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, that witness of witnesses…describes how close he came to breaking under the ordeal of getting the notice of people whose vital interests he was determined to defend.” But Rosenberg wasn’t merely a debunker. He believed in things: in art, in the struggle to come to terms with reality, in the individual. He was skeptical of “thought,” but he believed in thinking.
Other intellectuals saw through collective illusions. Rosenberg saw through the illusions of other intellectuals. The criticism of kitsch art or popular culture, a highbrow hobby in the new age of mass entertainment, was nothing, he wrote, but another form of kitsch — kitsch ideas. “There is only one way to quarantine kitsch: by being too busy with art.” Notions of the “other-directed” “organization man,” promulgated in the 1950s as descriptions of the new American type (and clichés of thought to this day), were in reality projections, he explains, on the part of the new caste of intellectual placemen who were swarming the postwar bureaucracies. “Today Orgmen reproduce themselves like fruit flies in whatever is organized, whether it be a political party or a museum of advanced art.” As for “alienation,” that great midcentury bugaboo and talking point, not only does Rosenberg not deplore it, he sees it as a virtue, a failure “to participate emotionally and intellectually in the fictions and conventions of mass culture.”
He was fearless in the face of reputation. T.S. Eliot (then at his zenith), having made an idol of “tradition,” had led American poetry into a cul-de-sac of academicism. 1984, all but sacred at the time, was marked by “frigid rationality and paranoiacally lifeless prose.” Auden and Spender, darlings of the cultural left for their politically “responsible” poetry, avoided responsibility for individual experience and social reflection alike. “When I first encountered the gravity of Lionel Trilling,” Rosenberg writes, “I did not get the joke; it took some time to realize that there wasn’t any.”
Upon his death in 1978, Hilton Kramer, the chief art critic of the New York Times and himself a prominent figure in intellectual New York, eulogized him as “the quintessential New York intellectual.” For the essayist Seymour Krim, reflecting on the same occasion, Rosenberg had been the most intelligent critic writing in English. As for his physical presence, Krim reported, “Harold looked and shone like the Lion of Judah. He was about 6’4,” a really heroic-looking prince among the bookish intellectuals…a sort of matinee idol of the intellectual underground” who had passed “a lot of lean years bucking all the Establishments.” His passing, Krim observed, “sweeps a period with it.”
Harold Rosenberg was born in Brooklyn in 1906. He spent a year at City College, then three at Brooklyn Law School, but he would later say that he’d received his education on the steps of the New York Public Library. After graduation, he plunged into Village bohemia, befriending artists (de Kooning was an early and crucial encounter) and inheriting the twin legacies of the New York intellectuals: Marxism and modernism. He joined the League of American Writers, a radical organization, wrote for New Masses and Art Front, and dreamed of becoming a poet. (A small volume, Trance Above the Streets, appeared in 1942.) During the Depression, he kept himself afloat by writing for the WPA, moving to Washington in 1938 to become the art editor of its American Guide Series, then staying after Pearl Harbor to work for the Office of War Information.
After the war, and back in New York, Rosenberg became a stalwart of the little magazines: Commentary, Encounter, Dissent, and, of course, Partisan Review. He found an apartment on Tenth Street, a rotting Village block that sheltered tramps, a poolroom, and a collection of obscure American painters who were in the process of transforming art. “The Herd of Independent Minds,” an essay whose title became a catchphrase, appeared in 1948; “The American Action Painters,” which birthed another, in 1952. His first collection, The Tradition of the New (its title soon a third), appeared in 1959. Within a few years, he was lecturing at Princeton and writing for Esquire, Vogue, and the New Yorker. “The beggarly Jewish radicals of the 30s,” Kazin wrote in 1963, “are now the ruling cultural pundits of American society.”
Eight more collections would follow in the space of fourteen years (the most important is Discovering the Present, which, with The Tradition of the New, contains his finest work). In 1966 (he was already sixty), Rosenberg became a member of the University of Chicago’s exalted Committee on Social Thought, and, the following year, art critic for the New Yorker, positions that he held until his death. (Most of the later collections consist of pieces from the magazine.) The bucker of Establishments had stormed them, but he never relinquished his outsider stance. American society, he wrote in “The Intellectual and His Future,” is replete with obstacles to independent thought, including institutional ones. “The intellectual, however, is adept at finding the cracks in society through which to crawl around the obstacles, whether he eludes them in the university, on a park bench, or in an insurance office.”
