The Individual Nuisance

A single sentence sufficed to seal my veneration for Harold Rosenberg. It comes in the midst of the bravura conclusion of “The Intellectual and His Future,” an essay from 1965. “One does not possess mental freedom and detachment,” it reads, “one participates in them.” Here was a dictum worthy of adoption as a creed. “Intellectual” is not a title, an honorific, or a job description. It is a daily aspiration. Rosenberg is remembered, if he is remembered at all, as one of the leading American art critics of the twentieth century, the coiner of the term “action painting” to describe the work of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and other Abstract Expressionists, and it was for that reason, several years ago, that I turned to his work. What I discovered was not an art critic but a full-spectrum intellectual who thought about art. He also thought about poetry, politics, theater, fiction, society, sociology, Marx, Marxism, Judaism, the media, and the nature of the intellectual himself.  And he did it all better than just about anyone I had ever encountered. He was Trilling without the solemnity, Kazin with a wider, more ironic mind (to name two earlier infatuations among the New York intellectuals). His point of view was comic in the deepest sense. An outsider by temperament as well as conviction, he looked at everything from the outside, accepting nothing — no movement, no figure, no social fiction, no educated formula — at its own estimation. His most potent rhetorical weapon was satire — the whiff of caricature, the gust of common sense. “Far from being goaded to their parts by police agents hidden in the wings”—this in reference to the vogue of self-confession among postwar ex-radicals — “the guilty here had to force their way onto the stage. [Whitaker] Chambers himself,

Already have an account? Log in

Want to keep reading? Join our community:


Support great writing by becoming a full subscriber to Liberties Journal.

Subscribe Today

Free Preview

Sign up with your email address, and access two free articles per month.

We hope you've enjoyed your free articles!

Become a full subscriber for only $50/year, (33% off cover price).

Thank you for supporting great writing.

Subscribe Today
Log In Subscribe

Sign Up For Free

Read 2 free articles a month after you register below.

Register now