Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 30, 2013

Notes on modern art, part 1

Filed under: art,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 10:01 pm

Meyer Schapiro

It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that Picasso bankrolled the post-war French Communist party, and underwrote various causes associated with it. In 1949, for example, L’Humanité acknowledged his donation of one million francs for striking miners in the Pas de Calais. The party basked in the reflected glory, and pocketed the cash. One of its cells felicitously took his name: Cellule Interentreprise du Parti Communiste Français Pablo Picasso.

–Alex Danchev, “Picasso’s politics”, The Guardian, Friday 7 May 2010

Less than two weeks after SAC Capital Advisors, the hedge fund owned by the billionaire trader Steven A. Cohen, agreed to pay the government $616 million to settle accusations of insider trading, Mr. Cohen has decided to buy a little something for himself.

A renowned art collector, Mr. Cohen has bought Picasso’s “Le Rêve” from the casino owner Stephen A. Wynn for $155 million, according to a person with direct knowledge of the sale who was not authorized to speak publicly. Although prices for top works of art have soared to new heights recently, Mr. Cohen’s acquisition is one of the most expensive private art sales transacted.

–Carol Vogel and Peter Lattman, “Million Poorer, Hedge Fund Owner Still Buys Art”, NY Times, March 26, 2013

Why would hedge-fund billionaire Steve Cohen lend nearly half a billion dollars worth of art to Sotheby’s for a glamourous exhibition if the art isn’t for sale? Art worlders were mystified by the Sotheby’s announcement that twenty of top collector Cohen’s paintings by Picasso, de Kooning, and van Gogh — plus Richard Prince’s nude of Brooke Shields, Spiritual America — will go on view April 2 through April 14 at the auctioneer’s York Avenue headquarters.

Mystery solved: It turns out Cohen has every motive to make Sotheby’s look good. In a filing Monday with the SEC, Cohen disclosed that his SAC Capital has amassed a 5.9 percent stake in the auction house since October 1, becoming one of its larger shareholders. Sotheby’s said the decision to show the Cohen works was made by the collector and Sotheby’s top executives at a recent dinner party at his Greenwich, Connecticut, home.


You could hear them a block away; their whistles and chants preceded them. About a hundred protesters stood outside Sotheby’s at the beginning of the auction house’s contemporary evening sale, the last important art sale of the year. ”We’re fired up! Won’t take it no more!” The crowd outside Sotheby’s was made up of N.Y.P.D., the auction house’s security, students from Hunter College, union members and Scabby, the oversize balloon rat who never seems to miss a strike, as well as a Scabby-sized balloon fat cat who squeezed a cigar in one paw and a union worker in the other. Picketers hoisted cutouts of the heads of Sotheby’s COO and CEO at the ends of long poles.

The Observer was crowded in behind a wooden police barrier just in front of the door. We prodded the Teamster to tell us who the buyers were. “The Mugrabi family is already in there,” he said. “Oh! Larry Gagosian is here.” A spectacled man with a bloated face walked brusquely by and slipped into one of the revolving doors. “Steve Cohen!” our guide identified. “That was Steve Cohen, the billionaire art collector.”

–Adrianne Jeffries, “Class War? Occupy Wall Street, Unions Protest at Sotheby’s–8 Arrested, NY Observer, November 10, 2011

If there’s anything that symbolizes the paradoxical relationship between the cultural avant-garde and the capitalist ruling class it supposedly seeks to subvert, it is the replica of Tatlin’s Tower at the Museum of Modern Art’s “Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925: How a Radical Idea Changed Modern Art” show that closes on April 15th. I urge New Yorkers to check it out if for no other reason to see the thirty-foot version of Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International.

That being said, there is little effort made to connect that work or any other work to the social and political upheavals of the early 20th century that led Picasso, Kandinsky and others to break with representational art. The word “radical” in the exhibit’s title is not a reference to politics but to esthetics.

