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When a Burning Mattress Lying in the Middle of a Road is Just a Burning Mattress Lying in the Middle
Received Fictions and Other Persiflage
Monday, September 27, 2004
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The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art
Reviewed by Lara Kristin Lentini
Anyone with a stake in the visual arts should read Roger Kimball?s latest book for a strong and well-expressed viewpoint on the current state of art criticism. With seven great paintings from the history of art as his starting point, Kimball leads the reader through bizarre interpretations of each work, produced by acknowledged scholars from around the world ? most of them in the forefront of the current vogue in critical writing about art. Each chapter forms a carefully constructed case study to illustrate Kimball?s view that, when it comes to criticism and ?theory,? the radical fringe has become the mainstream ? and that art itself has been demoted to an insignificant place on the sidelines, a footnote in its own history.
It makes for strangely satisfying reading. After a brief analysis of each of the selected works, Kimball methodically takes apart, line by tedious line, the scrambled, loopy, self-referential arguments of theorists like Michael Freid, Svetlana Alpers, and David M. Lubin. One of the book?s great joys is watching Kimball separate each tangled knot of jargon, chasing down its meaning with refreshing clarity until the whole messy skein is untangled and exposed for the nonsense it undeniably is. Of course, he picks extreme examples; but I can recall being assigned to read some of these very essays during my time as a graduate student in art history ? and dutifully discussing them in class, despite a persistent sense that something about them didn?t quite gel. Unlike Kimball, I rarely mustered the patience and discipline to hack through the undergrowth, tracking each fugitive line of argument to its logical ? or illogical ? conclusion.
The effort pays off. Some of the arguments he exposes, when reduced to plain language, are nothing short of laughable. So Sargent?s portrait of the young daughters of Edward Darley Boit is actually an elaborate wordplay on the patron?s name that makes the work both an allegory of female circumcision and a representation of a brothel? Courbet ? usually understood as a realist painter ? was actually a proto-feminist, exploring the texture of menstrual blood in a painting of peasants sowing wheat? It begins to seem that anything will serve as a starting point for a critique, as long as it isn?t looking at what it is that the painting actually depicts.
Kimball?s slightly tweedy sense of humor proves a useful tool in keeping this stuff from getting dull ?although by the time he gets to Derrida?s critique of Heidegger?s reading of Van Gogh?s painting of a pair of shoes, the twinkle in his eye is beginning to fade. And in his quest to lampoon, he is sometimes guilty of willful misunderstanding, as when his unraveling of Anna Chave?s Mark Rothko essay hinges on a stubbornly literal interpretation of her use of the word ?palimpsest.? He quotes her: ?My purpose is to demonstrate how multiple meanings, a palimpsest of meanings, inhere in Rothko?s pictures.? Kimball responds: ?That sounds terrific. I, too, like the word palimpsest. But what?s underneath the paint in Rothko?s paintings? [N]othing, just blank canvas.? Of course, Chave doesn?t mean to imply that Rothko re-used canvases; she means that we should look deeper than the surface prettiness of Rothko?s works. But Kimball?s patience is flagging. (In any case, he makes a strong argument that with Rothko, pretty surfaces are the only meaning to be found.)
Where he does nail Chave ? and makes one of the book?s crucial points ? is in challenging her assertion that ?whether Rothko would have ratified the readings set forth here or recognized his conscious intentions in them is not the critical issue.? Kimball finds many examples of this trendy strategy: to portray the artist as a dumb beast who doesn?t fully understand what he has created or why, thus rendering the artist?s intentions irrelevant to a complete critical analysis of the work. This clears the ground for the great, big, flimsy houses of critical-theory cards that he spends the book gleefully toppling.
Overall, Kimball?s lucid, elegant prose makes the book a pleasure to read, and he has an undeniable talent for finding just the right phrase to sum up complex, elusive abstractions. The book?s conclusion is nothing less than a manifesto, an impassioned cry for a return to meaning in art criticism. He reminds us that the art critic?s role is not to advance faddish political agendas, nor to build a wall of words to obscure a work of art, but simply to lead the viewer through it, illuminating its formal qualities, its context, the life of its creator, and so on. With the dedication of a true believer, Kimball relentlessly takes us back to art itself, and to the simple pleasure of looking at it closely.