Once upon a time, colleges and universities cared about great art and the cultural legacy of the West. And then the ivory-tower crowd decided that when Courbet’s hunting pictures were on the syllabus, they’d rather talk about “castration anxiety.” Who wouldn’t, right?
Well, Roger Kimball wouldn’t. As managing editor of The New Criterion and a frequent contributor to National Review, he wages constant warfare against left-wing cultural politics. His new book, The Rape of the Masters, is a charged account of how the professoriate has turned the study of art into an ideological parlor game.
He recently took a few questions from NRO’s John J. Miller on art history, good and bad museums, and John Kerry’s favorite poet.
NRO: The central thesis of The Rape of the Masters is that the academic study of art history has become an expression of politics by other means. Why did the art historians stop caring about aesthetics and start obsessing over politics?
KIMBALL: A glib, partial, but not inaccurate answer is the 1960s. It was then that the radical political imperatives of the New Left insinuated themselves into mainstream cultural enterprises like the art museum and the university. Institutions that had hitherto been devoted primarily to the preservation and transmission of culture were radicalized and, to one extent or another, conscripted into the battle to raise consciousness, undermine tradition, and politicize culture. What happened to many professors of literature and other branches of the humanities also happened to professors of art history: Their infatuation with politics meant that they were less and less interested in the aesthetic substance of their subject. The result was that the subject at hand–be it literature or history or art–became little more than a prop in a politically correct exercise to spread the gospel of (pick one or more depending on the ideological commitments of the proponent) feminism, Marxism, deconstruction, racial enlightenment, environmental sensitivity, sexual liberation, gay rights, third-worldism, and general-purpose, off-the-rack hostility to America, its institutions and core values.
NRO: Why must we bother with art history? What is the importance of learning how to appreciate art?
KIMBALL: You ask easy questions, don’t you? Let me begin an answer with another question: Why must we bother with the humanities at all? Knowing Shakespeare or reading philosophy or mastering history won’t make you rich; it doesn’t serve an obvious pragmatic “real-world” purpose. And yet most of us would consider a life devoid of humanistic learning to be an impoverished life, spiritually if not materially. It is the same with art history. The history of art is part of a huge, interlocking cultural inheritance. No one can master all of it; no one unacquainted with prominent features of it can be considered civilized. That is part of an answer: that art history is an integral part of cultural history, and to be ignorant of it is, in a deep sense, to be ignorant of who we are. But there is another issue, which turns on the issue of beauty and aesthetic experience. Works of art give us access to a liberating realm of experience, the absence or perversion of which is an existential impoverishment. One of the main reasons to care about the sabotage of art by politics is the way it tends to diminish the pleasure we take in art.
NRO: What is the proper role of the art critic?
KIMBALL: It’s a pretty modest role, in my view. I believe an art critic can help educate the public about art, pointing out patterns of continuity, explaining what an artist or a group of artists intended. But in the end the highest office for the critic is to be a sort of aesthetic marriage broker: a successful critic brings a viewer before a work of art, sets the stage for the encounter, and then gets lost.
That’s when we are talking about good art. There is another, more negative, role for the critic, which is to discriminate between good and bad–between the genuine and the spurious–and argue persuasively for those discriminations. T.S. Eliot once defined criticism as “the elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste.” He had literary critics chiefly in mind, but art critics face the same twofold task.
NRO: In the final pages of The Rape of the Masters, you write of “the deep truth behind Oscar Wilde’s quip that only a very shallow person does not judge by appearances.” What do you mean?
KIMBALL: I mean that there is much about the human world–the world of art, love, and friendship–that thrives in the surface realm of appearance. The effort to look behind the appearance of things–to believe that manners, for example, are a blind for some unworthy purpose–yields not deeper insight but only greater distortion. One modern philosopher has warned about the “hermeneutics of suspicion.” That’s a fancy phrase, but what he had in mind is something we all have seen at work in such programmatically disenchanting philosophies as those propounded by Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, or (in some respects) Darwin. One thing those sages have in common is the assumption that truth is not a matter of appearances, but what lurks, darkly, behind or beneath appearances. This attitude may be appropriate in pursuing scientific research; applied to the realm of art and culture and human relationships, it functions as a corrosive solvent. Beauty, for example, is essentially a matter of appearances; to seek to probe behind the appearance for something deeper generally results in the loss of the experience of beauty. I quote another Roger to this effect, the English philosopher Roger Scruton: “There is no greater error in the study of human things than to believe that the search for what is essential must lead us to what is hidden.” In one way or another, all of the art critics I discuss in The Rape of the Masters assume that what is really important about the pictures they write about is not what is there for all of us to see but the-more-or-less-hidden political “subtext” they import into the pictures.
NRO: We’ve all heard the old saying: “Those who can’t do, teach.” What about: “Those who can’t paint, critique”? Are the art critics just a bunch of frustrated artists who can’t stand the excellence and success of the masters?
KIMBALL: I recall another observation by T. S. Eliot. Someone said to him, “Don’t you think most critics are failed poets?” Eliot replied, “Yes, but then so are most poets.” In my experience, most critics do not suffer from “artist envy.” I am sure that some do, but I think that the main problem for criticism today is the extent to which ulterior
motives, generally ulterior political motives, have infiltrated the practice of criticism.
NRO: You skewer much of the art-history crowd for its jargon. Why do these academics refuse to write in plain English?
KIMBALL: The brief answer is that it makes them seem important to themselves and to their peers and readers. The long answer would be a polysyllabic periphrasis of the same.
NRO: Which has suffered more in the modern academy, the study of literature or the study of art history?
KIMBALL: I think the jury is still out, but my own guess is that greater damage has been done in literature because 1) it started there earlier, and 2) departments of literature tend to be larger than departments of art history.
