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The Great Outsider

Theory and Philosophy of Art: Style, Artist, and Society, Selected Papers, Volume IV

by Meyer Schapiro
Braziller, 253 pp., $27.50

Romanesque Art (Volume I)

Braziller, 368 pp., $19.95 (paper)

Modern Art: 19th & 20th Centuries (Volume II)

Braziller, 277 pp., $19.95 (paper)

Late Antique, Early Christian, and Mediaeval Art (Volume III)

Braziller, 414 pp., $19.95 (paper)


In the decades between 1930 and 1980, when New York replaced Paris as the center of modern art and art history expanded into a successful and fashionable discipline. Meyer Schapiro was the only art historian who had the strength and independence to do original work both inside and outside the academy. He was equally at home in the manuscript room of the Morgan Library, in the Museum of Modern Art, and in the ateliers of artists. He wrote with the same verve and acuteness on “The Aesthetic Attitude in Romanesque Art” as on “The Nature of Abstract Art.” As an intellectual and a scholar, he is unique among the great art historians of his time.

Schapiro always resisted writing an exhaustive book on a single topic. Changing subjects and perspectives with restless curiosity, he made his observations and developed his arguments in a great many widely scattered articles, introductions, and reviews, which were not always easy to find. In 1977 Braziller re-published Schapiro’s classic papers on Romanesque art, most of which he had written in the Thirties, beginning in 1931 with his doctoral dissertation on the sculptures of the French abbey of Moissac. In 1979 the same publisher brought out two more volumes of selected papers by Schapiro: one collecting his articles on late antique, early Christian, and medieval art, the other containing most of his contributions on modern art. In 1994, the year of Schapiro’s ninetieth birthday, a fourth volume has appeared, which brings together the more theoretical writings of the distinguished former professor of art history at Columbia University.

A considerable corpus of Schapiro’s writings is therefore now widely available. Even after decades, during which our ideas about medieval and modern art have changed, Schapiro’s studies remain astonishingly fresh, although the results and conclusions they propose may sometimes look outdated. The battles he fought are over, but the intellectual energy and critical honesty of his writings are undiminished by time.

The four volumes of selected papers not only demonstrate the remarkable range of Schapiro’s learning, they also recall the intellectual turmoil, fights, and disillusions of an impassioned and difficult period in art and art history. In the ideological struggles of the Thirties, Schapiro, together with Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, was one of the “New York Intellectuals,” who were men of the left but who opposed Stalinism and made a case for modernism in art and architecture.1 Schapiro’s position in the debates over these questions was a complex yet flexible one. Some of his papers reflect his Marxist partisanship in the 1930s, and for this reason are especially vigorous in their arguments. Yet he was never sectarian and he never sacrificed his belief in the autonomy of art over the dictates of any ideology, including Marxism. In a lecture at the New School for Social Research in 1936 he insisted: “When we speak of the social basis of art we do not mean to reduce art to economics or sociology or politics. Art has its own activities which distinguish it from other activities.”2 Schapiro always maintained his personal independence and never betrayed his rare sensitivity as an art historian, regardless of his political convictions. Many of his writings, in fact, gain their particular strength from the tension between his ideological and his aesthetic perspectives.

The publishers have arranged the articles by period and subject, which was the only reasonable decision they could make. It may, however, be interesting to follow their sequence in the order in which they were written and to observe the wanderings and detours of Schapiro’s intellectual and scholarly itinerary. For since the end of the Twenties, Schapiro has been one of the most lively and inspiring voices in art history; but he has never been representative of any of the schools, trends, and methods that shaped, dominated, and limited the discipline. He was primarily neither a connoisseur nor an addicted iconologist. He concentrated neither on the social history of art nor on the psychoanalytical understanding of the creative process, perception, or semiotics. With an astonishing mastery of detail he explored all of these approaches but none of them exclusively.

Schapiro’s 1966 paper, “On Perfection, Coherence, and Unity of Form and Content,” where he questions the extent to which those qualities of art works could be “regarded as conditions of beauty,” demonstrates his characteristic independence. When it was published, art history was still widely under the influence of Erwin Panofsky, who believed that the task of the art historian was to establish the meaning of the work of art. Panofsky regarded works of art as unified wholes, and interpreted them as coherent cultural symbols and visual expressions of the artist’s world view. Schapiro, in opposition to the prevailing academic approach to art, pointed out that perfection, coherence, and unity of form and content may be lacking in great works while present in lesser ones. “Coherence, for example, may be found in many works that fail to move us, and a supreme work may contain incoherences,” he writes.

