Features September 1982
A note on The New Criterion
There are no doubt many reasons for wanting to start a new review, but the primary one was long ago stated by Sir Walter Scott while he was involved in preparations for launching The Quarterly Review. Writing to Gifford in October 1808, on the eve of the Quarterly’s initial appearance, Scott declared that “The real reason for instituting the new publication is the disgusting and deleterious doctrines with which the most popular of our Reviews disgraces its pages.” The journal Scott had in mind was, of course, the Edinburgh Review. But he—fortunate man!—lived in a tidier and more fastidious intellectual universe than ours. Today we know to our sorrow that there are many worse disasters to be visited upon the life of culture than the Edinburgh Review. We are surrounded by the evidence wherever we turn. The feeling of dissatisfaction with existing journals, and with the ideas and practices that govern them, is therefore likely to be especially acute just now for anyone capable of recalling a time when criticism was more strictly concerned to distinguish achievement from failure, to identity and uphold a standard of quality, and to speak plainly and vigorously about the problems that beset the life of the arts and the life of the mind in our society.
Today, more often than not, the prevailing modes of criticism have not only failed to come to grips with such tasks, they have actually come to constitute an obstacle to their pursuit. A multitude of journals of every size and periodicity—quarterlies, monthlies, fortnightlies, weeklies, and even the daily papers to the extent that they concern themselves with matters of the mind—lavishes upon the life of culture a vast amount of attention. Yet most of what is written in these journals is either hopelessly ignorant, deliberately obscurantist, commercially compromised, or politically motivated. Especially where the fine arts and the disciplines of high culture are concerned, criticism at every level—from the daily newspaper review of a concert or a novel to the disquisitions of critics and scholars in learned journals—has almost everywhere degenerated into one or another form of ideology or publicity or some pernicious combination of the two. As a result, the very notion of an independent high culture and the distinctions that separate it from popular culture and commercial entertainment have been radically eroded. Far from resisting this erosion, criticism has lately been responsible for hastening it on its downward course. Not only have our critics assisted in blurring the kinds of distinctions that were once fundamental to their vocation. In many cases they have openly celebrated the demise of such distinctions.
This fateful collapse in critical standards—and in the very idea of critical disinterestedness—is only a part, of course, of a more general cultural drift that has brought some woeful consequences in its wake. It has changed, and changed very much for the worse, the way the arts and humanities are now studied in our universities. It has changed the way art museums and other cultural institutions now conceive of their programs and priorities—and indeed, the very reason for their existence. It plays a role in the way government agencies, private foundations, and corporate sponsors dispense funds for cultural projects. In many cases it has condemned true seriousness to a fugitive existence even in realms, such as the world of scholarship, where it was once highly prized. It has thus altered the conditions of artistic and intellectual life in this country, and made it infinitely more difficult for the voice of informed intelligence to make itself heard, and almost impossible for it to prevail.
A very large part of the reason for this sad state of affairs is, frankly, political. We are still living in the aftermath of the insidious assault on mind that was one of the most repulsive features of the radical movement of the Sixties. The cultural consequences of this leftward turn in our political life have been far graver than is commonly supposed. In everything from the writing of textbooks to the reviewing of trade books, from the introduction of kitsch into the museums to the decline of literacy in the schools to the corruption of scholarly research, the effect on the life of culture has been ongoing and catastrophic. Yet the subject is one that has scarcely been studied. It would probably take the combined talents of a Gibbon and a Tocqueville to tell the whole shabby story on the requisite scale, but one does not have to be a genius to recognize some of the more egregious results of this flight from intelligence and intellectual scruple. The cultural landscape is littered with its casualties and debris.
Consider, for example, what now passes for the writing of contemporary art history in the offices of the Oxford University Press in New York:
When the Philip Morris Company sponsored a concert of Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire to accompany the Guggenheim [Museum’s] presentation [of German Expressionist painting], the musical director included a parody of Pierrot Lunaire composed by Hanns Eisler, a former student of Schoenberg’s who had fled Nazi Germany in 1933, worked in Hollywood as musical assistant to Charlie Chaplin, and was so savagely persecuted as a communist that he was forced to flee America in 1947 during the worst of the red witch hunts. Eisler’s brilliant parody, composed to the poems of another rebellious German, Christian Morgenstern, went unnoticed by both the corporation and those reporting the event. But while the directors of museums insist that the benign supercompanies never attempt to influence judgments in high artistic matters, had Philip Morris only known . . .
