In "The Liberating Quality of Avant-Garde Art," Meyer Schapiro explained why abstraction in painting and sculpture was so revolutionary. Three decades later, he finally consented to sit for a lengthy profile.
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Meyer Schapiro (1904–96) was revered for his extraordinary scholarship and inspired teaching. A pioneering art historian in the field of medieval studies, he was also passionate about the great modern masters and was a champion of the artists of his own time. His lectures at Columbia University and the New School in New York attracted overflow crowds and were remembered long afterward. “Sometimes he was so brilliant that he seemed almost insane to me; he seemed to see more than there actually was—he heard voices,” the late critic Anatole Broyard recalled in his 1993 memoir, Kafka Was the Rage. “His knowledge was so impressive as to appear occult.”
Schapiro’s passionate defense of contemporary painting and sculpture, “The Liberating Quality of Avant-Garde Art,” appeared in the Summer 1957 issue of ARTnews. Though abstract art had been around for years, Schapiro felt compelled to dissect its relevance, perhaps because it was clear by then how important a development Abstract Expressionism was. “The change in painting and sculpture may be compared to the most striking revolutions in science, technology and social thought,” he wrote in his essay. And he was in a position to know. Unlike many scholars, Schapiro had a wide-ranging curiosity and a grasp of subjects beyond art history. (Indeed, few critics or scholars of his—or any other—day could confidently call on both the 16th-century French essayist Montaigne and euclidean geometry to bolster an art-historical argument.) “Early on, Schapiro earned a reputation among his classmates for being more knowledgeable than many of their professors and certainly more diligent,” wrote Helen Epstein of his years as a Columbia undergraduate in her profile of Schapiro, which appeared in ARTnews in 1983.
In his 1957 article, Schapiro argued that the revolution in modern painting, in particular, caused the “notion of the humanity of art [to be] immensely widened.” In moving away from representation, art could offer a means of solace and uplift in a “culture that becomes increasingly organized through industry, economy and the state.” Schapiro saw the abstract artist as an exemplar of “freedom and spontaneity.” The scholar who first made his mark with a dissertation on the 12th-century abbey of Moissac believed that contemporary nonrepresentational painting and sculpture contained a deeply spiritual dimension: “They offer to many an equivalent of what is regarded as part of religious life: a sincere and humble submission to a spiritual object, an experience which is not given automatically, but requires preparation and purity of spirit.”
Whether or not one agrees with Schapiro on the virtues of abstract art, his essay in many other respects seems astonishingly prescient of our present embrace of cultural diversity. In accepting art that is reduced to color, line, and form, he argued, we are able to appreciate “many kinds of old art and the arts of distant peoples—primitive, historic, colonial, Asiatic and African, as well as European—arts which had not been accessible in spirit before because it was thought that true art had to show a degree of conformity to nature and of mastery of representation which had developed for the most part in the West.”
Schapiro was a frequent contributor to ARTnews. He wrote on Cézanne and Seurat, among other subjects, but in spite of his renown, he was reluctant to seek out or submit to any publicity for himself. Soon after becoming editor and publisher of ARTnews in 1972, Milton Esterow asked the great scholar, then in his late 60s, if he would consent to be profiled for the magazine. Schapiro said he was too busy preparing his lectures for publication. Esterow repeated the request every year or two, and the response was always the same. After about a decade, he told Schapiro, “I’ll fly in a team of scholars of your choosing, and we’ll take only a couple of afternoons of your time. I’ll send you the transcript, and you can approve every bit of punctuation.”
Schapiro finally agreed to a profile by Helen Epstein, a journalist and New York University professor who had written a lengthy article for the New York Times on pianist Vladimir Horowitz. But first Schapiro insisted on what Epstein later called an “audition of sorts.” Knowing that Schapiro’s cooperation would depend on the chemistry between them, she went to his house in Greenwich Village and was interviewed herself by Schapiro and his wife, pediatrician Dr. Lillian Milgram. Epstein thought it worked in her favor that she was not in the field of art history; she believed that her book Children of the Holocaust, published in 1979, also scored points. “The Schapiros probably knew that I would ‘get’ Meyer’s background because we shared immigrant roots,” Epstein says. “Meyer was a Lithuanian Jew, born in Shavli. I was born in Prague to Czech Jews and came to Manhattan as a baby. He had taught at Columbia all his professional life. I was a graduate of the Columbia journalism school. All of that was useful.”
