In this review I am going to consider Serge Guilbault’s contribution to the political debate about Abstract Expressionism , American culture , American Modernism and the role of Capitalist ideology in shaping post war artistic practices. Guilbault correctly posits American art within American Capitalism and shows how with the Influence of Stalinism Marxist artistic practices were lost for ever.
Guilbault starts his book with a consideration of Avant Garde art. ” Avant garde art succeeded because the work and ideology that supported it articulated the painter’s writings as well as conveyed its image coincided fairly closely with the ideology that came to dominate American political life after the 1948 Presidential Election” .
He then considers its role in politics and its attempt to resist outside interference. ” Once again Abstract Expressionism was sealed inside a bell Jar and protected from injection by any unwanted germs from intrusion by outsiders who might disturb the cherished harmony” .
” When art was directly and overtly associated with politics on the years between the Social art of the depression and the use of abstract expressionism as propaganda in the Fifties” .
Guilbault considers the writings of Mark Rothko , Adolph Gottlieb Barnett Newman and Jackson Pollock as central to his discussions. ” In particular I look at the writings of Barnett Newmann , Mark Rothko , Adolph Gottlieb and Jackson Pollock and at the avant-garde’s 1947-8 decision to abandon representative painting”. .
Guilbault now introduces Clement Greenberg the foremost Art Critic and Historian of the period . I will take a critical look at Greenberg in later postings. ” Some day it will have to be told how anti Stalinism which started more or less as Trotskyism turned into art for arts sake and thereby heroically for what was to come”. . This is a direct quote from one of the most important statements from Greenberg. I disagree with his conclusion and will go onto to argue that Abstract Expressionism was not art for arts sake, Greenberg used abstract Expressionism for his own purposes.
This was the period when a Left wing emerged out of its shell and with the possibility of War , the Civil war in Spain and the struggle of Stalinists to support the popular front. ” At almost the same time Left wing artists launched an appeal calling for a congress to be held on Feb 14th 1936 in response to the popular front” . .
The Stalinist slogan of the popular front was to be rejected and attacked by Trotsky and his supporters. ” Andre Breton (Supporter of Trotsky and Surrealist artist) refused to defend the abstract notion of culture which as far as he was concerned stood for the enemy ” The Bourgeois” . .
Partisan Review a magazine largely written and supporters by Trotskyists was one of the main weapons in the fight against Stalinism and the drift that Greenberg and others were following. This artistic battle would reflect the battle between Trotsky’s Left Opposition and the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union. This is elaborated by Guilbault in great depth.
” James T Farrell’s important ‘A NOTE ON LITERARY CRITICISM’ published in 1936 attacked the vulgar , mechanical Marxism of Mike Gold and Granville Hicks as published in the pages of the Communist review. Farrell had a long history of conflict with intellectuals associated with the American Communist party, his articles in the nation , The New Republic and partisan Review were the only ones at the time that were able to articulate a stringent Marxist critique of Stalinism and its cultural policies”. .
Trotsky in exile in Turkey and later in Mexico where he was assassinated by a Stalinist Agent , Leader of the Bolshevik Revolution and author of Literature and Revolution had occasion to write to Partisan Review whose Editor was Dwight Macdonald who at the time was a member of the Socialist workers Party the foremost Trotskyist Party in the USA. Trotsky would remind Macdonald of his weakness in tackling and taking on Stalinism. This would be borne out in 1938 when Trotsky and James P Cannon leader of the SWP would be engaged in an inner party fight with a petit bourgeois opposition. Macdonald together with James Burnham and Max Shachtman would leave the SWP in a serious split. Trotsky’s letter to Partisan Review is very revealing, it sets out the Marxist method in opposition to Stalinist formalism. ” Generally speaking art is an expression of man’s need for a harmonious and complete life, that is to say, his need for major benefits of which a society of classes has deprived him” . .
Trotsky goes to elaborate further in his letter. ” The October Revolution gave a magnificent impetus to all types of Soviet art. the bureaucratic reaction on the contrary , has stifled artistic creation with a totalitarian hand. The official art of the Soviet Union- and there is no other over there -resembles totalitarian justice , that is to say it is based on lies and deceit”. . ” In August 1938 Partisan Review published under the title art and politics a letter that Trotsky had sent to the magazine. this letter was both a fierce attack on Stalinism’s totalitarian conception of art (Socialist Realism) and a paen to independent Art”. .