The knowing ellipsis is in the original, by the way, which is to be found in the closing pages of Dore Ashton’s recently published American Arts Since 1945, a book clearly intended for classroom use. Apparently we are to regard the life of art in the United States as existing under some kind of dire political threat from big business—even when big business does not interfere in the artistic activities it sponsors. No wonder a reviewer in The Nation, though he found American Art Since 1945 to be neither “a brilliant [n]or a profound text,” praised its author for seeing “art as a political as well as an esthetic activity.”
Needless to say, it is never explained why it is right and proper for Hanns Eisler, Dore Ashton, and reviewers in The Nation to see “art as a political as well as an esthetic activity” while it is somehow wrong—and indeed sinister—for corporate patrons of the arts to evince the least curiosity about the social implications of the artistic programs they are invited to sponsor. Incidentally, nowhere in American Art Since 1945 is it pointed out that Hanns Eisler, after he left the United States in 1947, went on to become the privileged composer laureate of the Communist regime in East Germany that, among much else, built the Berlin Wall. Opinions will differ as to whether an account of a career like Eisler’s even belongs in a history of American arts since 1945. But if it is to be included, does there not exist some elementary obligation to the reader—who, more often than not, is likely to be a student without any detailed knowledge of the period—to tell the whole story?
Elsewhere the tendency to substitute political fantasies for the writing of art history has become even more programmatic. Thus, in a journal called Art History (September 1980) we find the following contribution to historical enlightenment. The authors—Fred Orton and Griselda Pollock of the University of Leeds—are discussing the mammoth “Post-Impressionism” exhibition mounted at the Royal Academy in London in 1979-1980 and afterwards shown, in somewhat modified form, at the National Gallery in Washington. They are particularly concerned to discredit John Rewald’s definitive Post-Impressionism: From Van Gogh to Gauguin, published by the Museum of Modern Art in 1956 and still the most comprehensive study of its subject today. This is what they say about it:
Those of us who are neither indebted to Rewald nor convinced of the possibility or desirability of writing definitive histories do, however, believe that it is important to note the historical specificity of the reassertion of ‘Post-Impressionism’ in Rewald’s view of history, the date of the book’s publication (1956), the institution which published it (Museum of Modern Art, New York), and the dramatis personae acknowledged as Trustees of the Museum of Modern Art (1950s hegemonists, power elitists and upper class Americans with interests in shaping foreign policy). Rewald’s The History of Impressionism (New York, 1946) and Post-Impressionism must be recognized for what they are, symptoms of, and contributions to, the construction of a history of art from the mid-nineteenth century to the present which was conceived by that Cold War warrior and ideologue Alfred H. Barr Jr., Director of the Museum of Modern Art. Rewald’s conception of the history of art fist snugly into Barr’s grand design, modernism, into that creation of an autonomous linear development which obfuscates the changing conditions of production in art practices and the real social relations in which they are embedded in favour of those abstractions, style and genius.
And while our authors modestly acknowledge that this article “is not the place to begin the deconstruction of modernism as one of the cornerstones of American cultural imperialism,” in a footnote we are promised “a historical study of Alfred H. Barr and the role of the Museum of Modern Art in the construction of modernism” for the future.
It would be comforting, perhaps, to suppose that such manifest and malevolent misrepresentations of art, of history, of scholarship, and of the institutions that have been created in democratic societies to secure their integrity, are isolated or eccentric occurrences on the cultural scene today. But such, alas, is not the case. For more than a decade now there has been an active school of criticism at work promoting the notion that the New York School, for example, was little more than political instrument conjured up by those “1950s hegemonists” for the purpose of fighting the Cold War. This line was introduced into criticism by the English Marxist writer John Berger in the Fifties, when the paintings of Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning, et al. were first exhibited in Europe on a large scale and began to exert a tremendous influence on the rising generation of artists there. It was not taken seriously on this side of the Atlantic, however, until the political shifts of the Sixties created an intellectual environment more conducive to its reception. Since that time, Berger’s own writings have acquired a cult status in this country, and there have been some notable conversions to the same Marxist line by critics and scholars who once knew better.