Even where a single great artist has been responsible for a work, one can detect inconsistencies brought about by a new conception introduced in the course of work. So in the Sistine ceiling, Michelangelo has changed the scale of the figures in mid-passage. One can recall other great works of literature, painting, and architecture that are incomplete or inconsistent in some respects. And one might entertain the thought that in the greatest works of all such incompleteness and inconsistency are evidences of the living process of the most serious and daring art which is rarely realized fully according to a fixed plan, but undergoes the contingencies of a prolonged effort. Perfection, completeness, strict consistency are more likely in small works than in large.

He describes the cathedral of Chartres as an example of artistic greatness in spite of its unfinished state and its stylistic inconsistency:

If the Parthenon holds up artistically in its ruined state through the grandeur of its qualities in all that remains of the original, in Chartres we accept a whole in which very different conceptions of form have been juxtaposed. The two west towers, begun by two architects of the twelfth century, were completed at different times, one of them in the late Gothic period in a style that is opposed in principle to the rest of the faรงade.

But Schapiro’s principal difference from Panofsky lay in his stress on the limitations of “our perception of such complex wholes as works of art.” He pointed out that rather than seeing a work of art as a unified whole, we frequently focus on only a few selected aspects of it and view it in the light of past experience. Qualities such as the perfection and coherence of the whole thus appear to us not as an immediate certitude but as a hypothetical judgment, which each viewer modifies through fresh observations and new interpretations. For Schapiro, critical seeing is not a single, quasi-mystical perception of the work of art but a gradual and indeed collective process.

To see the work as it is one must be able to shift one’s attitude in passing from part to part, from one aspect to another, and to enrich the whole progressively in successive perceptions.

I have argued that we do not see all of a work when we see it as a whole. We strive to see it as completely as possible and in a unifying way, though seeing is selective and limited. Critical seeing, aware of the incompleteness of perception, is explorative and dwells on details as well as on the large aspects that we call the whole. It takes into account others’ seeing; it is a collective and cooperative seeing and welcomes comparison of different perceptions and judgments.

During his long career, Schapiro has written about the most diverse subjects and periods, from early Christian art to Abstract Expressionism. But with the exception of one article on Freud and Leonardo and passing references such as the one to Michelangelo, he has never written about the Renaissance. It may be symptomatic that he avoided its ideal of harmony. Schapiro was always more interested in the tensions between form and expression, high art and popular art, the patron and the independent artist. He never tired of asking how such conflicts and contradictions affected the objects he studied. Schapiro was the only major art historian who used his knowledge of Marxism to try to identify social tensions and feelings of alienation as forces that shaped styles and forms that may seem to us both expressive and incoherent. This unique achievement sets him apart from more superficial Marxists such as Arnold Hauser and Frederick Antal, who did little more than embellish conventional art history with ideas and concepts taken over from sociology or economics.

Schapiro first became known in the academic world shortly after 1930 through his studies on Romanesque sculpture. The subject had been fashionable in North America since the end of World War I. Romanesque capitals and figures appeared in American collections, and the vast publications of the indefatigable Arthur Kingsley-Porter had provoked a romantic enthusiasm for the bizarre and emotional aspects of this strange religious art from the distant medieval past. But Schapiro’s approach in studying the sculpture of Moissac, Souillac, and Silos had nothing in common with fashionable sentimentalism. He went into the Romanesque cloister armed with his own twentieth-century experience: he was not only accustomed to the complex stylizations of modernism but also had a keen eye for popular imagery and, as he had written in 1929, for the “less sophisticated contemporary arts whatever their motivation or value.”

At Moissac he discovered a religious art that, far from displaying an orderly, homogeneous use of “generalized forms and abstract geometrical combinations,” was full of conflicts between archaic primitivism and increasing realism, between rigorous coordination and restless tension. His meticulous descriptions of sculpted figures, such as “a leering old woman, with open, toothless mouth, stringy neck muscles and flying, disarranged hair,” led him to the observation that “the process of abstraction in Romanesque art includes an audacious distortion of ideal and symbolic figures for expressive ends.” The fantastic variations of the sculptures of Moissac go so far beyond the iconographic demands of the project that Schapiro declared emphatically:

It is important to observe that at the very beginning of the modern tradition of sculpture there is already great freedom and divergence from a common method in the same project, and that the variations are not uniformly directed.

The profound mistrust of any sort of schematic order or blind authority in the arts and their interpretation can thus be observed from the very beginning of Schapiro’s career. Thirty years later his arguments defending Abstract Expressionism against the charge of mere automatism were nearly the same as those with which he had explained the orderly disorder of the capitals at Moissac.

  1. 1

    For the biography of Meyer Schapiro see H. Epstein, “Meyer Schapiro: A Passion to Know and Make Known,” Art News, Vol. 82 (1983). For Schapiro and Marxism during the Thirties see the articles by A. Hemingway, P. Hills, and D. Craven in Oxford Journal, Vol. 17 (1994).

  2. 2

    Published in the record of the First American Artists’ Congress, 1936, p. 31.

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