Harold Rosenberg: A Critic's Life
(University of Chicago Press, 2021)
Debra Bricker Balken’s long-awaited new book, Harold Rosenberg: A Critic’s Life, just out from the University of Chicago Press, is the first complete biography of one of the foremost American intellectuals of the mid-20th century. Michael Brenson said this about the book:
In her mesmerizing, tough-minded, and prodigiously researched intellectual biography of Harold Rosenberg, Balken tracks the legendary art critic’s extraordinary intellectual journey through almost every major esthetic and political development—and battle—in the US and France from 1930 through the 1960s. This welcome book challenges readers to consider what it is about Rosenberg that we still need and whether there might ever be another prominent working critic with his independence, culture, and engaged and poetic imagination.
I was anxious to read the book and, when I did, I couldn’t wait to talk with Debra about how the battles among New York writers, poets, intellectuals, and artists in the middle of the 20th century set the stage for what was to come in the 21st century, especially when it comes to arguments about the relation between art and politics.
David Levi Strauss (Rail): Debra, it occurs to me that you’ve been working on this book for almost the entire time we’ve known each other. We met at Kippy Stroud’s place in Maine, about 20 years ago I think. Is that right?
Debra Bricker Balken: Actually, it was 1997. It was my first year at Kippy’s, and it was your first year, as well. I remember the year because I was just about to bring out the Arthur Dove retrospective. And both of us would continue to go to Kippy’s for the next 15 summers or so. It was an incredible meeting place for artists, writers, and curators.
Rail: It was. So, when did you begin the Rosenberg book?
Balken: I became one of the Clark Art Institute’s inaugural fellows in 2001 and explored the possibility of doing a book then. And the following year I received a fellowship from the Dedalus Foundation which kick-started my research. But I didn't start writing in earnest until about 2005, given the scale of my research.
Rail: When we were initially there together at Kippy’s, we also both got to know Arthur Danto.
Balken: Yes, it was his first year as well!
Rail: [Laughter] And I see that your book is dedicated to your father and to Arthur. In the formalist/anti-formalist, Greenberg/Rosenberg divide, Danto would certainly come down on the Rosenberg side. And there are a host of other connections between Arthur and the Rosenberg material, including existentialism and the philosophy of action, especially. Did you talk with Arthur about Rosenberg during this time?
Balken: Yes, extensively. Arthur was very supportive of the book from the beginning. He wrote numerous letters of recommendation for me to various grant-giving programs. And we did talk about Rosenberg, a lot. I was very intrigued that when Arthur became the art critic for The Nation in 1984, he was following in the footsteps of Clement Greenberg, who had occupied that position from 1942 until, I think, 1949. Because Arthur wasn’t a formalist, I wanted to know what he thought about that legacy. He thought a lot about the way in which Greenberg had contributed to his own thinking about the end of the modern period, and had entered into what he called a “post-historical” phase.
Rail: Your book is a thoroughgoing, well-researched biography of Harold Rosenberg, but it’s also really an intellectual history of New York City, over six decades. As you point out, people now think of Rosenberg primarily as an art critic, but most of his writing in that form didn’t happen until the last decade and a half of his life, especially when he became the art critic for The New Yorker from 1962 to his death in 1978. But before that, he wrote many other things as a poet, story writer, literary essayist, and political and social commentator.
There are several themes that recur and develop throughout your book that I’d like to focus on, including the changing and charged relationship between art and politics, the meaning of “action,” the resistance to formalism, and the place and possibility of art criticism. All of these issues were especially important to Rosenberg in the 20th century, but they also have particular relevance in the present time, in the 21st century.
You’ve said that you came to Rosenberg first through your work on Philip Guston’s paintings and drawings. And that also makes it timely right now, on the eve of this big retrospective of Guston’s work that was delayed for political reasons. What about Rosenberg’s writing on Guston caught your interest and made you think about devoting so much of your time to his work and life?
