Tuesday, November 24, 2009

An idiosyncratic and creative application of Marxist ideas and methods

MEYER SCHAPRIO, THE leading American art historian of his generation and one of the few scholars to attempt to apply Marxism seriously to the study of art history, died on March 3 at the age of 91, at his home in New York.

An enormously gifted scholar, traded as a medievalist but with wide-ranging interests that transcended the boundaries of traditional specializations, Schapiro was born in Shavly, Lithuania, and raised in Brooklyn where he attended public school and studied painting with John Sloan at the Hebrew Educational Society. Graduating from Columbia College in 1924 with honors in philosophy and art history, Schapiro went on to write a ground-breaking doctoral dissertation, pubished in 1931, on the sculptural decoration of the romanesque monastery at Moissac.

As a teacher at Columbia and the New School for Social Research, Schapiro offered courses in Byzantine, Early Christian and medieval art and art-historical theory, and pioneered the study of modern art -- a field not accorded much in the way of academic respectability during the 1930s and 1940s. An amateur artist of some skill, he kept in close touch with artists and often played a crucial role in furthering artistic careers, perhaps most notably in the case of the abstract expressionists.

A lifelong socialist -- Schapiro joined the Brownsville Young Peoples socialist League in 1916 -- Schapiro's interest in Marxist politics deepened during the Depression, when he became actively involved in the left. During the early 1930s he was close to the Communist Party, an active member of the John Reed Clubs, and a founder of the American Artists Congress.

Disillusioned by the Moscow Trials, in 1936 he drew closer to the anti-Stalinist left, serving on the editorial board of the short-lived Marxist Quarterly, and between 1937 and 1940 writing frequently for the Partisan Review. He supported the American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky and became a member of the League for Cultural Freedom and Socialism. Schapiro resigned from the American Artists Congress in 1939 to protest against the Hitler-Stalin Pact, and went on to found the rival Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors.

During the 1940s and early 1950s he continued to support revolutionary Marxism through his involvement with the Workers Party and the Independent Socialist League. Although never a member of a political party -- he believed he could not carry out a party members's responsibilities and continue to pursue a career as a scholar -- he was, as Alan Wald has observed, "a genuine independent, but a classical Marxist nonetheless, struggling to keep a Leninist view alive under difficult conditions."

Early Writings
During the 1930s Schapiro wrote lengthy articles on romanesque sculpture at Souillac, on romanesque and Mozarabic art at Silos, on the nature of abstract art, and on Courbet and popular imagery, that probed the social determinants of artistic production. Like the best Marxist cultural studies of the 1930s (e.g. those of Walter Benjamin), these articles were idiosyncratic, exemplifying a creative application of Marxist ideas and methods to specific art-historical problems.

Written at a time when art historians were mainly preoccupied with difficulties of attribution, patterns of stylistic development and questions of imagery (iconography), these essays struggled with the ways in which social and political conditions affect or limit artistic production and artistic form. For example, in the essay on Silos, published in 1939, Schapiro attempted a comprehensive sociological explanation of romanesque style, arguing that any renewed study of the subject would require "the critical correlation of the forms and meanings in the images with historical conditions of the same period and region."

Toward an Undogmatic Marxism
After the 1930s, Schapiro concentrated less on the social bases of art, and his work reflected interests in psychology, philosophy, and semiotics. yet unlike so many of his former colleagues on the anti-Stalinist left, Schapiro never repudiated Marxism or socialism and consistently encouraged Marxist approaches to the study of art history. In a well-known essay on style published in the depths of the McCarthy period, he reviewed major explanatory theories and, after demonstrating their strengths and weaknesses, concluded that an undogmatic Marxism provided the best hope for developing a general theory linking the social and the aesthetic.

As a Marxist working in the usually elite and conservative field of art history, Schapiro was unique. He strongly influenced several generations of artists and art historians, but unfortunately very few of his students seriously pursued a Marxist approach. Although now celebrated in the academy and the media -- the New York Times Magazine carried a feature article on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday -- scholars as well as journalists have for the most part ignored or glossed over Schapiro's achievements as a Marxist scholar as well as his long history of political commitment.

Schapiro will no doubt be remembered for his brilliance, for the extraordinary range of his mind, but his legacy as a scholar belongs to those willing to engage his most profound and most challenging work, in particular the Marxist studies he produced during the 1930s. Because they speak to current scholarly concerns, these studies have lost little of their freshness. Marxist art historians continue to struggle with the relation between the social and the aesthetic. For them, Schapiro will remain a point of departure and return.

ATC 62, May-June 1996


  1. I wrote the above obituary and I'm flattered you chose to reproduce it, but please make the following corrections: 1) Meyer Schapiro was born in 1904, not 1914 (he couldn't have died at 91 in 1996 if he had been born in 1914); 2) the accompanying photograph is not of Meyer Schapiro but very likely of David Rosand, who held a professorship at Columbia named after Meyer Schapiro.

  2. One further observation: in the obituary I wrote I did not quote in its entirety Alan Wald's comment--deliberately. Schapiro was indeed a "classical Marxist." I don't think he remained a Leninist after c. 1945.