The recorded lecture that accompanies the exhibit is useful even if it leaves out the broader context. The show was curated by Leah Dickerman who conceives of abstract art as the happy outcome of a process that was nurtured by men and women connected through a network based on a feeling that the old ways of doing art were obsolete, either in literature, music or art. For example, Guillaume Apollinaire was a key figure. The lecture makes a big deal out of Kandinsky being inspired to strike out in an abstract direction after going to a Schoenberg concert in 1911. The unexamined question, of course, is how anybody can conceive of a painting by Kandinsky or a composition by Schoenberg as experimental a century after the fact. Abstract art became just as entrenched as the representational art it was supposed to overthrow, while atonal compositions were cranked out by the boatload in music departments all across the civilized world for most of the twentieth century.

If you can’t make it to the show, I urge you to visit the MOMA website that has some interesting material, especially the video: http://www.moma.org/visit/calendar/exhibitions/1291.

The network diagram found there is Dickerman’s key contribution to demonstrating how all these artists and writers knew each other and fed off each other. It is interesting in a six degrees of separation sort of way but obviously inadequate to describe the social forces that acted on the artists. It is a personality-driven approach to art history that is clearly in sync with the museum’s “great man” approach, even if it is offered up as an alternative in terms of the network being more important than any individual.

Screen shot 2013-03-30 at 4.03.44 PMLeah Dickerson’s Network Diagram

The mainstream press has been pretty worshipful of the show, even if New York Magazine’s Jerry Saltz made some pointed criticisms:

These days, abstraction is normal, not shocking, the expected thing in schools, galleries, and museums. Too many artists still ape the art in this show, throwing in Abstract Expressionism, post-minimalism, or surrealist twists and tics, adding things their teachers have told them about.

Really, the title of MoMA’s show could be “High Museum Abstraction: History Written by the Winners.” Or “White Abstraction.” On some level, this show is MoMA talking to itself, looking for ways around its ever-present deluded, limited narrative. If it doesn’t open up this story line soon, MoMA will be doomed to examine the imagined logic of its beautiful ­bellybutton, alone and forever.

In doing some background research on the show, I came across an article that helps to put the MOMA into context. In 1936 the museum mounted a show titled “Cubism and Abstract Art” that was very much in the same spirit of today’s show. Art was disconnected from the social and political conditions that the artists reflected. Alfred Barr, the museum’s first director and a determined modernist, curated the show that would serve as a template for other shows dedicated to High Modernism until now.

An art historian named Meyer Schapiro wrote a critique of the show titled “Nature of Abstract Art” that appeared in Marxist Quarterly, a journal geared to intellectuals opposed to Stalinism. The article can be read at http://abstractpossible.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Nature-of-Abstract-Art-Schapiro-i.pdf.

While endorsing the modernist project, Schapiro felt that the exhibition lacked the dimensions that I found lacking in the show curated by Dickerman. He complains that Barr’s catalog for the show betrays a conception of abstract art that “remains essentially unhistorical” and goes on to elaborate:

He gives us, it is true, the dates of every stage in the various movements, as if to enable us to plot a curve, or to follow the emergence of the art year by year, but no connection is drawn between the art and the conditions of the moment. He excludes as irrelevant to its history the nature of the society in which it arose, except as an incidental obstructing or accelerating atmospheric factor. The history of modern art is presented as an internal, immanent process among the artists; abstract art arises because, as the author says, representational art had been exhausted. Out of boredom with “painting facts,” the artists turned to abstract art as a pure aesthetic activity.

I was struck by Schapiro’s reference to plotting a curve, full anticipating Ms. Dickerman’s flowchart.

You can get a sense of Schapiro’s approach from his discussion of the Italian futurists in this article, who are well represented in the current exhibition:

Barr recognizes the importance of local conditions when he attributes the deviations of one of the Futurists to his Parisian experience. But he makes no effort to explain why this art should emerge in Italy rather than elsewhere. The Italian writers have described it as a reaction against the traditionalism and sleepiness of Italy during the rule of Umber to, and in doing so have overlooked the positive sources of this reaction and its effects on Italian life. The backwardness was most intensely felt to be a contradiction and became a provoking issue towards 1910 and then mainly in the North, which had recently experienced the most rapid industrial development. At this moment Italian capitalism was preparing the imperialist war in Tripoli. Italy, poor in resources yet competing with world empires, urgently required expansion to attain the levels of the older capitalist countries.