Marxism and modernism. From Marx, Rosenberg acquired a sensitivity to history — above all, to historical action, or more precisely, historical acting. A touchstone was The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, the work in which Marx famously declares that everything in history happens twice, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Louis Bonaparte assumes the costume of Napoleon and dubs himself Napoleon III. “Luther donned the mask,” Marx writes, “of the Apostle Paul.” Rosenberg develops the idea: those who wish to seize control of history — political figures, revolutionaries — invariably cast themselves as reenactors of a prior revolution. History becomes a play, with roles, scripts, sets, and above all, a plot — a predetermined outcome, guided by a self-appointed hero.
For Marx, the final hero would be a collective one, the proletariat, who would free humanity from history, its nightmare repetitions, by dispensing with historical make-believe and acting in the sober consciousness of actual conditions. But “one hundred years after…the publication of The Communist Manifesto,” Rosenberg writes in 1948, “the simplification of history has not been brought about.” Instead, the players of the nineteenth century have been replaced by a new and more malevolent form of farceur:
The heroes of our time [Hitler, Stalin, de Gaulle] belong to contrived rather than spontaneous myths — on that account often evoking even more fanaticism than formerly as a psychological protection against disbelief…
The comic nature of the twentieth-century hero is instinctively recognized the moment he makes his entrance upon the stage: in the popular phrase, “At first nobody took him seriously.” The clown-hero retaliates to the ridicule of the world by exposing the lack of seriousness of the rest of the cast, of all the existing historical actors. The leader without a program challenges all opposing classes, parties, governments, individuals, to live up to their programs. And since all are playing a comedy of pretense, “the adventurer who took the comedy as plain comedy was bound to win.”
The notion of politics as theater remained salient for Rosenberg throughout his career — more and more so, indeed, as the media tightened its grip and political events became performances contrived to hold its interest. For the most part, however, he turned the metaphors of drama — role, action, mask — in a different direction. For it was not only the statesman or revolutionary who aspired to play a part, in his conception; it was, of necessity, every modern person. To be modern is to be cut off from the past, from the traditions that told you who you are and where you belong. “Since he is not bound to anything given,” Rosenberg writes, modern man “is capable of playing countless roles” — the many roles that society offers him — “but only as an actor,” aware of his disguise. Not content to be an actor, though, “he takes up the slack between himself and social reality,” between ego and role — who he feels himself to be and who he appears as to others — “by creating illusory selves,” fantasy projections of (as we would say today) a “real me.” But, like Louis Bonaparte, he copies those selves from available models: “Socrates, for example, or Christ, or some revolutionist clothed in the glamour of the times” (one thinks of Che Guevara, Johnny Rotten, Kurt Cobain, each with their legions of imitators). “Members of every class surrender themselves to artificially constructed mass egos.”
But modernism demonstrated an alternative. Social roles, prefabricated selves, conformity, illusion: all these could be resisted. The problem of the modern self — the problem of identity — remained. The solution was to treat it as a problem. Rosenberg’s artistic heroes made the search for self — the effort to create a self — the content of their practice and the subject of their art. Before they were painters, however, those heroes were poets (poetry, remember, was his youthful aspiration): Rimbaud, Mallarmé, and Valéry, the leading French Symbolists, together with their predecessors, Poe and Baudelaire. “I is another,” said Rimbaud, and, as Rosenberg explains the process in an early essay, those figures sought, through programs of spiritual experimentation enacted in verse, to conjure up that other.
