The Rape of the Masters
Roger Kimball’s new book on artistic judgement is good, but not great.
The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art, by Roger Kimball, San Francisco: Encounter Books.
The study of art is in a bad way. Some excellent work is being done, and important exhibitions presented. But this is eclipsed by an epidemic of silliness. In universities art historians seem interested only in arcane theory and politically correct mumbo jumbo, while in art galleries curators seem obsessed by mass media and celebrity, audiences and participation. The art historians are accused of irrelevance; the curators are accused of dumbing down.
It appears that galleries and universities are at loggerheads, but in truth they are closely aligned. Both try to make art relevant to external criteria, and both focus on excluded groups. Neither can present a strong defence of art’s intrinsic worth. Curators have been more widely criticised than art historians, because their work is more visible. In The Rape of the Masters, Roger Kimball, US art critic, essayist and managing editor of the New Criterion, extends the critique to the academics.
Kimball is a nasty polemicist who hates many of the things that I hate: misplaced sociological jargon, trendy posturing, forced interpretations that stretch well beyond anything that can be supported by the actual work. In each of seven chapters he takes a different artist and exposes the stupid things that PC academics have said about them.
Those two loaded letters, ‘PC’, stand in for a litany of foolish practices. Kimball rants and raves against the art historical profession, but by lumping everything together he fails to distinguish bad from worse, ironically replicating the PC academics’ sins.
Some of his targets are truly dreadful, but others can be interesting and valuable. Svetlana Alpers, for example, is a much better art historian than the others that he ridicules. I share much of Kimball’s frustration with her fashionable jargon and concessions to the trendy. But her latest book, The Vexations of Art: Velazquez and Others, is full of intriguing insights that are never quite overwhelmed by her sometimes ponderous and obscure prose.
Kimball includes the Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger’s ill-informed discussion of Van Gogh’s Shoes to illustrate how even famous philosophers can ignore the art as they pursue a line of argument. But it really stretches a point to include Heidegger in a book about political correctness. This is a missed opportunity, because Heidegger could have opened up a more profound defence of Kimball’s conclusion, where he writes that: ‘In one of his essays on painting, Henry James observes that “There is a limit to what it is worthwhile to attempt to say about the greatest artists.” I believe that is true of all art. The great occupational hazard for an art critic or art historian is to let words come between the viewer and the experience of art – to substitute a verbal encounter for an aesthetic one.’
This does not rule out expansive approaches to art, many of which are interesting and valuable. It just notes their limitations – they are never equal to the real thing. Art does many different things for different people. But the most profound, and the hardest to convey, is the sense of elemental wonder it can inspire. Words never quite capture that feeling.
This approach to art has been somewhat discredited by association with a nasty strain of conservative irrationalism, drawing in particular on the legacy of philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. But my beef with Schopenhauer is not his approach to art, which is sometimes inspiring, but rather with the way that he relates art and life. For a number of romantic writers, the artistic sphere was held to be somehow truer than the social sphere. Art was deployed polemically against life.
Now we face the exact opposite; prosaic ‘real-world’ concerns are deployed polemically against art. The romantic approach was to the detriment of life, and it did nothing for art. Today’s approach of bringing social and political concerns to art does nothing to address problems of public life, but it is to the detriment of art.
The point, then, is not just to scorn every trendy account of art, but to account more positively for what is intrinsically worthy in art – sorting the great from the good, teasing out meaning and drawing inspiration. There is no royal road to artist virtue, but we can identify some rather obvious dead ends that deserve the vigorous assault mounted by Kimball.
The Rape of the Masters has its limits, but if you share Kimball’s outrage at the way that the interpretation of art is distorted, and you have sighed wearily at the dumb trivialities that demean great art, you will probably scream in unison with Roger Kimball. As he says, the book’s purpose ‘might best be described as medicinal: to provide an antidote – or at least an alternative – to the poison that has infiltrated the study of art history’. This medicine goes down easily.