Worldview in Painting-Art and Society

Article excerpt


Worldview in Painting-Art and Society

New York: George Braziller, 1999. 256 pp.; 26 b/w ills. $30

This collection of essays includes two discussions of "Philosophy in Painting" and various accounts, some dating as far back as the 1930s, of art and society. Meyer Schapiro discusses the social functions of art, the future of the arts, the profession of the artist, and the responsibility of the artist. The essays on painting and philosophy provide an erudite and exotic perspective on issues recently much analyzed by Jacques Derrida and his commentators. Both philosophy and painting, Schapiro argues, give us truths about the world. His political commentaries reveal much about American leftist politics of the 1930s and 1940s. He illuminatingly discusses familiar writers, and he also cites many figures unknown to me. When, as in his luminous three-page discussion of Camille Corot, he turns to visual art, the precision of his carefully crafted prose is amazing. His beautiful one-and-a-half page description of the institution of walking, full of humor and boundless erudition, contains as many insightful observations as some academic treatises. Going for a walk, he observes, is both "part of a complex of personal activity" and "depends upon social institutions" (p. 148). The analysis of this form of behavior, he shows, can by analogy reveal much about how "the individualism of modern art" also is "the fruit of a certain mode of social relationship" (p. 149).

By a philosopher's worldview, Schapiro means "a conception of things that he encounters and knows, close to his own being and thoughts, or problems or ideas for his reflections-in the same sense that a painter representing his experiences and emotions has a worldview" (p. 76). The Germanic term "worldview" is slightly archaic, and so its presence in his title perhaps usefully conveys the period style of some of Schapiro's concerns. What gives integrity to his thought is his ability to consider a variety of perspectives, identifying the virtues of even those worldviews that he finds politically unacceptable or aesthetically unilluminating. Alois Riegl's book on Dutch group portraits, he noted in 1943, though it contains absurd remarks about modern political history, "should be translated into English" (p. 241). Schapiro is even capable of being oddly self-effacing. "I think I've talked too much already," he writes near the end of his lecture "Cezanne and the Philosophers" (1977), "and have not yet solved any problem" (p. 102). Perhaps, then, the real point is that the relationship between Cezanne and philosophy can never be definitively identified. For Schapiro, talk itself has its own pleasures.

The brief preface by Schapiro's widow, Lillian Milgram Schapiro, says little about the context of these essays or the ways in which his thought developed. Nor does she explain why these particular essays were selected for republication. We are given only the dates of the essays and some notes about revisions made later. And so one naturally wonders whether elsewhere, in other perhaps unpublished materials, Schapiro dealt with these themes. Since "the decade from 1910 to 1920," he wrote in 1948, "there seem to have been no revolutions in art" (p. 143). This is a most unexpected observation coming from a great friend of some Surrealists and many of the Abstract Expressionists. There is no discussion in these writings of how Schapiro responded to the failures of socialism or to the changing styles of art making after Abstract Expressionism. Nor does he say anything about Jewishness. I was a little surprised to find no development of the argument of his well-known essay on Bernard Berenson. Schapiro was an art lover who believed that art could convey moral values. He rejects the social thinking of his colleague the physicist I. I. Rabi, who shows "signs of philistinism, narrowness, crude conformity, and self satisfaction; I have never known him to speak out against ugliness or injustice" (p. …