“Whoever undertakes to create soon finds himself engaged in creating himself,” Rosenberg would later write, and he found his greatest self-creators in the artists whom he dubbed the action painters: Pollock, de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Philip Guston, with Hans Hoffman and Arshile Gorky as important precursors. Rosenberg did not evince much interest in what he referred to as “formal modernism, or modernist formalism,” the run of work from the Impressionists through the early twentieth century (Manet, Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse). Formal exploration never engaged him as such. Rosenberg tunes in when art confronts the modern crisis, when art itself becomes a crisis. That is to say, with World War I, with Dada and Surrealism. By 1914, he writes, the formal tradition was moribund. The art that followed, which he called “modern modern art,” “arises from the conviction that the forms of Western culture…have permanently collapsed.” Dada declared “that anything can be art”; Surrealism, that “poetry is the substance of painting.” Both were forms of anti-art, and both turned art in the direction of philosophy, psychology, politics, and metaphysics.
Those developments were slow to register on this side of the Atlantic. The 1930s were, in any case, a time when art was flattened underneath the dictates of leftist political orthodoxy. But in the 1940s painting started over, as it were, in the United States. In “Parable of American Painting,” the piece with which he chose to start his first collection, Rosenberg, thinking of the War of Independence — when files of British infantry were picked off from behind the trees by scruffy colonials — distinguishes between “Redcoats” and “Coonskins.” The Redcoats fall because they think they’re still in England, fighting on the rolling greenswards, instead of looking at the landscape that is actually in front of them. They are victims of style: they see what they’ve been taught to see. The Coonskin starts with where he is and tries to act accordingly. “Coonskinism is the search for the principle that applies, even if it applies only once.” Whitman was a Coonskin. “What have I?” he said. “I have all to make.”
Until the 1940s, Rosenberg explains, the great majority of American painters were Redcoats, projecting European styles onto American landscapes and streets. But the action painters
had absorbed the “modern modern” point: there were no styles anymore — none with any force or claim. They needed to begin from the beginning. At the same time, though, they “shared…the intuition that there is nothing worth painting. No object, but also no idea.” All that was left was the self, which they couldn’t so much paint as paint into existence. Action, says Rosenberg, of any kind, “embodies decisions in which one comes to recognize oneself.” The action painter starts with no design or expectation, no subject or thought. He makes a mark — a stroke, a drip — and the action begins. Each mark begets the next within a kind of dance. The artist thinks in paint, with his eyes and his hand. The canvas talks back, “to provoke him into a dramatic dialogue. Each stroke ha[s] to be a decision and [i]s answered by a new question.”
Rosenberg was fond of pointing out that many of the action painters were immigrants, people for whom the question of identity was especially urgent. (Pollock was an immigrant from Wyoming.) Nor was it an accident, he thought, that the movement arose in America, that land of immigrants, transients, and strangers, and in “a century of displaced persons, of people moving from one class into another, from one national context into another.” Still, while the action painter lands upon the shore of each new canvas free of preconceptions or intentions, like the immigrant he does not land there free of the past. That past consists of everything he has seen, especially art. The modern modern artist “picks his way among the bits and pieces of the cultural heritage and puts together whatever seems capable of carrying a meaning.” The action painter, in particular, “starts an action and observes what kind of image it will magnetize out of the formal accretions piled up in his mind.” Tradition, like paint, becomes something to think with.
A painting so produced, says Rosenberg, is not an object but an event. It is a “fragment,” a “sketch,” not a whole so much as “a succession of wholes” (de Kooning’s famous Woman I, he tells us, was “repainted daily for almost two years”), one whose end, the point at which the artist steps away for good, is as arbitrary as its beginning. “And after an interval,” in “a civilization in which the cultures of all times and places are being blended and destroyed,” these wholes perforce disintegrate. In modernity, says Rosenberg, there are no masterpieces, objects that endure — not for any dearth of creative energy, but because the conditions, the stable traditions, no longer exist. Indeed, as they circulate through reproductions in books and magazines, in the discourse of critics, journalists, and art historians, as they are taken up and set aside by curators, spectators, and artists themselves, as they lose or pick up speed and spin in their “passage through the social orbit,” the masterpieces of the past are also now events. “The Mona Lisa arrives from Paris and is greeted at the dock like a movie star.” “All that is solid melts into air,” wrote Marx. “All that is holy is profaned.”
