This article analyses a talk given by the American art historian Meyer Schapiro in 1956 that was broadcast on BBC radio as a review of an exhibition at Tate Gallery titled Modern Art in the United States. It reveals that Schapiro’s broadcast was funded by the US State Department and argues that this unrecognised historical detail exposes a paradox about the relation between facts and values in art historical description.

In January 1956 the American art historian Meyer Schapiro was sent by the US State Department to London where he gave a talk titled ‘The Younger American Painters of Today’, which was broadcast on BBC radio in conjunction with an exhibition at Tate Gallery.1 While the substance of the talk was in many ways typical of Schapiro’s writing, the background to it speaks directly to a controversy surrounding the relationship between Schapiro’s scholarship and the wider circumstances of the art world at the time. In his broadcast Schapiro repeatedly described the abstract expressionist paintings in the exhibition as evidencing freedom, a quality that he had associated with abstract painting since at least the 1930s and that played a pivotal part of his defence of the avant-garde, not to mention of his Marxist-inflected research. The exhibition that Schapiro described, however, as well as the educational exchange program in which Schapiro himself was at that very moment participating were deeply embroiled in the anti-communist campaigns of the US cultural establishment during the Cold War, campaigns that deliberately leveraged the ‘freedom’ of American society and culture into anti-Soviet propaganda. This paradoxical situation raises two primary questions. First, why would the US State Department risk sending a known and avowed Marxist to London as a kind of cultural diplomat? Second, why would Schapiro agree to be an official representative of the US government even though he was often critical of the values that that government represented?

In order to investigate these questions it will first be necessary to lay out the historical context for Schapiro’s broadcast, fleshing out the particulars that led Schapiro to London as well as the State Department’s presumed rationale for working with Schapiro as a member of the anti-Stalinist left. Schapiro’s broadcast will be analysed in relation to the specific reception of the Tate exhibition and in relation to the wider intellectual milieu within which Schapiro’s thinking was forged. This broader context is key for understanding Schapiro’s trip because it reveals what political economist Joseph Schumpeter once described as the ‘inconveniently large expanse of common ground’ between Marxism and American liberalism – namely and most obviously, that both the US government as a capitalist world power and Meyer Schapiro as an independent Marxist intellectual were for ‘freedom’.2 Even though Schapiro would have almost certainly distanced his use of the term from his government’s, such congruence meant that his Marxist-inflected project was especially vulnerable to being separated from the particular means that he advocated for achieving that end. However, insofar as Schapiro’s actual broadcast reflected what he took to be his Marxist principles, the US State Department can also be said to have supported the dissemination of Schapiro’s political intentions. The ruse cuts both ways. What Schapiro actually meant when he described abstract expressionist paintings as ‘free’ and how his description could be interpreted in 1956 in London are two independent and equally important historical questions. It would be a simplification, therefore, to treat Schapiro’s trip to London at the behest of the US State Department as further evidence for what some have seen as his de-Marxification, as much as it would be a simplification to treat the funding source of the trip as inconsequential to the historical significance of Schapiro’s broadcast.3 Rather, this essay contends that what Schapiro’s trip more accurately exposes is a general paradox at the heart of art historical interpretation: the words that art historians use to describe the visual qualities of works of art are almost by necessity indirect or oblique, a tact that is at once necessary to capture the visual interest of works of art but also precarious in that it makes the intentions behind art historical interpretation easily muted.4

The historical background to Schapiro’s BBC broadcast

Here is Schapiro’s own account of his trip to London in 1956:

I left New York by plane on January 20 at 5 PM and arrived in London the next day at 1 PM. I gave four lectures: on recent American art, particularly the abstract work, at the Arts Council, the Slade School, the Hampstead Art Society (in the town hall of Hampstead); and on “Leonardo and Freud” at the Warburg Institute of the University of London. I also had numerous discussions with artists, critics and scholars, and saw the work of younger English artists. I found some time, too, to consult several mediaeval manuscripts in the British Museum, relating to my studies in the field. I left London by plane on January 29 at 8 PM and arrived in New York the next day at 9 PM. We were grounded in Shannon over night.5

This report was composed for and sent to Harold Howland, Chief of the Specialists Division of the International Educational Exchange Service, a subdivision of the International Exchange Service (IES) of the US State Department. It was written in accordance with a contract that Schapiro entered into with the State Department to serve for fifteen days as a Specialist in the International Educational Exchange Program, for which he was paid $256.63.6 As is clear from Schapiro’s description of the trip, he did more than just give his BBC broadcast while in London, a broadcast that he omits from his description to Howland, presumably because it was the initial reason he was sent to London and because it formed the basis for his other lectures on recent American art while there. Indeed, Schapiro’s earliest extant correspondence about the trip was with Leonie Cohn of the BBC, more than two months before the show at the Tate had even opened.7 And Schapiro’s wife later described the trip as a ‘rescue mission’ because the travelling show had been ‘panned by reviewers’.8 Schapiro likely mentioned his additional professional activities to Howland because of the official mission of the IES. The program was described to Schapiro as ‘increasing international understanding and good will toward the United States through the exchange with other countries of students, professors, specialists, and leaders’.9 Thus Schapiro’s additional interaction with members of the London art world only furthered the ‘international understanding’ that the program was designed to increase. However, the ‘understanding’ that Schapiro helped to create on his trip to London was not as innocuous as the program’s stated mission might seem. William Johnstone, a director of the IES from 1948 to 1952, was unequivocal and less euphemistic when testifying to Congress about the nature of the program: ‘In its simplest form’, Johnstone declared, ‘the job of this program is to implant a set of ideas or facts in the mind of a person. When this is done effectively, it results in action favorable to the achievement of American foreign policy.’10 Following Johnstone’s description, Schapiro’s actions in London were deemed part of the expansion of the United States’ ‘soft power’, or perhaps even more hyperbolically, part of a campaign of psychological warfare.11 While Schapiro no doubt believed his trip to be educational, the distance or discontinuity between Johnstone’s description and the official mission statement of the IES that Schapiro received gives credence to public relations theorist Edward Bernays’s observation that ‘the only difference between “propaganda” and “education”, really, is in the point of view. The advocacy of what we believe in is called education. The advocacy of what we don’t believe in is propaganda’.12

