Roger Kimball’s The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art

BOOKS: I was a teenage barbarian
Roger Kimball’s The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art

A version of this review first appeared on 29 November 2004 on the website of the Social Affairs Unit.

When I was at Amherst College in the 1980s, there existed a student magazine called Scrutiny in which the youth of the Fairest College set out to critique, with varying degrees of wit and justice, the academic courses on offer there. For all too many of my fellow undergraduates, the charm of this publication lay in its clear identification of that elusive ideal — the courses capable of yielding the maximum grade point average from the minimum amount of exertion. Over time, the palm of victory passed from one survey course to another. One perennial favourite, for instance, was Rocks for Jocks (Geology 11), although Roman Holiday (Classics 11), with fewer field-trips but better stories, offered strong competition. And for those who hadn’t managed to register for anything less demanding, there was always Art 11. For whatever Art 11 lacked in terms of a disparaging name was more than balanced by the potential for catching forty winks during long discussions of slightly blurry slides, the professor’s formidable charm and the preconception — never, it must be said, actually borne out in fact, but enshrined in legend all the same — that art was somehow a soft option, a safe berth, a recreation. How hard could it be, after all, to spend a semester looking at pictures?

Easy though it is, now, to look back on these expedients with a mixture of horror and pity — education of the standard offered at Amherst in those days was, no matter how much we may have enjoyed evading it at the time, mostly wasted on the young — at least the dictates of idleness had the virtue of forcing, however reluctantly, many a young person down some path that would yield up great pleasure in later, post-collegiate life. And indeed there were momentary proleptic flashes in which we realised that this might be the case. Not least, I can remember reading in Scrutiny a review of this same Art 11, penned by a bluff, unbookish classmate well known for cursing anything that took him away, even for a moment, from beer, the Amherst Republican Club or the demands of his beloved, recently banned Chi Psi fraternity. For what he wrote rang true. He wrote: ‘Most courses at Amherst teach us to criticise, distrust or despise things. Art 11 is a course that actually gives us something to like.’

Or words to that effect, anyway, because it was all a long time ago — when Chuck was writing his review, President Reagan was still some way from the end of his second term, Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’ video marked the limits of broadcast-worthy decency, and the foetid miasma of political correctness, while already drifting relentlessly across New England, had only just begun to engulf our hilltop college.

The New Criterion strikes back
I thought of Chuck’s review the other day while reading Roger Kimball’s bracing new book, The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art. Mr Kimball’s name is, or at any rate ought to be, well known to all friends of the Social Affairs Unit. Educated at Bennington College and Yale University, he is managing editor of America’s most urbane and persuasive voice of cultural conservatism, writes about art for a host of publications in both Britain and America, and is the author of a number of books including Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Higher Education, The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America, and Art’s Prospect: The Challenge of Tradition in an Age of Celebrity. The titles of these works reflect Kimball’s preoccupations. Formidably learned and enviably energetic, he is both a tireless champion of the enduring values of high culture — of art’s role as a source of moral insight as well as of beauty and pleasure — and a scourge of what he identifies as the debased condition of present-day intellectual and cultural life.

As for The Rape of the Masters — well, it does pretty much exactly what it says in the subtitle, making Kimball’s case that political correctness sabotages art. The organisation of the book is straightforward enough. A strong introductory essay (a version of which appeared as a stand-alone article in The New Criterion) is followed by seven chapters, each describing at least one authority’s silly interpretation of an important work and then taking exception to that interpretation, with an epilogue to round off the argument. Compact, trenchant and often very funny, it asserts many important truths, delivers effective assaults on deserving targets, and sparkles with the unmistakable lustre of carefully-burnished civilisation that is both the distinctive of Kimball’s public discourse and the proud heritage of The New Criterion itself. In short, it’s a significant and serious book, and ought to be bought, read and discussed by everyone who cares about culture — its past, present or future.

