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New York Jew

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I stole the title. 

It’s actually the title of one of Alfred Kazin’s autobiographical volumes.  Kazin–an editor, writer and intellectual in the 30s and 40s–meant it, I think, partially in that “reclaim the epithet” sort of way, and partially as a badge of honor.

He was, Kazin thought, a prime example of the breed, an icon of something he thought it was a very good thing to be. 

So I’m using it here, to designate another prime example of the breed, and somebody who was also very proud of it.

But  Meyer Schapiro was more than that. He was also one prong of a two  pronged dilemma that I keep trying to work out, and failing to get solved.

Before we get to the dilemma, though, let me start with Meyer Schapiro, who was and is a very interesting person in his own right.

Schapiro was one of those people who make the rest of us groan because we can’t figure out how he  managed to do all that.

He immigrated to the US when he was three or four, speaking only Yiddish.  He ended up graduating from a NYC high school when he was sixteen and from a  NYC public college when he was less than 20.

Along the way, he picked up a few languages and a passionate interest in all things having to do with art.

He tried for graduate school at Princeton and got turned down, almost certainly because of the Jewish quotas.  He tried for Columbia and got admitted.

He got two more degrees, read enough to have an encyclopedic knowledge not only of art history (his area), but of Medieval and Renaissance history, philosophy, theology, you name it.

Somewhere along the way,  he managed to reinvent art history as an academic discipline and turn art criticism into a major force in American intellectual life.

I actually knew of Schapiro in two ways, and for a long time I didn’t connect them.

The more obvious way was from graduate school. 

Schapiro was for many years the pre eminent scholar-critic of Medieval and Renaissance art. 

Nobody doing graduate work in any Medieval area could fail to encounter him. 

And in encountering his work, you also encounter his–I don’t really know what word I want for it. “Life stance” may be the closest I can come to it.

Schapiro had very definite ideas about what it meant to live as a civilized human being in the world, about the part played by art and music and literature in such a life.  He seemed to live as thoroughly embedded in the actuality of Western Civilization as the symbols of Christian theology lived in the paintings and sculpture of the eleventh century.

Okay, what can I say?  It was the kind of life I aspired to when I was 20, and a kind of life that was rapidly slipping away under my feet.

As far as I can tell, there are no people like Schapiro working now, or–if they exist–they’ve been relegated to obscurity. 

Schapiro was  not obscure.  In fact, he was vastly celebrated, called on by everybody from television stations to learned societies to provide insight and explanations in the arts.

I used to think there was a place like that in the world somewhere, and that if I played my cards right I could live in it.

Youthful fantasies of a lost continent of the life of the mind notwithstanding, Schapiro is more than worth looking into if you’re interested in art history, and not just in the history of the art of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Because there was another side to Meyer Schapiro–well, a few more actually; more on that later–

And this second side was almost certainly the one he became most famous for.

Meyer Schapiro was the first great champion of modern art, and especially of American modern art. 

He was the first person to bring Jasper Johns and de Koonig to the attention of the American public, to explain expressionism and abstractionism and I don’t know what else.

And he did it not by ignoring everything he knew of the high civilization he’d spent  his academic career pursuing, but by tying it all in together, so that you could see at least an outline of the way in which you got from the Castelseprio fresco cycle to Pollock’s emotionalism.

When I was in college, Schapiro was giving lectures on modern art at the New School, and every once in a while some of us would (okay, hitchhike) down to the city to see if we could get in to hear him. 

When we managed the feat, I often had no idea what I was listening to.  Whether we did or didn’t, the most important part of those trips for me was always the time we spent at the coffee houses on McDougal Street afterwards. There, I could listen to people who cared about this stuff talk about it, and that was part of that thing I’d been trying to get to.

All these long years later, I picked up a copy of a collection of Schapiro’s essays–ones on Medieval and Renaissance art–and started feeling rather depressed.

I was depressed because the book I have I bought at a library used book outlet–for 25 cents. 

I sat around thinking that nobody knew who Schapiro was, and nobody cared.  That nobody shared his way of being in the world, or even knew that such a way of being had ever existed. 

It’s not just my students who have no cultural context and no glimmer of understanding of the enormous enterprise that Western Civ is and has been.

Think of Shadia Drury, or that silly woman I had the argument with on FB.  We’ve reached a time when “educated” has been reduced to “can talk absolute gibberish about  gender, race and class.”

