Art, the Destroyer
“Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art” by Roger Kimball, Encounter Books, 186 pages, $25.95
By the author’s own description, this is a pathologist’s report. The disease under scrutiny is deculturation and its agents in the arts. Roger Kimball details the ways art history is dogmatized to assail the social, moral and intellectual ground of culture itself. With the class and gender consciousness of B-movies, art history now provides one-stop shopping for all ideological needs. From multi-culturism to anti-capitalism, every god is on the shelf.
Art history was once an esteemed participant in the methods, values and goals of humanistic inquiry. Its purpose was to yield the broadened literacy that results from genuine scholarship and encounters with great art. But it has become a polemical tool for dismantling the concept of greatness and, with it, the conditions of civilized life. Roger Kimball puts it starkly: “Its enemy is civilization and the … assumptions on which civilization rests. Its aim is to transform art into an ally in the campaign of decivilization.”
Specifically, it is Western civilization that draws fire from academics hostile to the source of their privileges and unmindful of the origins of their own cultural assumptions. As phrased by Keith Moxey, distinguished professor of art history at Barnard and Columbia: “All cultural practice is shaped by political considerations.” So it follows that art history is—must be—”a form of political intervention.”
We have heard this before. In 1963, Leonid Ilyichev, Kruschev’s spokesman for the arts, declared: “Art belongs to the sphere of ideology.” Addressing a meeting of Party leaders and workers in the arts, he insisted that “art always has an ideological-political bent that … expresses and defends the interests of definite classes and social strata.”
He might have been addressing the College Art Association. Certainly, traditional art history still survives; but increasingly, it is practiced against the odds and the mental habits of tenured art appreciators. Kimball’s angry alarum is an extended postscript to “Tenured Radicals”, his 1990 chronicle of humanities departments corrupted by politicized agendas. Beneath the veneer of donnish rationality, lies a drive that is, at heart, a mad endeavor: the compulsion to abuse and discredit traditional values—including standards of achievement—as they manifest themselves in art.
Kimball warns against the debasement of intellectual life by opaque theorizing that sets out to mystify, shunning all obligation to clear thinking. He concentrates on the visual arts because this is the prime arena where intellectual pretension joins rhetorical inflation to promote a crack-pot cleverness that denatures the object it studies. In the arts, there is no brake on confusion between the verbal and the visual. Ornate utterance intervenes to keep us from recognizing what we see with our own eyes.
Kimball’s lively discussion of Mark Rothko demonstrates how fertile obscurantist pedantry can be. His chapter on the psychoanalytic insights into Courbet’s painting by Michael Fried, distinguished professor at John Hopkins, reads like black comedy. But given Fried’s prestige among critics and his influence on the practice of art criticism, you can only cringe.
Obfuscation and interpretive hyperbole are not benign eccentricities. They injure public sensibility and impair capacity for judgment. The critical ingenuity on parade here “exploits the richness of art not to enhance but to violate our experience of art.” Violation is crucial to a prevailing fury to degrade both the idea of high culture and the and the social ethos that supports it.
Masters of the dark hint, professorial artminds strain to uncover nastiness in as many gold frames as possible. (Had you guessed that Sargent’s gracious portrait of the young Boit sisters suggests under-aged courtesans lounging in a bordello? That Rubens, a most temperate man, was possibly as obsessed with cross-dressing as we moderns? ) After tainting the innocent—and with manic perversity—these same culturati insist on gilding the lurid and the trivial. They offer it for delectation, lauding it in terms once reserved for hard-won accomplishment.
When the celebrated London artist duo Gilbert and George exhibited their “Naked Shit Pictures” (oversized montages of themselves naked against photos of excrement), one academic pundit likened the work to Grünwald’s Isenheim altarpiece; another wrote of their “purposely moral”, even “Christian” intent. The crude inanity of the example here is necessary for understanding that the havoc Kimball describes is, indeed, a rape.
Anyone unacquainted with the vulgarizing erudition of contemporary humanities departments or down-the-rabbit-hole art criticism will wonder if Kimball is inventing some of this. Unhappily, he does not have to make it up. If anything, the brevity of the book understates the case.
For Crisis readers, a certain piquancy attaches to Kimball’s argument. against subordinating art to theory, politics or other non-aesthetic considerations. Catholics themselves too often take an ideological approach to visual art. The Church’s historic antagonism toward Modernism has encouraged a desire to put the clock back to Titian. Foreclosing on the achievements of High Modernism (Braque, Brancusi, the catalogue of 20th century greats) in painting and sculpture risks complicity—however unwitting and for quite opposite reasons—with the decivilizers.
Published in Crisis Magazine, February, 2005.
Copyright 2005 Maureen Mullarkey