Posted: April 5, 2005
ne of the cultural treasures Britain lacks, and America happily possesses, is the monthly review New Criterion, which among other valuable duties keeps a watch against destructive contemporary trends in the arts and literature. Its managing editor is Roger Kimball. He is particularly keen to spot, analyze, and denounce unhealthy developments on the campus. Some years ago his book Tenured Radicals exposed the way in which ideological fanatics of the Left were hijacking university chairs to promote extremist politics, instead of giving the students entrusted to their care the education for which they, their parents, and the community had paid. This much-read and discussed book had a perceptible effect.
Kimball has now turned his attention to a particular and important aspect of this process: the teaching of art history in American universities. In America, as in the West generally, the study of art as a historical discipline has expanded enormously in the last half-century, and now attracts large numbers of students, especially women. I am not sure whether this development is welcome. It does not necessarily reflect a growing love and understanding of art generally. Many students regard art history as a soft option, an entertaining way of passing the time before they move on to serious matters—getting a job, marriage, etc. Nor is it clear that there are enough university teachers of sufficient quality to cater to this increased demand for instruction in art history. After all, until the 1930s there was little serious study of the subject outside Germany, where it had deep roots in the 19th-century university system. In Britain and America, art history was largely written by wealthy amateurs like John Ruskin and Kenneth Clark, whose fortunes enabled them to do the traveling and on-the-spot investigations which raised them to professional status; or to those, like Bernard Berenson, who made a living in the art trade. (In France there was a quite different tradition of literary men pronouncing on art, running from Diderot, via Baudelaire and the Goncourts, to André Malraux.) The real academic experts, beginning with E.M. Gombrich and Nicolas Pevsner, came from Germany as cultural immigrants, particularly after Hitler came to power in 1933. They brought not merely their persons but entire institutions: thus the Warburg Institute, Britain's first college of art study, was essentially a refugee from Hitler's terror. At the same time, about 350 German art historians emigrated to the United States, and the systematic study of art on U.S. campuses was the work of this diaspora.
These scholars and the people they taught were of high quality but necessarily few in number. Their teaching was by its nature personal, the handing on of affections, enthusiasms, and skills from one ardent art-lover to another, rather as the great painters and sculptors themselves had passed on the secrets of their trade in family workshops. The vast expansion of higher education in art, combined with the proliferation of museums and galleries, a huge increase in output from art publishers, made possible by the improvement in color photography and reproduction (and outsourcing of printing to Asia), and the impact of "blockbuster" exhibitions trumpeted by TV programs—all this has made it hard for art teaching of high quality to keep pace. As Kingsley Amis put it, 40 years ago, "More will mean worse." He referred to higher education as a whole but his words have particular application to art history. At one time, to teach art history at the college level required a knowledge of Italian and German—usually French too—and several years spent in Italy studying the Old Masters. The inflation of the subject, however, allowed large numbers of academics to secure positions without these qualifications. Instead they made do with "theory," which allows varieties of polysyllabic waffling to substitute for hard, detailed knowledge. To supply the need, this trend was imported into art history from literary criticism. It is a modern variety of Gnosticism: a form of inner knowledge that allows one to perceive, behind appearances, hidden truths and secrets. Outstanding practitioners were Marx and Freud, who claimed the ability to discern beneath the surface the realities about economics and politics, and the human spirit.
In the field of art history, Kimball traces this form of Gnosticism back to the German Marxists Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin. The latter's essay, "The Works of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Kimball says, "has become a kind of sacred text in literary and art historical studies," since it shifts the interest away from the object of art itself to its use as an instrument for transforming or defending the political and economic system. For art teachers with strong left-wing views, but whose grasp of the essentials of art history, including a passionate love of fine art, is shaky, this pedagogic trick came as a godsend. Instead of teaching art they could teach whatever they liked, bringing in at will their views on politics, economics, sex, gender, and religion. Much of the vocabulary, or jargon, for this technique had already been supplied by the French intellectuels de choc, Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan, and this means that what the new kinds of art historians are teaching can be camouflaged in layers of verbiage and mystification. Unfortunately, one or two senior art scholars provided a bad example—notably Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968), a polymath who often strayed from the artworks he was contemplating into distant recesses of philosophy and history. One forgives Panofsky because he was so knowledgeable, so full of insights and because he so clearly loved the works he was descanting on. But, as the writings of Gombrich show, it is only by focusing directly and physically on the art-objects themselves that one learns anything worth knowing about them. A little of Panofsky's "iconology," as he called it, goes a long way.