At the heart of The Rape of the Masters is Kimball’s contention that most present-day cultural enterprises and actors no longer understand art correctly. To quote his introduction,

But the study of art history today is more and more about displacing art, subordinating it to ‘theory’, to politics, to the critic’s autobiography, to just about anything that allows one to dispense with the burden of experiencing art natively, on its own terms.

Instead, ‘… the study of art is increasingly being coopted by various extraneous, non-artistic, non-aesthetic campaigns.’ Kimball’s condemnation of this ‘displacement of art, its relegation to the status of a prop in a drama not its own’ is the armature around which the rest of The Rape of the Masters is built.

Kimball’s insistence on the primacy (if not the monopoly) of the purely aesthetic in the appreciation and understanding of art is unrelenting. And while he is clear, as he was in Experiments Against Reality: The Fate of Culture in the Postmodern Age, that such a line of argument can itself be perverted (as when the admirers of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs of sadomasochistic homosexual theatrics claim to enjoy this glib, glossy, sub-Leni Riefenstahl rubbish primarily for its formal qualities) and while Kimball is also clear that there are points at which knowledge of extrinsic information such as the historical context of the work or the artist’s intentions can enhance the central aesthetic experience — all the same, the aesthetic experience remains, well, central. Kimball treats this not as some accidental personal inclination, or a culturally or historically specific stance, but rather as an objective truth. And one has to admire the cool way in which Kimball faces up to the implications of this position. In an excellent recent NRO interview, he was asked what a good conservative who admires the work of communist muralist Diego Rivera ought to do. The reply came back, epigrammatic, clear and unflinching: ‘Enjoy the work, eschew the politics’. In Kimball’s view, our goal ought to be the full force of a face-to-face encounter with an actual work of art, underpinned with a knowledge of art history (something that can enrich the experience), but at the same time unpolluted by thoughts about politics, economics, philosophy or a dozen other alien, extrinsic, non-art-related concerns.

Yet everywhere, all around us, art is demoted, forced to serve as the means fueling a thousand unsavoury ends. Anyone who has had the misfortune to deal with the visual arts on a professional basis will recognise immediately the sort of grotesqueries that Kimball exposes, lampoons and condemns. There are the critics for whom pictures are simply a pretext for boring self-congratulatory word-games. Kimball is right to identify laziness as a besetting critical fault — along with ignorance of the facts of art history, as opposed to the more agreeably labile theory which one can always make up as one goes along. Then there are the campaigners, for whom art is little more than illustration in their crusade against some present-day grievance, real or imagined — the sort of dreary people who project the liberal niceties of a twenty-first century Ivy League campus on, say, Titian’s Venice or Van Dyck’s Genoa and expect the result to be anything other than tendentious and silly. Kimball is also right, obviously, about the general tendency, here and in our time, to believe that anything elevated or important or beautiful is in fact secretly corrupt and circumstantial and ugly, and that real merit lies in somehow unmasking and disenchanting the world until all that is left is a mephitic, murky pool of corrosive cultural solvent. And finally, there’s the question of fashion. People who congratulate themselves on their coolly detached, postmodern cynicism in the face of some scare-quote-festooned vision of ‘culture’, will treat all authority as suspect and compromised — whilst piously quoting Benjamin, Baudrillard and Derrida to back up their anxious little assertions. Yes, the current circumstances of art history, as with most cultural conversation at the moment, are more than a bit rum. Kimball is right to point this out — right to be outraged, and right to respond with a blend of ridicule and principled resistance.

While Kimball has selected a reasonable range of targets — all the way from Svetlana Alpers’ bizarre reformulation of Rubens and Griselda Pollock’s drearily feminist reading of Gauguin to David M. Lubin’s treatment of Sargent and some distinctly curious takes on Winslow Homer — and while his essay on the insane scholarly preoccupation with van Gogh is at once difficult to believe and entirely accurate — for practical reasons, a great deal must be taken on trust. It would, after all, be easy to pick out seven dud examples from the millions of words of art history and criticism that are published every year, would it not? The really alarming truth, however, is that Kimball has been fishing in the mainstream, not the exotic little creeks of his discipline. The preoccupation with class, race and, pre-eminently, sex (the weirder the better) that surfaces again and again in The Rape of the Masters is to the critical language of our own age what an interest in the sublime, or in the significant form, was to ages past. The art-historical conventions that Kimball mocks are the stuff that now powers academic course-work, the commissioning of art books from the most reputable university presses, and the acquisition criteria of major public collections. Heaven only knows what this says about our time, but it’s quite clear what it says about The Rape of the Masters — that it is a welcome and much-needed broadside fired on a flawed and flatulent orthodoxy. As Kimball himself writes, he could have very easily have written a book twice as long. In practice, he’s done a good job making a case that needs to be made.