Balken: I have worked on two Guston projects. One was an exhibition of his “Poem-Pictures,” in collaboration with poets such as Clark Coolidge, Stanley Kunitz, Bill Berkson, Musa McKim, Bill Corbett, and others that were produced during the last decade of his life and incorporated the quirky cartoon-type imagery that set so many formalist critics off. And then, subsequently, I did a spin-off project, a book of Guston’s “Poor Richard,” his caricatures of Richard Nixon, that grew out of an extended conversation with another writer, namely Philip Roth. During the course of my research for both projects, Rosenberg kept jumping out, because he was the only critic, with the exception of Bill Berkson, who could write about Guston’s late work with conviction and insight when it was first shown at Marlborough Gallery in 1970 and induced widespread criticism and fallout. What struck me was the contrast with the review by Hilton Kramer in the New York Times that had a headline that read, “A Mandarin Pretending to Be a Stumblebum,” and Rosenberg’s piece which was titled “Liberation from Detachment.” It was such a beautiful, poetic description that drew from his knowledge of the history of Guston’s work. They met in New York, probably in the late 1940s, just at the time when Guston was affecting a major transition in his work, from figuration to abstraction. He knew about Guston’s introduction to art through a correspondence course at the Cleveland School of Art, where he enrolled in cartooning. But for Rosenberg, a certain continuity was maintained in Guston’s work, that other critics could not reckon and were aghast at. He knew that there had been strong precedent in his early work. And of course, Rosenberg, like Guston, is somebody who allied cartooning with satire and caricature, with its political dimensions.
Rail: Yes, you write that Rosenberg found Guston’s rebellion “not as a break, but as part of a continuous strand of developing.” And he also predicted that Guston “may have given the cue of the art of the 1970s,” and that it “lifted the ban on social consciousness in art of the 20th century.” In contrast, Clement Greenberg never reviewed Guston’s work and rarely mentioned Guston in his essays.
Balken: That’s right, Rosenberg was able to tie Guston, like most of the artists that he wrote about, with social and political forces, which is the dimension that’s missing in formalist art criticism, among other dimensions. Richard Nixon is elected to office in 1968, amid widespread student protests, internationally, and Guston begins to question, “What is it about me as an artist that is going into a studio and adjusting a red to a blue?” Rosenberg was able to vivify that concern by tagging the connection to the enormous political transformation that took place in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Rail: As he did in earlier periods as well. Actually, the breadth and the scale of these transformations runs throughout your book, from beginning to end. Your first chapter begins on the steps of the New York Public Library, with a 22-year-old Rosenberg meeting with Harry Roskolenko, Kenneth Burke, and Sidney Hook, debating the finer points of the writings of Karl Marx. This was in 1928, and Rosenberg was in the process of turning away from studying law and fully committing to being a writer. And his only sibling, his brother, David, the poet, introduced him to Herrick and Coleridge and then to the West Village, where he met his first writers and painters. Rosenberg was friends with a lot of artists over his entire life, including Willem de Kooning, Elaine de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, Alice Neel, and many, many others.
If I could time travel, one of the places I’d definitely like to drop in on is Willem de Kooning’s studio in 1946, on those three or four nights a week when Rosenberg came over to talk about Kierkegaard and Camus, and, I imagine, Dostoevsky and Melville. And maybe also drop in to Rosenberg’s discussions with Robert Motherwell about Paul Valéry. You make a point of drawing a distinction between Rosenberg’s camaraderie with artists and Greenberg’s “more patriarchal and guarded” dealings with artists. You read a lot of Rosenberg’s letters. Did this include much correspondence with artists?
Balken: I ended up consulting over 50 archives to piece together my book. Rosenberg’s own papers have huge gaps and are very spotty. Sometimes there are deep exchanges with artists. But for the most part, I found this depth in other people’s papers. And I also found it in extensive interviews that were conducted by Paul Cummings, and to a lesser extent by Dorothy Seckler, for the Archives of American Art. Generally, his papers are more extensive when they relate to literary figures. But then the archive of Dwight Macdonald, Rosenberg’s editor at the Partisan Review, is extraordinarily extensive, in part because Macdonald kept every scrap of paper that came across his desk. The Harry Roskolenko papers are also quite comprehensive. And the exchanges between Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy are great because they both allude to Rosenberg throughout, or for at least a 20-year period.
But with artists, it’s a slightly different story. For instance, there are very few letters between Guston and Rosenberg, or that even mention their relationship. I located a few in the papers that Philip Roth kept, and that Bill Berkson kept. Bill was also an extraordinary record keeper, so his correspondence that relates to Guston is quite vast. But the same situation does not apply to de Kooning, as one would imagine, and is piecemeal when it comes to a figure like Robert Motherwell, as well as Barnett Newman. My feeling is that it is because these figures got together frequently, and so there was no need for correspondence.