NRO: Among the master artists, whose reputation has suffered the most in the current climate of politically correct art history? Is rehabilitation possible?
KIMBALL: At the moment, I’d reckon that the stock of 18th-century English art–especially the cultivated mannerly art of painters like Reynolds and Gainsborough–has suffered among the most. That sort of highly refined art does not appeal much to an age that has elevated words like “transgressive” and “challenging” into terms of critical adulation. Is rehabilitation possible? Absolutely. Political correctness has done great damage to the study and appreciation of art, but “this too shall pass.” Ars longa, PC brevis.
NRO: How much art history does somebody have to know to be culturally literate? If somebody wants to get a handle on the history of art, is there one book they should read–a “bluffer’s guide” on the subject?
KIMBALL: Art is like most serious human enterprises: the more you know, the more you know you don’t know. Mankind has been deeply involved with visual beauty since before the dawn of history. There is a lot to know. My own view is that–up to a point–deeper is better than broader. What I mean is that I think most people will get more out of really studying a certain artist or group of pictures in some depth than they will out of the “smattering of this, smattering of that” approach. The key element is first-hand experience. I recommend that when you go to the museum, you say no to the audio guide and just look at the art on the wall. You can always look up the historical stuff before or after your visit. What the museum or gallery is offering you is the chance to come face to face with the work. Seize the opportunity! That said, I also believe that there is profit in being “culturally literate” about major masterpieces. Not all of us are lucky enough to be able to visit all of the world’s great museums, and yet it is nice to know what (say) Titian’s Venus of Urbino looks like. Not everyone can get to Florence to see it, but most of us can read an art history book that will illustrate and describe the picture. What’s a good one? Older editions of H. W. Janson’s are pretty good (the newer editions suffer somewhat from the pressure of political correctness to include artists not because of their quality but because of the race, sex, or ethnic origin.) I also greatly enjoyed Paul Johnson’s new history called, simply, Art. It is a highly personal, not to say idiosyncratic, view of the history of art, but it is intelligent, well written, and passionate.
NRO: Are there any great artists at work today–people whose art deserves to be revered when we’re long gone?
KIMBALL: The philosopher David Hume once said that the ultimate criterion of taste was “durable appreciation”–that is, we know something is good if it is considered good by articulate and intelligent observers over a long period of time. That is not an entirely satisfactory criterion–it is too “external” to be entirely convincing–but it does get at least one important element in the matter of artistic reputation: namely that we need to temper our present enthusiasms with the sobriety of time. My own view is that many if not most of the contemporary artists who are adulated by the art establishment will disappear without trace in a few decades. Think of some big names: Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Frank Stella, Gilbert and George, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist: these are huge reputations at the moment. I predict that in 25 years all will be confined to footnotes chronicling the inexplicable perversity of a previous generation’s tastes.
NRO: What’s the best art museum in America? What’s the worst?
KIMBALL: Best at what? The best large-scale museum is probably the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It has an unrivaled collection, and under the guiding hand of its director, Philippe de Montebello, it has largely managed to steer clear of the eye- and spirit-numbing dictates of artistic trendiness and political correctness. (The best small museum? Well, the Frick is hard to beat.) What is the worst? The competition is fierce, but for all-round vacuousness and general pandering to demotic forces, I would be tempted to name the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Under Thomas Krens it has not only become a travesty: It has done a tremendous amount to encourage other museum directors to abandon connoisseurship and aesthetic standards.
NRO: I’ve always enjoyed the art of Diego Rivera. What’s a conservative to do when he’s attracted to the work of a Communist?
KIMBALL: Enjoy the work, eschew the politics.
NRO: You’re a reader of poetry. What do you make of John Kerry saying Pablo Neruda is his favorite poet?
KIMBALL: I find it entirely appropriate that someone of John Kerry’s principles should claim to favor the poetry of a Stalinist apparatchik. Whether Mr. Kerry actually knows any of Neruda’s poetry is another question. Neruda is what Stephen Potter (the author of One-upmanship and other masterpieces of social satire) would have described as an “OK author”: exactly the sort of poet who appeals to the Birkenstock-wearing, Kumbaya-singing, anti-capitalist beneficiaries of capitalism that Mr. Kerry is counting on to help him move into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue next year.
NRO: Some of NRO’s readers may not be familiar with The New Criterion, where you work as managing editor. What is it and why is it worth reading?
KIMBALL: John O’Sullivan has described The New Criterion as “the best cultural magazine in America.” I have always thought Mr. O’Sullivan was a man of rare perspicacity and judgment. I believe that part of what prompted him to offer that opinion is the fact that The New Criterion offers an abundance of cultural criticism that is not only intelligent and wide-ranging but also well-written and witty. Horace advised us scriveners to delight as well as instruct. We aim to do both at The New Criterion, and we aim to do it from a perspective that is cultivated, tonic, and robustly conservative. It pains me to think of any readers of NRO being unacquainted with The New Criterion. Surely their numbers are small. For the one or two in that unhappy limbo, rejoice! You have an intellectual treat awaiting you. Check us out at www.newcriterion.com.
NRO: You dedicated The Rape of the Masters to William F. Buckley Jr. What inspired this? And what’s the little Greek inscription right below?
KIMBALL: I met WFB about a decade ago but only got to know him well in the last few years. Readers of NRO already know what I tardily discovered: that he is an extraordinary man–someone (I quote my dedication) “whose faith, energy, intelligence, courage, and probity–not to mention his unfailing generosity and good cheer–are objects of admiration and reminders that ‘gentleman’ is a designation that has not yet lost its pertinence.” I am extremely grateful for his friendship and that gratitude inspired the dedication. The Greek means “On account of many things.”