The likely reasons why Schapiro, despite his political leanings, was selected to go to London are manifold and, in their entirety, admittedly overdetermined. First, there are some circumstantial details that likely played a part. Schapiro had requested funds from the IES two years earlier to fund a research trip to Holland.13 Even though this request was denied, the program’s officials obviously ascertained that he was interested in and open to such an exchange. Second, according to Schapiro’s wife’s later recollections, the Museum of Modern Art, which organised and loaned the works for the exhibition at Tate, had recommended Schapiro to the State Department, most likely because of his ability and reputation. And third – again according to Schapiro’s wife – Schapiro learned that a State Department official had once heard him speak against the proposal to invite a Nazi official to lecture at Columbia University, which prompted the official to second MoMA’s recommendation.14

Beyond these immediate circumstances, perhaps a more important factor behind the decision to support Schapiro’s trip – and the International Educational Exchange Program in general – was the research on the formation of public opinion conducted by the eminent sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld. In his book The People’s Choice (1944) Lazarsfeld analysed several years of voting behaviour and noted that people were much more swayed through direct contact with an expert than by hearing that expert’s conclusions through a media outlet.15 Accordingly, the International Educational Exchange Service facilitated direct contact between experts and various publics by funding the travel of American experts abroad as well as the travel of foreign experts to the United States. In short, Lazarsfeld’s findings provided new empirical justification for exchanges that had previously existed on a more ad hoc basis and his research was ultimately used to support the creation of the more permanent and well-funded program in which Schapiro participated.16

The actual legislation that created that program was the Informational and Educational Exchange Act, otherwise known as the Smith-Mundt Act of 1950. This led to the creation of the Foreign Leader and Specialist Program, run by the IES, and was an extension of the Truman administration’s ‘campaign for truth’ and policy of containment.17 US diplomats repeatedly praised the program ‘as a highly successful tool in changing perspectives of key individuals’ and its effectiveness rested largely on the willing involvement of its participants and on the US government not restricting, let alone dictating, what they said.18 Thus, there is little reason to suspect that Schapiro was coerced in any way in terms of the content of his broadcast. Rather, it is more likely that Schapiro’s earlier description of abstract painting as an embodiment of the universal value of freedom – a description discussed in detail below – made him an especially fitting candidate as the whole premise of the exchange program was not to promote specifically American values but rather to promote American values as universal values. It would therefore seem that, despite his Marxist background, Schapiro’s commitment to the modernist project combined with his status as an expert within the art world made him a perfect candidate.

Of course, Schapiro was also an anti-Stalinist and in this sense was at least in partial agreement with US foreign policy. His anti-Stalinism, however, was much more tempered and independent than that of the majority of his colleagues on the left. As is well known, after the public exposure of Stalin’s purges and crimes in the 1930s, many of Schapiro’s peers moved sharply away from radical leftist politics, some of them even ending up conservatives later in life.19 One of the most visible outcomes of this shift was the Committee for Cultural Freedom, which was founded by prominent New York intellectuals in 1939, and whose purpose was to promote opposition to totalitarian regimes. Schapiro refused to join the committee not because he did not oppose totalitarianism but because he recognised that the committee was not ‘a “Committee for Cultural Freedom” but an organization for fighting the world Communist movement’.20 Schapiro, in other words, refused to participate in red-baiting. Even though his politics did shift from a more explicitly Marxist position in the early 1930s – best exemplified in his writing for the New Masses under the pseudonym John Kwait – to a more democratic socialism in the 1950s, throughout his life Schapiro maintained a commitment to Marx’s theories.21 Like so many independent Marxists, both then as today, Schapiro upheld a separation between Marxism as a set of theoretical propositions and Soviet-style communism, which he saw as a totalitarian corruption of Marx’s ideas.

Considering such commitments, an additional and final motivation for sending Schapiro to London is important to note. In addition to the official legislation that created the IES, President Truman’s National Security Council also passed several executive directives in 1947 and 1948 – named NSC-4, NSC-4A, and NSC-10/2 – which gave the CIA authority to use ‘covert psychological activities’ as well as propaganda to further US interests abroad.22 To this end the CIA funded cultural programs in Europe, including travelling exhibitions from MoMA, which furthered the message that the US was a free society.23 Such directives, however, came with the caveat of plausible deniability, a caveat which made working with members of the non-Stalinist left especially appealing. Moreover, as was later revealed by Thomas Braden, one of the CIA officers who was instrumental in such operations, during the height of McCarthyism, sending independent Marxists like Schapiro abroad as cultural ambassadors also functioned as an important countermeasure to the frequent anti-Communist hysteria in Congress.24 McCarthyism risked undermining the message that the US actually was a free society, thus Schapiro’s trip to London can also be understood as a public display to the international community.

