To a social critic like Schapiro, it went without saying that this class of people were benefiting from the poorly compensated labor of others. Schapiro was trying to figure out what that pleasure-seeking meant to a nineteenth-century viewer, to the artists who created it, and perhaps to himself as well.
It is, it seems, the destiny of those joyous paintings to attract leftist critics who can't let them be. I'm afraid I include myself here. Rather than abandoning ourselves to their evident attractions, we are haunted by Walter Benjamin's disturbing words, written in 1940 when he was fleeing the Nazis. For the critical leftist, he wrote, all great works of art "have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism." What a terrible burden for art to bear, and for us viewers as well. So, you see, we made Impressionist paintings just a little bit Jewish.
I liked the fact that Schapiro was a Jew who spoke with a heavy Brooklyn accent and penetrated the Gentile world of art history. He was inspired in his writing about Christian art, and he thumbed his nose at that world by writing about something else entirely. Schapiro could be a Jew, and outsider, but also an insider. He could be an American. But he wasn't "passing." He was actually both.
My father always said, "Stay away from Gentiles." Ruthlessly he laced into the great love of my brother's life when, in his mid-twenties, he decided to marry. "She's fat," my father wrote to his son. What he was really saying was "She's Gentile and stupid." At that time, this particularly stupid Gentile was on her way to becoming a brilliant lawyer. My father had no idea how anxious and angry Gentiles made him, how miserable and deflated he became in their presence. In a split second of psychic displacement, he turned his miseries into judgement. He never removed this armor.
Jewish intellectuals like Schapiro helped make it possible for Jews to think about Gentiles and Gentile culture in a new way, to throw our worries about inferiority, our fear of death and betrayal, into the way we look at and write about culture. The urge to endlessly question came right up out of our historic legacy.
Photo © Ken Aptekar