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Art and the classical liberal: An interview with Roger Kimball

By Bernard Chapin
web posted January 17, 2005

Roger KimballRoger Kimball is one of the most highly esteemed intellectuals of our day; although, his presentation is so devoid of pretension that to call him an intellectual seems somehow misleading. He is the Managing Editor of The New Criterion and is independently known as an author, co-author, or editor of numerous books. He can be credited with a plethora of titles, such as Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art, Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse, Experiments Against Reality: The Fate of Culture in the Postmodern Age, and The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America.

BC: I just finished your latest, Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art. One of the many things that impressed me was the respect you showed for the artist Mark Rothko. That is something that I did not expect. You mention that his "paintings have always been enormously popular because they offer unadulterated aesthetic pleasure. A sensitive arrangement of simple colored forms can be beautiful." Would you extend this analysis to works by other abstract artists? Which abstract artists in particular are the most valuable? Are people too quick to dismiss their work?

RK: Well, there are some people who believe that the phrase "abstract art" is a contradiction in terms. I am not one of them. There is good art that is abstract or non-representational just as there is plenty of bad art that is abstract or non-representational. We certainly do live at a moment when Andy Warhol's (or was it Marshall McLuhan's?) quip that "art is what you can get away with" describes the reality of the art world. So much of what passes for art today is either meretricious, repellant, and perverted, or else simply vacuous. Some of it is abstract, some representational. But to decide a priori that all art that is abstract is bad art or non-art strikes me as just silly. Apart from anything else, it is to deny oneself the visual pleasure -- the purely aesthetic visual pleasure -- that good abstract art has in store for the attentive viewer. It is worth noting, in this context, that all of the examples Kant give of "pure aesthetic judgments of taste" are abstract: "decoration à la grecque," wallpaper, musical fantasies. That said, however, I also believe that some of the claims made for abstract art, especially for Abstract Expressionism, are wildly exaggerated. I do not, for example, believe that Rothko was a great painter, but I do think he made some moving works of art. Yes, a lot of nonsense has been written about him (and other abstract painters), but then abstract art is not alone in attracting critical nonsense. In my view, the greatest painting is generally is that which makes use of the full range of the genre's resources. Abstract art eschews many resources of older painting and is correspondingly more limited in ambition. I suppose it's a bit like writing a novel without using the letter "e" -- the results can be ingenious.

BC: I noticed on the back of your book's jacket what I took to be a promising sign. The Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art gave your work a glowing recommendation. In it he acknowledged the damage that art theorists have done to art history. With such eminent figures acknowledging the decay that is art criticism today, can we not expect the tide to turn against the discipline's rampant politicization? Could the future be brighter than we suppose?

RK: Well, Philippe de Montebello is sui generis. I greatly admire him and what he has done (which means in large part what he hasn't done) at the Met. And I was absolutely delighted that he agreed to offer some comments about my book. But Philippe is, despite his eminence, something of a maverick in the art world. A few years ago when the dreadful show called "Sensation" came to the Brooklyn Museum from London -- it was all perverse sex, bodily fluids, and sophomoric left-wing politics -- Philippe had the courage to go into print to criticize the show. The "art establishment" was scandalized, but Philippe's already high stock soared among thoughtful observers. As for the future, I do believe there are bright spots, but you have to look for them. Much -- maybe most -- of what gets praised in the mainstream papers and occupies the floor space of many galleries and museums is tripe -- as is most of the commentary on such stuff. But if one looks behind what gets the limelight, one can easily find both good art and good writing about art.

BC: In the Introduction to Rape of the Masters, you admit that your tone is a polemical one. You then proceed to ridicule and encourage your reader to laugh at the confabulations and machinations of the critics whenever you put them on display. What do you say to those conservatives who argue that it is our place to dispassionately debate the issues and that polemics should be discouraged? Is not ridicule the finest way in which to deal with the counter-intuitive propositions of political correctness?

RK: I think dispassionate debate is appropriate for the debatable. When one is engaged in the common pursuit of truth with someone who has a different but legitimate perspective, then courtesy, patience, and civility are part of the order of the day. But for that which is beyond or beneath debate, ridicule, satire, parody, and sarcasm -- the entire armory of rhetorical detonation -- come into their own. If your interlocutor is not being reasonable, it is not reasonable to reason with him. The philosopher Hume warned against attempting to argue with people who were not "candid reasoners": since they do not seek the truth, it is bootless to expect them to respect the truth when it is on offer.

BC: Let me ask you something I've been wondering about for awhile, does the word "art" connote much of anything nowadays? I mean I hear it applied to just about every job, habit, or practice in existence. I cringe whenever I hear the oxymoronic phrase, "rap artist," but it seems that there is no way to decrease its application to all manner of individuals within our society. Has the term artist become so overused and misapplied that it has no meaning?