Modern Art in the United States

The actual exhibition that Schapiro reviewed on the BBC was titled Modern Art in the United States: A Selection from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. It had been organised by MoMA director Alfred Barr and curator Dorothy Miller and had opened at the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris on 31 March 1955. Between July 1955 and August 1956 the exhibition travelled to Zurich, Barcelona, Frankfurt and London – where it was on view at the Tate Gallery from 5 January to 12 February 1956 – then The Hague, Vienna, Linz and Belgrade.25 Modern Art in the United States proved to be a major historical event as it did much to introduce abstract expressionism to London, and British critics such as David Sylvester acknowledged that it marked a turning point in their views.26 This being said, the selection of works for the exhibition was much more diverse than Schapiro’s focus on abstract expressionism would suggest. Realist painters such as Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth as well as figurative sculptors such as Elie Nadelman and Gaston Lachaise were also included.27

This fact makes Schapiro’s focus on the abstract expressionist canvases in his broadcast all the more noteworthy and further testifies to his commitment to their work and to the values that he saw it embodying. While he was not the only critic with such a focus – Patrick Heron writing in Arts, for instance, as well as Basil Taylor in the Spectator, also devoted considerable attention to the abstract expressionists – the reviews that appeared in the Sunday Times, the Observer and the Manchester Guardian did not.28 The latter three were either mildly critical of the show or took the artworks as evidence of an unease or lack in American society itself. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, the reviews by Heron and Taylor that did focus on the abstract expressionists did not emphasise or even mention the quality of freedom that these canvases evidenced for Schapiro.

Unsurprisingly, the examples that Schapiro most emphatically pointed to in his radio address were works by Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning – the latter’s Woman I 1950–2 was used to illustrate the published version of the broadcast (fig.1) – but he also discussed the work of Mark Rothko, Arshile Gorky and Franz Kline, and was sensitive to the diversity of the painting produced by the so-called New York School. Despite this diversity, however, Schapiro repeatedly characterised those paintings as exhibiting ‘a quality of freedom’ – four times in the course of two pages – and as being united by a ‘freedom of composition realised through ambiguous or random forms’.29 He even went as far as to say that in abstract expressionist painting, ‘[t]he artist’s freedom is located more narrowly and more forcefully than ever before within the self, and opposed to the set, impersonal order of the external world’.30 Such a description reveals several important presuppositions about Schapiro’s understanding of these paintings.

Meyer Schapiro, ‘The Younger American Painters of Today’, Listener, 26 January 1956, p.146
Meyer Schapiro, ‘The Younger American Painters of Today’, Listener, 26 January 1956, p.146

First, by focusing on the free individual or self in the above statement, Schapiro reveals a central tenet of his understanding of freedom in general, one that is often, although not necessarily, taken to be more indebted to the existentialist philosophies that were prevalent at the time than to Schapiro’s known Marxist commitments. For instance, in The New York School, a 1978 monograph by art historian Irving Sandler, Schapiro’s writing on the abstract expressionists is grouped together with that of Harold Rosenberg and described as reflecting a general period of engagement with existentialist ideas.31 Such observations are certainly warranted as the very publications for which Schapiro and Rosenberg often wrote engaged heavily with existentialism and Rosenberg himself even originally wrote his seminal essay ‘The American Action Painters’ (1952) for that most famous organ of existentialist thought, Les Temps Modernes.32 Thus, Schapiro would have been aware and was likely even well versed in existentialist arguments.

Whether Schapiro actually adopted such views himself, however, is not so clear cut. On the one hand, when Schapiro subsequently lectured on the abstract expressionists at Columbia he did acknowledge that there were real historical connections between their work and existentialism, specifically by way of the commonalities between their paintings and those of the surrealist André Masson, whose book The Anatomy of My Universe (1943), which Schapiro himself translated in 1939, betrayed Masson’s reading of Søren Kierkegaard and Martin Heidegger.33 On the other hand, in the very same lecture, in seeking to understand what he termed the ‘conversions’ of Pollock and de Kooning from their earlier more figurative work to their more abstract compositions of 1947–9, Schapiro stated that ‘[o]ne should turn to William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience’.34 It would seem, then, that James’s pragmatist psychology was as much if not more of a touchstone in Schapiro’s thinking about these painters as existentialist philosophy. Marginal notes in Schapiro’s copy of William Barrett’s Irrational Man (1958) – one of the standard introductions to existentialist thought in English at the time – reinforce this point and show that Schapiro thought about existentialism itself through John Dewey’s pragmatist social psychology. Schapiro had studied with Dewey as an undergraduate in the early 1920s and next to a passage in Barrett’s book that positions Heidegger’s existential ontology as a critique of a Cartesian understanding of subjectivity, Schapiro wrote ‘cf. Dewey and Mead’, an interpretation of Heidegger that foreshadows pragmatist interpretations of Heidegger put forward by more recent analytic philosophers.35

