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Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, and Their Jewish Issues

  • Matthew Baigell

Clement Greenberg (1909–94) and Harold Rosenberg (1906–78) were the two art critics most closely associated with abstract expressionism in the 1940s and 1950s. Neither began their careers as art critics, however. By the mid-1980s, Rosenberg had published literary essays and poems in left-wing magazines, and Greenberg's articles and reviews first appeared at the end of that decade. During the 1940s, Greenberg began to write art criticism, and Rosenberg's essays began to appear frequently in the 1950s. By that time, both had become part of the group known informally as the New York Intellectuals, many of whom were Jewish and children of immigrant parents.

Highly verbal, vocal, argumentative, and politically left of center, they often published in magazines such as Partisan Review, Commentary, and Dissent. Although both Greenberg and Rosenberg ultimately rejected the more dogmatic and authoritarian aspects of leftist politics, they nevertheless supported the idea that society must move forward, but not necessarily by political means. Greenberg thought that such momentum could be maintained by the cultural elite, and Rosenberg, influenced by surrealism's concerns for the creative process, believed that individuals who were independent minded and creative could do the same. Both encouraged artists to turn from the social concerns that engaged many during the 1930s to apolitical, self-searching themes that came to characterize the art of the 1940s. In effect, they, especially Rosenberg, lionized the artist as an heroic individual. In the words of one historian, both “worked to find a safe haven for radical progress within the realm of individualistic culture.” And both, among the most perspicacious critics of their time, discovered, encouraged, and/or supported artists who ultimately became major figures, such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.

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1. Herbert, James D., The Political Origins of Abstract-Expressionist Art Criticism: The Early Theoretical and Critical Writings of Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, Stanford Honors Essays in the Humanities, no. 27 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1985), 2.

2. Greenberg, Clement, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, ed. O'Brian, John (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 1:820.

3. O'Brian, , Clement Greenberg, 1:8. See also Greenberg, Clement, “Towards a Newer Laocoon” (1940), in O'Brian, , Clement Greenberg, 1:2837; and Greenberg, Clement, “Henri Rousseau and Modern Art” (1946) in O'Brian, , Clement Greenberg, 2:94.

4. Storr, Robert, “No Joy in Mudville: Greenberg's Modernism Then and Now,” in Art and Popular Culture: Readings in High and Low, ed. Varnedoe, Kirk and Gopnik, Adam (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1990), 162.

5. Rosenberg, Harold, “The Herd of Independent Minds: Has the Avant-Garde Its Own Mass Culture?Commentary 6 (09 1948): 251.

6. Rosenberg, Harold, “The American Action Painters” (1952), in The Tradition of the New (New York: Grove, 1961), 25.

7. Many of these issues are considered in my Jewish Artists in New York: The Holocaust Years (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002).

8. Bloom, Alexander, Prodigal Sons: The New York Intellectuals and Their World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 142–57. For additional material on this generation, see Cooney, Terry a., The Rise of the New York Intellectuals: Partisan Review and Its Circle (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986); and Wald, Alan M., The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left from the 1930s to the 1980s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987).

9. Cohen, Morris Raphael, “Zionism: Tribalism or Liberalism?” New Republic, 03 8, 1919, cited and discussed in Omer-Sherman, Ranen, Diaspora and Zionism in American Literature: Lazarus, Syrkin, Reznikoff, and Roth (Hanover, N.H.: Brandeis University Press, 2002), 122.

10. The essay most available at that time was Lewin, Kurt's “Self-Hatred Among Jews,” Contemporary Jewish Record 4 (06 1941): 221–26. See also Simmel, Ernst, Anti-Semitism: A Social Disease (New York: International Universities Press, 1946); Patai, Raphael, The Jewish Mind (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1977), 461–62; Gilman, Sander L., Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 305; and Rubin, Theodore Isaac, Anti-Semitism: A Disease of the Mind (New York: Continuum, 1990), 120.

11. If world conditions were mentioned by Christian artists, these usually concerned rejection of bourgeois values or generalized considerations rather than specific references to war and genocide. See, for instance, Robert Motherwell's essay “The Modern Painter's World (1944)” and his “Prefatory Note to Max Ernst: Beyond Painting and Other Writings by the Artist and His Friends (1948),” in The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell, ed. Terenzio, Stephanie (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992): 29, 47.

12. More has been written about Greenberg's rather than Rosenberg's sense of Jewishness. See, for example, Storr, Robert, “No Joy in Mudville,” 175; de Duve, Thierry, Clement Greenberg Between the Lines, trans. Holmes, Brian (Paris: Editions dis Voir, 1996), passim; Platt, Susan Noyes, “Clement Greenberg in the 1930s: A New Perspective on His Criticism,” Art Criticism 5, no. 3 (1989): 4764; Olin, Margaret, “C[lement] Hardesh [Greenberg] and Company: Formal Criticism and Jewish Identity,” in Too Jewish? Challenging Jewish Identities, ed. Kleeblatt, Norman L. (New York: Jewish Museum, 1996), 3959; and Kaplan, Louis, “Reframing Self-Criticism: Clement Greenberg's ‘Modernist Painting’ in Light of Jewish Identity,” in Jewish Identity in Modern Art History, ed. Soussloff, Catherine M. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 180–99. See also Cooney, , Rise of the New York Intellectuals, 234–44. For the most recent consideration of Rosenberg, see the text and bibliography in Winkenweder, Brian's “Art History, Sartre and Identity in Rosenberg's America,” Art Criticism 13, no. 2 (1998): 83102.