The belated growth of industry, founded on exploitation of the peasantry, had intensified the disparities of culture, called into being a strong proletariat, and promoted imperialist adventures. There arose at this time, in response to the economic growth of the country and the rapid changes in the older historical environment, philosophies of process and utility―a militant pragmatism of an emphatic anti-traditionalist character. Sections of the middle class which had acquired new functions and modern urban interests accepted the new conditions as progressive and “modern,” and were often the loudest in denouncing Italian backwardness and calling for an up-to-date, nationally conscious Italy.

The attack of the intellectuals against the provincial aristocratic traditions was in keeping with the interest of the dominant class; they elevated technical progress, aggressive individuality and the relativism of values into theories favorable to imperialist expansion, obscuring the contradictory results of the latter and the conflicts between classes by abstract ideological oppositions of the old and the modern or the past and the future. Since the national consciousness of Italy had rested for generations on her museums, her old cities and artistic inheritance, the modernizing of the country entailed a cultural conflict, which assumed its sharpest form among the artists.

Machines as the most advanced instruments of modern production had a special attraction for artists exasperated by their own merely traditional and secondary status, their mediocre outlook in a backward provincial Italy. They were devoted to machines not so much as instruments of production but as sources of mobility in modern life. While the perception of industrial processes led the workers, who participated in them directly, toward a radical social philosophy, the artists, who were detached from production, like the petit bourgeoisie, could know these processes abstractly or phenomenally, in their products and outward appearance, in the form of traffic, automobiles, railroads, and new cities and in the tempo of urban life, rather than in their social causes.

The Futurists thus came to idealize movement as such, and they conceived this movement or generalized mobility mainly as mechanical phenomena in which the forms of objects are blurred or destroyed. The dynamism of an auto, centrifugal motion, the dog in movement (with twenty legs), the autobus, the evolution of forms in space, the armored train in battle, the dancehall-these were typical subjects of Futurist art. The field of the canvas was charged with radiating lines, symbolic graphs of pervading force, colliding and interpenetrating objects. Whereas in Impressionism the mobility was a spectacle for relaxed enjoyment, in Futurism it is urgent and violent, a precursor of war.

This is about as sharp a take on futurism as I’ve ever seen and one that is sadly missing from the MOMA website or guided tour.

Schapiro was a professor at Columbia University for many years and unlike most of the Partisan Review intellectuals never stopped believing in socialism. There’s a superb article by Andrew Hemingway on Schapiro titled “Meyer Schapiro and Marxism in the 1930s” that appeared in the 1994 Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 17, No. 1. It’s one of those fucked-up JSTOR articles that Aaron Swartz liberated. I would be happy to send anybody a copy if they contact me privately. Here are some passages that should give you an idea about the character of this remarkable intellectual.

Schapiro is associated with a group of philosophers, writers, and critics who were involved in varying degrees with the anti-Stalinist left, a group which centered on the city of New York and has acquired the sobriquet of the ‘New York Intellectuals’. This group, which includes Clement Greenberg, Sidney Hook, Mary McCarthy, Dwight McDonald, William Phillips, Phillip Rahv, Harold Rosenberg, and Lionel Trilling among others, achieved its identity partly through a number of independent magazines, and initially took shape around Partisan Review in the years after 1937.

Arriving in the United States from Lithuania in 1907, when he was three years old, Schapiro grew up in the Jewish working-class district of Brownsville in Brooklyn, from where many commuted in to work in the sweatshops and factories of the Lower East Side.7 The years of Schapiro’s childhood and youth were the heyday of Jewish socialism in New York. His father, who had been influenced by the Jewish socialist Bund, was a reader of the Jewish Daily Forward and the New York Call (Yiddish and English-language socialist papers, respectively), and Schapiro himself listened to street-corner socialist speakers and joined the Young People’s Socialist League in 1916. While the Russian Revolution was in the main greeted with enthusiasm by American Jewish socialists, differences over the Bolshevik model contributed to a violent factional struggle among the strongly unionized New York garment workers in the 1920s between an intransigent left wing dominated by communists, and a socialist led right wing, which was generally more prepared to negotiate for short-term gains. These disputes culminated in the disastrous cloakmakers’ strike of 1926, which discredited the Communist Party among most of the union membership, with the notable exception of the fur workers.8 As an undergraduate and graduate student at Columbia University from 1920-28, Schapiro was doubtless somewhat removed from these struggles, but he had worked in a succession of low-pay jobs in his school years and continued to do so during his student period at Columbia. (When he made his first trip to Europe in 1923, he worked his way over as a seaman on the Holland-America Line, and travelled to Berlin without the proper papers.) Writing to the novelist James Farrell twenty years later, Schapiro recalled being barracked by fellow-students for advancing a socialist position in a freshman course on Contemporary Civilization, but that in his second and third years he lost interest in ‘social questions’, and stopped attending meetings of the Young Socialist League and the League for Industrial Democracy. However, like a substantial number of American intellectuals Schapiro was radicalized by the coming of the Depression, and by 1932 he was an active supporter of the Communist Party.