Epstein spent six months getting to know the Schapiros and accumulated some 30 hours of conversations with Meyer on tape. “It was the most fabulous experience, like taking a course in art history with Meyer as my private tutor,” she says. “I never look at a painting now without remembering how Meyer looked at art.”
“He expected you to be prepared and could be very severe and demanding,” she adds. “He was the epitome of a pure scholar. I found that bracing and challenging.”
Schapiro himself was a talented painter and draftsman, but he never pursued a serious career as an artist. “I thought it would be wonderful if I could be a real artist,” he told Epstein, “but I didn’t have the confidence.” Nevertheless, Esterow recalls, “When we got closer to publication, Schapiro called me to ask if we’d be interested in reproducing some of his paintings.” Several were used as illustrations for the articles, and as a result, Columbia gave Schapiro his first exhibition.
Epstein’s two-part profile, the only in-depth biographical portrait of the art historian ever published, appeared in the May and Summer issues of 1983 and won the Clarion Award from the Association for Women in Communications. (Epstein has since published six more books, most recently a memoir, Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for her Mother’s History.)
Schapiro wrote to Esterow to express his appreciation for the articles. “I used to sit in on his lectures,” Esterow says. “Schapiro was probably the only genius I’ve known.”
Summer 1957The Liberating Quality of Avant-Garde Art
The vital role that painting and sculpture play in modern culture
In discussing the place of painting and sculpture in the culture of our time, I shall refer only to those kinds which, whether abstract or not, have a fresh inventive character, that art which is called “modern” not simply because it is of our century, but because it is the work of artists who take seriously the challenge of new possibilities and wish to introduce into their work perceptions, ideas and experiences which have come about only within our time.
In doing so I risk perhaps being unjust to important works or to aspects of art which are generally not comprised within the so-called modern movement.
There is a sense in which all the arts today have a common character shared by painting; it may therefore seem arbitrary to single out painting as more particularly modern than the others. In comparing the arts of our time with those of a hundred years ago, we observe that the arts have become more deeply personal, more intimate, more concerned with experiences of a subtle kind. We note, too, that in poetry, music and architecture, as well as in painting, the attitude to the medium has become much freer, so that artists are willing to search further and to risk experiments or inventions which in the past would have been inconceivable because of fixed ideas of the laws and boundaries of the arts. I shall try to show however that painting and sculpture contribute qualities and values less evident in poetry, music and architecture.
It is obvious that each art has possibilities given in its own medium which are not found in other arts, at least not in the same degree. Of course, we do not know how far-reaching these possibilities are; the limits of an art cannot be set in advance. Only in the course of work and especially in the work of venturesome personalities do we discover the range of an art, and even then in a very incomplete way.
In the last fifty years, within the common tendency towards the more personal, intimate and free, painting has had a special role because of a unique revolutionary change in its character. In the first decades of our century painters and sculptors broke with the long-established tradition that their arts are arts of representation, creating images bound by certain requirements of accord with the forms of nature.
That great tradition includes works of astounding power upon which artists have been nourished for centuries. Its principle of representation had seemed too self-evident to be doubted, yet that tradition was shattered early in this century. The change in painting and sculpture may be compared to the most striking revolutions in science, technology and social thought. It has affected the whole attitude of painters and sculptors to their work. To define the change in its positive aspect, however, is not easy because of the great diversity of styles today even among advanced artists.