13. In his autobiography (A Margin of Hope: An Intellectual Biography [New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1982], 252), Irving Howe mentioned the differences between private conversations and published writings. See also Rabinovich, Anson, “Eichmann in New York: The New York Intellectuals and the Hannah Arendt Controversy,” October 108 (2004): 104.

14. Greenberg, Clement, “Under Forty: A Symposium on American Literature and the Younger Generation of American Jews” (1944), in O'Brian, , Clement Greenberg, 1:176.

15. Greenberg, Clement, “Autobiographical Statement” (1955), in O'Brian, , Clement Greenberg, 3:194–96.

16. See, for example, Lipstadt, Deborah E., Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust, 1933–1945 (New York: Free, 1986).

17. Greenberg, and Macdonald, Dwight, “10 Propositions on the War,” Partisan Review 8 (0708, 1941): 271. See Philip Rahv's reply, “10 Propositions and 8 Errors,” in the November–December issue (499–506). At a much earlier date, 1935, Trotskyite Bertram D. Wolfe said that he would not necessarily oppose Hitler, since all capitalists were the same (What Will I Do When America Goes to War? A Symposium,” Modern Monthly 9 [09 1935], cited in Browder, Earl, Communism in the United States [New York: International, 1935], 306).

18. O'Brian, , Clement Greenberg, 1:7983.

19. Greenberg, Clement, “A Martyr to Bohemia: Review of Out of This Century by Peggy Guggenheim” (1946), in O'Brian, , Clement Greenberg, 2:9798.

20. Greenberg, Clement, “The Jewish Dickens: Review of The World of Sholom Aleichem by Maurice Samuel” (1943), in O'Brian, , Clement Greenberg, 1:155.

21. I want to stay with the Jewish issues here and not explore Greenberg's literary and intellectual sources, which have been considered elsewhere.

22. O'Brian, , Clement Greenberg, 1:158.

23. Cooney, touches upon these issues in The Rise of the New York Intellectuals (263–64). For a more thorough and enlightening discussion in which such popular midcentury authors as Erich Fromm and Karen Hornay are considered, see Schacht, Richard, Alienation (New York: Doubleday, 1970), ch. 4.

24. Gottlieb, Adolph, “The Artist and the Public,” Art in America 42 (12 1954): 267.

25. Howe, Irving, “The Lost Young Intellectual: A Marginal Man, Twice Alienated,” Commentary 2 (10 1946): 367. See also Glazer, Nathan, “The ‘Alienation’ of Modern Man: Some Diagnoses of the Malady,” Commentary 3 (04 1947): 378–85.

26. Greenberg, , “Under Forty,” in O'Brian, , Clement Greenberg, 1:178.

27. Hook, Sidney, “Reflections on the Jewish Question,” Partisan Review 16 (05 1949): 468, 480.

28. “Self-Hatred and Jewish Chauvinism: Some Reflections on ‘Positive Jewishness’,” in O'Brian, , Clement Greenberg, 3:51, 47.

29. Gilman, Sander, Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 321.

30. Cooney, , Rise of the New York Intellectuals, 243.

31. O'Brian, , Clement Greenberg, 3:5557. These issues were discussed in the pages of various Jewish magazines at that time. See, for example, Friedlander, Israel, “Can Judaism Survive in Free America?Commentary 2 (07 1946): 7380; and Cohen, Elliot E., “Jewish Culture in America,” Commentary 3 (04 1947): 412–20.

32. Greenberg, Clement, “Introduction to ‘The Great Wall of China’ by Franz Kafka” (1946), in O'Brian, , Clement Greenberg, 2:99104; Greenberg, , “The Jewishness of Franz Kafka: Some Source of His Particular Vision” (1955), in O'Brian, , Clement Greenberg, 3:202–9; Greenberg, , “At the Building of the Great Wall of China,” in O'Brian, , Clement Greenberg, 4:4852; and Greenberg, , “Kafka's Jewishness,” in Art and Culture: Critical Essays (Boston: Beacon, 1961), 266–73.

33. O'Brian, , Clement Greenberg, 2:101, 102.

34. Ibid., 3:206.

35. Greenberg, , “Kafka's Jewishness,” 273.

36. Storr, , “No Joy in Mudville,” 175.

37. Greenberg, , “Towards a Newer Laocoon,” 1:28.

38. Ibid., 1:32, 34.

39. Winkenweder, , “Art History,” 87.

40. Rosenberg, Harold, “Rediscovering Judaism” (1947), in Discovering the Present: Three Decades in Art, Culture, and Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973), 235.

41. Rosenberg, Harold, “Letter to a Jewish Theologian” (1947), in Discovering the Present, 256.

42. Rosenberg, Harold, “Does the Jew Exist? Sartre's Morality Play About Anti-Semitism,” Commentary 7 (01 1949), 18. The essay was revised as “Sartre's Jewish Morality Play” for Discovering the Present, 270–87.

43. Rosenberg, Harold, “Jewish Identity in a Free Society,” in Discovering the Present, 259–69.

44. Newman, Barnett, “The Sublime Is Now,” in Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews, ed. O'Neill, John P. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 173. For a further consideration of a Rosenbergian view of Newman, see my Newman's The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani, a Jewish Take,” in Art Criticism 19, no. 1 (2004): 5556.

45. Rosenberg, Harold, “Is There a Jewish Art?Commentary 42 (07 1966): 60. The essay was slightly revised for publication in Discovering the Present, 223–31.

46. Feingold, Henry L., “From Commandment to Persuasion: Probing the ‘Hard’ Secularism of American Jewry,” in National Variations in Jewish Identity: Implications for Jewish Education, ed. Cohen, Steven M. and Horencyzk, Gabriel (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999), 167, 171.

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