Commentary Magazine

The Tradition of the New, by Harold Rosenberg

Wiping the Slate Clean
The Tradition of the New.
by Harold Rosenberg.
Horizon Press. 285 pp. $4.95.


Harold Rosenberg’s reputation among the intelligentsia—hitherto based on his trenchant magazine articles only—may not need the support of this book, which presents the best of those same articles grouped under plausible headings and supported with a programmatic introduction. If we rejoice in the occasion, it is because now Rosenberg’s ideas stand a good chance of reaching an audience both wider and different from the one he has been in the habit of addressing (not entirely from choice, I am sure). Being essays dealing with large public issues they should be read, and responded to, by the public at large.

The book falls into four main divisions: “American Painting Today,” “The Profession of Poetry,” “War of Phantoms” (pieces concerned with Marxist methods and issues, plus an excellent study of dramatic conversion patterns), “The Herd of Independent Minds” (pieces concerned with mass culture and problems raised by our managerial society). Its central theme is self-transformation and transformation of others, and these symbolic actions are set over against the numberless accommodation formulas devised by a society which insists, inexorably, on the individual’s conformity to the status quo ante. The old in the guise of the old being largely discredited today, Rosenberg concentrates on the more insidious—and more fashionable—alternative: the glitter of novelty playing about the surfaces of decay and obsolescence, sheep instinct strutting about in lone wolf’s clothing. He spends a great deal of energy on the exposure of this fraud, whether it happens to take place in art, in ideology or—all but unconsciously—in the operations of our social machinery; stokes the fires, tirelessly, on behalf of a humanity which he conceives in terms of maximum breadth and discusses with a minimum of sloganizing or other political clap-trap. The strenuous, coaldust-stained countenance of his style bears witness to his commitment, and one gladly forgets his occasional arrogance (we are daily tortured with humility, both true and mock) and his brassy approach to matters that could be handled with greater discretion. Rosenberg has all the requisites of the first-rate pamphleteer: conviction, raw indignation, a cutting edge. It is good to hear him blurt out his discontents so passionately and, at the same time, so shrewdly, against the daily din set up by bland world-reformers, nervous status quo-ists, and brutal spokesmen for ideological repression.

As a writer, Rosenberg is hard-hitting and acute rather than subtle, very good at seeing things contextually and synoptically, and (like all anti-ideological ideologists) as impatient of the purely factual as he is of the superstructures. His literary method is a supple and in the main reliable vehicle for his ideas, though at times the two can be remarkably at odds: he will present a substantial notion in a brusque, rough-and-ready manner, or a highly dubious one with great precision of phrase and an exquisite sense of nuance, and think nothing of it. His famous piece on the American action painters well illustrates the second failing; his piece, “Pop Culture: Kitsch Criticism,” the first. In the essay on American painting, art as métier is discounted to be re-established as symbolic action: the painter’s increase in perception and moral judgment—in realized identity, in short—which has traditionally been regarded as a by-product of the successful art work now comes to be viewed as the artist’s principal aim, while the work itself is reduced to the role of an auxiliary, or catalytic agent, in the process of self-transformation. Rosenberg argues his case brilliantly, and his formulations are not only apt but often very moving; all the same, the position is unsound, a queer compound, and consequent garbling, of Dewey and the Aristotelian notions of praxis and catharsis; and by setting up psychological change as an ultimate—the supreme sanction of both the artist and the work—Rosenberg drops one half of a dialectic which is essential to the human condition and which, for better or worse, will continue to be so. This piece is certainly more than an ex post facto justification of Abstract Expressionism, New York variety; more than a convenient credo provided by an expert in words for men excelling in a different branch of art. Rosenberg is too honest to sink himself into the role of impresario: he doubtless speaks on his own behalf as well as on behalf of his friends. Yet what he says adds nothing new to our understanding of the artist’s particular agon, or agony; tells us nothing new about the character of aesthetic judgment (except, perhaps, that it should be suspended, or else measure art in units of psychic intensity, ardor of conflict). The old “man vs. work” dialectic remains exactly where it was before Rosenberg set to drafting his manifesto.

Conversely, the article on kitsch and kitsch criticism rests on a searching, unpopular perception: that recent sociological interest in the mechanics and imagery of comic strips, cheap movies, etc. has helped to abet these disorders, under the guise of studying them dispassionately and drawing “valid” conclusions from them. (Whether this collusion is deliberate or involuntary does not matter here.) Intellectual curiosity, Rosenberg argues, is constantly being diverted from its proper subject (authentic art) into areas where a low-grade symbolism proliferates endlessly and unrewardingly: while the zone in which serious art can still be practiced and absorbed grows more strait by the hour, thousands of men are examining with Pangloss-like profundity the futile creations of our entertainment industry. Rosenberg’s case is entirely solid, but his writing—compared with, say, similar studies by T. W. Adorno—seems sketchy, short of breath, even a trifle sloppy. The piece might stand as a series of independent propositions, thrown out in the heat of disgust; but in that case Rosenberg should have clearly presented it as such, rather than in the semblance of a close-knit argument.

“All men dream,” T. E. Lawrence once wrote, “but not equally.” Rosenberg’s dream is one of continuous nightmare, not of fruition or resurrection; and it is that dream which carries conviction, rather than his daylight speculations on metamorphosis and transcendence. But what arrests us even more than the quality of the dream is the dream quality of the writing, with its curious distortions of scale and shape, its frantically quickened pace, its fantastic (and yet perfectly “reasonable”) demands on life as it is actually lived. “The dream of Reason begets monsters.” Or, better, phantasmagories. The reader is admitted to an Utopia stripped of every positive determination except that subjective thirst which, at the outset, envisioned its possibility. Yet these are hard times—both hard and overstuffed, bursting with positiveness and positions. We should be grateful for possibilities such as this, even though what it represents is a Leerform—a scheme without a content; even though the atmosphere which supports it is nothing but windy gloom.



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