One of the charges brought most frequently against art in our time is that because of the loss of the old standards, it has become chaotic, having no rule or direction. Precisely this criticism was often made between 1830 and 1850, especially in France, where one observed side by side works of Neo-Classic, Romantic and Realistic art—all of them committed to representation. The lack of a single necessary style of art reminded many people of the lack of clear purpose or of common ideals in social life. What seemed to be the anarchic character of art was regarded as a symptom of a more pervasive anarchy or crisis within society as a whole.
But for the artists themselves—for Ingres, Delacroix and Courbet—each of these styles was justified by ideal ends that they served, whether of order, liberty or truth; and when we look back now to the nineteenth century, the astonishing variety of its styles, the many conflicting movements and reactions, and the great number of distinct personalities, appear to us less as signs of weakness in the culture than as examples of freedom, individuality and sincerity of expression. These qualities corresponded to important emerging values of the social and political life of that period, and even helped to sustain them.
In the course of the last fifty years the painters who freed themselves from the necessity of representation discovered whole new fields of form-construction and expression (including new possibilities of imaginative representation) which entailed a new attitude to art itself. The artist came to believe that what was essential in art—given the diversity of themes or motifs—were two universal requirements: that every work of art has an individual order or coherence, a quality of unity and necessity in its structure regardless of the kind of forms used; and, second, that the forms and colors chosen have a decided expressive physiognomy, that they speak to us as a feeling-charged whole, through the intrinsic power of colors and lines, rather than through the imaging of facial expressions, gestures and bodily movements, although these are not necessarily excluded—for they are also forms.
That view made possible the appreciation of many kinds of old art and of the arts of distant peoples—primitive, historic, colonial, Asiatic and African, as well as European—arts which had not been accessible in spirit before because it was thought that true art had to show a degree of conformity to nature and of mastery of representation which had developed for the most part in the West. The change in art dethroned not only representation as a necessary requirement but also a particular standard of decorum or restraint in expression which had excluded certain domains and intensities of feeling. The notion of the humanity of art was immensely widened. Many kinds of drawing, painting, sculpture and architecture, formerly ignored or judged inartistic, were seen as existing on the same plane of human creativeness and expression as “civilized” Western art. That would not have happened, I believe, without the revolution in modern painting.
The idea of art was shifted, therefore, from the aspect of imagery to its expressive, constructive, inventive aspect. That does not mean, as some suppose, that the old art was inferior or incomplete, that it had been constrained by the requirements of representation, but rather that a new liberty had been introduced which had, as one of its consequences, a greater range in the appreciation and experience of forms.
The change may be compared, perhaps, with the discovery by mathematicians that they did not have to hold to the axioms and postulates of Euclidian geometry, which were useful in describing the everyday physical world, but could conceive quite other axioms and postulates and build up different imaginary geometries. All the new geometries, like the old, accepted one, were submitted to the rules of logic; in each geometry the new theorems had to be consistent with each other and with the axioms and postulates. In painting as in mathematics, the role of structure or coherence became more evident and the range of its applications was extended to new elements.
The change I have described in the consciousness of form is more pronounced in painting and sculpture than it is in any other art. It is true that music and architecture are also unconcerned with representation—the imaging of the world—but they have always been that. The architect, the musician and the poet did not feel that their arts had undergone so profound a change, requiring as great a shift in the attitude of the beholder, as painting and sculpture in the beginning of our century. Within the totality of arts, painting and sculpture, more than the others, gave to artists in all mediums a new sense of freedom and possibility. It was the ground of a more general emancipation.
Even poets, who had always been concerned with images and with language as a medium which designates, poets, too, now tried to create a poetry of sounds without sense. But that movement did not last very long, at least among English-speaking poets, although it was strong at one time in Russia and exists today in Holland and Belgium.
This sentiment of freedom and possibility, accompanied by a new faith in the self-sufficiency of forms and colors, became deeply rooted within our culture in the last fifty years. And since the basic change had come about through the rejection of the image function of painting and sculpture, the attitudes and feelings which are bound up with the acceptance or rejection of the environment entered into the attitude of the painter to the so-called abstract or near-abstract styles, affecting also the character of the new forms. His view of the external world, his affirmation of the self or certain parts of the self, against devalued social norms—these contributed to his confidence in the necessity of the new art.