Rail: Are there many letters between Arendt and Rosenberg?
Balken: There are a few, primarily surrounding her piece on Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, the five-part essay series that she wrote for The New Yorker in 1962, and Rosenberg’s piece for Commentary on the same trial. They were very revealing to me about their friendship, which I came to believe was very deep. It even could have been romantic at one point. One of the letters was so suggestive.
Rail: And Mary McCarthy comes right out and says that . . .
Balken: She says she thinks Arendt and Rosenberg had an affair.
Rail: I mean, I have to say that my overall respect for Rosenberg went up considerably when I learned, from you, that he and Arendt were so close. It changed my view of him. They were exact contemporaries, both born in 1906. She died in ’75, he died in ’78. And when Arendt died, Rosenberg said, “Now who will I have to talk to?”
So is there anything about their relationship that didn’t get into the book?
Balken: I wish that I could have found out more, but again, I really relied upon the Mary McCarthy papers to tell me about the nature of their relationship, their social interactions, and the arc of their reading. There are distinct parallels in their thought. Hannah Arendt is somebody, like Rosenberg, who questioned the rise of popular culture in the United States, especially during the 1950s. And both were wary about pop culture, in part because of the way in which film had been misused by dictators like Hitler. That was of deep concern to them. Although Rosenberg admitted that he liked going to Broadway musicals and to the movies. How to reconcile that?
Rail: If current readers only know one thing about Rosenberg, it’s usually the essay “The American Action Painters,” that was published in ARTNews in 1952, and reprinted widely. I've always thought that essay takes off from this sentence: “What matters always is the revelation contained in the act. It is to be taken for granted that in the final effect, the image, whatever be or be not in it, will be a tension.” It’s partly why I named my own literary journal ACTS. But read from our current position, Rosenberg’s essay is kind of an odd document. I’ve always thought that it’s important as a statement about art criticism.
Rail: “Anything but art criticism. The painter gets away from Art through his act of painting; the critic can't get away from it.” The critic is “bound to seem a stranger.” But Rosenberg argues for a new role for the critic: “The new painting calls for a new kind of criticism, one that would distinguish the specific qualities of each artist's act.” And, always, implicitly against formalism: “An action is not a matter of taste … Molotov said that fascism is a matter of taste.”
Balken: Well he’s thinking of Clement Greenberg, specifically, as well as probably other formalists such as James Johnson Sweeney and George L. K. Morris, who had written for the Partisan Review. Rosenberg felt that formalist art criticism could not account for the huge social transformations that artists had experienced from the late ’20s through the decade of the ’30s, that included the Great Depression and the outbreak of World War II. There was no mention of those historic episodes in their criticism, let alone talk about their biography.
Rail: In that way, it’s very consistent with the New Criticism in the literary sphere. Biography is out. I’m not sure where Rosenberg wrote, “Criticism is related to scholarship, but is also joined to action. Scholarship is valuable for its own sake, criticism for its effects." I get the sense, from that essay by Rosenberg, that criticism is a possibility for action, in the end, to strike a blow for social subjectivity. You call that essay “a synopsis of the trials confronting subjectivity in the early 1950s.”
Balken: As Rosenberg is writing “The American Action Painters,” he’s thinking trenchantly about the proliferation of corporate culture in the United States—if not globally—in 1952, and the extraordinary pressures that were put on artists and writers to conform within that corporate proliferation. For Rosenberg, the act is a rage against conformity. He held out hope that the artist could assert his or her individuality or subjectivity within the confines of their studio, that at the least they were taking a stance against those burgeoning conformist forces. In many ways, I think of “The American Action Painters” as an extension of some of the ideas that he lays out in “The Herd of Independent Minds,” which was written four years earlier, where he assesses the way in which the writer, as he or she enters the academy, and gives up their role as a public intellectual, is also succumbing to a kind of conformity.
Rail: I find a remarkable similarity between Rosenberg and other writers and artists of that period going to work for government propaganda organizations that are fueled by huge corporations, and the same kind of thing that's happening now with creative people going to work for Big Tech, for Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft.
Balken: Well, that’s fascinating because Rosenberg’s part-time day job was working for the American Ad Council beginning in 1946, which grew out of the Office of War Information during World War II. He presided over a number of major campaigns for the Council. But he didn’t write copy for them.