Meyer Schapiro a leading art Historian at the time and a Marxist who supported Trotsky’s positions was unlike Clement Greenberg who at the first opportunity deserted Marxism for the safe life of a Bourgeois academic. ” Meyer Schapiro maintained that all art even abstract art is rooted in the conditions under which it is produced. he abstract artist according to Schapiro works under the illusion of freedom and does not understand the complexity of the situation”. . Guilbault continues ” But what we can say is that it was the first sign of a breach in the communist wall that would later be widened by Breton and Trotsky in 1938, Greenberg in 1939 and Robert Motherwell in 1944″. (Motherwell was the second string of Abstract Expressionists who appeared later in the epoch).
” Schapiro’s article was the first sign of a thaw in the frozen opposition between idealist formation and Socialist Realism”. .
From 1936-1939 there were intense political confrontations including the Civil war in Spain , The Moscow trials , and the Stalin-Hitler Pact. These issues divided a number of artists as Stalinist fellow travellers or committed Anti Stalinist and Trotskyists.” The period of 1936-9 was one of intense political analysis during which many intellectuals formulated their position between the Moscow trials and the signing of the Russo-German pact the importance of the Trotskyite movement grew”. .
Guilbault recognises Trotsky’s support for free Revolutionary art which is opposed to the official Stalinist art in the Soviet Union.” The first battle that the artist must wage was the battle against the False prophet of the Russian Revolution now in power in the soviet Union. The artist Trotsky said must take a stand on this issue”. .
The Manifesto towards a Free Revolutionary art published by Andre Breton and Diego Riveria (A member of the Mexican Communist Party but sympathetic to Trotsky , Riveria and his Wife Frida Kalho both members of the Mexican CP were Mexican Muralists who provided Trotsky and his Wife Natalia Sedova with a villa in Mexico when they were forced to leave Turkey and seek exile in Mexico because of Stalinist provocation). ” The Totalitarian regime of the USSR working through the so called cultural organisations it controls in other countries has spread over the entire world a deep twilight hostile to every sort of spiritual value. The communist revolution is not afraid of art.It realises that the role of the artist in a decadent capitalist society is determined by the conflict between the individual and various social forms which are hostile to him”. .
Guilbault is very perceptive in noticing the drift of Clement Greenberg to a fundamentally bourgeois position in his critical writings. He now becomes the spokesman of the American Ruling class in cultural matters. ” But Greenberg lacked their Revolutionary optimism. Though independent of political parties the artist they felt should not be independent of politics( CF SOVIET CONSTRUCTIVISM) . The revolutionary power of a painter depended precisely on his critical political consciousness. More pessimistic Greenberg dismissed (Trotskyists) in favour of a unique solution ‘ The Modernist Avant-Garde”..
” Although he continued to use certain elements of Marxist analysis and cling to a Marxist Vocabulary Greenberg was in fact laying the theoretical foundations for an elitist Modernist position”. .
Guilbault now continues to consider the importance of Meyer Schapiro as a Marxist Art Historian up to and including the war years.
” A dissident group characterised as Trotskyist formed around Meyer Schapiro. this group had already been critical of the organisation for several months( Referring to the American Artists Congress) charging that the Congress had followed a Stalinist Line and manipulated the majority of artists for political reasons”. . ” For Schapiro and his allies it was important to distance themselves from an organisation that was linked not only to the Stalinists but to the social aesthetics of the Popular front”. .
Finally Guilbault wanted to show that Meyer Schapiro had a close Affinity with Andre Breton Leon Trotsky and Diego Riveria. ” The Position of the Schapiro group was based largely on the Breton/Trotsky position of 1938″. .
I have now concluded my first part of my review of Serge Guilbault’s exploration of Post war and Pre war politics involved in the new American Avant Garde. Guilbault has raised a number of important issues , identifying the battle between Stalinism and Trotskyism. In Part 2 I will explore further how this Abstract Expressionism impacted on artists as well as Critics like Meyer Schapiro and Clement Greenberg.
1) HOW NEW YORK STOLE THE IDEA OF MODERN ART SERGE GUILBAULT PG.3
2) DITTO PG 10
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9) ART AND REVOLUTION LEON TROTSKY PGS. 111-113
10) HOW NEW YORK STOLE THE IDEA OF MODERN ART SERGE GUILBAULT PG.24
12) HOW NEW YORK STOLE THE IDEA OF MODERN ART SERGE GUILBAULT PG. 25
13) DITTO PG.25-6.
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17) ART AND REVOLUTION LEON TROTSKY PG. 125-6
18) HOW NEW YORK STOLE THE IDEA OF MODERN ART . SERGE GUILBAULT. PG. 34
19) DITTO PG.35-6
20) DITTO PG. 39
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22) DITTO PG. 40-41.