Art Railing Opinion
Pure Meshuggah: Anti-Semitism Invades Art History
“The revolutionary spirit that fueled Dada and abstract art has continued to affect the course of contemporary art, to the good fortune of all reasonable and sentient people.”
In my four decades working in New York as an art historian, teacher, and art dealer, I never imagined that racist politics and white supremacist viewpoints could contaminate my profession. Unfortunately, I was wrong. I am sorry to see that the websites of Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Target are currently selling Brenton Sanderson’s Battle Lines: Essays on Western Culture, Jewish Influence, and Anti-Semitism (2020). The book—which has been awarded five stars from Amazon’s customer reviews—argues that Jewish artists, writers, and musicians are responsible for an elaborate, century-long conspiracy to influence western politics, economics, music, art, literature, sexuality and popular culture.1
Sanderson, an Australian writer, begins his assault on the visual arts with Dada, the radical movement that began in Zurich in 1916. It lives on in the popular imagination as a playful movement—we think, perhaps, of Marcel Duchamp, who drew a moustache on the Mona Lisa—but originally it was inseparable from the atrocities of World War I. It was founded by artists and poets who opposed the war and fled to neutral Switzerland in an effort to avoid it (although they later recalled hearing the bombardments from their beds at night).
Sanderson traces the roots of Dada to a group of primarily Romanian Jewish artists and poets: Tristan Tzara (born Samuel Rosenstock), Marcel Janco, and his brother George. They banded together at the invitation of Hugo Ball, a German poet and pianist, who wanted like-minded artists to join him at the Cabaret Voltaire, a nightclub he rented in the center of Zurich. Sanderson speculates that the artists met Vladimir Lenin and his colleagues, who, he says, “lived across the street from the Cabaret Voltaire,” where they “were busy planning the Bolshevik Revolution.” He even repeats the story that Tzara might have played chess at a nearby club with Lenin, for which there is no evidence (their meeting in a library is part of the fictional narrative in Tom Stoppard’s play Travesties). Lenin actually lived up the hill from the Cabaret Voltaire (not across the street) and, unknown to Sanderson but now well known in the literature on Dada is the fact that Lenin was a frequent visitor to the Cabaret Voltaire, where he went to see if what was going on there could contribute to his political aspirations.
Sanderson’s main objective is to cast Dada as a destructive force that not only attempted to destroy all art that came before it, but also, because of Lenin’s residency in Zurich at the time, to implicate Dadaists as Communists whose influence was felt in Russia, and later in western Europe and America. But in reality, Lenin had no effect whatsoever on Dada or abstract art. In fact, he and the other Bolsheviks were against abstract art, since its emphasis on individualism was diametrically opposed to Communist ideals. As Marcel Janco told me when I interviewed him in 1982, “Lenin was opposed to anything that could not serve the Communist cause.”2
Sanderson discusses the expansion of Dada to Paris, Berlin, and New York, citing a list of participants he believes were Jewish in a way that is reminiscent of the naming of Communists during the McCarthy era. After telling us that the American artists Morton Schamberg and Man Ray were Jews, for example, and saying nothing else about them, he writes that “the work of the New York Dadaists was focused around the gallery of the Jewish photographer Alfred Stieglitz and his publication 291, and the Jewish art collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg.” The fact is that Walter and Louise Arensberg were not Jewish; they were both White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (Walter was brought up Episcopalian, but never practiced a religion). Sanderson likely guessed they were Jewish from their surname, which might lead him to conclude that the present author is also Jewish. But he would be wrong again. You do not have to be Jewish to deplore the demonizing of Jews.
Sanderson’s articles originally appeared online, mostly in The Occidental Observer, a rightwing publication founded by Kevin B. MacDonald (who wrote the introduction to Sanderson’s book). MacDonald is accurately described in his Wikipedia entry as “an American anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist, white supremacist and retired professor of evolutional psychology at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB),” to which is also added: “In 2008, the CSULB academic senate voted to disassociate itself from MacDonald’s work.” In his introduction to Sanderson’s book, MacDonald openly and proudly reveals his identity as a white supremacist when he states: “We simply can’t avoid discussing the Jews. Honest discussions of Jewish influence are absolutely necessary if White people are going to have a future.”
