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Schapiro’s studies remain astonishingly fresh, although the results and conclusions they propose may sometimes look outdated.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…

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