Much in line with this pragmatist tradition, in his 1956 broadcast Schapiro frames his understanding of freedom in relation to the ‘self’ and thereby holds on to a traditional humanistic and holistic understanding of the individual, one where the agency of the artist remains intact. Such an understanding on Schapiro’s part is especially important to note in the case of abstract expressionist paintings for a variety of reasons. First, those paintings are, as Schapiro himself acknowledged, heavily indebted to surrealist sources and are often understood as being in dialogue with the unconscious. As art historian Michael Schreyach has pointed out, this situation has led to an oft unrecognised tension within descriptions of abstract expressionist painting as both automatic and spontaneous, two terms that pull artistic intentionality in opposite directions. Whereas the former fractures the individual agency of the artist by turning him into an automaton – a being of no will of its own – the latter keeps the free will of the artist intact. Indeed, the word spontaneity derives from the Latin sua sponte meaning of one’s own accord.36 Importantly, in holding to the latter position, Schapiro positions his understanding of the freedom that abstract expressionist paintings evidence as being in basic agreement with the individualism that is stereotypically taken to oppose the collectivism of communist thought, thereby revealing an important commonality between his Marxist scholarship and US Cold War rhetoric.

Of course, Schapiro’s description of abstract expressionist painting in such terms does not necessarily entail a wholesale rejection of collective forces or social circumstances. Art historian David Craven has convincingly framed the intentions behind Schapiro’s general interpretation of abstract expressionism as part of a broader critique of Taylorism and of mid-century workplace management.37 Under Craven’s interpretation, Schapiro’s description of these painting as ‘free’ becomes a statement about their conditions of production: they were made outside of the dominant economic order; they were not produced explicitly as part of a commodity production line and often (perhaps usually) were left unsold and earned the painter no profit. Here the ‘freedom’ of these paintings reflects the abstract expressionists’ own romantic anti-capitalism, a position that Craven clarifies through de Kooning’s statement that the abstract expressionists had ‘no position in the world – absolutely no position except that we just insist[ed] upon being around’.38

In relation to the outsider and critical politics of this interpretation, in his BBC broadcast Schapiro characterises the ‘freedom’ of abstract expressionist paintings in an especially superlative way – that is, by noting that in these paintings ‘freedom is located more narrowly and more forcefully than ever before within the self’.39 Here Schapiro positions the abstract expressionist as a pivotal culmination of wider period developments and suggests that the ‘freedom’ that their paintings express exists at the end of a teleological development. Such an interpretation fits well with the future directed, progressive politics of avant-garde art in general and in its teleological structure parallels the more well-known theories of Clement Greenberg, which Schapiro opposed.40 In making this point, however, Schapiro was also sure to head off any claims that these paintings were nationalistic. To this end, while he observes that these artists ‘often say that the centre of art has shifted from Paris to New York’ he also notes that:

It is easy to suppose that this new confidence of American artists is merely a reflex of national economic and political strength; but the artists in question are not at all chauvinist or concerned with politics. They would reject any proposal that they use their brushes for a political end. They know that many government officials and Congressmen disapprove of their work and they have experienced, too, the absurd charge that their art is subversive – a survival of the attacks made on modern art in the nineteen-twenties and nineteen-thirties as cultural bolshevism.41

Schapiro’s plain rejection of the popular charge that abstract expressionist paintings represent a kind of ‘cultural bolshevism’ reveals a fact that Craven’s interpretation downplays: there is a continuity between Schapiro’s anti-Soviet position and official US foreign policy. Schapiro’s denial was much in line with the State Department’s goal of promoting American values as universal values and thus even though Schapiro may have been unaware of the politics of the program in which he was participating, his denial of the politics of these paintings was fittingly and effectively political.

In contrast to Schapiro, one critic did see the abstract expressionist paintings in the Tate exhibition in bold political terms. The British writer John Berger, who reviewed the exhibition in the New Statesman and Nation and titled his review ‘The Battle’, interpreted the gestural marks of abstract expressionist painting as violent and destructive and as representing the anguish of an unlived life and of the oppression of American society. According to Berger:

These works, in their creation and appeal, are a full expression of the suicidal despair of those who are completely trapped within their own dead subjectivity. Erich Fromm, in his most important book, The Fear of Freedom, wrote: ‘Destructiveness is the result of unlived life.’ Behind these works is the same motive of revenge against subjective fears as there is behind the political policy of clinging to the ‘protection’ of the H. Bomb.42

Needless to say, such an interpretation is quite the reverse of Schapiro’s and calls attention to the differences between certain members of the left. Moreover, by citing a Frankfurt School psychoanalyst like Erich Fromm, Berger highlights that a Marxist reading of the shared gestural marks that are often taken to bind these paintings into a coherent school need not be interpreted as a sign of freedom at all, but rather as a kind of cry for help. Clearly, Berger could not ignore the nationalistic framing of the exhibition – that these works were made in the USA – and the political valence that that point of origin gave to the exhibition as a cultural export in 1956. Fittingly, Berger’s rather feverish review was positioned next to a large sensationalist advertisement about ‘the frightening story of investigation agencies in America’, which was titled ‘Big Brother Will Watch You for £2 or Less’. On this page of the New Statesman and Nation, Cold War politics and their relation to visual art were on full display.

Schapiro’s freedom

Given such an indictment and considering the official circumstances that brought Schapiro to London in 1956, we might well challenge Schapiro’s ostensible blindness to the political background of the exhibition. Schapiro was not, however, as naïve as the contrast between his own review and Berger’s might seem. Indeed, Schapiro had himself even once written that we only notice and describe certain qualities in paintings because those qualities appeal to our own interest:

It may … be asked, to what extent is there knowledge of qualities without an act of valuation? This is important, because the act of valuation is so notoriously private that the attribution of quality associated with it may well be rationalization.