Abstraction implies then a criticism of the accepted contents of the preceding representations as ideal values or life interests. This does not mean that painters, in giving up landscape, no longer enjoy nature; but they do not believe, as did the poets, the philosophers and painters of the nineteenth century, that nature can serve as a model of harmony for man, nor do they feel that the experience of nature’s moods is an exalting value on which to found an adequate philosophy of life. New problems, situations and experiences of greater import have emerged: the challenge of social conflict and development, the exploration of the self, the discovery of its hidden motivations and processes, the advance of human creativeness in science and technology.
All these factors should he taken into account in judging the significance of the change in painting and sculpture. It was not a simple studio experiment or an intellectual play with ideas and with paint; it was related to a broader and deeper reaction to basic elements of common experience and the concept of humanity, as it developed under new conditions.
In a number of respects, painting and sculpture today may seem to be opposed to the general trend of life. Yet, in such opposition, these arts declare their humanity and importance.
Paintings and sculptures, let us observe, are the last handmade, personal objects within our culture. Almost everything else is produced industrially, in mass, and through a high division of labor. Few people are fortunate enough to make something that represents themselves, that issues entirely from their hands and mind, and to which they can affix their names.
Most work, even much scientific work, requires a division of labor, a separation between the individual and the final result; the personality is hardly present even in the operations of industrial planning or in management and trade. Standardized objects produced impersonally and in quantity establish no bond between maker and user. They are mechanical products with only a passing and instrumental value.
What is most important is that the practical activity by which we live is not satisfying: we cannot give it full loyalty, and its rewards do not compensate enough for the frustrations and emptiness that arise from the lack of spontaneity and personal identifications in work: the individual is deformed by it, only rarely does it permit him to grow.
The object of art is, therefore, more passionately than ever before, the occasion of spontaneity or intense feeling. The painting symbolizes an individual who realizes freedom and deep engagement of the self within his work. It is addressed to others who will cherish it, if it gives them joy, and who will recognize in it an irreplaceable quality and will be attentive to every mark of the maker’s imagination and feeling.
The consciousness of the personal and spontaneous in the painting and sculpture stimulates the artist to invent devices of handling, processing, surfacing, which confer to the utmost degree the aspect of the freely made. Hence the great importance of the mark, the stroke, the brush, the drip, the quality of the substance of the paint itself, and the surface of the canvas as a texture and field of operation—all signs of the artist’s active presence. The work of art is an ordered world of its own kind in which we are aware, at every point, of its becoming.
All these qualities of painting may be regarded as a means of affirming the individual in opposition to the contrary qualities of the ordinary experience of working and doing.
I need not speak in detail about this new manner, which appears in figurative as well as abstract art; but I think it is worth observing that in many ways it is a break with the kind of painting that was most important in the 1920’s. After the first World War, in works like those of Léger, abstraction in art was affected by the taste for industry, technology and science, and assumed the qualities of the machine-made, the impersonal and reproducible, with an air of coolness and mechanical control, intellectualized to some degree. The artist’s power of creation seems analogous here to the designer’s and engineer’s. That art, in turn, avowed its sympathy with mechanism and industry in an optimistic mood as progressive elements in everyday life, and as examples of strength and precision in production which painters admired as a model for art itself. But the experiences of the last twenty-five years have made such confidence in the values of technology less interesting and even distasteful.
In abstraction we may distinguish those forms, like the square and circle, which have object character and those which do not. The first are closed shapes, distinct within their field and set off against a definite ground. They build up a space which has often elements of gravity, with a clear difference between above and below, the ground and the background, the near and far. But the art of the last fifteen years tends more often to work with forms which are open, fluid or mobile; they are directed strokes or they are endless tangles and irregular curves, self-involved lines which impress us as possessing the qualities not so much of things as of impulses, of excited movements emerging and changing before our eyes.