Battle Lines, also includes reprints of Sanderson’s essays on Abstract Expressionism, which dwell on the Jewish identity of Mark Rothko. He envisions the whole enterprise as nothing short of a Jewish conspiracy, whereby Jews placed themselves in a position to be viewed by the intellectual establishment of the time as “self-appointed gatekeepers of Western culture.” This premise allows him to cast in a negative light all Jews associated with Abstract Expressionism, not only the artists (Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman), but also the critics (Harold Rosenberg, Clement Greenberg, whom he calls “an ethnocentric Jewish Trotskyite”), curators (Katherine Kuh, Peter Selz, Henry Geldzahler) and art dealers (Sidney Janis, Peggy Guggenheim, Samuel Kootz), as well as subsequent modern-day critics who have championed the cause (such as Simon Schama, whom he refers to as “the prominent Jewish art historian”). He laments the fact that he cannot include in this list the non-Jewish artists like Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell, but he does mention that they both married Jewish women (Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler respectively). When he cannot find any Jewish connections to Willem de Kooning, he invents some, noting that he “had to ingratiate himself to the overwhelmingly Jewish intellectual and cultural elite focused around the journal Partisan Review,” which he says (quoting Kevin MacDonald), “was dominated by editors and contributors with a Jewish ethnic identity and a deep alienation from American cultural and political institutions.”
It comes as no surprise to see that Sanderson quotes Hitler in his denunciation of Dada, noting that “Mein Kampf was composed just as Dada hit a peak in Paris.” This is a spurious statement, in that Hitler wrote his book in 1923-24, during the years when he was imprisoned in Munich, and by that time most of the Dadaists had gone on to embrace Surrealism, and declared the earlier movement dead. In fact, Hitler knew virtually nothing about Dada, which he lumped together with Cubism and called an “artistic aberration.” Sanderson explains that when Hitler mentioned the Dadaists, he had in mind the Jews who brought the movement into being, for as he wrote in Mein Kampf: “Culturally, his [the Jew’s] activity consists in bowdlerizing art, literature and the theatre, holding the expressions of national sentiment up to scorn, over-turning all concepts of the sublime and the beautiful, the worthy and the good, finally dragging the people to the level of his own low mentality.”3 Of course we know that Hitler went on to consider all forms of modern art “degenerate,” an opinion shared by a number of authoritarian leaders who were his contemporaries, and by a host of Marxist theorists who believed that social realism was a style that could better serve the requirements of their propaganda machine.
If Jews were such great supporters of Communism in the 1940s—as both Sanderson and MacDonald posit (and to a certain degree they are right)—then why did they not support the efforts of Regionalist painters (Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, and John Steuart Curry) and the Social Realists (Ben Shahn, Diego Rivera)? Why, it is reasonable to ask, did Jewish critics, curators, and art dealers conspire—as Sanderson alleges—to support the Abstract Expressionists instead? After all, as Lenin told Marcel Janco during their encounter in Zurich, abstraction would not serve the goals of Communism, so why would Jewish artists and writers in the 1940s go against their political convictions and support a style of art that failed to serve a socialist agenda? What Sanderson neglects to tell his readers is that Jackson Pollock was a student of Thomas Hart Benton, and just as he broke from the conservative figurative style of his teacher, so did a host of other free-thinking American artists in the 1940s who chose to embrace the new and visually exciting language of abstraction, an approach that allowed them to more directly express their feelings and aesthetic convictions through their work. Needless to say, you did not then (or now for that matter) have to be Jewish to understand and accept the newest developments in contemporary art.
Sanderson so despises the Jewish roots of Dada that he links its philosophical principles to the post-structuralist writings of the highly respected French writer Jacques Derrida, whom Sanderson describes as “an Algerian self-described crypto-Jew intensely preoccupied with his own Jewish identity and the evils of European anti-Semitism.” (By “crypto-Jew,” he implies that Derrida hid his Jewish identity.) Indeed, Sanderson sees Dada’s most injurious legacy as having influenced the writings of many great philosophical thinkers between the two world wars and after. “Despite the difference of critical approach,” he writes, “a common Jewish ethno-political thread runs through Tzara’s Dada, Derrida’s deconstruction, and the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School. Each attempted to foster subjective individualism to disconnect the masses from their familiar, religious and ethnic bonds—thereby reducing the salience of Jews as an outgroup and weakening the anti-Semitic status quo within Western societies.” These words seem to reflect Sanderson’s fear of the intellectual achievement of these Jewish writers; for like Hitler before him, the exceptional intelligence and success of so many Jews in all professions clearly terrifies him and threatens to undermine his painfully flawed illusion of white supremacy.
