Meaning and Misunderstanding

I was reading an article by Roger Kimball this morning wherein he was interviewed about his recent book, The Rape of the Masters (2004) and themes of art and culture.


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?


RK: 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. — 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.


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