This is apparent in works of art, of which the most diverse characters have been predicated with the same emotional instancy. An archaic statue is simply a rigid object to one person, a rigorous form to another. These imply valuations; and the analysis of these two perceptions must take into account the fact that the statement of quality is here posterior to a value judgment … The notion that quality is unique and inherent in the object assumes that there is such a thing as quality apart from the perceiver; and that the latter has the means of grasping it directly. It seems more likely to me that the character of a thing is known to us only in relation to ourselves, and that the assumption of a pervasive quality restricts the nature of an object to those aspects in which we participate because of our own interests.43

Schapiro was convinced that there was no such thing as a completely disinterested description, that there are no facts without values. Along such lines he confessed that he especially admired John Dewey’s Theory of Valuation (1939), and his wide reading in both pragmatist and Marxist literature no doubt continued to reinforce this claim in his mind.44 Given this belief, the distance between the freedom that Schapiro noted in abstract expressionist paintings and the lack of freedom that Berger noted in them is not as large as it initially seems. Much like Berger, Schapiro was well aware of the political valence that accompanied his characterisation of abstract expressionist paintings. His point in refusing to identify these paintings with any political ideology in his review, therefore, is more accurately taken to be that the paintings by themselves – that is, independent of any judgement or criticism or even perception of them – are not inherently political; it is rather the ends to which we can put them that are. Considering the divergent political ideologies of the New York School artists themselves – let alone those of the US government and Schapiro – such an assertion is difficult to deny.45

Schapiro’s own interests in recognising such canvases as evidencing freedom had been well articulated. In his 1937 essay ‘The Nature of Abstract Art’ Schapiro made similar observations about the work of Kazimir Malevich and Wassily Kandinsky – that their abstract paintings were ‘free’ in the sense that they were free of subject matter, of the task of representing the external world. In making such an observation in 1937, however, Schapiro was more forceful in his Marxist political bent and that is at least partially because those observations appeared in the short-lived Marxist Quarterly. Therein, Schapiro observed that both Malevich and Kandinsky ‘justify themselves by ethical and metaphysical standpoints, or in defense of their art attack the preceding style as the counterpart of a detested social or moral position. Not the processes of imitating nature were exhausted but the valuation of nature itself had changed’.46 Here Schapiro points out in no uncertain terms that there was indeed a moral, social or political dimension to abstraction and the freedom that came with it. That political dimension stemmed from a ‘detest’ for the current reality and a desire to change it.

While the historical distance between that essay and Schapiro’s 1956 broadcast should not be ignored, neither should it be exaggerated. A year after his BBC broadcast, in his address to the American Federation of the Arts titled ‘The Liberating Quality of the Avant-Garde’, Schapiro did much to define his understanding of freedom by repeatedly contrasting recent abstract painting with the ‘mechanical products’ and ‘industrial production’ of the modern world.47 In so doing, Schapiro reveals that even well into the 1950s his understanding of freedom reflected more of Marx’s definition of the term than that of classical liberalism. As is well known, whereas classical liberalism defines freedom negatively as independence from the coercive will of another, Marx broadened the scope of freedom to include the positive ability to act and achieve certain goals and desires.48 For Marx, the means of production and capital in particular were constraining forces on an individual’s ability to act in certain ways and because such forces were man-made economic conditions they could and should also be understood as constraints on individual liberty. By positioning the ‘freedom’ of recent abstract paintings against the restraints imposed on individual personality and expression that accompanied modern, industrialised labour conditions, Schapiro can be understood as implicitly evoking Marx’s definition of the term.

By the time of Schapiro’s trip to London, however, other very different notions of freedom were being expounded through US government channels. In November 1955 the Department of Defense published and distributed a booklet titled Militant Liberty, which encouraged the development of a rather crude political stance in the public to ward off the threat of communism.49 Hollywood films were proposed as the main means of accomplishing this goal and directors such as John Ford and Merian Cooper, as well as actors such as John Wayne and Ward Bond, were recruited and took up the program’s ideals. While the messages conveyed by these films were stereotypical and rather bland, they were also effective: America is a prosperous society, competition is healthy, the ‘Free World’ is superior to Moscow.50 In these films freedom became a slogan for resisting communism and preserving the capitalist status quo rather than as a plea for change.

The contradiction between this popular political background and Schapiro’s intentions speaks well to a more general tension at the heart of art historical interpretation: the words that are used to describe works of art often take on meaning in relation to the values that are read into them. This is partly because it is only in oblique and demonstrative writing – rather than in purely descriptive writing – that the visual interest of works of art emerges. As art historian Michael Baxandall pointed out, it is an obvious but nevertheless difficult fact that the purpose of art writing is not merely to come up with a list of objective visual qualities that artworks have but to point or direct viewers’ attention to qualities that are interesting. To clarify his observation Baxandall divided the vocabulary of art criticism into three categories: comparative and metaphorical words that are used to identify visual interest; words that describe the action or agent that created the work; and words that characterise the work’s effect on the beholder.51 If we apply this typology to Schapiro’s broadcast it is clear that the ‘freedom’ that he describes in abstract expressionist painting shifts back and forth between these three word types. Complicating matters even further, because the ‘freedom’ that Schapiro evokes is demonstrative rather than purely descriptive – i.e. is intended to be refined by the reader in their experience of the paintings – the choice as to which of the three types of freedom Schapiro’s description conveys is partially contingent on the reader and on the values that they associate with that particular quality. Just as a reader today sympathetic to Schapiro’s politics can recuperate Schapiro’s socialist intentions from his description, so too can we imagine a sympathetic listener in London in 1956 – someone like Patrick Heron for example – doing the same. And just as a reader critical of Schapiro’s politics can understand Schapiro’s description as evidence of his de-Marxification, so too can we imagine a listener in 1956 with more orthodox Marxists leanings – someone like John Berger – understanding Schapiro’s description as little more than a furthering of anti-Soviet propaganda.