Both Sanderson and MacDonald repeatedly emphasize the victimhood into which Jews allegedly cast themselves, disputing the supposition, for example, by repeatedly placing the word Holocaust in quotation marks (as if to imply it never happened). After his book appeared, Sanderson wrote an article about this very subject for The Occidental Observer, as if in anticipation of negative criticism that his publication might receive. In “Jews and Competitive Victimhood,” he posits that the continuous refrain of “never again” has caused white people to be discriminated against. “The harm done to White group interests by Jewish activism in the post-World War II era has been enormous,” he writes. “Jews have used their domination of the commanding heights of Western societies to effectively sabotage the successful biological and cultural reproduction of White People.”4
Ironically, Sanderson and MacDonald envision themselves as the ultimate victims of these actions, since they have found themselves ostracized from mainstream academia (as was MacDonald by the university where he used to teach). “’Speaking truth to power’ is obviously fraught with danger,” MacDonald writes in his mission statement for The Occidental Observer, “so some of our writers must remain anonymous.” He goes on to confess that their writings “might be dismissed as extremism of the worst sort in today’s intellectual climate—perhaps even a sign of a psychiatric disorder.” I have always found it astounding how, when attempting to make a case in favor of their position, right-wing extremists often confess to their own failings and shortcomings. It does not take a trained psychiatrist to determine that the biased and racist rants of most white supremacists are the product of an innate psychiatric disorder, one that causes them to hate all people who are not like them. (Remember “psychiatric” was MacDonald’s word choice.) The disorder seems to be based in feelings of inferiority, one that fears individuals or groups with an intellectual capacity superior to theirs. This is not new, for it is a quality shared by many notable psychotics in history.
Sanderson assumes there is something inherently wrong with being Jewish, and that Jews destroy virtually everything they touch – including western art. As with many kinds of conspiracy theory, Sanderson casts aside logic and reasoning in order to convince us that what he is saying is true. But ironically, his argument has something like the opposite of its intended effect, as it gives proof of how important and influential Jews were in shaping the culture of our times. If you were to remove the names of everyone who was Jewish from the roster of twentieth-century artists, writers, critics, collectors, and art dealers, you would find that very little of that history would exist. (Something similar is true of science, from Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr to Jonas Salk.)
Sanderson’s attack on Dada and Abstract Expressionism as artistic movements orchestrated by Jews to destroy western art is on its face ludicrous. Few art historians would agree with that assumption, even those dedicated to studying more conservative kinds of art. Dada and abstract art are recognized for having created viable alternatives to traditional representation. The visual vocabulary that the Dadaists utilized—which ranged from collage, assemblage, and even the incorporation of everyday objects into their work—changed art history forever. The readymade, which was introduced by Marcel Duchamp (who was not Jewish), irrevocably altered the course of western art in the early years of the twentieth century, just as dramatically and enduringly as the invention of linear perspective in the early fifteenth century influenced artists for the next 500 years. The revolutionary spirit that fueled Dada and abstract art has continued to affect the course of contemporary art, to the good fortune of all reasonable and sentient people. There is nothing that Sanderson and the writings of his white supremacist colleagues can do to change that.
Afterword: Many of my friends and colleagues believe that I should not respond to Sanderson’s preposterous allegations, feeling that they might result in giving his writings undeserved attention, yet I feel that threats to civility and justice must be denounced at the earliest possible opportunity. Ignoring them or allowing them to go unchallenged allows them to grow and fester like an unattended wound. And if we have learned anything from history, that is too dangerous a course of action to follow.
- This comes from a promotional blurb printed on the back cover of the book (likely written by its author). The book bears the imprint of The Occidental Press, apparently a subdivision of The Occidental Quarterly, an openly racist and anti-Semitic online forum in which these writings originally appeared.
- “JANCO/DADA: An Interview with Marcel Janco,” Arts 57, no. 3 (November 1982), n4, p. 85.
- Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, trans. by James Murphy (London: Imperial Collegiate Publishing, 2010), p. 281; quoted in Sanderson, Battle Lines, p. 452.
- Sanderson, “Jews and Competitive Victimhood,” Occidental Observer, posted June 29, 1921; see https://www.theoccidentalobserver.net/2021/06/29/jews-and-competitive-victimhood/