Trotskyism and the Abstract Expressionists

This is the first in a series of posts that were inspired by recent threads on LBO-talk about politics and art, and music in particular. I have been preoccupied with these questions for as long as I have been a socialist, since I considered myself an aspiring writer long before I took a detour down the revolutionary road. As an undergraduate, I studied writing with Robert Kelly, a major New York poet closely associated with the beats and the Black Mountain school, and would have pursued a writing career if the Vietnam war had not so rudely interrupted.

When I first encountered Marxism at the cafeteria tables of the New School in the Fall of 1965, the first question I raised was "Why does the Soviet government dictate to artists what they should paint or write?" This was a much more important matter to me than who started the Vietnam war or why it started. I didn't realize at the time how political and aesthetic questions overlapped in the cold war, which shaped my thinking as a youth.

It was only when I came across Serge Guilbaut's "How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom and the Cold War" (U. of Chicago, 1983) that I finally understood how experimental art and American imperialism became the oddest of bedfellows. What was particularly revealing was the fact that abstract expressionism--the paradigm of experimentalism--had a close association with the Trotskyist movement, where I had spent 11 years of my life. It started out as a challenge to the status-quo and ended up as one of its pillars.

Experimental art, like Trotskyism itself, was a minority current in the 1930s. They were both reactions to Communist politics and culture. Against "socialism in one country," Trotskyism posited world revolution. Against "socialist realism" or the "proletarian novel," artists and intellectuals friendly to Trotskyism posited surrealism or novels like "Studs Lonigan," which depicted working-class life in unsentimental terms. Trotsky made his opposition to art as propaganda clear when he praised Céline's "Journey to the End of Night" as "great literature." As a weary bourgeois figure, Céline was "so disgusted by his own image that he smashes the glass until his hands bleed." Shortly after this review was written, Céline became a supporter of Hitler.

The Communist Parties did not really make much of a point in defining artistic standards until the Popular Front was unleashed in 1935. In response to the Kremlin's shift toward alliances with the "progressive bourgeoisie," artists and writers tried to find ways to engage with their own national traditions. This meant that regionalism became much more pronounced, as writers such as Meridel Le Sueur took the proletarian northern plains as her subject matter while WPA photographers or muralists produced one portrait after another of the heroic, long-suffering masses. All of these radicals and artists pinned their hopes on FDR, who was not only fighting to end the depression, making friends with the Soviet Union, but allocating funds for Popular Front artists as well.

The Trotskyists found all this unconvincing. George Novack, an SWP leader and house intellectual, remarked that Sinclair Lewis was no longer a petty-bourgeois anti-Communist in Popular Front circles, but a literary hero, all on the basis of some earnestly liberal fiction. James T. Farrell, who had applied for SWP membership, was scathing. The Popular Front cultural milieu consisted of "hastily enlisted commercial writers, high priced Hollywood scenarists, a motley assortment of mystery plot mechanics, humorists, newspaper columnists, strip teasers, band leaders, glamour girls, actors' press agents, Broadway producers, aging wives with thwarted literary ambitions, and other such ornaments of American culture."

Two years later, in 1937, Novack joined with co-editors James Burnham, Lewis Corey (Fraina), Louis M. Hacker, Sidney Hook and Meyer Schapiro and launched "Marxist Quarterly" to challenge the Popular Front on politics and art alike. Schapiro was a highly respected art historian and professor at Columbia University who was almost single-handedly responsible for educating American society about the importance of abstract art. (Schapiro died several years ago in his nineties. He was an enormous influence on young radicals at Columbia University, including Whittaker Chambers. According to Sam Tannenhouse, author of the best-selling biography of the cold warrior Chambers joined the CPUSA, because it seemed like the only practical option for a revolutionary at the time, while harboring Trotskyist-influenced doubts about the party.)

Schapiro was feeling pessimistic about revolutionary politics in 1937 in light of Hitler's rise to power, Franco's apparent victory in Spain, and Stalin's absolute rule in the USSR. So when he argued in "Nature of Abstract Art" that the artist was cut off from all revolutionary hope, nobody felt the need to expel him from "Marxist Quarterly" or ostracize him. Deflationary moods were infecting the intelligentsia across the board in this period, including hard-core Trotskyists. What Schapiro did feel optimistic about was the power of abstract art to define some space for individual radical protest. Guilbaut writes:

"The abstract artist, according to Schapiro, works under the illusion of freedom and does not understand the complexity of his situation or the tenuousness of his position, hence he does not grasp the full implications of his work. By attacking abstract art in this way, by demolishing the artist's illusion of independence vis-a-vis outside powers while at the same time giving prominence to the relations between abstract art and the society in which it is produced, Schapiro implied that the significance of abstraction was greater than the formalists allowed."