The impulse, which is most often not readily visible in its pattern, becomes tangible and definite on the surface of a canvas through the painted mark. We see, as it were, the track of emotion, its obstruction, persistence or extinction. But all these elements of impulse which seem at first so aimless on the canvas are built up into a whole characterized by firmness, often by elegance and beauty of shapes and colors. A whole emerges with a compelling, sometimes insistent quality of form, with a resonance of the main idea throughout the work. And possessing an extraordinary tangibility and force, often being so large that it covers the space of a wall and therefore competing boldly with the environment, the canvas can command our attention fully like monumental painting in the past.
It is also worth remarking that as the details of form become complicated and free and therefore hard to follow in their relation to one another, the painting tends to be more centered and compact—different in this respect from the type of abstraction in which the painting seems to be a balanced segment of a larger whole. The artist places himself in the focus of your space. These characteristics of painting, as opposed to the characteristics of industrial production, may.be found also in the different sense of the words “automatic” and “accidental” as applied in painting, technology and the everyday world.
The presence of chance as a factor in painting, which introduces qualities that the artist could never have achieved by calculation, is an old story. Montaigne in the sixteenth century already observed that a painter will discover in his canvas strokes which he had not intended and which are better than anything he might have designed. That is a common fact in artistic creation.
Conscious control is only one source of order and novelty: the unconscious, the spontaneous and unpredictable are no less present in the good work of art. But that is something art shares with other activities and indeed with the most obviously human function: speech. When we speak, we produce automatically a series of words which have an order and a meaning for us, and yet are not fully designed. The first word could not be uttered unless certain words were to follow, but we cannot discover, through introspection, that we had already thought of the words that were to follow. That is a mystery of our thought as well. Painting, poetry and music have this element of unconscious, improvised serial production of parts and relation-ships in an order, with a latent unity and purposefulness. The peculiarity of modern painting does not lie simply in its aspect of chance and improvisation but elsewhere. Its distinctiveness may be made clear by comparing the character of the formal elements of old and modern art.
Painters often say that in all art, whether old or modern, the artist works essentially with colors and shapes rather than with natural objects. But the lines of a Renaissance master are complex forms which depend on already ordered shapes in nature. The painting of a cup in a still-life picture resembles an actual cup, which is itself a well-ordered thing. A painting of a landscape depends on observation of elements which are complete, highly ordered shapes in themselves—like trees or mountains.
Modern painting is the first complex style in history which proceeds from elements that are not pre-ordered as closed articulated shapes. The artist today creates an order out of unordered variable elements to a greater degree than the artist of the past.
In ancient art an image of two animals facing each other orders symmetrically bodies which in nature are already closed symmetrical forms. The modern artist, on the contrary, is attracted to those possibilities of form which include a considerable randomness, variability and disorder, whether he finds them in the world or while improvising with his brush, or in looking at spots and marks, or in playing freely with shapes—inverting, adjusting, cutting, varying, reshaping, regrouping, so as to maximize the appearance of randomness. His goal is often an order which retains a decided quality of randomness as far as this is compatible with an ultimate unity of the whole. That randomness corresponds in turn to a feeling of freedom, an unconstrained activity at every point.
Ignoring natural shapes, he is alert to qualities of movement, interplay, change and becoming in nature. And he provokes within himself, in his spontaneous motions and play, an automatic production of chance.
While in industry accident is that event which destroys an order, interrupts a regular process and must be eliminated, in painting the random or accidental is the beginning of an order. It is that which the artist wishes to build up into an order, but a kind of order that in the end retains the aspect of the original disorder as a manifestation of freedom. The order is created before your eyes and its law is nowhere explicit. Here the function of ordering has, as a necessary counterpart, the element of randomness and accident.