Rail: He didn’t actually invent Smokey the Bear…
Balken: He didn’t invent Smokey the Bear. [Laughter] That was a myth that Sidney Hook put into circulation. But he did oversee the campaign.
Rail: The whole first third of your book deals with this time in the ’30s and ’40s, when the Left was a real force in the US, and artists and writers were a big part of that. And younger readers today might be surprised by the intensity and scope of this debate in the ’30s and ’40s on the Left among Marxists, Leninists, Trotskyites, Stalinists, and anarchists. And they probably will also be surprised by how much of these debates had to do with the relation between art and politics. And these debates were not academic. They had real world effects and consequences. What surprised you most about that history, going over it again so closely?
Balken: I remained struck at every turn by Rosenberg’s own resistance to these forces of conformity, meaning conformity to an entity such as the Communist Party. He also walked away from some of the major literary publications of the mid-century because of their political allegiances. That is, he walked away from the Partisan Review in 1943/ ’44, in part because two of its editors, Philip Rahv and William Phillips, advocated for American involvement in World War II. That was a big thing to do. He also balked at Rahv's rejuvenation of Henry James as a writer, feeling that there was no place for upper-middle-class sentiment in literature on the heels of the Great Depression. That also cost him his relationship with the Partisan Review. He walked away from Les Temps Modernes, which was edited by Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, because Sartre expressed solidarity with the French Communist Party. That was something he couldn’t abide by after the Moscow trials, especially from 1936 until 1938, with the disappearance of so many Russian artists and writers into the Gulag. For him, it was always a matter of integrity and principle, even if it impacted his livelihood, which ironically comes from the American Ad Council until 1973. Still, he had to be convinced to join the Ad Council. And he thought, “Well, here’s somebody who’s willing to pay me for three days of work a week. I can use that time to write in my office,” and that’s essentially what he did. There were very few demands placed on him for that job.
Rail: It’s of course striking to me that both Rosenberg and Greenberg started out as poets and left poetry for different reasons. But I think that Rosenberg left because poetry no longer could do what he wanted to do, socially…
Balken: Yes. I think he was also becoming increasingly wary of the way in which the New Criticism and the poetics of T. S. Eliot had become institutionalized within the pages of the Partisan Review, as well as in Poetry magazine later.
Rail: In my opinion, he was wrong about Louis Zukofsky, and Rimbaud, but he was certainly right about the awful consequences of poets being absorbed into academia, and amassing academic power.
I do have the sense that starting out as poets probably made both he and Greenberg, and Leo Steinberg, too, sensitive to language in a particular way. Do you think that?
Balken: I do think that. However, I don’t think that Rosenberg was a very good poet. And in fact, when I started to read his poetry for this project, I showed it to Bill Berkson to get his take, and Bill said, “Good God, these are awful. Thank God he became an art critic.”
Yet I think that a lot of his aphoristic phrasing also comes from his work at the Ad Council! I mean, think about his pithy titles: “The Herd of Independent Minds,” “The American Action Painters,” “Death in the Wilderness,” and “The Orgamerican Phantasy.”
Rail: You say at one point that Dwight Macdonald made Rosenberg a better writer. He edited his Paris essay, right?
Balken: Yes, he edited both “The Fall of Paris” and “Myth and History,” the latter of which was his piece on Thomas Mann, as well as a few other reviews that Rosenberg wrote for the Partisan Review. I’ve looked at the various drafts that exist for those essays. It’s really amazing to see the transformation that took place. I think that Dwight Macdonald was an extraordinary writer himself. He was a great stylist, his choice of words, his phrasing, his cadence, there’s something that is quite remarkable about his writing. And he demanded that lucidity and craft of the writers who he oversaw at the Partisan Review. He also, I think, made Clement Greenberg a better writer. Greenberg had to rewrite “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” five or six times. He complained about the number of revisions that Macdonald put his manuscript through.
Rail: You’re actually pretty dismissive of Rosenberg’s writing style in the early years.
Balken: Yes, it’s quite stilted. What was revealing to me was how much better a writer he became while working for the Partisan Review.
