It’s 146 Critical Years Of Nation ‘s Big Brushes

It can sometimes be a chastening experience for a critic to

read the work of his predecessors. It can also at times be exhilarating, even

inspiring. Examples of high intelligence, shrewd judgment and excellent prose

command respect as well as envy. They may even serve as models to emulate. But

the all-too-frequent instances of parochial taste, hidebound prejudice, political log-rolling and moldy prose leave one in no doubt

as to why criticism is not a universally beloved enterprise.

Sill, it isn’t only the worst criticism that has been found

to be offensive. The writers whom posterity now regards as some of the greatest

critics of visual art-John Ruskin, Charles Baudelaire, Félix Fénéon, Julius

Meier-Graefe, Roger Fry and, closer to our own time, Fairfield Porter and

Clement Greenberg-were all driven by strong convictions and controversial

opinions, and thus were bound to offend the pieties of their readers. (Porter

and Greenberg, both of whom I admire, were often fiercely at odds with each

other.) Moreover, it is virtually an iron law of cultural history that critics

who are too easily pleased tend to be easily forgotten. As the Victorian critic

Walter Bagehot wrote in 1856: “Let it be remembered, that the business of a

critic is criticism; that it is not

his business to be thankful; that he must attempt an estimate rather than a

eulogy.”

I have lately been reminded of all this in reading through a

new anthology called Brushes with

History: Art of The Nation , 1865-2001 ,

edited by Peter G. Meyer, with an introduction by Arthur C. Danto. This volume,

scheduled for September publication, is drawn entirely from the pages of The Nation , which, from its founding in

1865 to the present time, has accorded art criticism a conspicuous place in its

cultural coverage.

Brushes with History purports

to bring us the best that The Nation

has published in this field over the entire course of

its history. In a collection that runs to more than 500 pages, it was not, of

course, to be expected that every item would be a critical masterpiece, and it

isn’t. Much of what’s been collected in the book isn’t even criticism, but

rather reportage, editorials, etc. Yet, to speak first of the 19th-century entries-from

Russell Sturgis’ brilliant analysis of Ruskin’s Modern Painters in 1868, to Henry James’ remarkably blunt account

of the Ruskin-Whistler libel trial in 1879 and Bernard Berenson’s elegant essay

on Botticelli’s illustrations for Dante’s Divine

Comedy in 1896-there is plenty here to delight the connoisseur of both art

and criticism.

The 20th century got off to a rougher start in The Nation ‘s art columns. It is

interesting to observe that Matisse, rather than Picasso or Duchamp, seems to

have been an abiding point of contention. Berenson, who had not yet abandoned

his early interest in modern painting, was already defending Matisse against a

slur in The Nation in 1908. “I have

the conviction,” Berenson wrote, “that [Matisse] has, after 20 years of very

earnest searching, at last found the great highroad travelled by all the best

masters of the visual arts.” High praise, indeed. Yet

as late as 1931, the critic Paul Rosenfeld was making a muddle of a Matisse

show at the recently opened Museum of

Modern Art in an essay which the

young Meyer Schapiro, in a letter to the editor of The Nation , correctly characterized as “petulant and

irresponsible.”

Of the several articles that The Nation devoted to the 1913 Armory Show, which was the first

exhibition on a blockbuster scale to introduce modern art to a mainstream

American public, none can now be said to have more than a historical interest.

In my view, anyway, the high intellectual level established by the 19th-century

contributors to The Nation was not to

be re-established in the magazine’s art columns until Clement Greenberg’s

appointment as art critic in the early 1940′s. But whether this is an accurate

reflection of what The Nation

published on art in the 1920′s and 30′s, or-what I suspect may be the case-a

reflection of Mr. Meyer’s politically determined selections, I am not in a

position to say.

