Roger Kimball, who edits the New Criterion and does art criticism for National Review, has set out to achieve two goals in this thin, concise book: pointing out “the depredations practiced by criticism on art” and aiming “to encourage the benevolent civilizing elements that have traditionally been accorded to our encounters with good art.” Despite the limited range of the examples of fine art that Kimball examines (owing to his need to find illustrations for “the rape of the masters”), he does advance both of his purposes in the course of his work. Those artists he discusses—Courbet, Cézanne, Winslow Homer, Sargent, Rubens, Mark Rothko, Van Gogh, and Gauguin—become more familiar to us through his treatment of their would-be interpreters; and though not every artist considered ranks among the great geniuses, Kimball shows what the observer should be alert to in viewing his art. Since his tastes, moreover, are broad enough to embrace artistic developments over many centuries, Kimball can explain with equal ease the distinctive characteristics of artists in different periods and employing different techniques.
Kimball is devastating in skewering psychoanalytic and other indefensibly subjective interpretations of artists and their works. Indeed, by the time one has read through several chapters, it would seem that the sick puppies have taken over in the field of art criticism. Freudian art critic Michael Fried (J.R. Herbert Boone Professor of Humanities at the Johns Hopkins University and director of its humanities institute) has produced a study of Courbet’s La Curee that Kimball quite rightly suggests is either a put-on or proof positive of insanity. In this picture of a slain deer, hounds (who bear a striking resemblance to my basset, Murray), and a lackey cradling a horn, Fried perceives Courbet’s fear of being castrated. In fact, all of Courbet’s work is supposedly full of sexual images that the critic effusively reveals to those of us obtuse enough not to have noticed. Fried understands his writings on Courbet as an extended meditation on “the metaphorics of phallicism, menstrual bleeding, pregnancy and flowers.” Those who cannot believe that such drivel passes for serious thought and that its sources are honored at the highest universities should read the ravings of the interpretive authorities Kimball cites. And these are far from the worst of their kind. One Freudian art interpreter omitted by Kimball (Steven Z. Levine, a professor of humanities at Bryn Mawr) has written even more laughable prose than what Kimball serves up. Levine’s book on Monet and Narcissus, in particular, is a muddle of dangling syntax full of disconnected allusions that I would defy anyone to read from cover to cover. In 1998, the already celebrated Levine received a dubious award from the journal Philosophy and Literature for the sheer “badness” of his writing.
My one major criticism of Kimball’s book has to do with his sneering attack directed at the neoconservatives’ bête noire, Martin Heidegger, apropos of Heidegger’s (admittedly less-than-memorable) comments on Van Gogh’s A Pair of Shoes. Heidegger, I suspect, owes his inclusion in The Rape of the Masters to something beyond his putative similarity to other silly art critics. Surely, he cannot have made the grade simply on account of his remarks about Van Gogh’s painting. All of Kimball’s other targets have identifiably Eastern European Jewish names, while even one of Kimball’s least-favorite authors—Jacques Derrida—though a North African Francophone, was Jewish. In Heidegger, by contrast, we have a seemingly unobjectionable heavy: a Swabian Catholic who cultivated the Nazis in 1933 and is lambasted by Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind as a proto-Nazi and precursor of the New Left. Yet this object lesson is not particularly effective; Kimball might have done better as a critic of bad aesthetics than to belittle a major Western existentialist philosopher. Heidegger was a morally flawed man who occasionally wrote murky prose; unlike Levine and Fried, however, he was not a lightweight or an academic huckster.
Another difference that I have with Kimball concerns his designation of his subjects as “politically correct.” Although some of the critics he discusses have expressed negative views regarding male chauvinism, the problem Kimball highlights is not political. Rather, the scam he identifies occurs mainly in the sphere of private discourse. And it is promoted by the moral and cultural irresponsibility of private schools and patrons. Shouldn’t those who endow the chairs held by those Kimball castigates have a care for the intellectual honesty of their occupants? From the evidence, this is not the case. In the now-vanished bourgeois age, the “rape of the masters” could never have been a lucrative business. What has made it profitable is the phenomenon Kimball explored in his earlier books: the rise of a postmodern (read: postbourgeois) culture. This metaphorical rape did not come about from government policy. It is not public administrators and judges who are pushing neo-Freudianism as a form of social indoctrination.
A minor point (from a non-neo-Freudian professor of humanities): Kimball’s dedication of his book to an acknowledged mentor, William F. Buckley, Jr., contains a misspelled Greek phrase. “For the benefit of many” should read “pollon houneka,” not “pollon ouneka.”
[The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art, by Robert Kimball (San Francisco: Encounter Books) 186 pp., $25.95]