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ON THE WORK OF MEYER SCHAPIRO / Vol. 45, No. 1 (Spring 1978)

Arien Mack, Editor

Mentions Benjamin Nelson's (1911–77) association with the New School of Social Research, his intimate and constant association with the social sciences, and his work with the American Sociological Association.

Discusses the personal relationship between art historian and instructor Meyer Shapiro and artists Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Al Reinhardt, Barnett Newman, and William de Kooning, 1940s–1969.

On a first reading, the appearance, the manifest sense of Words and Pictures, seems to be that of an extended essay on medieval iconography, dealing primarily with the relationship between images—giving priority to the painted, two dimensional image and only secondarily to the sculptural image—and the text which is their future to illustrate. Since, for Meyer Schapiro, this relationship is far from simple and lends itself to all sorts of distancing, variations, transformations, displacements, overflowings, even counterpoise and contradictions which history will come to regard as indications as symptoms: “..such pictorial transmutations of a simple text in the course of time… give to iconographic studies their great interest as a revelation of changing ideas and ways of thought.”

At the reception following his University Lecture, delivered at Columbia on April 2, 1973, Meyer Schapiro confessed his pleasure at the response of two particular segments of the audience, the painters and the mathematicians. The appeal to these two constituencies was predictable; entitled “An Experiment With Forms in Art,” the lecture had considered the complexities and implications of surface structures in Hiberno-Saxon manuscript art, structures at once pictorial and topological. The logic of Schapiro’s presentation matched that of the formal configurations of his subject, images in books produced in Ireland, England, and Scotland in the 7th and 8th centuries.

Meyer Schapiro’s position in the unfolding of art history is marked both by important material contributions and by his emphasis on certain general problems. Some of Schapiro’s “material” contributions to art history are well known, and to everybody familiar with the history of our discipline they are immediately recognizable as original contributions.

The subordination of an individual’s personal set of values to a general intellectual method is not what I want to do here—that is, to subordinate the values of Meyer Schapiro to the method of Marxism. Schapiro’s emphasis on art as conditioned intensification of a whole social image is states with alternatives and variations which are not common among Marxist theorists.

To make any case for the dominance of dialectical reasoning in Schapiro, and to show how subtle his dialectic is, the author presents in great detail the language with which he articulates it, and instances of what might be regarded as “ruling” antitheses by reason of their consistent recurrence in his thought.

In Schapiro’s famous essay, “Style,” Schapiro addresses the issue of stylistic analysis as a sequence of works of art, carried out with appropriate sensitivity and discretion, can illuminate the whole history of a culture. Since the essay was originally addressed to anthropologists, he pays due attention to the more limited use of stylistic analysis as the tool with which permits a specialist to localize and date an object.

The study has two main divisions. In the first, Schapiro proposes his definition of style, and in the second, he surveys art-historical approaches from the biological-dialectic systems of Wolfflin and Riegl through technical, iconographical, racial and social interpretations of the nature and structure of styles.

While the brilliance of Meyer Schapiro’s discourse has incited endless speculation, myth-making, and epitomization from childhood, there has been little serious attempt by other art historians to assess his accomplishments as a scholar, to define his role or to fix his aims.

The author considers war initially from the point of view of attackers, and define a central case of it as the resort to armed violence as a means to modify political policy.

In a culture where philosophy has so radically abandoned its task of criticism as to cooperate with the existing system by unending enforcements of its technological rationale, Heidegger’s destruction of metaphysics opens an alternative way of thinking of life in society. What indeed is more powerful challenge to the merry-go-round of reason in the calculi that have usurped the title of philosophy, particularly in the Anglo-Saxon world, than to say no to philosophy’s unconditional surrender to technology?

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