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Defending the sublime: An interview with Roger Kimball

By Bernard Chapin
web posted June 21, 2004

Mr. Roger Kimball is one of the most highly esteemed intellectuals of our day. He is the Managing Editor of The New Criterion but is independently known as an author, co-author, or editor of numerous books. His latest offering is discussed in detail below, but, past titles include 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.

Last March I was fortunate that he granted me an initial interview. Yet, as is always the case, there were many intriguing issues not addressed. Luckily, he has given me a second opportunity with which to solicit his opinions. In the paragraphs below, Mr. Kimball educates us as to the nature of art, the meaning of political correctness, and how long we will be cursed with the presence of radicals in our public institutions.

His answers are not unusual in the context of his work as he reveals a sense of humor which is often on display along with a clarity of style that immediately notifies the reader that he is not receiving paychecks from any of our post-modernist universities.

BC: Mr. Kimball, let me begin by asking you a question about your latest book. In about a month's time, The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art will be released. Is it safe to say that much of your narrative involves the way in which the giants of western civilization are denigrated in the academy due to their inability to meet the sensitivity standards of race and gender?

Roger KimballRK: Well, that's part of the story. The Rape of the Masters is fundamentally about how academic art historians have traduced the study of art and art history. Political Correctness, as the subtitle suggests, is an important leitmotif, but the book casts a pretty wide net. There are basically two ways of ruining the experience of art. One is by means of what I call spurious aggrandizement -- pretending that the British artists Gilbert and George, for example, create works that rival the Isenheim Altarpiece, as one critic assured us. The other approach moves in the opposite direction. Instead of elevating the mediocre or meretricious, you denigrate the accomplished and besmirch the sublime. This can be done from any number of ideological perspectives -- Marxist, feminist, deconstructionist, racist, etc.etc -- but the crucial thing is to translate the work into foreign ideological territory before getting down to business. A picture of a Tahitian women by Gauguin is really the expression of the artist's misogynistic impulses, a painting by Rubens of a drunken Silenus is really an allegory of anal rape, an abstraction by Mark Rothko is really about the Annunciation . . . very different interpretative gambits, all have the effect of directing attention away from the work itself onto the preoccupations of the interpreter. Since the interpretations in question are being practiced by academics, it is not surprising that what results is a series of exercises in one or another for political correctness, but at a deeper level the real tragedy is the fact the student's direct encounter with the work of art is rendered all but impossible.

BC: You published an essay in the December 2003 issue of The New Criterion with the same title as your upcoming book. Am I correct to state that this is the introduction to Rape of the Masters? The essay observes that much of art history is now viewed through an oily political lens as opposed to the forgotten practice of making judgments based on what one's eyes see. Yet, could we extend this analysis to the production of art in general? Are most of today's artists more obsessed with politics than beauty?

RK: The essay in The New Criterion was more of a preview. Some of it will be part of the Introduction, other bits will find their way into the succeeding chapters. I believe that the life of art today is far more vibrant than many let on. The vibrancy does not, for the most part, appear in the Chelsea or SoHo galleries, the many centers for contemporary art that dot the cultural landscape today, or in the academic reception and dissection of art that takes place in classrooms, learned journals, and conferences devoted to the subject of art. But out of the way, out of the limelight, in places undetected by The New York Times or the Whitney Museum, many artists are busy plying their craft, creating works that seek to delight and enchant, not proselytize, pervert, or disgust.

BC: Regarding the phrase "political correctness," how would you refute those who claim that PC is no longer a powerful influence in our society? I've heard many argue that this was a feature of the late eighties and nineties and is no longer applicable to the new millennium.

RK: I would simply direct them to their nearest college or university, ask them to digest the plaque proclaiming the institution's "commitment to diversity," and then (after they had made due preparations for leaving town) I would invite them to proclaim in public some opinion that ran counter to the prevailing politically correct orthodoxy on (for example): George Bush. the war in Iraq , abortion, homosexuality, affirmative action, school vouchers, or the Catholic Church. Believe me, political correctness is alive and well at the dawn of the 21st century.

BC: We live in an age of great cynicism and this seems to be particularly true of our elites. Can you clarify why art remains a worthy endeavor? How does studying art enrich our lives? It is safe to assume that most of our readers, like the interviewer, are not aesthetes and could benefit from your direction.

RK: Why do we care about art? A deep question over which a lot of ink has been spilled. Part of an answers has to do with beauty. Another part has to do with freedom. Aquinas defined beauty as id quod visum placet, that which, being seen, pleases. What is the nature of that distinctively aesthetic pleasure? Immanuel Kant was on to something when he observed that the appeal of  aesthetic experience was strikingly different from the appeal of sensory pleasure, on the one hand, and the satisfaction we take in the good, moral or practical, on the other.

For one thing, with both sensory pleasure and the good, our satisfaction is inextricably bound up with interest, which is to say with the existence of whatever it is that is causing the pleasure. When we are hungry, a virtual dinner will not do: we want the meat and potatoes. It is the same with the good: a virtual morality is not moral. But things are different with aesthetic pleasure. There is something peculiarly disengaged about aesthetic pleasure. When it comes to our moral and sensory life, we are constantly reminded that we are creatures of lack: we are hungry and wish to eat, we see the good and know that we fall short. But when we judge something to be beautiful,  Kant says, the pleasure we take in that judgment is ideally an "entirely disinterested satisfaction."

The great oddity about aesthetic judgment is that it provides satisfaction without the penalty exacted by desire. This accounts both for its power and for its limitation. The power comes from the feeling of wholeness and integrity that a disinterested satisfaction involves. Pleasure without desire is pleasure unburdened by lack. The limitation comes from the fact that, unburdened by lack, aesthetic pleasure is also unmoored from reality. Precisely because it is disinterested, there is something deeply subjective about aesthetic pleasure: what we enjoy is not an object but our state of mind. Kant spoke in this context of "the free play of the imagination and the understanding" -- it is "free" because it is unconstrained by interest or desire.