Fully aware of these ambiguities, Schapiro’s commitment to describing abstract paintings as evidencing freedom remained steadfast and nuanced. In a later lecture course on abstract art, Schapiro was asked about the role of chance in Jackson Pollock’s work, the empirical quality that in 1937 he had already pointed to as corresponding ‘to a feeling of freedom’.52 After a long, rich answer which ranged from probability theory to the very possibility of randomness in the universe to our perception of chance in certain forms, Schapiro ended by noting that he had once read a sad book by the self-taught French philosopher Pierre Camille Revel which claimed that

good and evil are like heads and tails – they are two opposite values of our actions. Now, [Revel] said, according to the law of large numbers in statistics, the more often you throw the coin, the more the results approach equality. Well, the more actions you perform, the more good and evil approach equality. Therefore there is no need to make choices, or to have any kind of morality or ethics, because in the long run – that famous word – the amount of evil in the world and the amount of good will be just about equal. His notion of chance was an unanalyzed one; he assumed that we could distinguish good and evil as distinctly as we can distinguish heads and tails, and that the conditions are uniform in action, so that the two will eventually equalize.53

By ending his discussion of chance in Jackson Pollock’s painting with this anecdote, Schapiro again subtly points out the intractable relationship between facts and values in art historical description. And by extrapolating his point a bit further, we can almost hear him say that while randomness and chance are clearly key qualities of Jackson Pollock’s paintings, merely observing the importance of those qualities in his painting does not excuse us from the need to make a value judgment about those qualities. Schapiro’s point is, thus, quite simple: as viewers of art we cannot and should not excuse ourselves from the act of valuation.

Such a position, I believe, helps make some sense of why Schapiro agreed to go to London, why he had applied for money from the IES already in 1953, and why he would request to participate in the program again later in 1956, a request that was denied.54 Schapiro was a firm believer in the importance and inescapability of value judgments in his scholarship and by going to London he can well be said to have upheld his self-imposed responsibility to identify the values – the morality, we might say – that he had observed in abstract paintings as early as the 1930s. Even though Schapiro’s silence in his BBC broadcast about his Marxist bent certainly reflects the gradual tempering of his politics, to read that silence as a wholesale abdication of his previously and subsequently stated political beliefs goes too far. Moreover, for us to read Schapiro as if he were merely a kind of unwitting Cold Warrior because his writing, voice and authority were co-opted or put to use by the United States’ propaganda campaign against the Soviet Union is only a partial truth, one that reflects our own biased understanding of the word freedom based on its current use in international politics and one that constrains the meaning of Schapiro’s words to an understanding of them that Schapiro himself no doubt opposed. Considered more fully, what Schapiro’s trip to London reveals is that the value of freedom that he associated with the quality of randomness in abstract expressionist paintings was separable from the morality that led him to identify that quality in those paintings in the first place. The lesson of Schapiro’s trip to London, therefore, is a lesson that Schapiro himself knew well. As he wrote in 1937, ‘[t]he fact that a work of art has a politically radical content therefore does not assure its revolutionary value’.55 By themselves abstract expressionist paintings evidence neither freedom nor repression, represent neither capitalism nor Marxism, but rather serve as a powerful reminder that there is no such thing as free art historical description.


