The Clare Spark Blog

February 11, 2014

Leo Steinberg and the dilemma of the Jewish intellectual

Leo Steinberg

Leo Steinberg

Leo Steinberg, the famous and controversial art historian who died only recently, was the most cultured and brilliant of all my New York friends after my divorce in 1971. I sought him out after reading his essay on the serpentine manner in which Picasso drew or painted sensual women, an article published in Artforum in 1972. We were close friends until he died in 2011.  It was he who urged me to study antisemitism, claiming that there was no European myth of the Good Jew, an idea that I applied here: https://clarespark.com/2010/08/15/nazis-exhibit-der-ewige-jude-1937/.

I bring him up, because though he had Freudian psychoanalysis, he never escaped the specter of his famous father’s disapproval.  I. N. Steinberg, briefly in a coalition government with Lenin, was head of the Social Revolutionaries, but fled the SU in 1923 in the [surely correct] belief that his life was in danger. The socialist father never approved of Leo’s artistic proclivities, demanding that he should devote his life to the suffering masses, instead of indulging himself in drawing or the study of art and architecture. You won’t find that in Wikipedia.

After periods in Germany and the UK, the Steinberg family emigrated to America, where Leo studied both art and art history. He was a breathtakingly handsome and charismatic figure, wrote like the acculturated European he was, and never believed that he had made an impact on his profession.  Or so he told me over and over.

Isaac N. Steinberg, leader and refugee

Isaac N. Steinberg, leader and refugee

I am writing about Leo today, because he had the limitations of all academics; though world famous, worshipped, and bold, he ever viewed his life as a failure. While in graduate school, I was appalled by the timidity and narrow outlooks of my fellow graduate students, even the best of them. No surprise there, as getting a job in a semi-aristocratic profession with high status was their objective, not making waves and challenging old narratives.

scaredycatdog

Leo adapted to American life by ingratiating himself with powerful persons, and adopting their culture heroes. In a sense, he became more Catholic than the Catholics he competed with and occasionally shocked with such books as The Sexuality of Christ In Renaissance Art And In Modern Oblivion (Pantheon, 1983). (Revealingly, he refers to Catholic art as “Christian art,” as if there had never been a Reformation.) He owned eleven copies of James Joyce’s Ulysses and worshipped this author, as did his au courant contemporaries.

To return to the Jewish question, Leo showed some gumption by criticizing the martyred conceptual artist Hans Haacke, whose exhibition on the Manhattan real estate holdings of Nathan Shapolsky (a Jew), had been cancelled by the Guggenheim Museum, and the curator Edward Fry fired for protesting.

Yesterday, I picked up the catalog dealing with Haacke’s work: Hans Haacke: Unfinished Business, ed. Brian Wallis (MIT Press, 1987). Leo had the lead essay in the volume, “Some of Hans Haacke’s Work Considered as Fine Art,” briefly noting that Haacke had singled out a Jewish “slumlord” and, even when permitted to change the name of the exhaustively documented monopolist, Haacke chose the pseudonym of “Harry Schwartz.” This second Jewish name did not go over well with the trustees, so the exhibition became famous through reputation and was installed elsewhere (I recall).

Even though Leo, unlike other critics, identified the antisemitic slur in the choice of subject matter, he caved on Haacke’s later more mature work, for Leo  was a social democrat like Haacke, and a critique of antisemitism is something to be dropped or picked up on an ad hoc basis, depending on the presence or absence of top dogs.

Such is the socialization of academics in America, even tainting the one who, more than anyone else on the Left, urged me to educate myself in the nuances of antisemitism.

We are all prisoners of our context and life histories. Leo Steinberg taught me that writing expository prose was as challenging as poetry or fiction, and that it took months and years to master even one image handed down from the past.  If he was at times a scaredy cat, like other precariously situated intellectuals, I don’t hold it against him. He was my best, and most faithful mentor. I should have dedicated my book on the Melville revival to him, especially since he read Moby-Dick in a gesture of comradeship.

March 22, 2013

“Traditionalists” on the culture front

Kinkade

Kinkade “Sunrise”

[This is the second blog that mentions Andrew Klavan. See part one of this series here: https://clarespark.com/2013/03/11/do-paleoconservatives-want-a-theocracy/.]

As if the “culture wars” had not already sown enough confusion and polarization, some “traditionalists” are now encouraging right-thinking conservatives to make popular art that would challenge what is seen as the Hollywood monopoly on popular entertainment—a mass culture with way too much sex and not enough religion. Some warriors are humorously grotesque, for instance Bill O’Reilly’s offensive on behalf of the Easter Bunny. But others on the right participate in this war against “secular progressives” while others scan high culture for salutary examples with potential to heal a sick “body politic.”  For instance, Andrew Klavan (a convert to Christianity, and an ex-liberal as well, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Klavan), who writes popular mysteries, also writes on culture regularly for Pajamas Media. Klavan deplores what he calls “moral relativism,” preferring Immanuel Kant, the ethical universalist, over godless Nietzschean Supermen and the dread (and misconstrued) “deconstructionists” whom he links to Nazism. (See his talk of March 18, 2013 at the David Horowitz Freedom Center: http://tinyurl.com/ch8ucow.)

In the high Renaissance, great artists limited their subject matter to either religious art or to naked goddesses that pleased the propensities of aristocratic patrons. Recall too that Shakespeare was a Catholic, an anti-puritan, and a proponent of the organic society.  The Reformation, then the Enlightenment, began the long road to (partial) independence for artists, and a freer choice of subject matter and (subtly limited) freedom of thought and expression.

It is my own view that any repressed human being will be unable to make anything that passes for “modern” art, and that the traditionalist artists and illustrators (like Thomas Kinkade or Andrew Wyeth that seemingly upheld either “Christian” (Kinkade) or rural values (Wyeth) may be popular among older conservatives and even among liberals nostalgic for representation, but in this age of mass media with its celebration of youth culture, the call for more conservative artists and writers will find few patrons to subsidize their neo-“puritanism” except among themselves. But then today’s “culture warriors” define themselves against “modernity” and the dissenting individual, even as they protest groupiness–those notions such as multiculturalism that are collectivist in nature. For many “libertarians” (Klavan), the goal in “speaking truth to power” is to demolish Big Government, not to criticize authoritarian institutions, whether these appear at the national, local or state level, let alone within the family. (Even moderates may call for a revitalized mass culture: see https://clarespark.com/2012/04/29/fred-siegels-melodrama-of-20th-c-cultural-history/.)

Easter Bunny

Easter Bunny

We are all anticapitalists now. Modernism in the arts participated in the degeneration narrative, for these confusingly named “modernists,” the big corporation and technological pseudo-progress were agents of decadence, producing seductive consumer goods that vitiated class consciousness.  Along with celebrities, movie stars, and journalists, were the mobs unleashed by industrial capitalism, the New Woman, and the international Jewish conspiracy. Cain’s cities therefore were the site of hyper-sexuality, homosexuality, and all nervous anxieties, to be cured by a return to Nature and/or to order and anti-secular religion. The path to neoclassical safety would be mapped by primitivists and/or neo-medievalists from Left to Right seeking to renew paternal authority in the family. (On the dangers of cities see https://clarespark.com/2009/11/19/the-scary-city-lamprecht-becker-lynd/.)

Wyeth

Andrew Wyeth “Spring” (1978)

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