Automatism in art means the painter’s confidence in the power of the organism to produce interesting unforeseen effects and in such a way that the chance results constitute a family of forms; all the random marks made by one individual will differ from those made by another, and will appear to belong together, whether they are highly ordered or not, and will show a characteristic grouping. (This is another way of saying that there is a definite style in the seemingly chaotic forms of recent art, a general style common to many artists and unique individual styles.) This power of the artist’s hand to deliver constantly elements of so-called chance or accident, which nevertheless belong to a well defined, personal class of forms and groupings, is submitted to critical control by the artist who is alert to the rightness or wrongness of the elements delivered spontaneously, and accepts or rejects them.
No other art today exhibits to that degree in the final result the presence of the individual, his spontaneity and the concreteness of his procedure.
This art is deeply rooted, I believe, in the self and its relation to the surrounding world. And the pathos of the reduction or fragility of the self within a culture that becomes increasingly organized through industry, economy and the state intensifies the desire of the artist to create forms that will manifest his liberty in this striking way—a liberty that, in the best works, is associated with a sentiment of harmony, and the opposite stability, and even impersonality through the power of painting to universalize itself in the perfection of its form and to reach out into common life. It becomes then a possession of everyone and is related to everyday experience.
Another aspect of modern painting and sculpture which is opposed to our actual world and yet is related to it—and appeals particularly because of this relationship—is the difference between painting and sculpture on the one hand and what are called the “arts of communication.” This term has become ‘for many artists one of the most unpleasant in our language.
In the mediums of communication which include the newspaper, the magazine, the radio and TV, we are struck at once by certain requirements that are increasingly satisfied through modern technical means and the ingenuity of scientific specialists. Communication, in this sense, aims at a maximum efficiency through methods that ensure the attention of the listener or viewer by setting up the appropriate reproducible stimuli which will work for everyone and promote the acceptance of the message. Distinction is made between message and that which interferes with message, i.e. noise—that which is irrelevant. And devices are introduced to insure that certain elements will have an appropriate weight in the reception.
The theory and practice of communication today help to build up and to characterize a world of social relationships which is impersonal, calculated and controlled in its elements, aiming always at efficiency.
The methods of study applied in the theory of communication have been extended to literature, music and painting as arts which communicate. Yet it must be said that what makes painting and sculpture so interesting in our times is their high degree of non-communication. You cannot extract a message from painting by ordinary means; the usual rules of communication do not hold here, there is no clear code or fixed vocabulary, no certainty of effect in a given time of transmission or exposure. Painting, by becoming abstract and giving up its representational function, has achieved a state in which communication seems to be deliberately prevented. And in many works where natural forms are still preserved, the objects and the mode of representation resist an easy decipherment and the effects of these works are unpredictable.
The artist does not wish to create a work in which he transmits an already prepared and complete message to a relatively indifferent and impersonal receiver. The painter aims rather at such a quality of the whole that, unless you achieve the proper set of mind and feeling towards it, you will not experience anything of it at all.
Only a mind opened to the qualities of things, with a habit of discrimination, sensitized by experience and responsive to new forms and ideas, will be prepared for the enjoyment of this art. The experience of the work of art, like the creation of the work of art itself, is a process ultimately opposed to communication as it is understood now. What has appeared as noise in the first encounter becomes in the end message or necessity, though never message in a perfectly reproducible sense. You cannot translate it into words or make a copy of it which will be quite the same thing.
But if painting and sculpture do not communicate they induce an attitude of communion and contemplation. They offer to many an equivalent of what is regarded as part of religious life: a sincere and humble submission to a spiritual object, an experience which is not given automatically, but requires preparation and purity of spirit. It is primarily in modern painting and sculpture that such contemplativeness and communion with the work of another human being, the sensing of another’s perfected feeling and imagination, becomes possible.
If painting and sculpture provide the most tangible works of art and bring us closer to the activity of the artist, their concreteness exposes them, more than the other arts, to dangerous corruption. The successful work of painting or sculpture is a unique commodity of market value. Paintings are perhaps the most costly man-made objects in the world. The enormous importance given to a work of art as a precious object which is advertised and known in connection with its price is bound to affect the consciousness of our culture. It stamps the painting as an object of speculation, confusing the values of ar