The Drunkenness of Words and the Drunkenness of Reason Preface to the Romanian translation of The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art, by Roger Kimball
There are books and authors about which you somehow feel they must exist even if you have not met them yet. Under an avalanche of cultural nonsense, you are still waiting for the emergence of some intelligent voices, educated and courageous, to reconfirm the criteria, to affirm, without fear or uneasiness, that white is white and black is black, voices which are not intimidated by the spirit of time, by false academic requirements or endlessly cultural whims, and to write well and make an indispensable artistic recovery effort, in the spirit once proclaimed by T.S. Eliot, “elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste”.
Such a character is undoubtedly Roger Kimball, one of the most courageous conservative cultural critics, editor of New Criterion magazine.
Kimball was born in 1953 and, after graduating from Yale University, he dropped out of a Ph.D. project in art philosophy to devote himself to cultural commentary for respectable publications (Times Litterary Supplement, The Weekly Standard, Sunday Telegraph, Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, Modern Painters etc.), and later he wrote several books that became classic in understanding postmodernity. Although he confessed in an interview his regret for not having finished his dissertation thesis, the prospect of an academic career had almost never attracted him; even before the publication of “Tenured Radicals”, a hypercritical paper on American universities, perverted by politics, distorted by hermetic theorizing, disfigured by illegible prose and theatrical poetry. The writer frankly confessed that was not the world that aroused his interests.
But Kimball did not become a rebel without a cause, an amateur of immature non-conformism, or in a greedy search of easy fame. His essays are targeting directly: the downfall of public taste through academic vulgarisation, that has occurred under the pressure of political correctness and the enforcement of standards; the university monotony imposed by relativist totalitarianism; those “terrible children” artists, that hold the cultural philistines in stress for years or months to quickly make room for the next products with a short expiration date. His main opponent is precisely the revolution, that became academic, regardless of the field, whether we are talking about philosophy, art, literature or politics.
“The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art”, published in 2004 and translated now in Romanian, represents the effort of Roger Kimball to make a radiography of the impact of the political correctness ideology on the reception of the great masterpieces of the past, although the inclusion of Marc Rothko in an otherwise select company can give rise to legitimate questions. Anyhow, if until 2004, Kimball focused on the effects of the cultural revolution in society (“The Long March”) and academy (“Tenured Radicals”), in the “The Rape of the Masters”, the essayist aims to humorously illustrate the disaster inflicted in art by party leaders.
According to Kimball, the new cultural commissioners have in their arsenal two fundamental techniques in their strategy of subversion. The first is what the author calls, in an essay, “trivializing the scandalous”, and, ultimately consists of praising the mediocre, the abominable, pornography and perversions as being superlative creation. The second method consists of “raping the masters’, that is, the undermining of the until yesterday exemplary creations, through a hermeneutics in the service of nihilism. Duchamp and his moustache applied to Mona Lisa remains perhaps the paradigmatic example par excellence, but it is only a more radical and, basically, more honest instance, in comparison to the contemporary academic commentary, that permanently interposes the “theory” between the opera and the viewer. It is absurd, of course, to claim the absence of any theory in the aesthetic perception, but what dissatisfies Kimball is the overwhelming domination of an anti-metaphysical metaphysics, serving the most dehumanizing egalitarianism.
The works have no longer an intrinsic value, but are invested with value only by reference to a particular contemporary agenda. Thus, each creation is interpreted by a scale, a “theory” that reflects the motives and intentions hidden to the viewer until the postmodern hierophants appear. The interpretations are strictly political. That is: feminist, Marxist, psychoanalytic, or a combination of all.
Art history has transformed, Kimball demonstrates, in a fight against social injustices that need to be eradicated. “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» or «bourgeois ethics». Whatever one thinks of those campaigns – love them or hate them – the chief diminishment lies in the displacement of art, its relegation to the status of a prop in a drama not its own”.
In his apparent polemic effort, Kimball uses a seductively simple technique: he fully gives the floor to his adversaries, and thus the reader has direct contact with the pompous aberration of the official art historians.
After the introductory exposition, the book is basically structured around comments about seven representative paintings. Kimball presents his insights and underlines, with unconcealed satisfaction, the aberrations, but always taking care to put the artist and his opera in the right context. In this way, the reader is not being left only facing the cultural decay, but receives a consistent impulse to rediscover art without ideological glasses.
The main argument of the book could be very well structured around the aphorism of Bishop Butler, quoted twice in the “The Rape of the Masters”, according to whom “everything is what it is and nothing else”. At first glance, this word of spirit expresses a banality, a tautology, but, as Kimball recommends, we must remind ourselves, following Orwell’s footsteps, and, I would myself add, the footsteps of the dostoievskian “subterranean man”, that the dream of any totalitarian is to convert “two plus two equals four” into “two plus two equals five”, namely the abolition of any natural order. “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”, explains the author in an interview.