“To be a new man,” says Rosenberg, “is not a condition but an effort.” (“One does not possess mental freedom and detachment, one participates in them.”) Coonskins can turn into Redcoats, if they let themselves become a style — in fact, it happens more often than not. Just the initial breakthrough into newness can require an endeavor of years. “The American…who searched for genuine art has been fated to spend half his life in blind alleys,” Rosenberg writes. “Often it required a second ‘birth’ to get him out of them. One thinks of the radical break in the careers of Rothko, Guston, Gottlieb, Kline” — or of that archetypal Coonskin, Whitman. The artists whom Rosenberg most esteemed were two for whom no question was ever settled, no label was ever sufficient, one-man avant-gardes who sustained their radicalism across a span of decades: his old friend de Kooning, “the foremost painter of the postwar world,” and Saul Steinberg, a figure about whom the art world could never decide if he even counted as an artist.
They and other artists are the model individuals, in Rosenberg’s conception; they show us what it means and what it takes to be one. And the individual, even more than art, was for Rosenberg the highest value. Not individualism, in the sense of libertarian conservatism, or of thinking that people are not conditioned by their social context — he took leave of Marxism, but he didn’t take leave of his senses — but the individual: the person who thinks for himself, who acts on his own responsibility, who stubbornly insists upon his separate-ness and independence.
That figure, he believed, was everywhere under assault. First, in his early years, by Marxism, or by what it had turned into, Leninism. In Leninism, the Party supplants the proletariat as the hero of history. And the Party, with the omniscience granted it by the infallible methods of dialectical materialism and the sacred texts of Marx and Lenin, is in absolute possession of the truth. The Communist, says Rosenberg, is thus “an intellectual who need not think.” The rest of society, as in other orthodoxies, is divided into two groups: the sheep and the wolves, the simple folk who know not and the evil ones who know incorrectly. To the sheep, the uninitiated, the Communist adopts a benignly pedagogical stance, one composed in equal parts of tolerance and smugness. In Lenin’s words, he patiently explains. But to the wolf, the independent intellectual, the individual who dares to challenge the Party’s monopoly on understanding, the Communist is ruthless. Such a person must be canceled, and since at stake is nothing less than the salvation of humanity, any means to do so is acceptable.
After the war, the assault on the individual came from other directions. In one lay not Communists but ex-Communists, ex-radicals and former fellow travelers. Here began that vogue for self-confession — “Couch Liberalism,” Rosenberg called it, meaning the analyst’s couch — of which Whittaker Chambers (“St. John of the Couch”) was the great exemplar. In The End of Innocence, the critic Leslie Fiedler went so far, to Rosenberg’s disgust, as to indict the anti-Communist intellectual, to indict all intellectuals, for the sin of merely being intellectuals, for thinking and sounding like intellectuals and thereby separating themselves from “the Community,” that idol of the 1950s. Rosenberg viewed with dismay (and sardonic amusement) the new generational style — “The Solid Look,” the Brooks Brothers suit, the ideology of “babies, God, and job” — especially as it was taking hold among the younger intellectuals. For society had discovered that intellectuals were useful — in government, in universities, in public relations and advertising firms — provided they agreed to stop being intellectuals. Which most of them happily did. Having donned the mask of the Organization Man, “the gentlemen of the Left” became “hysterically antipathetic to whatever possessed its own physiognomy. The outstanding figures in modern art and literature were abused as ‘mere individualists’ unable to ‘solve the problem of our time,’” and in the Cold War context, “’the end of innocence’ meant, basically, an abusive goodbye to Karl Marx by shivering jobholders.”
What bothered Rosenberg as much as anything about this trahison des clercs was its insistence on using the first-person plural. Fiedler was pointing his finger not at himself but at “us.” Already by the late 1940s, writers such as Trilling and Edmund Wilson were stepping forward to interpret the “Communist experience” of the 1930s — to speak, that is, for Rosenberg’s entire generation. Rosenberg, who never spoke for anybody but himself, refused to be enlisted. There are common situations, he said, but there is no common experience. Every person’s is their own. His, for example, besides “’the thirties,’” contained “all sorts of anachronisms and cultural fragments: the Old Testament and the Gospels, Plato, eighteenth-century music, the notion of freedom as taught in the New York City school system, the fantastic emotional residues of the Jewish family.” For individual experience, he said, “it is necessary to begin with the individual…one will not arrive at it by reflecting oneself in a ‘we.’”
