most infuriating thing for me in reading The Rape of Masters,
by Roger Kimball, was that—except for a few almost caviling
comments—I could find nothing to disagree with. You will
think that this upset me only because I like to play the part of
antagonist: to set up a target and show my ingenuity at hitting
it over and over. But this is not it, sorry to say. I
have much sounder reasons for wanting to find flaws in the book,
reasons I will share in the second half of this review.
first half I will praise the book in specific ways and then make
my negative comments. You can decide for yourself if they
were worth mentioning or not.
Kimball’s thesis is correct, his examples are well-chosen, his
descriptions of the paintings are lucid and to-the-point.
His historical quotes are incisive and often funny (I laughed out
loud at this quote from Henry’s James: “A remarkable economy
of means but also a remarkable economy of effect.”) His
learning is deep and broad, and, what is rarer, this learning
seems to be joined by both wisdom and humility. It is also
in the company of a real passion for art, a passion that very few
in art criticism can claim, I think. In short, the book was
mostly a joy to read. It was also a joy to find that
Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Metropolitan, felt
able to publicly agree with Mr. Kimball on the back cover of the
book. I was a little surprised by this, since in recent
times Mr. Montebello still felt such a thing to be impolitic.
I don’t want to put feelings into Mr. Montebello’s head—what
I mean is that I am unaware of his taking sides so publicly
before. This could be no more than a commentary on my
reading habits. But I had assumed that the status of
Modernism had kept the Met’s director from endorsing critiques
of it. And now I assume that the slipping status of
Modernism makes it possible for him to do so. Understand
that I feel this is a good, maybe even a great, thing.
for the caviling comments. [Those who have seen my articles
may not be surprised to learn that I find Mr. Kimball to be
further toward the center than me on most of these comments.]
Mr. Kimball is very kind to Mark Rothko. I have my
suspicions that this was a political move. I suspect that
Mr. Kimball did not want to take all of his examples from
pre-Modern art. You will say that the post-Impressionists
are twice represented, but to my mind this does not count.
Rothko’s inclusion was therefore a nod to the center.
Rothko is after all quite popular, even among those it is hard to
dismiss as phonies. Rothko is pleasant in a small way, and
Mr. Kimball stays on this point. He wanted to save his ire
for the post-structural critics, so he chose a Modern painter who
was not too offensive and let the writers destroy themselves upon
him. The chapter on Rothko works well, so Mr. Kimball can
easily claim success. But I do think that at some point in
the future Rothko is due some stronger fire. The moderns
have had a pass for too long now. “Pleasant in a
small way” has never justified the sort of money and fame that
Rothko or his paintings have enjoyed.
Kimball’s multiple quotes of Clement Greenberg surprised and
angered me. The quotes were not strong in themselves, so
this was either another political move—in order not to seem too
partisan—or it was an expression of real fellow feeling, which
feeling I cannot understand. I see no common ground
between Mr. Greenberg and Mr. Kimball. Greenberg is
marginally less ridiculous than those Mr. Kimball skewers, but
Greenberg showed them the way. His example of arrogance and
blindness was all-important, historically. Add the
obfuscations of Derrida to the presumptions of Greenberg and you
have the literary paradox of Lubin.
greatest outright error Mr. Kimball makes is not in regard to art
but in regard to Achilles. He implies that bringing the
“bruiser” Achilles into a discussion about sexual ambiguity
or cross-dressing is absurd; but it was not the
post-structuralists who first did that, unfortunately. The
belief that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers goes back to
Aeschylus and Plato, who, as ancient Greeks, were more expert on
the subject than I will ever be. I am not saying this
makes Mr. Kimball’s criticism of Alpers less true, but it does
leave an opening for the opposition. Alpers and the rest of
these ridiculous critics certainly overcomplicate every work they
look at, but it can be argued that occasionally Mr. Kimball
oversimplifies. I don’t believe that Silenus is in
the company of a lover in Rubens’ famous painting, but I also
don’t believe that Achilles was simply a bruiser.
are substantive cavils. Now for a formal cavil.
