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.