A few minor quibbles
That said, The Rape of the Masters is not above criticism, even on its own terms. Kimball’s irony is not subtle. Sometimes it is of Big Bertha-type calibre, the weight resulting in a concomitant loss of range and accuracy. Related to this is his tendency to assume that his readers will following him in attributing self-evident foolishness to some particular argument or assertion, and while often he is probably correct in this assumption, at the same time its habitual, easy nature says something about the audience this book is intended to address. Or to put it another way, if you already subscribe to The New Criterion or the Spectator — or if you spend a lot of time engaged in the wholly admirable business of perusing the Social Affairs Unit weblog — then chances are you that probably agree with the basic thrust of The Rape of the Masters without even having read it. On the other hand, what if you are just one of those many entirely normal, mainstream, decent, reasonable people who, for better or worse, have been conditioned to believe the sort of nonsense that Kimball savages, if only because you have never been taught anything else? What if Alpers sometimes sounds reasonable to you, rather than silly? What if you actually find T. J. Clark to be playfully persuasive in places? The danger is that you would discover little in The Rape of the Masters to persuade you otherwise, or to present a coherent, compelling alternative. It might be argued that this is asking for a different sort of book than the one that Kimball has written. Yet the danger of preaching to the converted has nothing to do with the quality of preaching, or the wholesome and happy effect of the exercise on those involved. It has everything to do with the neglect of those who are still messing about with animal sacrifice and omens, knee-deep in comfortable error.

But there’s another danger implicit in The Rape of the Masters — acknowledged and dismissed in the final paragraphs of the book — which is that in keeping its core assumptions largely implicit while spending a lot of time mocking what it deplores, it tends to give the impression that the conservative approach to culture is, somehow, best expressed in terms of negatives. Now, I’d be the last to deny the bad-boy appeal of pitch-black negativity. I’d also be the first to say that Kimball himself, and The New Criterion of Hilton Kramer and Sam Lipman more generally, have for many years now expounded their distinctive understanding of culture with specificity and clarity as well as, where necessary or simply possible, a degree of rancour and aggression. Yet self-evidently, the reason I’d be ready to say this is precisely because I’m aware of this body of work. Others — cultural actors and consumers alike — may very well not be aware of this and, coming unprepared to The Rape of the Masters, may confuse its polemical focus with a lack of positive alternatives, and its occasionally defensive tone with the hint of defeatism. And that would be a shame, because there’s certainly more to the relationship between culture and conservatism — let alone the defence of art against the forces of political correctness — than that.

… And a few larger quibbles
Not that there’s any one conservative approach to culture. As the shrewder reader may have intuited by now, there are points on which Kimball and I part company. Some of them are important, and for what it’s worth, I’ll identify some of these in a moment. First, though, I want to make what is perhaps the more important point. For decades now, the Left has thrown up countless species of distinctive, if often interrelated cultural theory. The family rows that have resulted have sometimes been illuminating, often merely tiresome, but the world of art history that Kimball condemns has, to a large extent, been shaped by them. Meanwhile, the Right has been relatively silent. The reasons that lie behind this, while clear enough in their own way, are too complicated to find a place in this review. Suffice to say that I hope that Kimball, whose criticism I very much admire, will not grimace too painfully in the face of what looks very like heinous cultural relativism when I assert that it is, per se, no bad thing that a multiplicity of models of culture should exist amongst those who are happy to stand up and call themselves conservatives, and that this should play itself out in terms of some robustly contrasting views regarding the scope and purpose of art history.