Rail: You note in your prologue to the book that one of your reasons for writing a biography of Rosenberg was “that Rosenberg has been eclipsed by the lingering forces of formalism,” and that intrigued you and spurred you on. I’ve been accused myself of being too sweeping in my condemnation of formalism in the past. It’s almost a family thing with me. I mean, my main teacher, Robert Duncan, ran up against The New Criticism early in his life as a poet, and hated it. He saw it as an attack on the imagination. And his contempt for them was fully reciprocated. They more or less blacklisted him in New York after he wrote his landmark essay, “The Homosexual in Society,” that was published by Dwight Macdonald in Politics in…
Balken: Wow, that’s interesting.
Rail: Yeah, in 1944. And he saw contemporary versions of the New Criticism come to prominence toward the end of his life. And I admit, I absorbed that animus and added to it. You say that when Rosenberg started at The New Yorker, he went up against “a new generation of formalists, who in his estimation, set back criticism by avoidance of social history," amidst these new formalists’ “theories of stylistic continuity.” You write, “It was all flaccid thinking, he felt, too mainstream and focused on connoisseurship. No wonder it became appropriated by the marketplace.” And that, of course, is exactly what happened: the marketplace and the academy came to dominate everything.
I’ve always been against that part of formalism that insists on the autonomy of art and art for art’s sake against the social, forsaking any relation between art and politics. What is your definition of formalism? And what part of it was Rosenberg especially exercised against, beyond Greenberg, even up to the end?
Balken: Well, in terms of your second question, in the ’60s, Rosenberg is thinking about the new home that formalist criticism had in Artforum. Very quickly, writers like Michael Fried, Rosalind Krauss, and Barbara Rose, initially all devotees of Greenberg, became major contributors to the publication, and there was no place for someone like Rosenberg, who by then was perceived as a rival, if not an enemy. For him, it was really about hegemony and the way in which Greenberg’s ideas have become institutionalized, not only through Artforum, but, as you say, through the teaching of studio art, and indirectly, the teaching of art history. These younger art critics doubled as art historians, and their ideas became deeply felt, not only within the art world, but as pedagogy. And that is what Rosenberg found to be dangerous, actually. Another iteration of a “herd” mentality.
Rail: Debra, you go hard in the paint on Clement Greenberg throughout the book, from an early jab at his plagiarism as a poet to the later period of bad aesthetic choices. It is clear in the book that you don’t like him and you don’t like what he stands for at all, but is it possible to consider Greenberg differently at different points in his life, decade by decade? He was a wonderful writer, and made a lot of good aesthetic choices early on.
Balken: Sure, he was a remarkable writer who made extraordinary contributions to art criticism. But he had such a narrow, exclusionary view that at the end incorporated only a handful of artists who conformed to his prescriptions for pictorial purity. So many exclusions, unlike Rosenberg’s more expansive, elastic analysis! Action, after all, as a trope, was capable of folding manifold artists into its purview, in part because it was not evaluative. When I trained as an art historian, there were few alternative perspectives to formalism. Even though I went to the University of Chicago for graduate school where Rosenberg had taught before I arrived, there was no hint of a legacy of Rosenberg there. He had been so ostracized by the “aesthetes” as he called them.
Rail: He was treated very badly there.
Balken: Very badly. So that’s why, when I alighted on his ideas through Guston, and I started reading him in depth, he was a real revelation to me. And I do feel that Rosenberg’s writing is very relevant to the 21st century.
Rail: Greenberg’s riposte to Rosenberg’s The Tradition of the New was titled “How Art Writing Earns Its Bad Name.” Do you think this is when the term “art writing” came in as a substitute for “art criticism”?
Balken: That’s interesting, I’m not sure. “How Art Writing Earns its Bad Name” was originally published in a student publication at Columbia, and then is taken on by Encounter magazine. Greenberg had been stewing over the widespread discussion surrounding “The American Action Painters” since it was published in ARTNews in late 1952. He’d been stewing for a decade, that is, in part, because every figure in New York wanted to be known as an action painter, as embodying Rosenberg’s notion of action.
Rail: I’m especially interested in the exploration of action among Black Mountain and Beat poets. But I don’t think Rosenberg knew much about this. And that to me is one of those huge missed cross-pollinations. Mary McCarthy wrote of Rosenberg, “all of his life, he has been influenced only in action, in the act, a favorite word with him, succinct as a pistol shot.” That’s pure Mary McCarthy! [Laughter] But it is amazing how this term goes through your entire book and shows up in very many different contexts.