RK: Let me refer again to the statement that "art is what you can get away with." The truth is that at least since Marcel Duchamp and the Dadaists, anything can be a work of art. Duchamp took an ordinary bottle rack, exhibited it in an art gallery, and, lo, it was art; he exhibited an ordinary urinal, called it "Fountain," and, once again: a work of art was born. From these two gestures -- the elevation of everyday objects to the status of art and the presentation of (formerly) shocking objects as art -- have flowed virtually all of the pseudo-avant-garde effluvia with which we are surrounded today. Carl André puts a couple of blocks of slate on the floor and the Dia Foundation swoons; Walter de Maria convinces Dia to dump a load of dirt into a room in SoHo and, presto, an art object is born. Meanwhile, Piero Manzoni cans some of his own excrement, calls the series "Artist's Shit" (1961) and the Tate Gallery in London swings into action by buying a can or two of the stuff for -- -well, I forget how much it was but tens of thousands of pounds. I am sure you could offer many more examples.

The point is that the definition of art has become so expansive as to be vacuous. Indeed, the question "What is art?" has occasioned reams of epistemological speculation: why is one red square a work of art worth $100,000 while another red square, indistinguishable from the first, just a red square? My own view is that the question what is art is a dead end. There is no point, I think, in denying that what Andy Warhol (say) does is art. The interesting questions come later: is x, y, or z good art? Is it salutary or meretricious? Like many important things in life, art cannot usefully be defined. What matters is experience, not a priori prescription. Any true definition of art will have to be so general as to be vacuous. This peculiarity is something that was noted by the philosopher Immanuel Kant. In his book Critique of Judgment, much of which is devoted to such questions, Kant pointed out that

There can be no objective rule of taste which shall determine by means of concepts what is beautiful. For every judgment from this source is aesthetical, i.e., the feeling of the subject. To seek for a principle of taste which shall furnish, by means of definite concepts, a universal criterion of the beautiful is fruitless trouble, because what is sought is impossible and self-contradictory.

What we need is the cultivation of taste, not clearer definitions: that is, we have to recover the whole realm of aesthetic assurance -- it is as much a moral as an aesthetic task -- that allows us to repudiate the vacuous, the repellent, not necessarily because it isn't art but because it isn't good art. Put another way, simply to say that something is art is to say very, very little. One of our problems today is the assumption that just because something is denominated a work of art it thereby is indemnified against moral, social, or political scrutiny. This is an assumption that we need to rethink.

BC: Allow me to turn to literature, another area of the arts. What is the value in our reading of literary works? What would you say to the person who announces, "I don't read fiction. It's never interested me because by definition it's untrue." Would you agree that fiction can elucidate more truth than non-fiction in some instances?

RK: Yes, I do believe that fiction is -- or can be -- revelatory of truths that transcend the truths of historical fact. The realm of fiction is the realm of the imagination, which means in part the realm of ideals: the way we want the world to be and the way we fear it might become. Again, this is not to say that just because something is a work of fiction that we can't criticize or repudiate it: there are such things as immoral and destructive books. But it does mean that fiction is a great repository of moral possibilities, some of which are well worth contemplating. There is a short book by the Canadian critic Northrop Frye called The Educated Imagination that deals most eloquently with these issues.

BC: Speaking of the value of literature. Let me ask about poetry. Poems are something integral to The New Criterion but how can amateurs like myself and our readers tell the difference between average poetry and great poetry? What are the defining elements of first tier work?

RK: That's a big question! I won't try to answer it but will only say that 1) just as art is not usefully susceptible to definition, neither is poetry: aesthetic judgment is always a matter of comparison, or experience, of the exercise of taste. Its province is not definition but a species of persuasion based on direct experience. Why is The Iliad a great poem while an epic by Robert Southey is not? There are things one can say in response to that question, but in the end they come down to an exhibition of critical judgment. This exchange with the critic Clement Greenberg pretty well sums up my position:

Q: Could you clarify the difference between major and minor art?

A: No. There are criteria, but they can't be put into words -- any more than the difference between good and bad in art can be put into words. Works of art move you to a greater or lesser extent, that's all. So far, words have been futile in the matter . . . . Nobody hands out prescriptions to art or artists. You just wait and see what happens -- what the artist does.

BC: I often (unfortunately) hear, from people the question, "Why are you are a conservative?" When I'm asked that I usually say that I think it's a superb idea to conserve what we have in America today. How do you answer such inquiries?