* * *
Kimball illustrates his case by a series of examples that are worth summarizing. Thus, Prof. Keith Moxey, the Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Art History at Barnard College, argues that all culture must be related to theory and politics. He gives Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights as an example of an artist truckling to the social, economic, and political views of the patrons who paid for it. In the real world of art history, of course, Bosch is an interesting case. We know disappointingly little about him but it has usually been assumed that he was trying to propound a moral lesson by emphasizing the horrors that await hardened sinners, though in a famous essay on this particular point (republished in The Heritage of Apelles, 1976), Gombrich introduces the subversive thought that Bosch was trying to make his more sophisticated viewers laugh.
Then there is Prof. Michael Fried, the J.R. Herbert Boone Professor of Humanities at the John Hopkins University, who has crucified on the cross of his weird theories poor old Gustave Courbet, a painter who had plenty of problems of his own during his disturbed and unhappy life. It seems Courbet had a "propensity for calling into question the ontological impermeability of the bottom framing-edge." He also provided "an archetype of the perfect reciprocity between production and consumption that Karl Marx in the 'General Introduction' to the Grundrisse posited." Fried sees the battered old revolutionary hero as a feminist whose art was "structurally feminine." It is true that Courbet was the first artist to show a painting with an image of a woman's pudenda as its centerpiece, and displayed another, The Bathers, of a woman with an enormous bottom that shocked and baffled everybody. But the professor is not referring to these exercises but to Courbet's hunting pictures and, in particular, The Quarry (1856), the subject of which is two magnificent dogs, their owner, and a boy blowing his horn. This, mysteriously, is described as "another of Courbet's characteristically displaced and metaphorical representations of the activity, the mental and physical effort, of painting." Courbet is an exceptionally interesting painter, and the illuminating things which can be written about his works are almost limitless. Why not show students this, instead of blinding them with Prof. Fried's pretentious nonsense?
Of Sargent's enchanting and virtuoso painting of The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882), Prof. David M. Lubin, the Charlotte C. Weber Professor of Art at Wake Forest University, says it is an unhappy psychodrama fraught with exploitation, anxiety, and tension. He adds, arrogantly, that it does not matter "whether Sargent meant it this way or not." Prof. Griselda Pollock, who is at Leeds University, where she is Director of the Centre for Cultural Studies, the Centre for Jewish Studies, and Graduate Studies and Research in Feminist Theory, History, and Art—amazing the way these people accumulate titles!—sees Gauguin's works and especially his Spirit of the Dead Watching (a black sleeping nude with dream symbols) as a case of colonialist, masculine, and capitalist exploitation, in addition to being racist and sexist. Manet's Olympia, to which she compares it, is "a representation of the spaces of bourgeois masculinity where working women's bodies are bought and sold.... The painting signifies commodity, capital's penetration of bodies and desires." Winslow Homer's magnificent animated seascape, The Gulf Stream (1899), which has attracted a lot of comment over the years, usually intelligent or at least intelligible, has led Nicolai Cikovsky, another of the new genre of art historians, to say that it evinces "an almost Schopenhauerian philosophical preference," and to compare the sharks encircling the boat to 'castrating temptresses, their mouths particularly resembling the vagina dentate, the toothed sexual organ that so forcefully expressed the male fear of female aggression." Cikovsky adds: "Homer's fear of women was so strong...that he could not fully repress it." From here it is easy for Svetlana Alpers, Professor of Art History at the University of California, Berkeley, to describe Rubens's magnificent piece of disgusted horror-bravado, Drunken Silenus (1618), as an allegory of anal rape.
The tragedy of this and other cases of perverted art history, which not only obstruct the truth but may damage irreparably the capacity of sensitive students to love great art, is that some of the teachers invoked, Alpers for instance, once did good work, though none of those Kimball cites has ever been first-class. His exposure of this kind of art teaching is timely and welcome, and I hope that the trustees and benefactors of universities where such travesties of scholarship occur will read this book and take action.