Balken: Could I just go back to Greenberg, for a minute? I do try to be as even-handed as possible in my treatment of Greenberg. But as you read his letters, as you become increasingly aware of the way in which formalist ideas or the New Criticism had become pedagogically powerful in this country, during the decade of the late ’40s, into the ’50s and ’60s, you become on the lookout for an alternative.
But to return to your question about action, the metaphor that runs through my book has political connotations in the United States during the decade of the ’30s. When Rosenberg uses terms such as action, and names his own, short-lived publication The New Act in the mid-1930s, he’s definitely tying art and literature to labor politics. But as the Great Depression recedes, and he’s beginning to read figures like Kierkegaard, the proto-existentialist philosopher and writer, action then becomes tinged with existential sobriety and notions of alienation and nothingness. That is, it becomes linked to process rather than product.
Rail: Greenberg was Rosenberg’s primary adversary, but there was also Meyer Schapiro, who was a couple of years older, and Leo Steinberg, who was 14 years younger. When you taught a course for me in the Art Writing program at the School of Visual Arts, called “Late Modernism/Post-Modernism: Critical Strategies,” you dealt with all four of those writers and a number of others. And you make it clear that Rosenberg and Schapiro had a lifelong friendship, and shared socialist values. But you don’t talk about Steinberg, really at all. I think, of the four, Steinberg was the greatest writer. I mean, he would have been a great writer in whatever form he chose. But even though Steinberg was younger, I was surprised that he didn’t appear at all in your book. Why not?
Balken: Because he doesn’t surface in any of the papers. I’ve never come across any mention by anyone that Rosenberg and Steinberg knew each other, even socially.
I remember I once asked you, a number of years ago, if you had come across any mention of Rosenberg meeting John Berger. That would seem like a more natural connection to me than Steinberg.
Rail: Well, yes, certainly through Herbert Read. But no, there’s nothing. And similarly, I don’t find any mention of Rosenberg in Robert Duncan’s life. I mean, Duncan knew Dwight Macdonald, so he must have known about Rosenberg, but he never came up, at least with me.
Balken: But Rosenberg never published in Politics. He could never get with Macdonald’s anarchism or abide by his pacifism. Yet they did remain friends through the years of Politics, which has a pretty short run. It folded around 1949. And then, Macdonald will start writing for a number of publications, including The New Yorker. But that happens, I believe, sometime around the early 1950s. And they will eventually have a parting of ways, in part because Macdonald will have a rekindled interest in film, which is, in Rosenberg’s mind, an iteration of popular culture…
Rail: And mass culture, yeah.
Balken: Yeah. And Macdonald published essays such as “Masscult and Midcult,” in Partisan Review, inducing another rift in their thinking.
Rail: The first sentence of your book is, “Harold Rosenberg always resisted the in-crowd.” And throughout the book, we get a strong sense of Rosenberg as a perpetual outsider, even when he was obviously occupying a place inside, socially, culturally. Later on, you write, “Rosenberg was perpetually oblivious to issues of propriety.” He didn’t suffer fools and he was usually not political in his dealings with people in power in the literary or art worlds, on whom he depended for access to an audience. He often offended them. In that same passage, you say that, “He expected his offenses to be overlooked, that some elusive meritocracy protected him.” This “elusive meritocracy” struck me—the idea that if you are good enough, everyone will eventually recognize it, and you will rise. I tend to think of this as a working-class attitude. We absorb it very early on in our upbringing. You draw this class distinction between Rosenberg and Greenberg very sharply, more as a bohemian versus bourgeois split. You say Greenberg was more socially mobile and thought like a bourgeois person. You draw from Greenberg’s letters to his friend Harold Lazarus for a lot of this. Rosenberg and Greenberg had real political and aesthetic disagreements, to be sure, but it’s amazing how the personal politics come down to these underlying class differences and tensions. Can you say more about that?