First things first: cards-on-the-table time. My central disagreement with The Rape of the Masters has to do with the gap between Kimball’s and my understanding of art. Now, I’m not so sure about ‘art’ as either an end in itself or, come to that, as a concept that transcends a particular time and a place in history. It seems much more likely to me that ‘art’, in the sense of an autonomous aesthetically-centred practice, was invented at some point around the end of the eighteenth century in Western Europe, and that the whole concept has, by now, probably created more trouble than it’s worth. Or to put it another way, nothing I have seen or read has convinced me that a whole range of individuals — from the sculptor working in Periclean Athens to the painter putting the finishing touches on an early sixteenth century gold-ground Venetian altarpiece to a printer colouring the blocks of an Edo print — were doing anything other than working in a craft tradition that allowed them to achieve excellence in creating various functional items. These were items that might advance the causes of religion, or political propaganda, or perhaps only entertainment, but which existed in a world apart from the increasingly sterile, self-referential, gallery-bound fine art of the present day. And while formal language allows us to identify what present-day art has borrowed from earlier practice, and the narratives of art history trace a lineage from that earlier practice to the art of the present day, the traffic here goes in only one direction. Inevitably, we do project our own understanding of visual culture upon the past, and what on earth is wrong with that?

All of which blend of crass materialism, unsightly postmodern posing and extreme personal eccentricity — or that, at any rate, is how I imagine many Social Affairs Unit readers will regard the forgoing stance! — is why, in a way, I think that Kimball is a bit rough on the whole business of art criticism, if not art history, as a form of autobiography. To borrow a quotation harvested from far beyond the pale of aesthetic discourse,

Every thinker has his own narrowness. Behind every world-thinker there is a locality, and, since few thinkers address themselves at first to any locality but their own, few will be properly intelligible outside it.

To read Vasari, Winckelmann, the Goncourt brothers, Warburg or Schapiro without one eye trained on the time, place and personal circumstances against which they were writing is to miss a great deal in what is still alive and persuasive in each of them — not least, in what they have to say, at any rate by implication, about the whole act of looking, which is ultimately about as subjective, personal and accidental as any other human activity. And why should writers writing today be any different? We bring different things to the pictures we see as the decades and centuries pass — eyes educated by photography, the promiscuous proliferation of images, sharply altered expectations about what the visual world can and should convey — which is, at least in part, why certain artists and their work slip in and out of fashion. Levels of enthusiasm for fleshy nudes, or slaughtered wildfowl, or messily martyred saints inevitably wax and wane over time; so do preferences for gestural brushwork or pseudo-photographic clarity. The paintings don’t change, but the experience of looking does. Why not be honest about this, and admit the partial, allusive, circumstantial, rather arbitrary way in which our moments of real congress with visual culture take place? And how to do that, without facing up to all the complicated tangle of non-aesthetic concerns that frame our experience of looking?

Here comes the political content
But it’s not just a question of arguing that the intrusion of non-aesthetic concerns into the experience of looking is an inevitable one — a point of view that Kimball at various points, notably in his comments on Prof Lubin, roundly condemns. It’s also a question about the desirability of doing so. And here, too, I distance myself from Kimball’s position. Leave one set of incidentals to the side for a moment — the masterpiece that looked dull and dead because one saw it through a haze of suppurating self-pity, for instance, or the conceptual silliness that somehow worked because one experienced it on a brilliant autumn day in delightful company — if only because their impact on the act of seeing is both so obvious, and so impervious to objective assessment. My own view is that since other spheres of endeavour are, basically, much more significant than art per se, they positively ought to inform our vision. And while The New Criterion is not a natural home for such lines of argument, even there they can sometimes be heard. Take, for instance, the great Hilton Kramer’s various assaults on Gerhard Richter’s October 18, 1977 series, which famously depicts involving the Baader-Meinhof Gang. Discussing Robert Storr’s haigiographic if muddled Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, Kramer wrote that

As political analysis, much of the text is a tendentious humbug, for it repeatedly exalts what it pretends to find ambiguous in both the so-called ideals and the real-life crimes of the Baader-Meinhof Gang. And as art criticism it is similarly tendentious in pretending to find problematic what is plainly evident to the naked eye: that Mr. Richter has produced a series of paintings that attempt to aestheticize the politics of terrorism. To take refuge from that reality in the looking-glass world of moral ambiguity is itself an act of moral evasion.