From this point of view, the abundance of illustrations provided by Kimball can be much better understood. And that’s because we are not just confronted with a bizarre collection of impressions of some individuals with an uncontrolled imagination, eccentrics wanting to shock again and again the bourgeoisie, but with a systematic attempt to question our primary perception. You look at, for example, Courbet’s painting from 1856, “La curee”, and you have in front of your eyes a hunter catching his breath and pulling his prey to his feet and two dogs sniffing the dead body. You do not ask yourself yet very complex questions, but you have the feeling that you understand the composition in its primary data. “Everything is what it is”, right? That’s until you get in touch with the writings of Michael Fried, professor at John Hopkins University, who eagerly wants to demonstrate to his readers and students that the picture actually raises the Freudian issue of castration and the condition of the painter. The tired hunter, with the horn in his hand, is an obvious reference to the brush with which the artist creates (!!!) and to the notoriety he tries to achieve (see the trumpet!!!). It is just an example of a comment that programmatically defies reality and interposes between the viewer and the painting a wall of concepts and hollow theories, exposed in a language with mysterious claims.
Kimball does not make much effort to let his previous speakers make a fool out of themselves, although the situation is only partially funny. As the authors cited come from the most prestigious universities of the world, the natural question is how did the situation get here? How has art history become, predominantly, a field of politics, of gender studies, of personal biographies, and almost no at all of art?
A possible key to answer and to understand the academic disaster in the faculty of arts follows in the footsteps of the success of Walter Benjamin and his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, which has basically offered a blank check to the subsequent attempts to politicize art. In the modern age, the unique status of the work of art, Benjamin argues, is cancelled and, consequently, the function of artistic creation must now be based on politics.
A complementary explanation is the universalisation of the deconstructionist revolution carried out by Derrida and Foucalt. Even though the two former intellectual stars of Paris have become somewhat “passe”, Kimball assures us that fashion has not gone by, but has only ossified. The respectable figures in American academies today relate to deconstructivism with the same fervour and abstinence, and Derrida’s theories, for example, represent, in many cases, a presumption of the discourse. In this respect, Kimball remembers Keith Moxey, professor of art history at Columbia University, for whom “Derrida has shown that language is incapable of conveying the type of meaning that is usually ascribed to historical narratives”. In other words, the reasoning follows: since there are no strong epistemological criteria, everything being relative, and no rational instance that compels us to prefer some interpretations to the detriment of others, the only standard that can provide us with an evaluation criterion is political ideology.
I think I no longer have to remind that the absence of metaphysical categories is still a matter (impossible) to be demonstrated, that a coherent relativist cannot escape the self-destructive arguments, and that the preference for political attitudes as a criterion for assessing a work of art is as arbitrary as an interpretation depending on the zodiac, the colour of the artist’s eyes or the fashion preferences.
A deeper understanding of the disaster, other than the recent triumph of relativism, is being offered by Kimball in his essay about “trivializing the scandalous”, more specifically in the discussion of art theory for the sake of art. In the footsteps of Hans Sedlmayr, the American essayist underlines the need for a moral-religious canon, outside the aesthetics, to judge works of art, in the absence of which the danger of dehumanization and artistic disintegration is inevitable.
From a historical perspective, this idea cannot be denied, and a simple inventory of contemporary works and theories illustrates in full the observation. The attempt to autonomize art was nothing else but an effort to cleanse it from any religious or moral scent, out of the desire to overlap ones’ own agenda. But once liberated, art lost its function, as Benjamin & co noted, so its meaning was quickly provided by politics. In fact, the process was not specific to art history. It is, in essence, the defining feature of all modernity. At first, it is argued for the release from any traditional ballast, for in the next second to appear the political inflections.
In this context, it is worth mentioning that, in theory, the political criterion is a generous concept, because it can encompass a variety of options and preferences with extensive metaphysical roots. But, in fact, every time this standard is advanced, we are faced with the same dull and ill-fitting themes that represent the glory and misery of the contemporary left: sexuality, racial problems, post-colonialism etc. Art never serves to promote a traditional political idea, but always comes to support communist-type egalitarianism.
The obsession with sexuality, for example, does not appear in the writings of art commentators only as a (non)natural extension of some individual shady trajectories. It is more than that and comes as a confirmation of the full triumph of the counter-culture, firmly established in the grounds of the select universities. In the previously mentioned painting of Courbet, the same professor Fried remarks the hunter’s exposure to the deer’s genitals. In the collective portrait of “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit”, signed by John Sargent, David Lubin, professor at Wake Forest University, “demonstrates” that we have an explicit sexual theme, since one of the girls is playing on the floor with a doll, and her position implies an occlusion of obvious sexuality; in Rubens’ painting, “The Drunken Silenus”, Svetlana Alpers, professor at California University, has no doubt that the subject of the painting presents a homosexual relationship.