The argument occurs in “The Herd of Independent Minds,” his great essay from 1948. The point of the title is not that the liberal elite is afflicted by groupthink (which is not to say that it isn’t) but that it thinks of itself as a group. Mass culture, Rosenberg says, is predicated on the idea that everyone is alike, and it makes us over in its image, so that we come to see ourselves as alike. But there is also such a thing, he says, as “anti-mass-culture mass culture,” the mass culture of the elite: “’significant’ novels,” “’highbrow’ radio programs,” “magazines designed for college professors” — the culture of “seriousness” and “social relevance.” Characteristic of all mass culture is “the conviction that the artist ought to communicate the common experience of his audience.” But since there is no common experience, the result is “contrived and unseeing art,” rendered through a set of formulas, “by which the member of the audience learns from the author what he already knows” — “that together with others he is an ex-radical, or a Jew, or feels frustrated, or lives in a postwar world, or prefers freedom to tyranny.”
By the same token, mass culture, including the anti-mass-culture of the educated herd, “must deny the validity of a single human being’s effort to arrive at a consciousness of himself and of his situation” — must be hostile, that is, to genuine art. For “the genuine work of art…takes away from its audience its sense of knowing where it stands in relation to what has happened to it” — takes away, that is, the accepted versions of history, the official accounts of identity. It “suggests to the audience that its situation might be quite different than it had suspected.” It brings us into a truer relationship to reality, but it brings us there, perforce, as individuals. “Along this rocky road to the actual it is only possible to go Indian file, one at a time, so that ‘art’ means ‘breaking up the crowd’ — not ‘reflecting’ its experience.”
But above all, Rosenberg discerned the impulse to negate the individual in the art world itself. The heyday of Abstract Expressionism — the action painters, plus figures such as Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, and Barnett Newman, the movement’s mystical wing, who sought to purify their art into an ultimate transcendent sign — did not outlast the 1950s. AbEx was deposed by Pop art —Warhol, Lichtenstein, Oldenburg — succeeded, or joined, as the 1960s wore on, by Op (“optical”) art, kinetic art, and minimalism and other varieties of formal-ism. All involved for Rosenberg a retreat from the things that he most valued in art. With Pop, he believed, art surrendered to the media; with Op art and kinetic art, to science. Formal-ism — which settled in as art-world orthodoxy, thanks in part to the dictatorial dogmatism of Clement Greenberg, Rosen-berg’s great rival among the midcentury critics — represented a rejection of content as such: of art’s involvement with social, psychological, or spiritual questions, with anything outside itself. Gone in all these trends were the hand and the medium as instruments of discovery, the engagement of the self in the process of creation, the oppositionality and will to social trans-formation of the avant-garde.
Rosenberg viewed these developments — and this was characteristic of his thought across all its dimensions, part of what made him an intellectual who wrote about art rather than merely an art critic — in their historical and social context. After the war, the media itself had elevated both the profile and prestige of modern art. The result was the creation of what Rosenberg referred to as the “Vanguard Audience” — a mass audience for new art (an anti-mass mass, of course) that, priding itself on its sophistication, “could accept the new in its entirety, with all its conflicting assumptions or without any assumptions.” The Vanguard Audience could not be shocked; it enjoyed affront and understood incomprehension. It did not embrace Cubism, or Surrealism, or Abstract Expressionism: it embraced them all indiscriminately. The new itself, in other words, became the highest value, became the only value. The new became a tradition: the tradition of the new, in Rosenberg’s famous phrase, one that was “capable of evoking the automatic responses typical of a handed-down body of beliefs.”
The artists who arrived in the 1950s and 1960s were happy to play to that audience. “Putting on a show developed a stronger appeal than the act of painting carried to a hesitant pause in the privacy of the studio.” As for the audience itself, “after the strain of trying to respond to the riddles of Abstract Expressionism,” “it preferred images taken in at a glance and ‘glamorous’ colors translatable into dress patterns.” Warhol grasped that art, for them, was something not to scrutinize but be “aware of.” Like Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns (artists for whom Rosenberg had little use), he understood that people liked to see things they already knew: Brillo boxes, American flags, the collages of everyday objects that Rauschenberg rebranded as “combines.”