I can’t believe he means ‘an act of moral evasion’ as a compliment, either. For despite Kramer’s insistence elsewhere in the article that formal concerns should be central to any account of modernism and its development, when confronted with Richter’s canvases and Storr’s encomia, it seems right to insist that there are moments when the critic has a responsibility to take the artist’s politics, whether presumed or explicit, seriously.

Part of the problem here may simply be a case of double standards masquerading as something else. Because Kimball regards art as having an autonomous existence beyond, if not actually above, the stuff of politics, he presumably further holds that if, say, a radical socialist and a High Tory were confronted with an elegant society portrait by Sargent, the two ought to feel more or less exactly the same thing in front of it — that the socialist, certainly, should not feel anachronistic resentment of the world of wealth and privilege reflected in it, or worry too much about gender inequality or sexual politics, or obsess about issues of patronage and power. The Left-wing lexicon of political correctness, in other words, should not be brought to bear upon what’s actually there (as Kimball would put it) in the painting. To which most of us would, I imagine, as much out of visceral dislike of political correctness as anything else, nod sagely and say ‘fair enough’.

But what if the positions were reversed? What if, for instance, the same two viewers were placed before The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David? Would it really be incumbent on the High Tory to bite her lip and admire the indisputable formal qualities of the work — while at no point condemning it as a highly proficient, highly regrettable slab of morally unpleasant agit-prop, in which the iconography of a Christian martyrdom is placed at the service, by one of its more creepy if technically competent foot-soldiers, of a murderous and contemptible political regime? David, after all, personally signed death-sentences for something like 300 people, which makes his celebration of the demagogue Marat even harder to stomach. And anyway, he didn’t intend his work to be admired in formal terms — he intended it to persuade us to take a positive view of Marat, the Jacobins and the politics they espoused. Are we supposed to forget all that when faced with a strong composition and a brilliantly schematic use of colour? Are we really expected to treat it on equal terms with, say, the Louvre’s great Van Dyck portrait of Charles I? Is it somehow wrong to mention Sargent’s politics, but right to mention Richter’s?

Kimball would, I think, say yes: ‘enjoy the work, eschew the politics’. We’ve seen that already. But there is, surely, at least another possible conservative position, in which it would be possible to comment on the political content of a painting (whether that apparently intended by the artist, or apprehended by the viewer) from a conservative, rather than from a socialist or liberal position. And here it is striking that all the instances of the ‘politicisation of art’ cited by Kimball involve critiques emanating not from the Right, but from the Left. Boime, Derrida, Alpers, Pollock, Clark: the politics they bring to the enterprise of criticism are no more attractive when focussed on visual culture than they would be were they directed towards, say, solving the problems of poverty or confronting the realities of social hierarchy. Indeed, it is hard not to suspect that Kimball has done this not simply because virtually all such attacks come from the Left anyway, but also because his audience might not find a conservative political critique as patently fatuous and factitious as a politically correct, which is to say Left-wing one, must invariably sound to them.