Mr. Meyer, whose name is

new to me, is identified as the founder and director of the Public Works

Project, which is described as a “non-profit organization that produces protest

art for public interest organizations.” He thus brings to the editing of Brushes with History an “activist”

rather than an aesthetic interest in art criticism. Which means, among much

else, that we are treated to an account of Richard Nixon’s views on art and-of

more importance-a one-sided reprise of one of the most disgraceful episodes in The Nation ‘s history: the libel suit it

brought against Clement Greenberg in 1951, two years after he left the

magazine. This appalling legal action has nothing to do with Greenberg’s art

criticism but everything to do with a letter to the editor that he sent to The Nation , protesting the Stalinist

line it was following in its coverage of Soviet foreign policy.

The Nation ‘s editor in chief, Freda Kirchwey, not only refused to publish

Greenberg’s letter, but threatened him with a lawsuit if he attempted to

publish it elsewhere. Greenberg responded to this challenge by dispatching his

letter to The New Leader , which

promptly published it, and The Nation

then filed suit against both him and The

New Leader .

Mr. Meyer devotes a

great deal of space to this non-art scandal but doesn’t tell the entire story.

He omits any reference to the uproar that Kirchwey’s legal action caused within

the ranks of The Nation ‘s own writers

and editors. Many of those listed on its masthead-among them, Reinhold Niebuhr

and Richard H. Rovere-promptly denounced the lawsuit and severed their

connection to the magazine. The suit remained on the books, unresolved, until

1955, when Kirchwey’s successor, Carey McWilliams, accepted the editorship of The Nation on condition that the magazine drop the suit.

Mercifully, Mr. Meyer’s partisan interest in this scandal

hasn’t prevented him from according Greenberg his due as an art critic in Brushes with History , which nicely

chronicles his now-celebrated reviews of de Kooning, Pollock, Baziotes,

Motherwell, Gorky, Hofmann et al. in the 1940′s. However much Greenberg’s

successors at The Nation -Fairfield

Porter, Max Kozloff, Lawrence Alloway and Arthur C. Danto, the present

incumbent-may disagree with his judgments and his ideas, all have been indebted

to the high level of critical discourse Greenberg brought to art criticism and

have endeavored to meet it. (See, in this regard, Mr. Danto’s

1994 obituary appreciation of Greenberg in this volume.) Indeed, Brushes with History recovers a good

deal of intellectual vitality in the selections culled from Greenberg and his

successors, all of whom are well represented in the book.

I, too, by the way, make an appearance in the book, but on

an appropriately smaller scale. At the invitation of Robert Hatch, then The Nation ‘s literary editor and film

critic, I served as the magazine’s art critic for a single season, 1962-63, to

fill in for its regular critic, Max Kozloff, during his temporary absence from New

York. To judge from Mr. Meyer’s editorial note-”Oddly

enough, the conservative writer Hilton Kramer was The Nation ‘s art critic from 1962 to 1964″-this was evidently an

unpleasant surprise to him. Lest he be thought to approve of such an odd

appointment, he hastens to add that “Kramer has often been accused of being an

‘enemy’ of modern art.”

In fact, my tenure at the magazine ended in 1963, when Mr.

Kozloff returned, but I did contribute some book reviews for a short time

thereafter-until, that is, Hatch was succeeded by a more politically “activist”

literary editor who really was an enemy of modernism, and everything else that

smacked of highbrow culture. But her tenure was mercifully short-lived.

Was I a “conservative

writer” when I wrote for The Nation ?

Not really. Politically, I belonged to the camp of anti-Communist liberals, a

species of intellectual apparently distasteful to Mr. Meyer, who may or may not

be aware that they once provided some of the best writing on art, literature

and other cultural subjects The Nation

has ever published-especially in the 1940′s and 50′s, when Margaret Marshall

was the magazine’s stellar literary editor. It was in the mid-40′s,

when I was in high school, that I first encountered The Nation in the Sawyer Free Library in Glouchester, Mass.,

and became addicted to the music criticism of B.H. Haggin. It’s a pity that

there’s so little in Brushes with History

that conveys the quality of The Nation ‘s

back-of-the-book writers in that period-among them, besides Greenberg and

Haggin, James Agee on movies, Joseph Wood Krutch on theater and Diana Trilling

on fiction.

Brushes with History:

Art of The Nation 1865-2001 is

published by Thunder’s Mouth Press–Nation Books.