  • 1. The ‘grant authorization’ form from the US State Department that most succinctly documents this trip is preserved in the Meyer Schapiro Collection, Columbia University Library, Box 173, Folder 3, Series II.
  • 2. Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, Democracy, New York 1950, p.313.
  • 3. While the peculiar circumstances of Schapiro’s 1956 trip to London have not been published before, many art historians have evaluated Schapiro’s Marxist commitments. For claims that Schapiro’s post-war writing lost its Marxist purchase see O.K. Werckmeister, ‘Review of “Meyer Schapiro, Romanesque Art (Selected Papers, 1)”’, Art Quarterly, vol.2, no.2, 1979, pp.211–18; Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art, Chicago 1983; Francis Frascina, ‘Meyer Schapiro’s Choice: My Lai, Guernica, MoMA and the Art Left, 1969–70’, Journal of Contemporary History, vol.30, no.3, July 1995, pp.481–510, and vol.30, no.4, October 1995, pp.705–728. For an example of an argument that Schapiro’s post-war scholarship maintained his Marxist commitments see David Craven, ‘Abstract Expressionism, Automatism and the Age of Automation’, Art History, vol.13, no.1, March 1990, pp.72–103.
  • 4. In making this claim I adapt and apply the ideas of Michael Baxandall to Schapiro’s scholarship. See Michael Baxandall, ‘The Language of Art History’, New Literary History, vol.10, no.3, Spring 1979, pp.453–65.
  • 5. Meyer Schapiro, letter to Harold Howland, 6 February 1956, Meyer Schapiro Collection, Columbia University Library, Box 173, Folder 1, Series II.
  • 6. Harold Howland, letter to Meyer Schapiro, 6 February 1957, Meyer Schapiro Collection, Columbia University Library, Box 173, Folder 3, Series II.
  • 7. Leonie Cohn, letter to Meyer Schapiro, 2 November 1955, Meyer Schapiro Collection, Columbia University Library, Box 199, Folder 10, Series III.
  • 8. Lillian Milgram Schapiro, explanatory note dated 13 May 1999, Meyer Schapiro Collection, Columbia University Library, Box 199, Folder 10, Series III.
  • 9. Manuel Sanchez, Program Officer, letter to Meyer Schapiro, 25 May 1961, Meyer Schapiro Collection, Columbia University Library, Box 173, Folder 1, Series II.
  • 10. William Johnstone quoted in Charles Thomson and Walter Laves, Cultural Relations and US Foreign Policy, Bloomington 1963, p.84.
  • 11. For a detailed discussion of US Cold War propaganda campaigns see Kenneth Osgood, Total Cold War: Eisenhower’s Secret Propaganda Battle at Home and Abroad, Lawrence 2006.
  • 12. Edward Bernays, Crystallizing Public Opinion, New York 1923, p.212.
  • 13. Harold Howland, letter to Meyer Schapiro, 18 February 1953, Meyer Schapiro Collection, Columbia University Library, Box 173, Folder 3, Series II.
  • 14. Lillian Milgram Schapiro, explanatory note dated 13 May 1999, Meyer Schapiro Collection, Columbia University Library, Box 199, Folder 10, Series III.
  • 15. Paul Lazarsfeld, B. Berelson and H. Gaudet, The People’s Choice, New York 1944.
  • 16. Giles Scott-Smith, Networks of Empire: The US State Department’s Foreign Leader Program in the Netherlands, France and Britain 1950–70, Brussels 2008, pp.59–64.
  • 17. Ibid., pp.65–73.
  • 18. Ibid., p.45.
  • 19. There are many treatments of the political transformation of New York intellectuals. For two examples see Alan Wald, The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left from the 1930s to the 1980s, Chapel Hill 1987; and Neil Jumonville, Critical Crossings: The New York Intellectuals in Postwar America, Berkeley 1991.
  • 20. Meyer Schapiro, letter to Irving Kristol, 22 October 1952, American Committee for Cultural Freedom Papers, Tamiment Institute Library, New York University Library, 7.35.
  • 21. For a compilation of the essays that Schapiro wrote under the pseudonym John Kwait in the 1930s see Meyer Schapiro, ‘Looking Forward to Looking Backward: A Dossier of Writings on Architecture from the 1930s’, Grey Room, no.6, Winter 2002, pp.66–109. For an excellent contextualisation of Schapiro’s Marxism during this period see Andrew Hemingway, ‘Meyer Schapiro and Marxism in the 1930s’, Oxford Art Journal, vol.17, no.1, 1994, pp.13–29. For Schapiro’s continued commitment to Marxism even later in life see Helen Epstein, ‘Meyer Schapiro: “A Passion to Know and Make Known”’, ArtNews, May 1983, pp.60–85, and Summer 1983, pp.84–95.
  • 22. Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, United States Senate: Foreign and Military Intelligence, Washington, D.C. 1976, p.49.
  • 23. For a recent and extended narrative account of the scope of these activities see Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, New York 1999. For an early journalistic treatment of the extent of the relation between the CIA and abstract expressionism see Eva Cockcroft, ‘Abstract Expressionism, Weapon of the Cold War’, Artforum, vol.12, no.10, June 1974.
  • 24. Thomas W. Braden, ‘I’m Glad the CIA Is “Immoral”’, Saturday Evening Post, 20 May 1967, pp.10–14.
  • 25. For a recent account of the exhibition in relation to the larger reception of abstract expressionism in Europe see Catherine Dossin, ‘To Drip or to Pop? The European Triumph of American Art’, Artl@s Bulletin, vol.3, no.1, Spring 2014, pp.79–103.
  • 26. David Sylvester, About Modern Art, New Haven 2001, pp.19–20.
  • 27. Modern Art in the United States: A Selection from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1956.
  • 28. Patrick Heron, ‘Americans at the Tate’, Arts, March 1956; Basil Taylor, ‘Modern American Painting’, Spectator, 20 January 1956; John Russell, ‘Yankee Doodles’, Sunday Times, 8 January 1956; Neville Wallace, ‘New World Styles’, Observer, 8 January 1956; Stephen Bone, ‘Love of Mud and String: Artistic Homeostasis’, Manchester Guardian, 13 January 1956.
