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An Interview with Roger Kimball ... The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art

An interview with Roger Kimball, author of the new book, The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art, at frontpagemag.com (Dec. 16, 2004):

[Mr. Kimball is managing editor of The New Criterion. He was interviewed by Jamie Glazov.]

FP: Mr. Kimball, welcome to Frontpage Interview. It is a pleasure to have you here.

Kimball: It is a pleasure to be with you.

FP: First things first, what inspired you to write this book?

Kimball: The primary inspiration was the spectacle of the damage being done to the study of art by academic art historians. In many ways The Rape of the Masters is a rescue operation: it aims to rescue art from the clutches of those who seek to enlist art in some extra-artistic political campaign. There are really two parts to my effort. One is polemical: I want to describe, and discredit, the various efforts by academics to sabotage art. My primary weapon is ridicule. Many of my readers have been amazed to discover what sorts of outlandish things are said about art by these supposed experts. But over and above the polemical aspect of the book there is what you might call a “recuperative” aspect. I try to provide an alterative account of the works discussed in the book, an account that endeavors to let the art work speak for itself. One of the chief losses incurred by the new academic art criticism is the simple aesthetic pleasure we take in looking at works of art. The Rape of the Masters speaks up for that pleasure.

FP: The Left has attempted to hijack art because, in large part, art obviously poses a threat to its progressive faith. Totalitarianism, after all, is always threatened by art, since it is a reflection of the world that is, rather than the utopian world that – in the eyes of the leftist – should be. Could you talk a bit about this?

Kimball: The great enemy of the totalitarian impulse, in intellectual life as well as in politics, is the idea of intrinsic worth. As Hannah Arendt and others have pointed out, one of the most toxic and destructive features of totalitarian movements is their attack on the integrity of the individual and his experience. When the enforcer O’Brien in Orwell’s 1984 induces Winston to say that twice four equals 5, he has won a great, if pernicious, spiritual victory, for he has violated Winston’s sense of reality. When it comes to art and intellectual life, the examples are not so dire, but they are in their own way just as significant. In the course of The Rape of the Masters I quote--twice--Bishop Butler’s great remark that “Everything is what it is, and not another thing.” In a way, that can stand as the motto for the book. For what we see in the academic art historians I discuss--it is something you see in literary studies, too--is an effort to discount, to deny the essential reality of things in order to enlist them in an ideological war. A family portrait of four young girls is no longer a family portrait of four young girls but a florid allegory of sexual conflict and gender panic. And so on. If one had to sum up the essential purpose and direction of the new academic art historians, one might say that, notwithstanding the variety of their political commitments, they are all engaged in an attack on the idea of the intrinsic. They start from the contrary of Butler proposition: nothing is what it is, it is always something else--and, they might add, something worse than it seems.

FP: You are an art critic yourself. Please tell us, what is an art critic? Can anyone be one? What motivated you to become one?

Kimball: T.S. Eliot once defined the task of criticism as “the elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste.” I think that is a good capsule definition. But I would add that I believe that the role of the critic is actually quite modest. The image I like to use is that of a marriage broker. The critic can explain all sorts of subsidiary facts; he can provide some intellectual and historical context; but in the end, his most important job is to bring the viewer and the work of art together. Once an effective introduction has been achieved--making that introduction effectively can be trickier than it might first appears--the critic should just get lost and let the relationship develop on its own.

FP: You say the most important job for the art critic is to bring the viewer and the work of art together, but that in the end the critic should just get remove him/herself and let the relationship develop on its own. But this is precisely where the Left is threatened isn’t it? With its totalitarian foundation, it cannot allow the privatization of understanding. There cannot be a relationship between individuals that is not connected and ruled by the General Will, the Party Line, etc. Is this part of the problem?

Kimball: Yes, I remember a teacher I had in college--a poet--who wrote a marvelous poem called “The End of the Private Mind.” That title describes the goal of the Left. Just as socialism wishes to make us all wards of the state, so intellectual socialism--for that is what we are talking about--wishes to render us all particles of one great virtuous mass. You mentioned Rousseau’s idea of “the general will.” That prototypically totalitarian idea has, in one way or another, fueled nearly all left-wing utopian thought in past two and a half centuries. It seems far removed from the discipline of art history, but in fact you can generally see it peeking out from behind the prolix arras of “critical theory” in all its unlovely allotropes.

FP: Overall, crystallize for us why and how the radical Left took academic art history hostage.

