Saul Steinberg's portrait of Harold Rosenberg (1964), colored pencil, crayon, pencil, ink on paper, 9 1/2 x 10 1/4 inches, private collection. (courtesy the Saul Steinberg Foundation/Artists Rights Society)

One of Harold Rosenberg’s last reviews as art critic for the New Yorker questioned how formalist writing — an offshoot of the New Criticism — had veered towards racism. In his coverage of Two Centuries of Black American Art, a traveling exhibition curated by David C. Driskell that opened at the Brooklyn Museum in 1977, he noted that with the exception of artists such as Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis, and Alma Thomas, few met the “aesthetic standards” upheld by writers such as Hilton Kramer, then chief art critic of the New York Times, and a prominent acolyte of the critic Clement Greenberg. The work of numerous Black Americans included either eluded Kramer’s analysis or was passed off as flawed and inadequate, unlike that of their White contemporaries. Kramer had announced in the Times that the absence of any “stringent aesthetic criterion in the selection” of artists had contributed to the project’s overall “mediocrity.” As a result of these ascribed shortcomings, Rosenberg retorted in “Being Outside” in the New Yorker a few months later that “apparently aesthetics can function as a tool of racism.”

Rosenberg matured as a writer during the 1930s, a decade that saw the rise of the New Criticism in the United States during the height of the Great Depression, an irony that he felt was lost on many of his peers. As a Marxist, his literary approach had always been dialectical rather than given to formalism’s narrow textural or pictorial analysis. For him, the social and political contexts in which art emerges were the only viable means to explain both its compositional ingredients and singularity. In formalism’s apolitical program, Rosenberg observed an intellectual tact that had not only become pervasive but  irrelevant, resulting in a conformist movement that he had dubbed in an article for Commentary magazine in 1948, “The Herd of Independent Minds.” This stampede syndrome, which was widely felt during his lifetime within the academy, marketplace, and mainstream media, as well as in many specialized literary and cultural publications, was unquestioning, he thought, of the entangled relationship of biography with social history. In short, it revealed a cultural aloofness and sameness that disregarded not only narrative content and meaning, but also as he pondered Driskell’s show, the features of an artist’s ethnicity, gender, and identity.

When Rosenberg became the full-time art critic for the New Yorker in 1967, part of his intent was to unpack the museum’s claims to political neutrality, a stance that he reckoned was abetted by its adoption of formalist interpretations of art. As his reviews revealed, the museum was a highly contested and compromised site, in large part the outgrowth of its indentured relationship to the marketplace. That Rosenberg observed in 1977, the year before his death, that the work of few Black artists had been integrated into the collections and exhibitions at the major showcases for art was a bold declaration of the museum’s indifference to race. One can only speculate had he lived longer where this declaration would have led. Still his astonishing prescience — especially in the wake of Black Lives Matter and current charges relating to a history of racial exclusion at the museum — is present in Rosenberg’s reflections on formalist writing and its blithe denial of political discourses and their impact on art.

Installation view of the 1977 exhibition Two Centuries of Black American Art at the Brooklyn Museum (courtesy the Brooklyn Museum)

Once he gained the platform of the New Yorker, Rosenberg came to refer to the purveyors of formalism as “aesthetes.” This term applied not only to critics who had adopted an “art-for-art’s sake” position, but to curators who projected its hermetic meanings on their programs. In their presumption that art was autonomous from life, driven exclusively by successive pictorial advances and inventions across time, lay a certain fallacy, Rosenberg thought. From his perspective, art could never be construed as linear in its unfolding, part of an internal stylistic mechanism. With world events such as the fall of Paris to Hitler’s Third Reich in 1940, history had revealed itself to be fragmented and ruptured, he believed. He wondered how notions of a continuum could be read into these broken and disconnected historic threads? That is, how could Greenberg and his followers insist that painting was not only an ascendant medium but immutable, having landed with the rise of the New York School in the territory of aesthetic purity? Greenberg might have deemed painting to be the outcome of a radical reformulation of its abstract languages, but there was no investigation of its subjects and their ties to a wider culture in his analysis. In his estimation, “high-art,” as it was still ubiquitously called, thrived to preserve an elusive meritocracy that was pitted in opposition to the products of mass culture: one of modernist art’s primary anathemas. This stance would allow for a writer such as Kramer to describe “quality,” or the perfection and resolution of form, as the deciding yardstick or measure of art. For him, like Greenberg, the degree of originality or technical virtuosity revealed by a painting became an ultimate standard. Yet, whatever their claims to objectivity, these values were fundamentally idiosyncratic and personal. As Rosenberg had it, they represented the reasoning of the “taste bureaucracies,” another one of his euphemisms for formalist writers.