False idols
All of which leads to one further, final point of disagreement. For Kimball, art is not only a thing to be kept above politics, but something very solemn and important indeed. It is never a diversion, a distraction — it is a lens for morality, not the incidental conduit of someone else’s moral doctrine. But if you think politics is more important than art, you can’t just blithely ignore a painting — however admirable in formal terms — that at the same time, either through the artist’s apparent intent or in the experience of the viewer, is loaded with noisome political, or otherwise ideological, freight. Nor can you responsibly ignore the context in which the painting was created — the issues of patronage and reception. Of course it’s easily possible to read too much into an innocent work, to read the wrong things into it, or to become tiresomely solipsistic in the judging, without subtlety or self-consciousness, the past by the standards of the present. Kimball is at his best when he is lampooning this sort of exercise. But to say, for instance, that the politics of an Egyptian late Middle Kingdom tomb stele, or a Holbein portrait, or Rubens’ Banqueting House ceiling are irrelevant really shows the intellectual artificiality of imposing an art-for-art’s-sake rationale on work that was created for very different purposes altogether. And by the same token, to imply that T. J. Clark’s efforts to unpick the politics of Impressionism are somehow inherently misguided is to confuse a bad project with what is perhaps, at worst, some rather dated and personal over-interpretation.

Few have ever died of bad art, or of bad art criticism. This is why the stakes in politics, philosophy, economics and so forth are simply that much higher. But there’s another danger, too. When art is elevated to the status of an autonomous enterprise which can be expected to deliver (rather than reflect) insight, moral guidance and even a species of revelation, it starts to look an awful lot like something else which, poignantly, has diminished in stature in exactly the times and places where art (in this autonomous sense) has grown — which is to say, religious faith. And this, ultimately, is my main objection to the way in which Kimball appears to understand art. The tendency to turn culture into an ersatz religion — complete with its own shibboleths and sacred texts, ritual spaces and priestly hierarchy, its own doctrines of election and salvation, its own tones of sanctimony and self-righteousness — is an inheritance from a particular strand of nineteenth century Liberalism that is deeply embedded in all the Anglophone cultures, but if for that very reason is something that conservatives ought, really, to regard with antipathy.

Ultimately, and perhaps unfairly, Kimball’s understanding of art strikes me as fundamentally Liberal, rather than conservative. There ought to be more to cultural conservatism, after all, than defending as eternal truth an understanding of cultural endeavour not much older than our own great grandparents’ copies of Culture and Anarchy — let alone an understanding no older than that other great figure who once passed amongst the shady groves of Yale and Bennington:

[Art is] a matter of self-evidence and feeling, and of the inferences of feeling, rather than of intellection or information, and the reality of art is disclosed only in experience, not in reflection upon experience.

As anyone who has ever been moved by a picture can tell you, Clement Greenberg had a point — as well as, needless to say, a degree of engagement in politics, and in life more broadly, that could surprise only his stupidest detractors — but no monopoly on truth. And anyway, where on earth would this leave one when it came to art history as a subject of research, writing and elucidation — the central focus of The Rape of the Masters? Man is, by nature, an analytical and narrative-making animal, who no sooner enjoy something than he seeks to dissect, understand and perhaps even replicate it. Greenberg had his art-historical narrative, just as Arnold had his before and Kimball has his now. For my own part, I believe that the role of the conservative is to contribute to these narratives, direct their flow, make sure that their progress is infused with our own distinctive insights and preoccupations — while being honest, at the very least, on the subject of where these insights and preoccupations came from in the first place, and of the limitations under which we inevitably labour.

What did you do in the Culture War, Mummy?
By the time I left Amherst in the spring of 1988 — the lilacs bobbing heavily in the humid air, the fraternities thriving quietly despite or perhaps due to their official abolition, the forthcoming presidential election having provided excuses for long and boozy campaigning sojourns in New Hampshire — the Culture War was well underway. None of us, however, knew it at the time, since in those early days this cataclysmic struggle still lacked both a name and an organising story-line. But in a way, my Amherst friends and I all knew that we were taking part in something, however little we may have understood what it might, later, come to be called. For although our hard-won air of effortless anti-intellectualism might, in Arnold’s scheme of things, have tended to number us with the barbarians, much of our apparent contempt for academic seriousness stemmed in fact from the visceral discomfort most of us felt in the face of a militantly self-righteous, increasingly triumphalist, almost uniformly left-wing academic confraternity.

