In the 1950s, Harold Rosenberg looked at the works of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko and Franz Kline and remarked that what was on the canvas “was not a picture but an event.” Soon afterward, the term “action painting” became part of the language. To some, this was an apology for confusion. Yet, throughout his long career as essayist and art critic for The New Yorker, Rosenberg looked for and saw what others did not. He described what he saw and tried to give us directions for seeing it, too. Artists, he believed, are a peculiar combination of seeker, prophet and craftsman. Their aim is to produce something totally unique as a way of avoiding the mechanization, duplication and conformity that surrounds them. Artists are in search of identity, their own mainly, but their works also pass judgment upon our culture, remind us of our values and commitments. To think, as many do, that the purpose of art is to please the senses is to employ the same criteria in art as one does in the supermarket.
In his many books, Rosenberg, who died in 1978, was the searching, tenacious, uncomfortable, urbane and mindful critic, interpreting and explaining the behavior of the malcontents, contemporary artists. Perhaps that is a reason why the editor of these last uncollected writings chose to call them “The Case of the Baffled Radical.” If he was radical, it was because he spoke for no one but himself, yet Rosenberg was never baffled. The title is actually taken from the book’s lead essay, a 1944 review of Arthur Koestler’s “Arrival and Departure,” a political novel whose main character is a neurotic ex-Communist. Between that piece and a 1977 review of Marcel Ophuls’ film “The Memory of Justice” we are given a variety of occasional essays on such subjects as photography, film, architecture and politics. In the critical vein, he writes of the Czech intellectual Georg Lukacs, Marshall McLuhan, Paul Goodman, Stanley Kubrick and literary critic F. R. Leavis.
Rosenberg was an intellectual but not an academic. His views are often as hard-edged as the paintings he admired, and there is a notable lack of caution, digression and qualification in his work. He has an instinct for the bold statement, the pungent observation, the scolding retort. He is quite good at showing up the philosophical biases of his subjects. He quotes Andre Gide’s “Vatican Swindle” in an outburst against the Watergate conspirators, calling the cover-up a “game” based on “Hollywood-style metaphysics by which Nixon glamorized his invention of a Presidency that exists independently of the President.” What made him a first-rate journalist was his ability to point a new dimension in a few lines. Summing up McLuhan, he notes that “if (as McLuhan says) all of creation ‘speaks’ to us, . . . then he is a belated Whitman singing the body electric with Thomas Edison as accompanist.”
The second half of the book contains 150 pages of transcripts of interviews and discussions about art, all of which took place in the last years of his life. An interview with De Kooning shows Rosenberg’s contribution to be little more than putting some prearranged questions to the artist. The panel discussions and conversations are, though edited, chatty and rambling, and flit back and forth among several topics. Yet in them Rosenberg appears always to have an idea, a thought he has been working on over the years and is using the occasion to get just right. The longest discussions, “All About Everything” and “What Is Art?” suggest what they contain--remarks on Marcel Duchamp, Barnett Newman, Andy Warhol, the ‘Art povera’ of the conceptualists, the numbing influence of technology, the vacancy of ideas in the popular media, the role of the critic. Rosenberg’s tone is never fanciful or obscure, and he consciously avoids being interpreted by others. The dispelling of cliche is characteristic. When a member of a panel discussion suggests that the task of art is “not simply to depict the world but to constitute it,” Rosenberg retorts that everybody is reconstituting the world these days and that while reality recedes conferences and panel discussions are conducted in the hope of discovering it.
“The Case of the Baffled Radical” is not a theoretical work but a collection of insights, reflections and commentary. In it Rosenberg attempts to make some true statements about the art and artists of his time. He abhorred the demand to produce his “criteria” for good art, arguing that they would only act as blinders. Rather, a critic must have ideas about what artists are doing and thinking, and he must be able to write well. His role is not to pass judgment on works of art but to “enrich the environment in which artists work.” In like manner we should look to these writings not for answers to age-old questions, but to appreciate the wit, sincerity and insights of a mind that enriched the environment of ideas about art.