very first issue, and regularly thereafter, The Nation has published reviews of art by house critics Clement Greenberg, Henry James, Max Kozloff, Fairfield Porter, and Paul Rosenfeld, to name the best known, and pieces by distinguished guests including Stuart Davis, Marsden Hartley, Katherine Anne Porter, Alfred Stieglitz, and Frank Lloyd Wright. A generous selection of this criticism has been gathered and annotated in Brushes with History: Writing on Art from The Nation, 1865–2001, edited by Peter G. Meyer with an introduction by Arthur C. Danto, the magazine’s current art critic.

Not surprisingly, given The Nation’s mission as a journal of political opinion, it has been the moments of controversy and scandal when art and politics tend to overlap—James McNeill Whistler’s libel suit against John Ruskin, the censoring of Diego Rivera’s Rockefeller Center mural, the supposed anti-Semitism and racism of the Met’s “Harlem on My Mind” exhibition and catalogue, the debate over federal funding of the arts—that have inspired some of the most sustained and passionate writing. To relive these controversies is to be given a survey of many key issues in modern art.

In the beginning, The Nation tended to empathize with baffled audiences trying to deal with the avant-garde. Although in 1878 Henry James castigates Ruskin for his lack of decorum in insulting Whistler’s painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: Falling Rocket, James himself calls such pictures “eccentric and imperfect.” Frank Jewett Mather Jr. resists writing a wholesale denunciation of the extraordinary European avant-garde art on view at the 1913 Armory Show, but it is clear that he prefers an academic drawing by Augustus Johns to Henri Matisse’s radical Blue Nude. It is not until Paul Rosenfeld comes on board in the 1930s that The Nation settles into the mode of defender of the latest trends in contemporary art.

True to its leftist politics, The Nation’s critics have tended to oppose censorship and side with artists in their fight for aesthetic autonomy. An exception is Danto’s courageous (but I think incorrect) defense of the removal of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc from the Federal Plaza in New York in 1985 (the sculpture was subsequently destroyed). According to Danto, aesthetically good art is not necessarily good public art. Public commissions require that the artist respond to social and political pressures and take into account popular tastes. But how do you quantify the public’s taste? Such a question was at the heart of a half-serious poll published in The Nation in 1994. The Russian émigré artists Komar and Melamid used market-research tools to find out what kind of art Americans want. They determined that the most popular painting would be a predominantly blue landscape with wild animals and clothed people.

For the most part, critics affiliated with The Nation, Danto included, have taken it as their task not to reflect such popular taste but to educate it by being advocates for difficult art. The magazine’s original prospectus spoke of instituting “impartial” criticism, but some of the best pieces in the anthology were written by friends of the artists. When, in 1932, Rosenfeld explained the extraordinary qualities of Stieglitz’s photographs of clouds, he did so from the perspective of an insider. He was part of Stieglitz’s coterie, and he used The Nation to proselytize for Stieglitz’s favorite artists, including John Marin, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Charles Demuth. (Marianne Moore, in her memoir of Rosenfeld, characterizes his writing as “biased by imagination,” which makes him akin to a poet.)

Clement Greenberg, The Nation’s most influential critic, declares his bias outright in his 1945 review of a Hans Hofmann exhibit when he states that he “owes more to the initial illumination received from Hofmann’s lectures than to any other source.” Yet his esteem doesn’t stop him from pointing out that many of Hofmann’s pictures “fly apart.” As Jackson Pollock was to find out when Greenberg criticized his return to figuration in the ’50s, being the critic’s friend did not mean being shielded from harsh judgments.

The writings of Greenberg dominate this anthology, not by their breadth or erudition but by their clarity and sense of mission. When I took on the task of reviewing this book I welcomed the chance to call on my fellow art historians to cure themselves of their obsession with Greenberg. He has too easily served as a convenient foil—the bad father of modernism‚ even when in reality his dictatorial pronouncements on quality and the course of history did nothing to stall the rise of the kind of art he despised, like Pop and Minimalism. Others invoke his name with nostalgia, longing for a time when his standards supposedly held sway. Greenberg at his worst makes an appearance in this anthology with his unpleasant 1946 review of O’Keeffe’s art, which he deems “pseudo-modern,” mixing “hygiene and scatology.” Yet to come to Greenberg’s short 1943 review of Mondrian’s New York Boogie Woogie, after wading through so many confused and wooden responses to works of art on the part of such critics as Mather and Thomas Craven, is to feel some of the liberation that is embodied in Mondrian’s painting itself. This is true even though, as Greenberg admits a week later in the magazine, he got the painting’s colors wrong. Typical of early Greenberg, his thoughts about Mondrian’s picture are dialectical: “The picture has a floating, wavering, somehow awkward quality.” Yet it is a “remarkable accomplishment, a failure worthy only of a great artist.” During his years at The Nation, from 1942 to ’49, Greenberg’s ideas had not yet hardened into intractable dogma. He was able to recognize Pollock’s “turbulent” overwrought achievement, even though it was very different from the modernist painting he had most admired. And yet his writing was successful because of its tone of authority. What Greenberg says of Willem de Kooning in 1948 could be said of his own writings of the period: “he comes before us in his maturity, in possession of himself, with his means under control, and with enough knowledge of himself and of painting in general to exclude all irrelevancies.”