The book is too short. It is a bit too
concise (except for the introduction). The critique
of Eisenman’s book reads like it is just a tack-on to chapter
6. Chapter 7, at 12 pages, is by far the shortest in
the book. There Mr. Kimball glosses Heidegger and Derrida,
but in my opinion the argument would have benefited from a bit
more spinning-out. The Epilogue is likewise disappointing.
It reads like the skeleton of another chapter. I would have
liked to read Mr. Kimball’s full comments on Las
Meninas and its brutalization by
the various litterateurs. Instead we get a hasty wrap-up
that looks like it might have been ordered by the publisher.
Mr. Kimball hints at time constraints. But we don’t want
excuses, we want a finished book, whenever it is finished.
He might argue that it is better to leave the reader wanting more
than wanting less, but in attacking the hydra it is probably best
to have ones full arsenal in place from the start.
begins the second half, where I explain my prejudices going in.
To jump straight to the point, these prejudices were put on high
alert by the dedication to William F. Buckley. I have read
the National Review and do not find it a useful ally in my
pro-artist arguments. Mr. Kimball’s magazine The New
Criterion is also a source of my prejudice, since I have seen
that he and Mr. Kramer often tie their arguments about art to a
broader cultural critique I cannot agree with. This
explains my inability to read this book with complete joy.
In fact I am deeply conflicted. My alliances with the left
and the right are both so partial that it is difficult to take
any solace in them. On the one hand I see that in the short
term, those critics who claim to come from the left are a much
greater threat to me as an artist. Mr. Kimball and the
right are absolutely correct about them: they are deadly to all
true emotion and creation. Nor do I doubt that Mr. Kimball
and Mr. Kramer are pro-art, pretty much by my own definition of
that term. They would seem to be my natural allies.
who were not surprised to find me to the right of Mr. Kimball on
the first two substantive issues may be surprised to find me far
to the left of him on most non-artistic issues, but that is the
fact, I am afraid. Let’s face it, art is not a
contemporary priority: even I don’t define myself politically
based on my artistic opinions. I define myself politically
by my opinions on economic policy, social policy, education, the
environment, etc. I don’t find that either the right or
the left address any of my concerns on any of these issues, any
more than they address my concerns on art. But the left
often disregards them with less brutality and finality.
The left, at the grassroots level anyway, still has a soft spot
for various idealisms (except, amazingly, in art).
The right is a hard-nosed realist, and what artist ever found
that an inspiring theme? It used to be that even the
realists were idealists (I am talking of artists now).
I don’t need to search for examples. It would be hard to
find a counter-example, in fact. People have never gone
into art because they were hard-nosed realists, politically or
otherwise. Even the most well-grounded artists—take Mr.
Kimball’s example of Rubens—were never materialists by the
current definition. Meaning they may or may not have been
progressive—as in supporting equal opportunity—but they were
not economic reductionists either. I cannot see Rubens
subscribing to the primacy of economics anymore than I can see
him subscribing to the primacy of politics.
Kimball does not judge art politically, and I thank him for it.
But as I see it, the right in general tends to judge everything,
including art, primarily on economic standards, and this is hard
to prefer. One might say that the modern person tends to
judge everything economically, whether that person is left or
right. And while this is true, the right prides itself on
being better at it. Beyond Mr. Kramer and Mr. Kimball
and a few other anomalies, I do not see a lot of artistic feeling
coming from the right. One might say that the philosophy of
the right discourages such feelings. The right is the
businessman father who forbids the son or daughter to become an
artist. The son or daughter is the dreamer who does it
anyway, despite the risk (or probability) of poverty. This
foolish risk is based on an idealism, and we all know (since we
have been told so from the right) that foolish-risk idealisms
like this arise from the left. All this is admittedly a
cliché, but clichés are based on a distillation of experience.
This cliché certainly does not contradict my experience or my
readings of history.
all this is the undeniable fact that a contemporary realist does
not enter the field primarily in order to make a lot of money.
There are always exceptions. Some are making a lot of money
and some may have orchestrated it all. But an artist who
transcends the avant garde and truly impresses Mr. Kimball will
be unlikely to have done so for economic reasons. Nor is he
or she likely to be an admirer of Mr. Buckley. I could be
wrong, but I think my reasoning is common sense in this case.
