Thursday, December 16, 2004

"All Art Is Rape"

A friend of mine coined that quote when we were discussing uber-feminist attitudes one day. That same friend and I went up to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art one Saturday. Before we got there, I was joking, "It's not a real modern art museum unless a urinal is on display as art." We went in there, and it was pretty disheartening, mostly. After going through the "monkeys-with-paintbrushes" room, we went through the "photographs-taken-by-the clinically-depressed room", then it was upstairs to the "lesbian anger floor", where we saw things you normally wouldn't expect to see with anything below a fever of 105. After this, we went down to the central floor and were looking at some Warholian stuff. Then my friend said, "Oooh! Just look down at the floor and follow me". We went through a couple of rooms and then stopped. My friend said, "Okay, look up!" Suddenly it all came together, and the disjointed vaguely panicky feeling that had been building inside of me during our tour subsided. There it was, serving as this display room's centerpiece. The urinal.

This trip didn't have its denouement until a couple of weeks later. On the trip home from the museum, my friend let me drive. The streets in that part of the city are very hectic, and you have to be pretty aggressive if you don't want to be hemmed in. I ended up just catching a "piece of the red" in an intersection. My friend received a citation in the mail, with a picture of "doofus" in the driver's seat...

All this came to mind as I read this Front Page Magazine interview. The interviewee is Roger Kimball, who wrote The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art.

Here's a taste:
Kimball: The great enemy of the totalitarian impulse, in intellectual life as well as in politics, is the idea of intrinsic worth. As Hannah Arendt and others have pointed out, one of the most toxic and destructive features of totalitarian movements is their attack on the integrity of the individual and his experience. When the enforcer O’Brien in Orwell’s 1984 induces Winston to say that twice four equals 5, he has won a great, if pernicious, spiritual victory, for he has violated Winston’s sense of reality. When it comes to art and intellectual life, the examples are not so dire, but they are in their own way just as significant. In the course of The Rape of the Masters I quote--twice--Bishop Butler’s great remark that “Everything is what it is, and not another thing.” In a way, that can stand as the motto for the book. For what we see in the academic art historians I discuss--it is something you see in literary studies, too--is an effort to discount, to deny the essential reality of things in order to enlist them in an ideological war. A family portrait of four young girls is no longer a family portrait of four young girls but a florid allegory of sexual conflict and gender panic. And so on. If one had to sum up the essential purpose and direction of the new academic art historians, one might say that, notwithstanding the variety of their political commitments, they are all engaged in an attack on the idea of the intrinsic. They start from the contrary of Butler proposition: nothing is what it is, it is always something else--and, they might add, something worse than it seems.

FP: You are an art critic yourself. Please tell us, what is an art critic? Can anyone be one? What motivated you to become one?

Kimball: T.S. Eliot once defined the task of criticism as “the elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste.” I think that is a good capsule definition. But I would add that I believe that the role of the critic is actually quite modest. The image I like to use is that of a marriage broker. The critic can explain all sorts of subsidiary facts; he can provide some intellectual and historical context; but in the end, his most important job is to bring the viewer and the work of art together. Once an effective introduction has been achieved--making that introduction effectively can be trickier than it might first appears--the critic should just get lost and let the relationship develop on its own.

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