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Freeing the masters

By Bernard Chapin
web posted December 20, 2004

"What can men do against such reckless hate?"
--King Theoden.

In the area of Chicago in which I live there are at least ten art galleries within a square mile of my home, and the other day I had the unexpected opportunity to actually enter one of them. What brought several of us to the open house was not a desire to examine art, imbibe free wine or socialize with the trendy poseurs by the door. It was for the most Philistine of reasons; we were attracted to its name. It was called the Verbeek, which also happens to be the last name of a former Detroit Red Wing whom a couple of us were particularly fond. We walked inside and discovered numerous pieces of metallic sculpture in every corner. One of them was particularly humorous as it was entitled, "the gender gap." It consisted of a steel rectangle and a steel triangle that were linked by a chain. My friend asked, "What the hell could that mean?" I answered, "Nothing good for our types I'm sure."

My friend's sentiment is exactly what many outsiders experience when encountering today's art. Yet, such responses would be even more common if the average person were exposed to the opinions and theorizing that is inherent to art criticism. Endless politicizing appears to be as essential to the field as free passes to a museum. The proper exposure of this Bedlam is one of the main goals of Roger Kimball's The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art. A few pages in, the reader discovers that, for many pseudo-scholars, art is merely an innocuous container into which their political machinations can be poured. Their criticism is merely an "index prohibitrum of political correctness." i The minds and personalities of the masters are routinely subjected to low grade psychoanalysis, which often consists of attempts to darken the motives and characters of some of the most important achievers in the history of western civilization. This charade is certainly offensive, but far worse is the way in which our eyes are distracted from the beauty and pleasure that can be obtained from simply gazing at art.

Theory alone is transcendent. The trendinista "write to traduce, not satirize. More precisely, they poach upon the authority of art in order to pursue an entirely non-artistic agenda. Their interest in art is ulterior, not aesthetic." ii A oily film of degradation has been applied to the characters and talent of men like Courbet, Rubens, Sargent, van Gogh, Gauguin, and whoever else with canvasses that clash with twenty-first century, anti-humanist thought. Their criticism includes all the usual mumbo-jumbo that students are oppressed by in universities across the country. Ubiquitous is the constantly looping, hyper-verbal mélange of anti-intellectualism which takes the form of radical feminism, anti-capitalism, and anti-western positions. In this contrived arena, a person in not simply fair of skin but instead "the privileged male of the white race." iii In this respect, the above mentioned hockey player's nickname, "The Little Ball of Hate", is quite appropriate for the subject matter after all.

Drunken Silenus (click for larger image, 66Kb)

Much of the gibberish these chapters outline will surprise even the most experienced detractors of political correctness. Our professors' explanations are more disturbing than illuminating. We find that Rubens, in his portrait Drunken Silenus, was not actually depicting a ribald scene from Greek mythology, but actually showcasing one of the world's first artistic representations of homosexual, interracial, anal rape [I'm not making it up]. We are also treated to malignant fantasy concerning a work like John Singer Sargent's The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit. What looks to our naked eye a scene of familial contentment is really subtle documentation of women's low status within Victorian society. These well-adjusted children are not well-adjusted at all; they are, instead, sexually charged symbols. Kimball mocks both argument and language by pointing out: "Clearly, Professor Lubin is not the sort of chap you want to leave alone with an underaged circumflex." iv

Courbet's The Quarry is not what it seems either. A dead deer hung up like a trophy amid a hunter and hounds might cause one to conclude that this painting concerns a hunting expedition. but that would be an incorrect interpretation. You see, the roe deer's genitals, which are not depicted, are the real story and this indicates, to critics like Michael Fried, that the main purpose of the work is to elucidate Freud's theory of castration. Along the lines of Dr. Freud, we must now ask, when can a pair of shoes simply be pair of shoes? Ah, never, if you're Jacques Derrida. He would rather endlessly play with Van Gogh's A Pair of Shoes for 130 pages in his The Truth in Painting than be so gauche as to admit that the subject in the work is obvious to everyone.

Spirit of the Dead Watching (click for larger image, 39.5Kb)

Most outrageous perhaps are the interpreters of Paul Gauguin's Spirit of the Dead Watching. Their response could be called "the battle of the twisted fringe" as one critic condemns the artist for his sexism, racism, and colonialism while another defends him for his sympathetic portrayal of "savage androgyny" and believes that the artist himself may have had ambiguous sexuality–which should qualify him for sainthood in this day and age.

If you find what is mentioned about to be absolute madness then you'll be very glad that Roger Kimball took the time to write this book. The Rape of the Masters is something that will be appreciated by many a reader, and it's convenient plates of paintings in the center allow those who have never seen the works to follow along as Kimball attempts to welcome logic back into the pretentious confines of art criticism. This work will appeal to anyone who witnessed the cultural revolution while frantically searching for a multi-generational "off" button.

As an author, Kimball has always used common sense when wading through the obscurantist terrains of contemporary academia. That's the best weapon to use when one is confronted with requests to adhere to multiculturalism, deconstructionism, post-modernism, and, perhaps most frightening of all, senseless careerism. Kimball has the education and wit to stand up to these million-dollar-word terrorists by telling them that their positions are "unbridled intellectual masturbation." v He also does something that many traditionalists fail to do; he ridicules the poseurs and pokes fun at their sentences while as he exams their "texts". He admits in the Introduction that he has written a polemic and "by design there is as much ridicule as there is argument in this book." vi My response, and I grant that it differs with that of other conservatives, is to applaud. Roger Kimball needs no more than twenty pages to dash upon the typeset his opponents hallucinations, so we are fortunate that he takes the extra time to entertain by consistently laughing at these Jacobins. The insertion of brackets into critical quotations is one method in which the author is able to humiliate the critics. Kimball's asides are incendiary devices and, luckily, he makes frequent use of them. Here's an example:

You might say that it parallels ‘the pictorial structure of a pieta,' but then you might say that it reminds you of the state of Colorado, Nelson's semaphored message at the Battle of Trafalgar, or Euclid's proof the Pythagorean Theorem. As for that untitled painting from 1953, take a look at the illustration following page 84. Professor Chave says that it ‘bear[s] a relation' to the ‘pictorial structure of an entombment' and ‘certain conventional adoration or nativity images.' Does it? Does it?" vii

This reviewer will now refrain from offering any trite puns based on the word "picture," but, in many a university today, the discipline of art criticism seems to be every bit as contaminated by politics as the rest of the liberal arts departments. With politics reigning supreme, one has to wonder what the good of obtaining a degree is when it amounts to little more than a skilled parroting of politically correct ideology. It is hoped that, through books like this one, the general public fully realizes that sometimes a pose is only a pose.


i Page 140.

ii Page 12.

iii Kimball quoting Professor Pollock, page 142.

iv Page 94.

v Page 158.

vi Page 29.

vii Page 69.

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

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