I am not being novel or stating anything extraordinary.
this is true it means that Mr. Kimball is in the strange
position, not me. Once he gets beyond his sensible critique
of the senseless writings of the left, he is in no man’s
land. The old arguments from the right (and I am
thinking of old-style aristocratic arguments) may have supported
artistic achievement, but the new right is a completely different
beast, grounded in a soulless economics and fundamentalist
religion. Attempting to make a serious argument for serious
art from the right side of American politics is almost as absurd
as the arguments from the left. The left cannot explain how
Deconstruction, illogic, and fake art are progressive, and the
right cannot explain how the grossest materialism since the late
Roman empire is supposed to act as a counter to this.
Mitigating gross materialism with dogmatic irrationalism might be
called the policy of all parties, the only difference being the
specific form of irrationalism. The right prefers the
J-writer and Paul, the left prefers Derrida. The old-timers
of the right like Mr. Buckley are in serious denial if they think
there is no connection between their philosophy and the movement
of American politics in the second half of the 20th
century. We are not here despite his successes but because
of his successes. To think otherwise is to find himself in
the same boat as the Marxists who argue that the various world
communisms are not really Marxist. They both want to take
credit for all the successes and pass the blame for the failures.
Kimball’s brief quotes of Nietzsche in this book, he puts what
would be called a right spin on Nietzsche. I have no
problem with this. What Mr. Kimball claimed Nietzsche meant
is precisely what I think Nietzsche meant. Nietzsche was
one of the fiercest hierarchists in history, and I don’t think
there is any denying it. He doesn’t fit the left’s
description of him as one of the founders of Modernism.
Nietzsche was at his anti-Socratic best when defending artists
against various encroachments. But we must remember that
Nietzsche was also very much against the State. Please do
not read that to mean “against the welfare state” or “against
big government,” for that would be wrong. Nietzsche was
against the State like Thoreau was against the State. He
was against it all, right and left, in all its various guises as
do-gooder or problem solver, as dictatorship or giant committee
meeting. Beyond that, Nietzsche philosophic reading of life
as a whole was as far from an economic reading as it is possible
to be. If he were alive today he would rave against the
decadence and disintegration in the arts and in culture as a
whole, but he would rant about equally against our glorification
of economics. That is to say, he would be as likely to take
a staff position at National
Review as he would to take a
staff position at ARTnews.
digression into Nietzsche is useful since it underscores one of
my central theses. That being that none of the contemporary
social or cultural or philosophic arguments, right or left, is
pro-art. Both sides quote Nietzsche and claim
Nietzsche, but neither one has learned his central lesson, which
is that high art and culture do not and cannot evolve out of
economics or politics or philosophy or even what Nietzsche called
psychology (this was before Freud, you know). Art springs
from individual passion. Only a government that encouraged
(or, realistically, best refrained from discouraging)
individual passion, could be at all useful to art.
will say that it is naïve to expect any government or culture to
be pro-art. Life is not pro-anything. Life is a
struggle. Disregarding the obvious counterexample—is the
U.S. not pro-business?—let me rephrase in even balder terms.
Contemporary culture is so hostile to art it passes all belief.
We have hit levels of anti-art that no one would have thought
possible. We have even exceeded the levels of Hitler and
Stalin, since we are now killing art in the name of democracy and
fairness. Soviet and Nazi art was just boring and uninspired; it
was hardly worse than other slow periods—mannerism, late
romanticism, choose your goat. But now we have perfected
the inspiration-killing machines. We have invented the
cultural ethos that is fully capable of preventing art. And
what is more we have disguised it so that no one can see the
evidence. All are accomplices and none are aware the
crime. No one who is not already fifty years in the future
could recognize the act for what it is. We have dressed the
artistic pogrom in the garb of progress. We have made the
death of art seem like an historical necessity, and we have done
this with much more subtlety than the bad guys of the past ever
dreamed of. The lastman has been ushered in on a
velvet cushion, and he does not even know who he is.