This rather ambivalent formulation played to both the left wing and to a cultural milieu that was beginning to migrate rightward. The left wing interpreted it as a critique of the "formalist" illusions of abstract artists, while such artists who had ties to the radical movement could interpret Schapiro's remarks as a license to use abstraction as an end in itself.

Another important venue for the Trotskyist / avant-garde alliance was the Partisan Review. Diego Rivera, a close collaborator of Leon Trotsky, and André Breton co-authored a manifesto in 1938 titled "Towards a Free Revolutionary Art," which declared that all "true art" was revolutionary. Mostly what they were opposed to was state interference with the arts, whether Stalinist or fascist. In addition, Breton was opposed to anything that smacked of "nationalism," which was an important component of Popular Front culture. He wrote in Clé magazine that:

"art has no more father land than the workers. To advocate today a return to 'French art,' as not only the fascists but even the Stalinists do, is to oppose the maintenance of that close link necessary to art, to work for division and lack of understanding among peoples. It is to produce a premeditated example of historical regression."

Clement Greenberg, an art critic who was temporarily allied with the Trotskyist movement, used the pages of Partisan Review to air ideas that would facilitate the drift from left-wing politics to apolitical experimentalism. His "Avant-Garde and Kitsch" was a general assault on the Popular Front aesthetic, but lacked the revolutionary fervor of Rivera and Breton's manifesto. Greenberg analyzes the decline of high culture in terms of bourgeois exhaustion and decadence, something I quite agree with and will have more to say about in a subsequent post.

Greenberg targets "kitsch" in this essay, which is "vicarious experience and faked sensations." This "kitsch" is quintessentially American, and I will return to it when I post about the Popular Front culture per se. It is the stuff of John Steinbeck novels, Broadway musicals and nearly all Hollywood movies. Against "kitsch," Greenberg promotes avant-garde culture, which while being a creature of the bourgeoisie, becomes a tool of its own destruction, like the proletariat of the Communist Manifesto. He writes:

"Capitalism in decline finds that whatever of quality it is still capable of producing becomes almost invariably a threat to its own existence. Advances in culture no less than advances in science and industry corrode the very society under whose aegis they are made possible."

Capitalism creates its own grave-diggers. In this case, it is not the factory worker but the abstract expressionist canvas.

When WWII begins, the political and cultural terrain goes through a profound shift. As the CPUSA has steadily decreased its own visibility--to the point of considering dissolving itself into the Democratic Party--, this gives the bourgeoisie more and more of an opening to promote its own agenda. Though subtly, the ruling class begins to pull back from New Deal liberalism and subordinates everything to the fight with its imperialist rivals. The political needs of such a fight involve a new internationalism, since this war was presumably the product of virulent nationalisms based in Berlin, Rome and Tokyo.

Consequently, the quaint regionalism and nationalism of the Popular Front begins to subside as a new cultural voice emerges that is more tuned to the internationalist agenda. Abstract expressionism would play an important role in this turn, since its content could never be construed as an endorsement of American nationalism, let alone any other social or political theme. One of the most farsighted of the left-wing art critics, who both anticipated and welcomed this shift was George Kootz. He began to promote the abstract expressionists both as apostles of internationalism, and--interestingly--at the same time as proponents of a new American culture. His insights earned him a top spot at the Museum of Modern Art, where he began to organize shows for these artists, some of whom shared his Trotskyist connections or affiliations.

One of these artists was Barnett Newman, who had been part of the culture wars around the Partisan Review. When the Metropolitan Museum of Art promoted a Communist Party-inspired Artists for Victory show in 1943, Newman retaliated with a modernist show at the Riverside Museum. The Met was filled with regionalist and socialist realist art, while Newman included many of the young lions who had adopted the abstract expressionist medium. Guilbaut is especially acute in summarizing Newman's goals:

"Newman's catalog was not only a critique of the socialist realist academicism supported by the Metropolitan Museum but also an urgent appeal for the creation of an art more representative of the new world that was being born before the old world's very eyes in the midst of World War II's devastation.