Balken: Greenberg grew up in middle-class circumstances. He was somebody who did not have to join the Federal Writers’ Project. He did have a job, however, working as a customs agent. But he also, through his family, was able to travel throughout Europe during a moment of extraordinary political crisis, during the Hitler regime, in the late 1930s. That was astonishing to me. That he was in Europe, at that time, supported by his family. So, there was a class divide there. Rosenberg was lower-middle-class. I think that those class differences, though, are etched in stone for Rosenberg from the moment he enters Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, where socializing took place among distinct classes, and he was never admitted to the upper classes. He talks about the alienating effects that had on him. However, that does change, as he begins to move professionally into various literary and artistic circles. I think those distinctions began to fall by the wayside in the late 1930s. I mean, everybody on the WPA, for instance, was there because they had to be. They didn’t have an income, and it was a great act of generosity of Harry Holtzman to make Harold Rosenberg Willem de Kooning’s studio assistant, when he couldn’t paint or draw, and it’s very likely that he took two drawings that Alice Neel lent him for his interview to get onto the Project. However, after World War II, and as the economy began to dramatically change, the middle class became far more assertive and as Rosenberg’s own material circumstances changed, he didn’t have to worry about money as much.
Rail: And then we get to The New Yorker. This is the very definition of inside. You can’t be more inside than The New Yorker. And you write eloquently about what this meant for Rosenberg, that William Shawn understood him and supported him, and gave him, finally, the freedom that he’d always wanted. He felt protected by Shawn, something he never felt with other editors. For any writer, this is the dream: an editor that believes in you and stable access to an enduring readership. And yet, the art critic that preceded Rosenberg at The New Yorker, Robert Coates, who occupied that position for 30 years, is now entirely forgotten.
Balken: Entirely forgotten, and yet, he coined the term “Abstract Expressionism.”
Rail: Ironically, yes! [Laughter] But people don’t even remember that about him. This is the fate of almost all art critics or art writers: their work does not usually survive them. Art critics do not generally age well. Think of how few art critics we continue to read decades after they lived. But we’re still reading Rosenberg. Why? Why has his writing survived? Why will it survive?
Balken: Well, again, I think he has deep relevance to the 21st century. We have talked about some of his later essays; namely, the essay that he titled “Being Outside,” the review of Two Centuries of Black American Art, the show that David C. Driskell curated for the Brooklyn Museum in 1977. It’s one of the last pieces that Rosenberg wrote for The New Yorker, and I think it’s an especially prescient case. In that review, he questions why none of these formalists, these “aesthetes,” as he calls them, why few of these aesthetes have reviewed this show, or any of these artists who appear in this exhibition, and he feels that these African American artists have been unfairly subjected to a false standard.
Rail: You alerted me to this piece by Rosenberg in the midst of a public argument I was having with New York Times critic Ken Johnson about his characterizations of art by Black and women artists in 2013, and I quoted Rosenberg in the piece I wrote for Art in America then under the title, “When Formalist Criticism Fails” (that was Art in America’s title—I had titled it “Been Outside So Long It Looks Like Inside to Me”). And this is what I quoted from that Rosenberg review:
Ready-made aesthetic standards—that is, standards that exist apart from insights into particular qualities—tend to be expressions of the taste, morals, and prejudices of dominant elements in society. Indeed, a primary motive for the ‘Two Centuries’ show is the conviction that throughout the history of this country, Blacks have been discriminated against in the application of presumably universal aesthetic standards; the catalog refers to ‘the narrow interpretation of works by Black artists given by white critics’ and to ‘the omission of their art from major American exhibitions.’ Apparently, aesthetics can function as a tool of racism.
That’s a very provocative charge, but I thought it was germane to the argument I and others were making about Johnson’s mis-characterizations of art by Black and women artists. And that this was precisely what Rosenberg was talking about, that when even unconscious or knee-jerk formalist criticism eliminates or denigrates or misapplies the discussion of the social context of artwork, it makes the dominant political/social position the default position aesthetically.
Maybe that will change now. But, I agree with you, that it’s so set up pedagogically, in the schools, that it’s going to be difficult to dislodge. And the backlash against current attempts to do that is intense.
Balken: I also know, as a curator, that it’s so entrenched within museum culture, starting with “How do you describe a work of art?” Is a work of art a successful work of art, or a failed work of art? It’s connoisseurship based on idiosyncratic notions of quality, or the resolution and perfection of form. There’s very little discussion of social and political history within museum practice. I mean, just look at most exhibition catalogues. They are pretty short on that kind of discussion. And I think in part it’s because the marketplace, which the museum defers to, has availed itself of formalist art criticism because it is purportedly politically neutral. But is it? Rosenberg’s review, “Being Outside,” tells us otherwise.