The Rape of the Masters. How Political Correctness Sabotages Art

by Roger Kimball (Encounter Books, 2004)
© Donald Richardson, January, 2006

This informative and entertaining book is a potent critique of post-modernist/post-colonialist art criticism, which is characterised by what has become known as 'Theory' (capitalised and in quotes); i.e., criticism that is based on socio-political attitudes derived from the writings of people like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Ferdinand de Saussure rather than the study of art itself. 'Theory' is theory of a particular kind, which Kimball characterises - brilliantly and deliciously - by phrases like 'reader-proof verbiage', 'critical hubris', 'polysyllabic leftism', 'intellectual futility', 'polymorphously perverse fantasy', 'hermeneutical perversity', 'interpretation turned rancid', 'intellectual masturbation', 'anti-humanistic pedantry', a 'corrosive armoury of critical sophistry' and 'de-civilization'. Most readers will be aware of what he is referring to: it had been infecting writing about art for decades.
Proponents of 'Theory', Kimball says, judge works 'according to the peremptory diktats of self-proclaimed virtue', solipsistically studying writings about works rather than the works themselves. And they treat works of visual art as 'texts', the interpretation of which is a matter for the viewer - any viewer, not the informed viewer - rather than the originator or his/her authoritative apologist. This 'drains art of its intrinsic dignity and pleasure' and violates our experience of it. It is, he regrets, 'the triumph of political correctness in art history'.
There are two aspects to this process - the 'spurious aggrandisement' of those contemporary artists Kimball regards as not of the first rank (Gilbert and George, Robert Mapplethorpe) - and the actual 'rape of the masters.' Kimball traces this to Walter Benjamin's 1936 essay 'The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction', which treated photographs of works as more relevant to modern life than the originals are. This was always a specious argument because it considered the content of works bereft of their form, with no direct evidence of their size, medium, texture or facture - what some would say is the most relevant aspect of paintings and sculptures. Kimball sees it as a Marxist/feminist strategy for 'effectively sealing off students from any direct contact with works of art, although he is unconcerned to explain why this has happened.
Critical treatment of characteristic works by Peter Paul Rubens, Diego Velasquez, Mark Rothko, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Gustav Courbet, Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent is analysed. Each work is first described lucidly without access to 'Theory' - usually in Kimball's own words, but often quoting acknowledged authorities - and then depictions of these works by 'academic fantasists' are deconstructed - which effectively turns 'Theory' on itself! This not only makes highly amusing reading but provides us with a modus operandi for our own reading of both works of art and criticism.
But, admirable as this essay is, Kimball is too impatient about critics who attempt to explain works as ineffable as a Rothko, for example. And he dismisses Duchamp (who 'started a cottage industry that is still going strong') too easily. This great innovator's famous Fountain (1917) is much more than a urinal: that it is signed 'R.Mutt' (mutter is German for mother) and it is exhibited lying on its back are facts that should not be facilely dismissed.