In response to:
Masterwoodworks from the December 18, 1980 issue
To the Editors:
It is regrettable that in his otherwise outstanding review of Michael Baxandall’s The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany [NYR, December 18], Henri Zerner abruptly introduced a paragraph condemning the work of the Marxist art historian Frederick Antal. He not only calls into question Antal’s Marxism (which Zerner places in quotation marks) but also his exceptional scholarship and humanity which are dismissed for their “crudeness.” After this intrusion, Zerner picks up the continuity of the review, clearly having introduced an almost irrelevant item to point up the contrast between Baxandall’s approach and Antal’s. I find here, however, a sad form of criticism which substitutes name-calling for analysis. There is no attempt to discuss Antal’s specific ideas or give them due consideration; a label is thrown out and the author walks away from it. This smacks of prejudice and the “crudeness” Zerner seems to spot in Antal more aptly designates his own approach. Most distressing of all, Zerner’s remarks constitute a type of red-baiting, which in light of the current shift to the Right and emanating from higher academic circles, conjures up thirty-year-old specters and portends an ominous future as we enter Year Two of Orwell’s fateful decade.
University of California, Los Angeles
Henri Zerner replies:
I never questioned the sincerity of Antal’s political opinions. Moreover, may I point out he was a scholar of great distinction long before his militant publications, which all appeared after he fled Germany and moved to England in 1933. Until that time he was an outstanding member of what is known as the Vienna school of art history, with a particular leaning towards formalism. He was also important as co-editor of the Kritische Berichte, a most remarkable journal which was largely an organ of the Vienna school (it has fortunately been reprinted by G. Olms in 1972). Antal, who was a friend of Lukács in his native Budapest, was a Marxist long before 1933. One should remember that the Vienna school took the task of establishing art history as a science very seriously, and this would have been congenial to Antal’s Marxism.
After 1933, however, for reasons I could only speculate about, Antal was no longer satisfied with the kind of art history he had previously practiced and turned to a mechanical and schematic correlation between art and society, which I persist in calling crude. Furthermore, I also find his conception of realism and the role it plays in his thinking at the time unfortunately close to Zhdanovism. I regret that the later works of Antal should be held up as a model of Marxist art history. Since Michael Baxandall does not advertise his political opinions, I do not know what they are, but I find that the art history he practices is more consistent with Marxist thought than Antal’s because he proposes a more thorough investigation of the actual conditions of artistic production and a better understanding of how these conditions affect the appearance of the works of art.
April 30, 1981