RK: I am a conservative because I am a liberal. That sounds glib, but it is true. (I take the formulation from Russell Kirk.) What is a conservative? A believer in freedom who understands that civilization, the precondition for liberty, is a fragile achievement won at great cost and preserved only at the expense of unceasing vigilance. A "liberal" in the contemporary sense is often someone who is willing to barter freedom for the sake of some utopian dream, someone who discounts the reality of human imperfection and the constant temptation to evil and chaos, someone who trusts in "planning," "rational solutions," and "education." I ended my book Tenured Radicals with this passage from Evelyn Waugh; it sums up one important reason I am a conservative: "Barbarism," Waugh wrote in 1938,

is never finally defeated; given propitious circumstances, men and women who seem quite orderly will commit every conceivable atrocity. The danger does not come merely from habitual hooligans; we are all potential recruits for anarchy. Unremitting effort is needed to keep men living together at peace; there is only a margin of energy left over for experiment however beneficent. Once the prisons of the mind have been opened, the orgy is on. There is no more agreeable position than that of dissident from a stable society. Theirs are all the solid advantages of other people's creation and preservation, and all the fun of detecting hypocrisies and inconsistencies. There are times when dissidents are not only enviable but valuable. The work of preserving society is sometimes onerous, sometimes almost effortless. The more elaborate the society, the more vulnerable it is to attack, and the more complete its collapse in case of defeat. At a time like the present it is notably precarious. If it falls we shall see not merely the dissolution of a few joint-stock corporations, but of the spiritual and material achievements of our history.

BC: As someone who is a specialist in so many areas of the liberal arts, permit me to ask you about the following scenario. Suppose that some disaffected member of our public schools decided to form his own private institution and call it, The Academy for the Preservation of Western Civilization. What works, in your opinion, would automatically have to be included in its curriculum? What authors and titles are absolutely essential?

RK: Another question to which a full answer would keep us here for hours! It is not a difficult list to contrive. Take a look at what St. John's, the "great books" school in Annapolis and Santa Fe, has on its reading list. Homer. Plato. Aristotle. Sophocles. Aeschylus. St. Augustine. The Bible. St. Thomas. Euclid. Leibniz. Descartes. Newton. Dostoyevsky. Milton. Shakespeare. Thucydides. I think most readers will be able to complete the list.

BC: You were once a graduate student at Yale who had intentions of becoming an academic. Given your achievements and the state of your life at present, is there anything that could be offered by a university president which would induce you into becoming a professor? Would not your interest be piqued by the likelihood of faculty protests and riots over your appointment? A few days after you're arrival you'd be surrounded by chants of "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Roger Kimball has got to go!" What would make better material for the Notes & Comments section of The New Criterion than the faculties' reaction to you? It's a delight to consider.

RK: As Jeeves responded when Bertie Wooster contemplated some absurdity, "the contingency is remote" that any college or university would deign to upset its faculty by appointing me. It is, as you say, amusing to consider, but the chances of it happening are, shall we say, statistically insignificant.

BC: What's your next book going to be about? Can you share with us the title?

RK: I am working on a few things. One is a book of footnotes -- not about footnotes, but a collection of footnotes: amusing, offbeat, wry, footnotes, arranged according to some order I have yet to contrive and supplied with sufficient context to make them accessible and enjoyable to the general reader. I am hoping to compose the book according to the method employed by Tom Sawyer in whitewashing his fence, so I'd be grateful to any readers who wish to submit any droll footnotes -- along with full citation and, where appropriate, surrounding context -- they have encountered. They can send them to footnote@newcriterion.com. The first person to send any particular footnote I include in the text will be identified in the acknowledgments. I am also working on a book whose title is not yet set but that might be called "The Right Ideas" or "The Conservative Moment." Further bulletins on that as events warrant!

Thank you very much for your time, Mr. Kimball.

Bernard Chapin is a writer living in Chicago. He can be reached at bchapafl@hotmail.com.

Other related articles: (open in a new window)

  • Freeing the masters by Bruce Walker (December 20, 2004)
    The only thing worse than some of the modern art inflicted upon us is the reprehensible push by academics to reinterpret classic art works of art by infusing them modern politics, writes Bernard Chapin
  • Defending the sublime: An interview with Roger Kimball by Bruce Walker (June 21, 2004)
    The New Criterion
    managing editor Roger Kimball has a new book coming out, reason enough for Bernard Chapin to sit down for another interview with the prolific writer
  • The Highest Criterion: An interview with Roger Kimball by Bruce Walker (March 17, 2003(
    Bernard Chapin discusses culture and ideas with the man who may know them best, cultural critic and managing editor of The New Criterion, Roger Kimball

 

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