There's more to be said, but that's a beginning of an answer.

BC: Do you have any idea why artists and writers tend to be members of the political left? What went right with you [pun intended]?

RK: Well, not all writers or artists do, of course. Take T.S. Eliot, or Yeats, or Wallace Stevens, or Robert Frost. Take Henri Matisse or Wyndham Lewis. We are often seduced into identifying artists and writers with the Left because at least since the late 19th century, and especially since the 1960s, that is where most of the propaganda for culture has come from. The bohemianism that was an integral part of the avant-garde had a natural affinity with Leftist politics, but the longer the view one takes, the less convincing does the association between writers and artists and left-wing politics seem.

BC: I see also that a new edition is out for Art's Prospect: The Challenge of Tradition in an Age of Celebrity. It appears to be over thirty pages longer than the one released in 2002. For those of us who own the earlier version, what new material have you added that we may be missing out on?

RK: I added several new pieces, dropped one short piece, and made a bunch of small corrections and additions. The book has a curious history. It was suggested to me by a friend who was inaugurating an "electronic publishing" scheme. Art's Prospect was the first title in a new series. But we were all disappointed that it never got much "mainstream" attention, so I resolved to publish a longer version in a more traditional format. The book is now available from Ivan R. Dee Publishers (or from Amazon.com or, I hope, your local bookshop).

BC: In the same issue in which "The Rape of the Masters" essay appears, you emphasize, in the Notes & Comments section, the recent improvements made over at The National Endowment for the Arts under the leadership Dana Gioia. However, on balance, do you believe that The National Endowment for the Arts is a worthwhile project for our government to be engaged in? In general, should government be in the business of supporting the arts?

RK: Well, I have my doubts about direct government support of the arts. But, like the welfare state, it is a reality that is not going to go away. So it is much better that it is undertaken by vigorously intelligent people like Dana Gioia than by the timid PC-bureaucrats of earlier administrations.

BC: I've often marveled at how prolific a writer you are. As a way of inspiring other writers, what methods do you employ to ensure the completion of your projects? Do you have a daily or weekly word/page quota? Do you set aside certain hours to write everyday? Do you, like The New Criterion, take a couple of months off over the summer?

RK: You shouldn't overestimate my prolificacy. Fair to middlin', I'd say. In general, I agree with Trollope: "It's a sheer matter of Industry. It's not the head that does it -- it's the cobbler's wax on the seat and the sticking to my chair!" In fact, I am rather slothful. I do have one secret weapon, though, and I recommend it to all aspiring writers: the deadline. Samuel Johnson said that the prospect of being hanged in a fortnight concentrated the mind wonderfully. Deadlines have a kindred effect on me. Without them, I just laze about idly.

BC: Mr. Kimball, your The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America skillfully exposed just how much damage tenured radicals, and the subjects of their devotion, have done to our society and culture. Now that many of these individuals are approaching retirement, do you think that their gradual disappearance is reason for optimism regarding the future of our culture?

RK: Alas, tenured radicals, by virtue of the institution of tenure, have one important characteristic in common with the lowly virus: they are self-replicating. It's been my observation that students have moved decidedly to the middle over the last couple of decades. I have seen no comparable movement among faculty. The reason? They staff the appointment and promotion committees, and those they appoint and promote are as near as possible to being clones of themselves. It will be another generation, at least, before the radicalism of the 1960s works its way through the university and other institutions of high culture.

BC: Lastly, a banal question that I'd very much like to have answered. What is your favorite book (fiction and/or non-fiction)? Also, what writers do you admire the most?

RK: That depends. If you ask me on Monday when the sun is shining you are likely to get one sort of answer. Ask again on Tuesday and you'll get a different response. Come Wednesday and I'll be off about something else entirely. But I can mention a few favorites. I am a tremendous fan of P.G. Wodehouse -- a great literary genius in my opinion -- and I am especially keen on the novels Leave it to Psmith, The Code of the Woosters, and Pigs Have Wings. (That's for starters.) As for weightier novels, I am a great fan of Thomas Mann, especially of Doctor Faustus and The Magic Mountain. If I had to leave Wodehouse behind and could only pick one novel for the proverbial desert island, it would probably be Austen's Pride and Prejudice, an almost perfect work in my opinion. (If no one was looking I would try to smuggle in Emma as well: it's my second favorite Austen novel.)

Of course there is Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim, one of the funniest novels ever written -- but wait, so is Evelyn Waugh's Scoop! As for philosophers, I have lately taken a great shine to the Australian philosopher David Stove (1927-1994) -- a very brilliant and hilariously un-PC figure. I published an anthology of his work a few years ago under the title Against the Idols of the Age. I am also greatly partial to the criticism of Walter Bagehot (pronounced, by the way, "badge-it" -- I am often asked) and William Hazlitt: two 19th-century English critics who amply repay attention. (I did an edition of Bagehot's Physics and Politics a few years ago: a yawn of a title, but a captivating work. Consider this observation: "History is strewn with the wrecks of nations which have gained a little progressiveness at the cost of a great deal of hard manliness, and have thus prepared themselves for destruction as soon as the movements of the world gave a chance for it.")

Then there is Dr. Johnson, and G. K. Chesterton, and Auden's essays, and Eliot's poems, and Plutarch's histories . . . but I can see that I am just blathering on and so I will stop here.

BC: One man's blather is another man's instructional guide. Thank you very much, Mr. Kimball. 

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

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