In terms of the museum, which continued to adopt formalist rhetoric wholesale well beyond Rosenberg’s lifetime, its interpretations of art history had always been oblivious to the White patriarchy implicit within such schema. The enactment of a progressive linear script hinged on the hierarchies of aesthetic innovation was its default methodology (and still is at many major institutions). From the pages of the New Yorker, Rosenberg would proclaim that these “aesthetes” were in denial, hamstrung by the didacticism of the New Criticism through their desire to construct aesthetic unity. As he construed it by 1970, the museum had become decisively non-political. The big mega-shows featured at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art which he reviewed were just packaging history by creating a neutral brand that was palpable to mass audiences. As a result, Rosenberg believed they had become intellectually feeble through their avoidance of politics and social history.

Some of these curators or “aesthetes,” he noted, had previous lives as critics such as William S. Rubin who wrote for publications such as Art International and Artforms while doubling as an art historian at Sarah Lawrence College before he ascended to MoMA in 1968, where he exercised his formalist authority over two decades. Of course, the die had been cast before Rubin assumed his powerful perch as a curator: Alfred Barr, his predecessor, had already mapped the stylistic interconnections of modernist art with little or no regard for external histories. But Rosenberg laid the blame squarely with the younger critics and curators such as Rubin, especially as the New Criticism became dominant and formulaic during the midcentury, institutionalized both at the academy and museum as unassailable wisdom. He particularly had in for what he referred to in an interview with the Archives of American Art in 1973, as “the bright young design students of Artforum,” such as Michael Fried, Rosalind Krauss, and Barbara Rose, all initially Greenbergians, who abided by this closed paradigm in their curatorial projects and essays.

Rosenberg had always felt that “the critic who goes on judging in terms of schools, styles, form is bound to seem a stranger” to most midcentury artists. At least, that was one of the tenets of his key essay, “The American Action Painters” published in ARTnews in 1952 wherein he also stated that the canvas had become “an arena in which to act,” by which he meant that modernist art was largely a declaration of the artist’s subjectivity. In an age of conformity, brought on by the proliferation of the corporation and consumerist culture, art had become one of the few remaining preserves of originality, he suggested. Through the act or process of painting, he located resistance to the stifling homogeneity of the products and lifestyles that had contributed to this widespread conventionality. Moreover, Rosenberg felt that a certain urgency attended art-making, if not anxiety, to counter an orthodoxy of blandness. But unlike the formalists, he had no prescriptions for the look and aesthetic features of painting. As he averred in “The American Action Painters,” art could be about ”anything that has to do with action — psychology, philosophy, history, mythology, hero worship. Anything but art criticism.” That is, Greenberg’s requirement for the ongoing refinement of abstract form was never part of Rosenberg’s program. Instead, he felt that art criticism should contain more analysis of the cultural predicament of the artist, of what it meant to assert one’s individuality in the face of mainstream opposition.

Once he got to the New Yorker, Rosenberg’s reviews were given to what he called an elucidation of the “cultural situation,” a term that he deployed frequently. He felt that it was not his mission to only describe and evaluate art, but to assess the complexity of the modern period, with all its divergent episodes, unlike the formalists who were bent on bundling art history as a monolith of stylistic ingenuity. There were too many figures who had been left out of their analysis, he thought. While Rosenberg was largely limited in his coverage to the exhibition offerings at museums in the New York area, and was therefore filtered by the “aesthetes,” he felt an ethical responsibility to lay bare the failure of art criticism to reveal the paradoxes and contractions present within culture, along with its strata of diverse voices. So by the time he wrote “Being Outside,” his piece on Two Centuries of Black American Art, he had long since elaborated on the pitfalls of a rhetoric that was basically exclusionary. Hence, Rosenberg was more interested in asking what it meant to be a “minority artist” and subjected to a dominant white male culture where differing self-expressions are diminished or overlooked.

Rosenberg had always placed stock in debate and talk, and felt that for criticism to be vital, elastic, and open, conversation with artists and a range of thinkers had to be a staple of its discourse. Otherwise, art writing risked becoming authoritarian and one-sided, or as arcane as formalism with its distinct sense of privilege. To keep the talk alive, he admonished, debate had to be resurrected and revived after it dwindled into dormancy in the 1960s. But in the past decade, the art world has at least tackled controversies that relate to systemic racism and its evidence at institutions such as the museum, all of which make Rosenberg’s declaration in 1977 that “apparently aesthetics can function as a tool of racism” prophetic.

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Debra Bricker Balken

Debra Bricker Balken is an independent writer and curator who works on subjects relating to American modernism and contemporary art. Her most recent books include Arthur Dove, A Catalogue Raisonne of...

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