Then I got just a slight lift.  It turns out that although Schapiro may now be unknown to the general public, he is not at all unknown to departments of art  history.  Matt came home unexpectedly to find me reading the Schapiro essays and said, “Oh!  Shapiro!  Isn’t he a gas?”

Okay, I don’t know if Schapiro is a gas.  But it’s a start.

Shapiro began his career in a world where art history was the province of upper middle class Gentiles who spent their time enthusing about how spiritually enriched they were by being in proximity to Michaelangelo’s David, and left it as a discipline that did rigorous scholarship on dating and provenance. 

He grew up in an America when the public dismissed all modern art because it wasn’t what they were used to, and lumped de Koonig together with standing urinals. 

He ended it in one where people at least got the theory, even if they didn’t agree with it.

He led a life I would have like to have lived in every respect but one, and that’s where we get to our dilemma.

Or may dilemma.  I know from previous discussions on this blog that some of you think it’s easily solved.

But I don’t.

So here we go.

Schapiro fit his cultural designation in every way possible.

He was a cultural but not a religious Jew.  His academic specialization required a deep and rigorous understanding of  Christian theology, history and iconography, certainly much more than most Christians then or now would ever have.

His secularism made it possible for him to see past the knee-jerk assumption that “if it’s Medieval, it must be religious” and identify and explicate the secular aspects of Medieval art.

Which was a good thing, because the Middle Ages misunderstood as Carl Sagan’s “demon haunted world” are a lot less interesting than the real ones.

But being Jewish, and from New York, and an intellectual during the Depression, he was also something else.

He was also an unabashed and outspoken Communist.

Not a socialist, mind you, a Communist.

Now, I might not have started nattering after this thing again, except for two circumstances.

The first is that there is, on my TBR pile, right at the top and out front, a little stack of books by Gentile (and largely Southern) American literary critics, with Allen Tate on the top.

The other is an article that appeared last week in The Weekly Standard about why conservatives don’t write literature.  The Weekly Standard is a (very) conservative magazine.

Anyway, those two things started me wondering about a phenomenon–the left wing LITERARY intellectual–that we tend to take as perfectly obvious but that I don’t think is obvious at all, especially since it hasn’t always been true.  It certainly wasn’t true in the 30s and 40s.

I’m stressing the “literary.”

The magazine piece has an answer for why such literary people should be left wing rather than ‘conservative,” but in fact that answer only holds up if you think “conservative’ always and everywhere means “somebody in favor of business, commerce and free trade.”

Since that one won’t survive fifteen minutes with a good encyclopedia, I’ll start with that tomorrow.

And I’ll try to post a link to the WS article.



Written by janeh

June 29th, 2013 at 10:39 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'New York Jew'

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  1. Libraries are less and less trustworthy as repositories of books of lasting value. Even back home with a good one, I’m being very careful to own the books I might need for reference or want to reread for pleasure. It might comfort you to know that most of Shapiro remains in print.

    I’ll see whether the Allen County Public Library has Shapiro’s “Modern Art” volume, because that sounds very much like something I’ll want to read but not to keep. I can imagine someone making the argument that Klimt or Pollack belong in the tradition. I just can’t imagine being convinced.

    Certainly the biographical material I could find on line agreed with you–a brilliant mind and an impressive scholar, which are not the same thing. (But does anyone know what was meant by a “Shapiric Victory?”)

    Politics. Worth noting that in addition to being “anti-fascist” he deplored dictatorship in Russia-one source lists him as a Trotskyite–which is more than one can say for most Communist “intellectuals” of the 30’s. He is also reported to have avoided the factionalism and infighting of the 1930’s New York left, which might almost disqualify him as a Jew, let alone a Communist. I think, though, he was fortunate in never having to live in a communist state, where he would have had to choose between his political belief and his integrity as an academic.

    From what I’ve seen of it in academics, Marxism works as a method of interpretation, but not a mode of analysis, if you’ll allow the distinction. You can look at some past event and say “this is X in Marxist terms” but I’ve yet to see the academic say “my Marxist analysis of artistic styles in this monastery reveals economic stress” and then find evidence of previously unknown economic stress. It’s easy to find what you never have to prove.

    Read the WS article, and I agree that the critical word, is “literary.” I could stack up writers to the ceiling who hold with no part of modern leftism–but they aren’t Literary–for which I am deeply grateful.

    But that’s for another day.


    29 Jun 13 at 1:40 pm

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