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.

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August 16, 2012

Marx, anarchist rivals, and our enigmatic President

[For a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2012/04/06/diagnosing-potus/. Also, https://clarespark.com/2012/09/14/ron-paul-anarchist-in-chief/]

Because the history of radical thought is rarely taught objectively, if at all, in the universities, much of the electorate is at the mercy of any anti-statist conservative who takes it upon himself to write a book about his political enemies, tarring them with the brush of either communism, fascism, or “totalitarianism” (the latter conflating communism and Nazism/ fascism, which have differing political genealogies, and differ sharply with respect to the Enlightenment).

We remain in an attenuated political culture, because leftists and liberals alike dominate the teaching of the humanities in the public schools, and elite universities (both private and public). Right wing protest attempts to overcome the leftist monopoly with largely religious claims that are often flawed, for instance, holding “atheism” or “materialism” or “science” or “technology” or “feminism” or “gays” responsible for the perceived decadence of our times.

At the same time, many vocal post-60s leftists refuse to acknowledge that this is a big country, with diverse belief systems. Hence their political tactics may be intolerant and lacking in empathy for those who find purpose and meaning in Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, etc. Enter the fiercely argued culture wars, where “secularism,” to take one example, has been transformed from the separation of Church and State to “godless Communism.” Do we enjoy Ayn Rand’s novels? She must be the devil, for she was a materialist who lauded creative achievement in this world. What we may not do is view her as the product of a particular moment in history, when collectivism (either Soviet Communism or the New Deal) was justified as the realization of altruism, a quality held to be lacking in dog-eat-dog hyper-individualistic industrial society, controlled by “economic royalists” as FDR named his opponents. At a moment when social bonds were mystical (as envisioned by either the corporatist liberals or the Soviets), Rand defended science, technology, and the materialist Enlightenment:  for Rand social bonds were rational and based on competence in manipulating the materials of this world.

What to do when there is no common basis for agreement regarding fundamental values, let alone the application of the Constitution to an industrialized or post-industrial society such as our own? My personal solution is to defend scientific method, political pluralism (on “cultural pluralism” see https://clarespark.com/2013/09/26/cultural-pluralism-vs-multiculturalism/), and creative freedom against all authoritarian tendencies, whether these emanate from the Left, the “moderate men,” or the Right. That is the purpose of the website, and decades earlier, was the project of my radio programs on KPFK-FM, Los Angeles. Whereas “leftists”(including anarchists) claim to stand with “the oppressed,” I stand with artists, the unleashed imagination, and the creative spirit in general, which I believe each one of our species possesses.

Yesterday, I promised my Facebook friends that I would try to write a blog distinguishing between Karl Marx and his anarchist rivals. Looking over the various Wikipedia biographies of the major actors in this (anarchist) trend in European history (see below), I was daunted, even floored. But I did discover that Noam Chomsky admired such anarchist thinkers as Bakunin (add Perry Anderson to that list), while Martin Luther King, Jr. is better seen as a descendant of Tolstoy.

As for Marx versus Lenin versus Mao-Tse-tung, I will summarize all too briefly what their differences were here (and note that I am drastically oversimplifying, and everything I write will be seen as reductionist and dumb by those who are intellectuals in the many left-wing sects):

  1. Marx was  hardly the sole critic of industrial society, but it is his apocalyptic prophecies of socialist revolution that distinguish him from his rivals. He believed that the working class would become immiserated, and that portions of the bourgeoisie would desert their class to join with the workers to “expropriate the expropriators.” This could  only happen in advanced industrial societies where the working class comprised the majority. Marx had little use for petit-bourgeois radicalism  (such as utopian socialism advanced by many of his contemporaries, including Robert Owen and the Fourierites in America). And he famously despised “the idiocy of rural life” and societies he considered to be backward, which aroused the fury of such as the anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist Edward Said, along with other primitivists and antisemites. Most controversially, Marx predicted the withering away of the state after a relatively brief period of working class dictatorship. In his fantasies, the creative spirit soon would be enjoyed by everyone, once the commodifying capitalist boot was lifted from the necks of hapless workers.
  2. Soviet Communism. It was not supposed to happen in a backward country, but Lenin and his Bolshevik comrades took advantage of the Great War and Russia’s defeat to mount a  coup and a separate peace. Lenin was deeply influenced by J. A. Hobson, and one emphasis was breaking the stranglehold of finance capital (“the Jews”). Rather than allowing worker’s councils (as had sprung up in numerous locales), he supported “war communism” and “bureaucratic  centralism” that easily was transmuted by Stalin to “socialism in one country.” Meanwhile, Trotskyists broke with Stalinism to foment international revolution, while I. N. Steinberg, leader of the Left Social Revolutionaries, fled for his life.
  3. Maoism. The Chinese Communists broke with Moscow from about 1958 onward. Mao’s theory that the peasants were the revolutionary class in China appealed to many radicals  with an agrarian bias. Such incendiary radicals as H. Bruce Franklin,  however, managed to defend Stalin while advocating Third World revolution  in the 1960s. Here is where the New Left and the anti-urban, libertarian, anarchistic “counter-culture” could join hands. “Old Guard” members of SDS finally lined up with the Democratic Party, while some of the “direct action” folk blew themselves up and their ideological offspring can be found in parts of the Occupy Wall Street, anti-globalization demonstrations. In pop culture they may “rage against the machine.”
  4. The irony of Marxism. For true Marxists, the bourgeoisie was a progressive class. This is basic, for without Adam Smith and Company, there would be no industrial society that could lead to a utopia that would eliminate toil and drudgery for the majority of humanity. For the others mentioned here and below in the biographies of the most important European anarchists, the bourgeoisie was evil, amoral, and thieving of the labor of workers and peasants. Nihilistic  gangs such as Baader-Meinhof or the Weathermen (as embodied in Bernadine Dohrn and William Ayers) hold to the violence of George Sorel. To what extent their beliefs have penetrated youth culture I cannot say for certain, but it should worry us all.

Bernadine Dohrn

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dialectical_materialism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proudhon

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bakunin

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leo_Tolstoy

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prince_Kropotkin

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Sorel

Finally, given the intricacy of these European social movements and their chief ideologues, I hesitate to apply them willy nilly to American political figures. We are too given to easy labels, without nuance and without knowledge of revolutionary theories that were developed on crowded continents with autocratic ruling classes. There is no substitute for studying the labor movement in America. Let the intellectuals fret over “Why there is no socialism in America.”  We might do better to study shifting coalitions in American political parties as they existed in the past and in the campaign year of 2012. Are the varied components of either the Democratic or the Republican parties compatible with each other, or are they at odds? And does or does not this internal incoherence complicate our picture of the often enigmatic Barack Obama and his challengers?

[Illustrated: Isaac N. Steinberg, briefly in a coalition government with Lenin, leader of the Left Social Revolutionaries, and author of Workshop of the Revolution, that denounced the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, and the suppression of the mutinous Kronstadt sailors. Steinberg and his family–including his son Leo who went on to be a great and revered art historian–fled the Soviets in 1923. Steinberg went on to search for a homeland for the Jews that would not make them vulnerable to a sea of Arab neighbors.]

I.N. Steinberg

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