One of the saddest of many such cases is that of the critic Lucy Lippard. Here is a writer who began her career in the Fifties as a serious student of modern art, and went on to produce important monographs on the work of Eva Hesse and Ad Reinhardt and valuable anthologies of the writings of the Dadaists and the Surrealists. There was every reason to suppose that a writer of this quality would one day become one of our leading historians of the modern movement. Yet in the Seventies Miss Lippard fell victim to the radical whirlwind. The scholarship and discrimination that won her the respect of the art world is a thing of the past. Nowadays, she writes in defense of ideas that, if triumphant, would require all her earlier work to be placed under a permanent political ban.
This, to be sure, is an extreme case. The descent into straight-out political propaganda is not usually so crude. But the same ideological impulse can be observed, too, in the realm of academic scholarship. It is by no means confined to the world of révolté journalism. At Harvard University, for example, the study of nineteenth-century French art history—still the fulcrum of any systematic study of the whole modern period—is now presided over by the English Marxist scholar T.J. Clark, the author of two influential texts, Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the Second French Republic, 1848-1851 and The Absolute Bourgeois: Artists and politics in France, 1848-1851.1
In the literary world, similar political distortions are now so commonplace that they defy summary. Not since the 1930s have so many orthodox leftist pieties so casually insinuated themselves into both the creation and the criticism of literature, and remained so immune to resistance or exposure.
Part of this is, of course, sheer trendiness. Writers seeking readers’ favor inevitably—and not always very thoughtfully—tend to conform to whatever views seem at the moment to be “in.” They merely follow where the fashion seems to lead. But how, then, are we to account for a trend that elevates such views to a position of unquestioned modishness? What it seems to come down to is a fervent wish on the part of many writers to dissociate themselves from the capitalist society in which we live. Everything in their intellectual upbringing has disposed them to identify the literary vocation with the conventions of radical criticism, and thus made them acutely vulnerable to the pressure exerted by the special political intensities of the Left.
Many writers on the Left—and this includes a good many of our prominent critics, too—have never forgiven history for failing to conform to the fictions of radical prophecy. They have never forgiven American society for failing to live up to their critique of it. In some tender sanctum of the soul, socialism remains their moral and social ideal—but a socialism so immune to historical contingency and moral reality that it is now indistinguishable from a religious dogma. It would therefore break their hearts and shatter every illusion they have inherited from the sacred traditions of radicalism to have to acknowledge that capitalism, for all its many flaws, has proved to be the greatest safeguard of democratic institutions and the best guarantee of intellectual and artistic freedom—including their intellectual and artistic freedom—that the modern world has given us. How profoundly they despise this elementary fact of their existence, and how energetically they work to disguise and distort its reality!
The time has surely come for criticism to turn its back on this intellectual vaudeville act, which wears a fancy radical face when performing for the public while at the same time—backstage, as it were—availing itself of all the advantages and preferments that our society offers in such abundance. It is time to apply a new criterion to the discussion of our cultural life—a criterion of truth. This is by no means a simple or an easy task. The defense of high art in a democratic society has never been a simple or an easy task. It is in the very nature of democracy, with its multiplicity of interests and tastes, for the task to be difficult. Yet its imperative that we recognize, as the first condition for any serious criticism of the arts in the contemporary world, that it is now only in a democratic society like ours that the values of high art can be expected to survive and prosper. The dishonesties and hypocrisies and disfiguring ideologies that nowadays afflict the criticism of the arts are deeply rooted in both our commercial and our academic culture. They govern much that is written about the arts in the media, and much that is taught about them in the classroom. For all practical purposes, indeed, they constitute a very large part of the mainstream of our cultural life today. It is therefore all the more urgent that a dissenting critical voice be heard, and it is for this purpose of providing such a voice that The New Criterion has been created.
- Something of the flavor of Professor Clark's outlook may be gleaned from the following exercise in translation. In a passage (page 171) in The Absolute Bourgeois, first published in 1973 and lately reprinted in paperback, he writes of Baudelaire: "The revolution [of 1848] would destroy his family, so Baudelaire hoped. Hence the famous slogan he shouted in February, clutching his looted flintlock: 'Il faut fusiller le general Aupick!' (equals, roughly, 'Up against the wall Motherfucker')." Translation is a notoriously inexact science, of course. It allows a writer many liberties. But there is obviously something more than the creative interpolation of a text at work in this particular effort.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 1 Number 1, on page 1
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