could be more psychologically debilitating to a young artist than
to see art sacrificed on the altar of things he truly believes
in? It would be like being forced to watch as your
beautiful sister was killed to save your mother and father, and
being told that it was all for the best. How could
the contemporary artist not
be neurotic or psychotic? What is more, this induced
psychosis is no accident. It was planned. It is
public policy. We have decided to do this, for what we call
reasons. We have consciously decided to subordinate art to
politics and economics, and we have written off the death of art
as a cost of doing business with the future.
senseless death, since the triumph of fairness was never tied to
the negation of art. It may be tenuously tied to the
negation of certain pictorial subjects, like “The Glorification
of Attila the Hun” or something. But the indictment of
realism, which might just as easily depict “The Glorification
of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks,” was never a necessary
part of our progress.
beautiful sister has been sacrificed to please the perverse and
for no other reason. We read about the burning of witches
and other group atrocities (see, for example, Seamus Heaney’s
with horror because we can see from a distance the psychological
transparency of it all. Would that we could see what
we are now and not just what we were or what we think we want to
flourished in the Renaissance not because it was encouraged in
any way. It flourished because the discouragement from the
Catholic church and other institutions ebbed a bit, allowing a
few very self-assured artists to emerge out of the muck and steal
a few gulps of fresh air. Many, like Botticelli, were
swallowed back up (Savonarola scared Botticelli out of the fresh
air and back down into the pit). Why do you think so many
Renaissance artists were monks or “Fras?” This was the
weak board in the fence: it was the partial historical respite
that allowed them to paint. But contemporary culture has
repaired any bad wood. We don’t have the church to define
art, but we have what is better: thousands of administrators of
art from across the political spectrum to cojole and ostracize,
define and categorize, explain and dismiss. And not one of
these administrators is as vulnerable to real aesthetic effect as
the most (or least) corrupt Renaissance pope or prince.
bottom line is that both the right and the left currently act as
huge centralized and institutionalized discouragements to art.
The right acts this part with its beatification of economic
policy—its paeans to everyone from Spencer to Reagan—as well
as with its reversion to a Hester Prynne morality and a
Bismarckian nationalism. The right preaches against the NEA
(correctly) but does nothing to fill its void. So we get
national spending on art that is probably less than that of
Portugal or Burundi, and the private sector is also obsolescent.
The right buys a few over-priced sofa paintings in Carmel or
Santa Fe and thinks its work is done. If you argue against
federal solutions, then there must be widespread individual
support of schools and markets, and there is not. That is
why serious painting and sculpture and architecture and music are
finding it so hard to gain a foothold. The wealthy are just
left thinks that it acts the catalyst to passion by saying
“freedom of expression” over and over and over. But
what it means in practice is that you are free to create the
biggest nullity you can think of. “Your latitude in
creating nullities is infinite!” But do not create a
positive thing, because that is not what we want now.
This sort of creative freedom is nothing but a paradox.
Freedom to do nothing is not freedom.
all goes to say that although Mr. Kimball’s book is very
correct and brilliant within its own binding, it still does not
fit into a worldview that is useful to art. I have had to
go beyond the book to show this, but it is true nonetheless.
Artistically, the right tends to be an archivist, or a collector
of antiques. It has little interest in the living world.
One can see this in Mr. Kimball. One can hardly imagine him
traveling about the country, seeking a young artist to
champion. But without a more active support from
somewhere, right or left, the history of art will remain in
abeyance. It will remain a warehouse collection of
absurdities, underwritten by a pseudo-text. Lovers of art
on the right must come to terms with this. They must
understand that loving the art of the past is like loving someone
else’s children. It has more than a hint of perversity to
it when ones own children are barefoot and hungry. Art
history is now: we must bring up our own children in such
a way that they can also make us proud. If we don’t it is
not the children who are unlovable, it is ourselves. More
than this, the right must look closely at the sum total of its
opinions. Even if it begins to support art, it will
still be shoeing with one hand and unshoeing with the other.
It will be combing the towns and villages of the 50 states,
seeking the seeds of artistic regeneration, uncomprehending that
its own grander policies have all but doomed the search.
Uncomprehending that in this way it is not so far from the left
as it would like to think.
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