Tending to the Vanguard Audience, as both a cause and a beneficiary of art’s new visibility, was a vastly expanded institutional apparatus: galleries by the hundreds, collectors large and small, arts councils, traveling exhibitions, university departments and museums, “editors, curators, art historians, archivists, biographers, publishers, columnists, TV and radio programmers, photographers, catalogue writers.” The market, newly flush, turned art into a commodity, but the academics and museums turned it into something more insidious: a form of knowledge. A crowd of words surrounded the work: wall texts, exhibition catalogs, monographs, interviews. Never mind trying to feel your way, in silence and stillness, into a spontaneous aesthetic response. Artist, date, “period,” style, authorized interpretation: now you knew. Art was recruited for programs of public education, as the curator displaced the artist at the center of the enterprise. Shows turned into theses that you walk through, with paintings “function[ing] as illustrations to bring out the critical or cultural concept” (for example, “The Nude Through the Ages”). Exhibitions “more and more take on the character of art books, presenting wall-scale duplicates of the publications that will result from them.” Art turned into “culture” — a form of living death.
As art became institutionalized, the artist became a creature of institutions: that is, a professional — respectable, well groomed, a solid citizen. The Abstract Expressionists, the painters of Tenth Street — cranky, alienated, socially marginal, down at the heels — were the last in the line of artistic bohemians that stretched back to the Impressionists. Training in a studio gave way to training at a university, the half-a-life-time’s search in blind alleys to the smoothly ascendant career. The artist “abandon[ed] his shamanistic role, and the rites required to realize it” — Cézanne’s anxiety, Surrealist self-estrangement, de Kooning’s “failure” — all of which posed “an impediment to the good life of professionals,” and to the characteristic goal of professionals, success. As art was drawn into the orbit of the university, its values drifted toward the academic, toward art conceived of as a set of problems and solutions, things you could rationalize, train, and explain — line, plane, form, color. Hence the reign of formalism, and the emergence of the artist “who conceives picture making in terms of technical recipes, but who is entirely ignorant of the role of art in the struggles of the modern spirit.” The avant-garde lived on, but only as a simulacrum of itself, a “socially reconciled avant-garde,” sponsored by the NEA and sustained by “the myth of rebellion.” Revolution, like the new, had become a tradition, and overturned nothing.
To the effacement of the individual in all its forms, Rosen-berg offered no solutions, certainly no systemic ones. His only solution was to be an individual—or rather (“one does not possess…”) to try. This, he believed, is always in our power. “For the individual,” he said, “the last voice in the issue of being or not being himself is still his own.” And to help us, there is art. One of the reasons he deplored the conversion of art into knowledge, of paintings into pictures in books, images on television, and slides in the classroom, is that “the direct experience of art” — up close, in person, just you and the work — “contributes a lively sensation of ignorance.” Before a genuine work of art, one is left with questions, not answers. Which is to say, one starts to think.
There is art, and, for us, there is the work of Harold Rosenberg. It should be obvious by now that my attraction to this man derives not only from his iridescent mind, his swooping prose, but from the relevance of his ideas to the present moment. I won’t insult the reader’s intelligence by drawing out the application of his picture of the “clown-hero” who “retaliates to the ridicule of the world,” the “leader without a program” whose self-contrived myth “evoke[s] even more fanaticism than formerly as a psychological protection against disbelief.” I will only note that we live in an age when the self-contrived myth has become a universal — as it were, a democratic — possession. Rosenberg wrote of the construction of illusory selves, devices to bridge the abyss between ego and role. Now, thanks to the wonders of social media and the miracles of the Instagram filter (not to mention of the plastic surgeon’s office), that construction is literal. Yet it remains, overwhelmingly, an act not of creation but of imitation: of celebrities, “influencers,” fictional heroes and superheroes, themselves copied one from another. We are everywhere invited to bullshit ourselves, and we everywhere comply. The clown-hero, in full theatrical makeup, calls his army of fanatics to the capital, and they arrive arrayed for cosplay. In seeking to understand our current malaise, our great contemporary deficit of being, we could do worse than start there.