When Greenberg left, it took ten years for The Nation to find an adequate replacement, in the less doctrinaire Fairfield Porter. Like Greenberg, Porter was a formalist, but as a figurative painter himself, he refused Greenberg’s dicta about the necessity of abstraction to ambitious painting. Perhaps because he was an artist, Porter was interested in the look of paintings and sculpture rather than their place in the canon. He is followed in the anthology by Max Kozloff, whose wide-ranging writings on art and mass culture richly merited the Pulitzer Prize awarded him in 1963. Kozloff’s ability to understand art within a larger social and political context is well known—he criticized Greenberg’s narrow formalism—but he also read works by such artists as Diane Arbus, Jasper Johns, and Barnett Newman closely. In fact, he was more attentive than Greenberg to their specific qualities, even as he tied their form to broader questions of aesthetics and politics.

Lawrence Alloway became The Nation’s lead art critic in the ’70s. Perhaps because of his connections to the academy and to art institutions, Alloway’s writing is bland. He did, however, make the effort to deal with issues of race and gender that had not been covered in the past. If in the first part of the twentieth century The Nation hired female critics like Elizabeth Robins Pennell and Anita Brenner, since the ’40s the periodical has tended to focus on white male artists as seen through the eyes of white male critics. Infrequent guest essays by women, for example the excellent 1984 article by Lucy Lippard on art in Central America, or occasional reviews of the works of artists of color have not made up for the magazine’s spotty record of critical diversity, at least as it is represented in this anthology.

With the appearance of Danto’s writings in 1984, The Nation began to regain its prestige in art circles. Danto’s knowledge of aesthetics—he is a philosopher by training—and his talent for communicating complicated concepts to a broad public have served the publication well in a postmodernist art world enthralled by theory. Although Danto gave the provocative title After the End of Art to a collection of his writings, he is at pains to reassure The Nation’s readers that he does not mean that art is finished in the twenty-first century, only modernist notions of artistic progress and quality. As a critic, Danto sees his function not so much as judging works of art as explaining them, particularly in relationship to how they test the category of art itself. His first essay in the anthology concerns toilet seats that were used by de Kooning and happened to be splattered with his paint. Is such a thing a work of art? Danto says no, but not before he discusses Pollock’s drips, Marcel Duchamp’s urinal (alias R. Mutt’s Fountain), and Alberto Giacometti’s bathroom graffiti. Greenberg’s put-down of O’Keeffe notwithstanding, the hygienic and the scatological have always been at the center of modern art. As Alexander Cockburn puts it in his review of the 1999 “Sensation” exhibition, “Shit happens.”

For most of its history the critics associated with The Nation, many of whom were Marxists, saw American culture as flawed and corrupt. In contrast, Danto seems generally pleased with the state of the art world. His last review included in the anthology not only celebrates Damien Hirst’s cadavers and medicine chests but gushes over the beneficence of the 23,000-square-foot Gagosian Gallery. I myself prefer a criticism that is less sanguine about art in relationship to commercial and institutional practices. Kozloff’s description of the 1964 World’s Fair fits the present art scene all too well: “This hurly-burly—hard sell, resourceful or sarcastic by turns—might be called the new amusement park syndrome in art. At its mercantile heart are techniques impersonal, even industrial in operation. In fact, the distinction between art and artifact so dwindles as to cause not merely basically equivocal attitudes toward creation, but a uniformity of feeling about it.”

Jonathan Weinberg is a painter and the author of Ambition and Love in Modern American Art (Yale University Press).


Brushes with History: Writing on Art from The Nation, 1865–2001. Edited by Peter G. Meyer. Introduction by Arthur C. Danto. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press/Nation Books, 2002. 532 pages.