At the beginning of 1936, the party’s leaders were still denouncing Roosevelt as little different from Hoover, but on instructions from the Comintern leadership in March 1936, they began a change of course which led them to tacitly endorse the president’s re-election in November, and into support for the New Deal in the following year. ‘Public Use of Art’ appeared in the same month as the presidential election, in which Schapiro voted not for the Communist Party candidate, Earl Browder, but for the Socialist Party’s Norman Thomas who ran a disastrous campaign on the slogan ‘Socialism versus Capitalism’. While Schapiro denied being a Trotskyist, at this time he was certainly making similar calculations about which party represented the best hope for socialism in the United States as the tiny Trotskyist Workers’ Party, which had entered the Socialist Party in the spring of that year. Given Schapiro’s criticisms of the New Deal, this was entirely consistent, for the Socialist Party under Norman Thomas rejected the Popular Front as an abandonment of revolutionary principles in the interests of a discredited Soviet state. From its point of view, the CPUSA had allied itself with a government in the United States which was no more than a holding operation for capital, and socialists should work for revolutionary change rather than support- ing bourgeois regimes which were heading for another imperialist war in which the working classes of all countries would be the main losers. In addition, Thomas had already associated himself with those who doubted the entire credibility of the Show Trials, the first of which began in August 1936. The point of Schapiro’s final break with the Communist Party occurred then with the first of Stalin’s purges of the Old Bolsheviks, and he associated himself with the American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky, which had been formed earlier in that year, and which issued in the Dewey Commission of Inquiry into the Charges against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials in April 1937. (Needless to say, it was Trotskyists who did most of the organizing in these bodies.)

Although Schapiro never joined either of the tiny and fractious Trotskyist parties, of his personal enthusiasm for Trotsky and his close reading of Trotskyist journals there is no doubt. He maintained relations with SWP activists such as Felix Morrow and George Novack, and in 1943 expressed willingness to write for a new Marxist magazine proposed by the former. (It is significant that although he admired Novack’s commitment to revolutionary work, he was put off by his ‘humorlessness’ and rigid political orthodoxy. Schapiro took no part in the disputes which divided the Socialist Workers Party in 1940, and felt that it should not split over the Soviet invasion of Finland. However, since he regarded the invasion as imperialist aggression, his sympathies seem to have lain more with the Shachtman-Burnham faction than with James Cannon and his followers. This, of course, means that he disagreed with Trotsky’s own position on Soviet expansion and probably also with his definition of the USSR as a ‘degenerated workers’ state’. However, of Trotsky’s stature as a revolutionary leader he had no doubt.

In my next post I will have a look at Gerhard Richter, the renowned German (mostly) abstract artist and Ai Weiwei, the Chinese conceptual artist and fearless critic of the bureaucratic capitalist system, based on two very good documentary films that came out in 2012.


  1. Too much social and political context is a problem. Back around 2006, the Berkeley Art Museum exhibited a number of videos associated with cooperative worker control of various enterprises in Venezuela. The curator was rebuked and promptly resigned.

    Comment by Richard Estes — March 31, 2013 @ 3:49 pm

  2. A very enjoyable and informative read for this life long artist. Look forward to the Gerhard Richter work.
    thank you,

    Comment by William Crain — March 31, 2013 @ 7:16 pm

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