“In contrast, in literary history and contemporary art, the sex card is generally played as a weapon. Firstly, it is used to «provoke» or «overcome» the traditional structure of customs and morals behind any literary or artistic work under discussion. The enemy is only incidentally the specific work in which the hidden sexual themes, generally eccentric, are being «revealed». The true enemy is the accepted social and moral sensitivity from which the work came out and in which it finds its original meaning. (...) In this sense, many of the things reunited under the aegis of sexual emancipation are really part of a de-civilization campaign”, remarks Kimball in “The Rape of the Masters”.
Sex is ubiquitous because it is of paramount importance in trying to undermine the artistic effort and spread the revolution, but the official Hermanutians are not just about that. Gaugain and his paintings of Tahiti testify about the capitalist colonialism and body reification, and Winslow Homer’s painting, “The Gulf Stream”, symbolizes American racial oppression in the nineteenth century. Finally, Marc Rothko’s three overlapping rectangles make you think of Bellini’s Pieta, which shatters, even for the most naive, any connection between representation and commentary.
As demonstrated by “The Rape of the Masters”, everything can be said about an artwork, except what is important, as long as it comes from the university orthodoxy.
In the face of this unreasonable offensive, Kimball’s fundamental response is an irony that dissolves the morgue of pseudo-arguments delivered in hermetic jargon. The technique is not only effective at the level of the dispute, but it also contributes to the pleasure of reading and makes “The Rape of the Masters” a humorous book, without being easy at all. For example, Kimball offers a terribly long, prolix and incoherent quote from a work by professor Anna Chave about Rothko, which he suddenly interrupts with the following remark: “I’m sorry: I know I promised to take care of the my readers’ stomach”.
It’s not perhaps the most academic or correct political reaction, but it works. Because the drunkenness of words and delirium are more effectively fought against with a healthy dose of common sense than with rigorously built arguments. In fact, in the face of Derrida’s uncontrollable verbiage and his disciples, what would be the point of syllogisms?
However, Kimball does not stop here. He is careful to point out factual inaccuracies, logical errors, blatant nonsense, and many, many “scientific” elucubrations, as is this commentary on Gauguin’s painting, “Manao tupapau”: “It remains the avant-garde fetishism of its own processes and procedures; it is not a sign of cultural specificity, but only the peculiarity of the difference from the «privileged man of the white race», to use Gayatri Spivak’s comprehensive term”.
According to the American essayist, the examples of ridiculed interpretations in “The Rape of the Masters” are not just a handful of exceptions in a great deal of normality and consistent exegesis. On the contrary. They are just the “mainstream”, the orthodoxy, while sound voices are a minority under siege. Besides, it is enough to note the universities (Yale, New York, University of California) from which the art historians mentioned by Kimball come to realize the scale of the educational disaster and the spectacular collapse of the institutions that should have, naturally, as an objective “the cultivation of the intellect, of the delicate taste, of a candid, just, quiet mind” (Cardinal Newman). It makes sense to ask what kind of students can come out of the hands of those teachers who teach that the letter “i” with a circumflex means, in fact, a “fertilized woman”, which ultimately translates into a “circumcised woman”.
As Kimball notes elsewhere, following this academic reorientation, art is not the only one at loss, though it is the first to be sacrificed, but civilization and the whole cultural heritage are being threatened. And this because the efforts of the university mandarins have the declared political goal of remodelling people and society into a totalitarian mould.
“The Rape of the Masters” also has a relevant merit, especially for the Romanian reader, who grew up having unconditional admiration for Western models. Kimball demonstrates quite clearly that “the king is naked”, and only the façade is left from the educational monuments of the West. A façade where underneath are hidden the barbarians from inside, those working diligently to destroy the last remnants of culture and humanity. Harvard, Yale or Berkeley have transformed, under the dissolute action of postmodernism, into glossy labels with no value, from where violent assaults are being launched on common sense and Western tradition.
From here, the Romanian reader should not have sudden expresses of superiority and look proudly over the West, because he does not have many reasons. In recent years, local faculties and their staff have synchronized perfectly with the de-culturalization program through internships, doctorates and masters in the Western Marxism laboratories, which brought the revolution to our school departments. To understand the magnitude of the catastrophe, it is enough to take a look at young artists who advocate for different versions of communism in missed performances and artistic acts, or at the critics evaluating their works.
However, a native lecturer can pick up from Kimball’s lesson the courage to detach himself from the provincial uneasiness, to interpret art and reality without the props generosity offered by official ideologies, and to be as suspicious as possible when facing ridiculous preciousness.