Kimball: This is a long and complicated story. I told part of it in my book Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted our Higher Education. That book focuses on the humanities, showing how a sixties-style radicalism has insinuated itself into the curriculum. The goal is to transform education into an instrumental of radical political transformation. There are many, conflicting sides to the phenomenon. One common ingredient is an impatience with the idea of intrinsic merit or intrinsic worth: a poem, a novel, a “text” of any sort never means what it appears to say but is always an essentially subversive document whose aim is to undermine established values. The enemy are those inherited values--political, social, aesthetic, moral values--that constitute the texture of our society. The Rape of the Masters continues the story by showing how a similar animus is at work in the study and teaching of art history. What we see is scholarship used as a weapon. Think for example of the way in which outré sexual themes are imported into the study of art. They are used first and foremost to "challenge" or "transgress" not only art, but also the traditional fabric of manners and morals that stands behind the work of art. In this sense, the enemy is only incidentally the particular work in which hidden, generally outlandish, sexual themes are "discovered."

The real enemy is the received social and moral sensibility out of which the work emerged and in which it has its original meaning. Thus it is that the shocking sex stuff is always part and parcel of an effort to "destabilize" the hegemony of "white patriarchal capitalist" society, etc.

Indeed, a useful study might be made of the way in which the normalization of previously tabooed sexual attitudes and behaviors has been at the forefront of cultural radicalism since the 1960s. Sex is merely the first bridgehead, the easiest point of entry, for an ideology dedicated to revolutionary social change.

It is in this sense that much of what travels under the banner of sexual liberation is really part of a campaign for de-civilization. You see it at work as much in the coarsening of pop culture and the increasing vulgarization of formerly "polite society" as you do in the anemic if frenzied sexualization of academic language in the humanities. What it marks is not the triumph of the erotic but the defeat of reticence and modesty--reservoirs of hesitation and scruple that, ironically, are preconditions of any vital and humane erotic life.

FP: Could you expand a bit on how art must guide art criticism, and not politics?

Kimball: Today in the academy, art history 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.

Here is what's happening: the study of art is increasingly being co-opted by various extraneous, non-artistic, non-aesthetic campaigns. Instead of seeking to preserve the distinctive pulse of aesthetic achievement, art history is pressed into battle--a battle against racism, say, or traditional notions of aesthetic achievement; it is enlisted on behalf of some putatively disenfranchised group or made an accessory to one or another version of academic arcana in which the political can barely be disentangled from the metaphysical or (to be more strictly accurate) from the floridly linguistic.

To a large extent, what is happening in art history parallels what happened over the past few decades to the study of comparative literature and kindred humanistic disciplines. Connoisseurs of that disaster will recognize many of the same names, a similar vocabulary, a kindred minatory tone. One thinks, for example, of the glorified place accorded to the German critic Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), whose essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" has become a kind of sacred text in literary and art historical studies. Why? Because Benjamin, writing under the influence of the Frankfurt School Marxist Theodor Adorno, argued that advances in artistic reproduction--especially the advent of film--had shifted interest away from the art object and its "aura" of uniqueness and onto art as an instrument of political transformation. "The instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production," Benjamin wrote, "the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice--politics."

What frissons of delight that statement produced! The extraordinary popularity of Benjamin's essay, for art historians no less than for literary theorists, lay partly in its effort to dethrone the work of art (and by implication the artist) and partly in its overt call for "progressive" spirits to "politicize" art. In Benjamin's essay, grateful academics found the perfect rationalization of their efforts to subordinate the ostensible subject of their discipline to an agenda, to reduce art or literature to an alibi for . . . you can complete the ellipsis by consulting this week's list of modish causes.

In a word, what we are witnessing today is the triumph of political correctness in art history. It's a pretty depressing prospect, not least because by subordinating art to a non-artistic agenda one drains art of its intrinsic dignity and pleasure. It is worth stressing that the chief issue, the chief loss, lies not in the particular program being espoused: the war on patriarchy, the struggle against capitalism, the march against "formalist values," "bourgeois ethics," or supposedly "outmoded" norms of representation. Whatever one thinks of those campaigns--love them or hate them--they all displace art, relegating it to the status of a prop in a drama not its own.

FP: So are we going to be able to rescue art from those who wish to destroy it and make it into a political weapon? What are some of the weapons art-lovers can employ to save art? Are you optimistic?

Kimball: Well, Candide and Pangloss were optimists. Candide woke up. He became a realist. And that’s how I think of myself. I think that the assault on art, on individuality, proceeds apace in the empyrean of the academy, the art gallery, and many other redoubts of high culture. But I also believe that there is an increasingly vigorous counter movement--witness The Rape of the Masters, witness this interview. There is a great passion for art, which is an expression of the innate passion for genuine experience of reality. Our professors and cultural commissars can ridicule that passion, they can deny its relevance, its political correctness, its sophistication. But they cannot stop its efflorescence. The emperor has no clothes and it turns out he is not even an emperor. He’s only a tenured professor. I would be the last to underestimate the threat--to education, to culture, to art--but in the end I do believe that reality counts for something. Maybe that does make me an optimist!

FP: Roger Kimball, we are out of time. It was a pleasure to speak with you. You are doing priceless work for which we are very grateful. Please keep up your noble fight to rescue and save art from those who dream of building a sterile and disinfected world.

Kimball: Thank you so much for taking the time to raise these important issues.