March 28, 2005

Must-see TV

Roger Kimball, target of one of my early posts on this blog and author of The Rape of the Masters, is on C-Span2 right now pontificating on the correct way to interpret art. He was just dissing on Walter Benjamin and the politicization of art criticism, and he is wearing a bow tie, de rigueur.


So, according to Kimball, art history and academic art criticism today is guilty of "hermeneutical hijinx"; it sets out to "taint, adulterate, besmirch," art; and it tries to "short-circuit the pleasure we take in art." There is a "grim, dour...pleasureless quality" to contemporary art history. Art historians "don't like art" and "dont wan't [people] to like art."

Revealing his elitism, Kimball equates the "sexualization" of discourse in academic humanities with the "vulgarization of polite society" that we see in pop culture. Oh dear!

I'll give credit to Kimball for calling out a far-fetched psychoanalytic reading of John Singer Sargent's "Daughters of Edward Darley Boit" by the respected art historian David Lubin. (Lubin's argument hinged on the similarity between the name Boit and the French Boite 'box' and involved lots of phallic inferences.) Psychoanalytic interpretation does get carried away (I have never put much stock in it myself), and I believe Kimball is picking on the smallest fry here -- I would like to see him take on Foucault's reading of "Las Meninas."

But Kimball's next analysis, of Winslow Homer's "The Gulf Stream" and the racial interpretations it has received, struck me as unconvincing and plain narrow-minded. Kimball seems to believe that since Homer (according to him) could not possibly have intended to paint a picture with racial meaning, the picture thus not cannot be interpreted in terms of race. Kimball is apparently not attuned to the fact that a work of art is not just a source of "spiritual refreshment," but also a serious product of its historical and cultural moment, and that relations of meaning necessarily exist in a work of art beyond the artist's conscious intentions -- however those may be ascertained, to begin with.

It's not hard to sit back and enjoy a beautiful painting. It is hard to think critically about it in terms of the cultural relations surrounding it. Majoring in art history would be a waste of college tuition only if Kimball had his way with it.

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