So in our own way we fought back, not just by heading off for New Hampshire to campaign or by setting up the original incarnation of Amherst Spectator, but in smaller ways, too — by not smiling in the face of our professors’ cheap digs about President Reagan, or by quietly going to church on Sunday, or by standing up when the national anthem was played on television, or even by sticking by the fraternities, less as a source of cheap beer and undemanding conviviality than as a bond between our generation and those of decades gone past— the businessmen and gentleman-bankers and grandfathers with good war records who — unlike the artificial culture of ‘demes’, diversity and development appeals, constituted the real heritage of a liberal arts institution we all secretly loved quite a lot. What we didn’t much realise, or only vaguely suspected — because it was only 1988 — was that academic studies had any part to play in this political contest. As a would-be early modern historian, I accepted the primacy of the Annales school without question, looked up to Natalie Davis and Lawrence Stone, and regarded Keith Thomas almost as a source of revealed wisdom — suavely revealed wisdom at that. Chuck’s Scrutiny piece was ahead of its time both in detecting a persistently critical quality in the atmosphere around us, and in suggesting there was anything remotely odd about it. It was only about a decade later when it finally occurred to me that I had pitched my tent on hotly contested ground — and even so, it took me a few years to understand where that raking fire was coming from, and longer still — having left behind the ugly yellow stock-brick of East Anglia — to find an inviting foxhole and to start to work out how much evidence of this conflict I already bore upon my person.

And how did the visual arts fit into this scheme? Well, how hard could it be to look at a lot of pictures? At Amherst in 1984-88, we thought we knew what the visual arts were — which is to say, art was something that civilised people knew about — something to buy to cover walls, or to look at out of fun, curiosity or habit. If we were spared the idea that art ought to function as an end in itself, as a mirror of perfection, as a guarantor of political decency and stability, even as a surrogate for a faith not all of us had even then abandoned — well, we were also spared the idea that art was simply unimpeachable evidence of all the racist, sexist, homophobic, class-centric awfulness of the past. The art history we were taught had its own encoded history and politics — much of it, in retrospect, remarkably German and nineteenth-century, cheered up here and there with lashings of the milder, more modest sort of social history. Yet the calm, agreeable, confident voice of our genial, ex-US Navy, medievalist art professor conveyed as much through its tone as through his actual, utterly reasonable, not invariably memorable words. So when Kimball writes of his aim to ‘encourage the beneficient, pleasurable, civilising elements that have traditionally been accorded to our encounter with good art,’ I was reminded — viscerally, immediately if accidentally — of those afternoons spent looking at slides amidst the crepuscular closeness of the sleepy lecture-room, a happy day at the Frick with a friend spent scrutinising a slightly questionable Van Eyck, a lifetime of complicated first-hand pleasure that keeps luring me back to art, however much theory might tend to drive me away. Ultimately, Chuck’s Scrutiny piece was right: what we learned at Amherst, for better or worse, was that art was something to like. Self-consciousness came much later. And this, I suppose, is the deep level at which Kimball and I are in complete agreement, no matter how different the terms might be in which we’d seek to describe, explain or justify it.

All of which is a long way of saying that as much as it might be desirable that we should all sit down and choose our intellectual orientation entirely on the basis of cold, rational assessment — well, we don’t. For if I have patience now with Bourdieau or even, up to a point, Belting — although actually, since we’re on the subject, I prefer the understated patrician magnificence of a Haskell to all the hyperactive anxious theorizing of a Hauser — I am, unavoidably, the creature of my own past. So, I suspect, is Kimball. There are different modes of attack in this particular war, and no particular point in over-emphasising differences with those who are, after all, our allies. Kimball and I may disagree both on the intellectual underpinnings of our approach, and some of the consequential trappings of our case, but we agree on something perhaps more important, which is the desirability of undermining the effective hegemony of the Left when it comes to matters of culture and, in particular, the visual arts. If The Rape of the Masters sometimes sounds defensive — there is much to defend, and far too few defenders. Roger Kimball has produced a book which should be acquired, read and taken seriously.

Bunny Smedley has a doctoral degree in history from Cambridge University. She lives in London and has recently given birth to a son.

Bunny Smedley, November 29, 2004 08:39 AM

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s