YDS: 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.


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.


December 8, 2012

Hobsbawm, Obama, Israel

Hobsbawm in worker's cap

Hobsbawm in worker’s cap

I. Eric Hobsbawm, perhaps the most famous and influential of all the communist historians, died Ocober 1, 2012. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_Hobsbawm. He was eulogized by leading liberal newspapers as one of the most “eminent historians” of the world, but was denounced by David Horowitz and Ron Radosh, who asked their readers to avoid his history-falsifying works. I thought that I should see for myself, so read his famed “tetralogy” published from 1962 on, ending with his (then) final word on modernity in 1994, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. These were The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848, The Age of Capital: 1848-1875, The Age of Empire: 1875-1914, and The Age of Extremes: 1914-1991. I found the same line put forth by the UCLA Department of History where I earned my doctorate, and throughout the textbooks now used by countless students interested in American, European, and world history. (In his autobiography (2002), Hobsbawm credits George Soros with partly funding the last book in the series, Age of Extremes: suggesting that EH had adopted the “moderate,” i.e., social democratic, line)

Notable about the four books is the target audience of educated lay readers. Hence his [big] claims are not footnoted, but he does provide bibliographies and indices. What is most striking about the tetralogy is his range: he fused economic history, political history, social history, the arts, mathematics, and sciences. In those cases where my own scholarship is competent (the arts and intellectual history), I found his opinions to be either sketchy, derivative, or ideological and hence distorted and present-minded.  (See https://clarespark.com/2012/12/22/my-oppositional-defiant-disorder-and-eric-hobsbawm/,  https://clarespark.com/2012/11/23/historians-vs-pundits-the-eric-hobsbawm-synthesis/. For a drastically different reading of Melville’s Moby-Dick see https://clarespark.com/2010/06/10/herman-melville-dead-white-male/.)

For most of the four books, I thought that EH was conforming to the “antifascist” Popular Front strategy initiated by the Soviet Union after 1935; that would explain his praise of the post-1945 synthesis of Left and Right as embodied in social democracy, but that “Golden Age” of capitalism would end in a new crisis of the 1970s and 80s, almost as bad as “the Great Slump” of the 1930s, now worsened by Reagan and Thatcher.

The ending pages of such an ambitious project are worth summarizing. Hobsbawm is deeply worried about the future, which is up for grabs, and yet “dark.” Overpopulation is not only straining the food supply, but the industrialized world, everywhere, is likely destroying the planet. The nation-state is obsolete (globalization having been created by the 19th century industrial bourgeoisie), and yet there is no international agency that could impose the necessary regulations that would ensure the survival of our species.

The competition inherent in neoliberalism, Adam Smith’s elevation of the market, and Darwinism are his targets. EH distances himself from Stalin’s terror, but holds fast to Lenin. This is crucial, for Barack Obama is very close to Hobsbawm in his own political project, i.e., redistributionist (in the interest of social justice), Green-friendly and internationalist in its preferred outcome.

"The Lord's Prayer," Hans Haacke, ca. 1984

“The Lord’s Prayer,” Hans Haacke, ca. 1984

II. Consider now Hobsbawm’s continual ribbing of “the Jews”, nowhere more evident than in the short paragraph he devotes to Israel, which transmits the strangest summary of the Jewish state’s founding and subsequent history that I have ever seen, not to be exceeded in nastiness by the most jihadist of Israel’s enemies. Indeed, this ratattatat is indistinguishable from jihadism, and speaks poorly of the Left, to which Hobsbawm has ever remained attached.

From Hobsbawm, AGE OF EXTREMES, (Penguin, 1994) p. 359. (EH”s “extremes” refer to “laissez-faire capitalism/neoliberalism” on the one hand, and Soviet communism as its rational, enlightened antithesis.) Throughout the four books (but especially in the last two), Hobsbawm identifies himself with the oppressed and exploited “undeveloped world” that has been polluted and otherwise abused by the imperialistic “developed world”. Vehement as is his critique of neoliberalism, Reaganism and Thatcherism, his dislike of Israel is even more pronounced, as in the following, bizarre description of Israel, its founding, and its relations with neighbors.

“…the USSR had been among the first to recognize the new state of Israel, which later established itself as the main ally of the USA, and the Arab or other Islamic states, Right or Left, were united in repressing communism within their frontiers. The main force of disruption was Israel, where the Jewish settlers built a larger Jewish state than had been envisaged under the British partition (driving out seven hundred thousand non-Jewish Palestinians, perhaps a larger number than the Jewish population in 1948), fighting one war per decade for the purpose (1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982). …Israel also turned itself into the most formidable military force in the region and acquired nuclear arms, but failed to establish a stable basis of relations with its neighbor states, let alone with the permanently embittered Palestinians within its extended frontiers or in the Diaspora of the Middle East. The collapse of the USSR removed the Middle East from the front line of the Cold War, but left it as explosive as before.”

Here EH, of Jewish parentage, creates a brief narrative that is not only false, but jumbles together discrete conflicts that no professional historian would fail to analyze in context. EH goes out as not only an ideologue, but arguably a prime example of Selbsthass. Could anything be more transparent than the image of the Jewish state as pushy, grabby, destabilizing, ungrateful, and world-destroying?

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