Remember also that the artificially constructed egos that Rosenberg spoke of were mass ones, the self submerged within the herd. And the crisis of the individual, as he described it, has only deepened in the decades since his diagnosis. We need only think about the transformation, since the post-war years, of the meaning of the word “identity.” Having once referred to a unique and hard-won self-conception wrested from experience — that which made you you and no one else — it now denotes the reverse. Your identity today is that which assigns you, at birth, to your group. Rosenberg said that there are common situations but only individual experiences. The identity-mongers also invoke experience (or “lived experience,” as if there were another kind), but only to align it with collective scripts. Today we say “me too.” To say “not me” is to invite anathematization.
The Party may be dead, but its functions live anew. Again today we have the orthodoxy of the Left as Rosenberg described it: sacred texts and prophets (Foucault, Butler, Kendi), omniscience conferred by a set of infallible formulas (“cultural appropriation,” “white fragility”), pedantic smugness, messianic intolerance, consensus enforced by the standing threat of professional or social death. We certainly have no shortage of intellectuals who need not think, pundits and critics whose minds appear incapable of containing a thought that wasn’t put there by the zeitgeist. If our public discourse has become so numbingly predictable, especially on the left, that is largely because it is dominated by individuals who can tell you their opinion of a thing before they’ve even heard of it.
In art we are back to the 1930s. Art must toe the ideological line. As for the mass audience, the herd, its demands are now explicit and belligerent. The artist must speak for the group (the one to which she’s willy-nilly been assigned), never for herself as an individual, “a single human being.” Which is to say, she must allow the group—or rather, its self-appointed ideological commissars—to speak through her. The word today is not “reflect” but “represent”: affirm rather than disrupt, as Rosenberg put it, the audience’s “sense of knowing where it stands in relation to what has happened to it.” Woe be unto those who dare to shock instead of pander, or who refuse the injunction to “stay in your lane.” Anti-mass mass culture is also still with us, the culture of the educated elite, with its fake rebellions and its moral self-flattery: NPR, the New York Times, the New Yorker, et al., together with the cultural products — always scrupulously woke — to which they give assent. One thing, though, has changed since Rosenberg’s day. Elite mass culture hardly even pretends anymore to be interested in art — in art, that is, as opposed to entertainment, high art as opposed to kitsch. Art is too hard, too subtle, too complex, too time-consuming, altogether too recalcitrant. The professional would rather watch Netflix; the “cultural critic” would rather pontificate about the TikTok trend. Rosenberg didn’t think that kitsch was even worth bothering to attack. Now it rules the world.
As for me, it is Rosenberg’s example, even more than his ideas, that is bracing. He was a thinker who maintained the stance, with respect not only to society but also to his fellow intellectuals, of the artist — of the rare artist, such as de Kooning or Steinberg, who never ceases to be a true one. Even bohemias, he wrote, become conformities. “The artist thus finds it necessary to exist on the edge of the edge,” and that is exactly what he did. He kept faith with his estrangement. He was the greatest of the New York intellectuals, and also the least characteristic. He ran with no packs and subscribed to no schools — nor did he attempt to found any. And he stayed in the stream. He knew that culture — art, thought — must always, if it is to live, be enacted: daily, continually, like de Kooning repainting a canvas. He faced the modern crisis, the disorientation of perpetual change, without swerving right or left, toward nostalgia for what was or utopian expectations of what will be. His only direction was forward: through problems, through questions, through doubt.
Late in life, Rosenberg composed the introduction to a volume of de Kooning’s work. Its peroration, with a few adjustments, applies to its author himself:
De Kooning has never attempted to attribute political meaning to his work…Yet under the conditions of the ideological pressure characteristic of the past forty years, unbending adherence to individual spontaneity and independence is itself a quasi-political position… Impro-vised unities such as de Kooning’s are the only alternative to modern philosophies of social salvation which, while they appeal for recruits in the name of a richer life for the individual, consistently shove him aside in practice. De Kooning’s art testifies to a refusal to be either recruited or pushed aside… He is the nuisance of the individual “I am” in an age of collective credos and styles.