"Newman's text was also a sign that a major change had taken place in Trotskyism, which had been so popular in 1940. It is true that the majority of artists in the rebel group as well as the federation had been loosely allied with Trotskyism, but certain basic ideas had been lost along the way. The accent was still placed on the artist's independence, but now, if the artist wished to represent the new America, he must cast aside his 'outmoded politics.' The new culture would be apolitical. In the case in point this apoliticism may seem rather strange, since the show about which Newman was writing was intended as a protest against the Artists for Victory show, which according to Newman was infiltrated by the Communists. In Newman's mind the artist had to reject politics before he could move on to modernism. Using some of Trotsky's ideas but eliminating the political commitment associated with them, Newman depicted the revolutionary as the ally of formalism. Furthermore, by insisting on internationalism, Newman was now aligning himself with the majority of the public as well as with the government, for as we saw a moment ago there was now substantial support for a vaguely international line. Thus in 1943, the rebel artists became, in spite of themselves perhaps, the spokesmen for the new, liberal America. As a result, their criticisms of society, constantly repeated in letter after letter and pamphlet after pamphlet, lost their bite and became one part of a strategy typical of avant-garde movements."

Newman soon joined with Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb, two other abstract expressionist artists who once had ties to the Trotskyist movement, in deepening the crusade against 1930s "message" paintings. Their goal was, according to a 1943 statement, to use art as "an adventure into a unknown world, which can be explored only by those willing to take risks." They anticipate that their works would "insult anybody who is spiritually attuned to interior decoration; pictures of the home; pictures over the mantle; pictures of the American scene; social pictures; purity in art; prize-winning potboilers; the National Academy; the Corn Belt Academy; buckeyes, trite tripe, etc."

Many of these artists cemented their ties to the powerful museum world through Robert Motherwell, who had connections to the boards through his father, a director of the Wells Fargo Bank, and to Trotskyism through Meyer Schapiro, his professor at Columbia University. Newman and Motherwell introduced a number of these Trotskyist abstract expressionists to Peggy Guggenheim, who would play an important role in launching the American avant-garde.

The final thing to consider is how this avant-garde ended up as a pillar of post-WWII anti-Communist consensus. To begin with, it is necessary to understand that the abstract expressionists were promoted as a symbol of the vigor and creativity of American capitalism. Their raw energy was counterpoised to the feeble and decadent older forms of European avant-garde art, as well as the "socialist realist" competition at home.

The final step was to make the political and cultural identification complete by dropping any vestigial ties to the Trotskyist movement. Ironically, it was the Partisan Review which undertook this task. In a 1948 issue, ex-Trotskyists Clement Greenberg and Leslie Fiedler called for a complete breach between art and politics. They thought that the biggest threat to the artist was not the permissive US capitalist state, but the Soviets. Hence, artists must be fiercely anti-Communist.

It was left to New Dealer Arthur Schlesinger Jr. to tie together the artistic avant-garde and Washington. In his "Vital Center," written in 1948, he takes the opportunity of Henry Wallace's crushing electoral defeat to inaugurate a totally new relationship between politics and culture. In some ways, Wallace's defeat symbolizes the end of the 1930s. Schlesinger's book outlines a new assault on the Soviet Union as well as calling for an art that could show up the lack of freedom in that country. The absence of abstract expressionism in the USSR was a dead giveaway that the US was superior.

Taking this cue, the American government launched an Information and Cultural Program in 1948 to promote the reputation of American art. Meanwhile, mainstream and specialist magazines were both celebrating the greatness of the new American art. In one such mainstream magazine, The Saturday Review, critic James T. Soby declared that the avant-garde had found a great general to command their troops. His name was Jackson Pollock.

At a time of growing reaction and personal attacks on political freedom, America justified itself before the world by virtue of its rebel artists. The 1950s were about sending the Rosenbergs to the electric chair, who left behind them an apartment full of 1930s "kitsch," from Ben Shahn drawings to Paul Robeson records. The 1950s were also about the meteoric rise of Jackson Pollock. In my next post I will review the Jackson Pollock and Ben Shahn exhibitions, which are appearing at the MOMA and the Jewish Museum respectively.