  • 29. Meyer Schapiro, ‘The Younger American Painters of Today’, Listener, 26 January 1956, pp.146–7.
  • 30. Ibid., p.147.
  • 31. Irving Sandler, The New York School: The Painters and Sculptors of the Fifties, New York 1978, pp.46–8.
  • 32. For the widespread engagement of journals such as Partisan Review, Politics, and Possibilities with existentialist ideas see Nancy Jahec, The Philosophy and Politics of Abstract Expressionism, 1940–1960, Cambridge 2000, p.18. For an excellent discussion of Rosenberg’s engagement with Jean-Paul Sartre and Les Temps Modernes see Christa Noel Robbins, ‘Harold Rosenberg on the Character of Action’, Oxford Art Journal, vol.35, no.2, 2012, pp.195–214.
  • 33. Schapiro’s translation of André Masson’s text was anonymous. However, it is listed in his bibliography – compiled by his wife – and was published in New York by Curt Valentin in 1943. For Schapiro’s comments on the relation between Masson’s text and abstract expressionist painting see Meyer Schapiro, ‘Lecture 14: Course on Abstract Painting’, 17 January 1968, pp.30–1, Meyer Schapiro Collection, Columbia University Library, Box 186, Folder 5, Series III.2.
  • 34. Meyer Schapiro, ‘Lecture 14: Course on Abstract Painting’, 17 January 1968, p.45, Meyer Schapiro Collection, Columbia University Library, Box 186, Folder 5, Series III.2. Later in this same lecture Schapiro compares the use of colour in Mark Rothko’s paintings to experiments described in in James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience (1901–2).
  • 35. Schapiro’s personal copy of William Barrett’s Irrational Man of 1958 is preserved in the so-called ‘Schapiro Books’ collection in the Judith Lee Stronach Center, Schermerhorn Hall, Columbia University. I am indebted to Daniel Esterman for helping me confirm that the marginalia in this book are in Schapiro’s handwriting. For the most developed pragmatist interpretation of Heidegger see Mark Okrent, Heidegger’s Pragmatism: Understanding, Being, and the Critique of Metaphysics, Ithaca 1998.
  • 36. Michael Schreyach, ‘Towards Pragmatic Painting: Jackson Pollock’s Reflexive Potential’, unpublished PhD dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 2005, p.61.
  • 37. David Craven, Abstract Expressionism as Cultural Critique: Dissent During the McCarthy Period, New York 1999.
  • 38. Willem de Kooning, The Collected Writings of Willem de Kooning, ed. by George Scrivani, Madras and New York 1988, p.122.
  • 39. Meyer Schapiro, ‘The Younger American Painters of Today’, Listener, 26 January 1956, p.147 (my emphasis).
  • 40. See Clement Greenberg, ‘Avant Garde and Kitsch’, Partisan Review, vol.6, no.5, 1939, pp.34–49. Schapiro did not openly criticise Greenberg’s ideas until late in life, however Schapiro’s writings on modern art at the time are quiet evidently different from Greenberg’s.
  • 41. Schapiro, ‘The Younger American Painters of Today’, p.146.
  • 42. John Berger, ‘The Battle’, New Statesman and Nation, 21 January 1956, p.71.
  • 43. Meyer Schapiro, ‘On Dewey’, Meyer Schapiro Collection, Columbia University Library, Box 198, Folder 19, Series III (my emphasis).
  • 44. See Meyer Schapiro, ‘The Revolutionary Personality: Review of “To the Finland Station”’, Partisan Review, vol.7, no.6, 1940, p.478.
  • 45. For a discussion of this dynamic see Claude Cernuschi, ‘The Politics of Abstract Expressionism’, Archives of American Art Journal, vol.39, nos.1/2, 1999, pp.30–42.
  • 46. Meyer Schapiro, ‘The Nature of Abstract Art’ (1937), in Meyer Schapiro, Modern Art: 19th and 20th Centuries, New York 1978, p.202.
  • 47. Meyer Schapiro, ‘Recent Abstract Painting’ (1957), in ibid., pp.213–26.
  • 48. Marx’s thoughts on freedom are scattered throughout his writings. For a discussion of Marx’s understanding of the term with helpful citations to his original comments see Thomas Sowell, ‘Karl Marx and the Freedom of the Individual’, Ethics, vol.73, no.2, January 1963, pp.119–25.
  • 49. United States Department of Defense, Militant Liberty: A Program of Evaluation and Assessment of Freedom, Washington, D.C. 1956.
  • 50. For a discussion of the ‘Militant Liberty’ campaign and its impact on Hollywood movies see Tony Shaw, Hollywood’s Cold War, Amherst 2007, pp.202–8.
  • 51. See Michael Baxandall, ‘The Language of Art History’, New Literary History, vol.10, no.3, Spring 1979, pp.453–65.
  • 52. Meyer Schapiro, ‘The Nature of Abstract Art’, p.221.
  • 53. Meyer Schapiro, ‘Lecture 15: Course on Abstract Painting’, 24 January 1968, Meyer Schapiro Collection, Columbia University Library, Box 186, Folder 6, Series III, pp.27–8.
  • 54. Harold Howland, letter to Meyer Schapiro, 4 April 1957, Meyer Schapiro Collection, Columbia University Library, Box 173, Folder 3, Series II.
  • 55. Meyer Schapiro, ‘The Patrons of Revolutionary Art’, Marxist Quarterly, vol.1, no.3, October–December 1937, p.465.


This paper originated from a seminar on Meyer Schapiro led by Professor Robert Harrist in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University. I should like to thank Professor Harrist and also Dr Alex Taylor at Tate for their encouragement.

C. Oliver O’Donnell is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz – Max-Planck-Institut

Tate Papers, Autumn 2016 © C. Oliver O’Donnell

How to cite

C. Oliver O’Donnell, 'Meyer Schapiro, Abstract Expressionism, and the Paradox of Freedom in Art Historical Description', Tate Papers, no.26, Autumn 2016,, accessed 19 August 2017.

Tate Papers (ISSN 1753-9854) is a peer-reviewed research journal that publishes articles on British and modern international art, and on museum practice today.