Although originally published in 2004 it is only now that I have come across this masterly book whose subtitle is its summary: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art. And were it not for Ruth Dudley Edwards' acknowledgement of Kimball at the end of her highly entertaining "Killing the Emperors" it might never have come my way.
Kimball, an art critic for Spectator and The New Criterion sets out to strip away the bunkum in which so much art criticism and art history is now bescheißen. His approach is simple: take eight well-known paintings by artists such as Courbet, Rothko and Velasquez and examine what some recent art historians or university professors have said about them. His aim is, in his own words, to debunk the use of art to destabilise the hegemony of white, patriarchal, capitalist society. For this, he says, is the agenda in so much contemporary art criticism. Stated like that it sounds heavy going; it isn't. Kimball romps through his targets at speed and with aplomb, revealing (with relish) their total absurdity.
The utterances of the art establishment would be no more than laughable were it not that so many take them seriously: those contemporary artists(?) who themselves scorn any kind of practical ability; the same artists' pretentious claims to intellectual gravitas; academics and critics who wilfully ignore the actual circumstances of a work's creation and who, instead, attempt to interpret those works through the distorting prisms of current social and/or political fads; the galleries and the collectors who are taken in by all of this. He slams the "political silliness .... [that masquerades] as a profound and transgressive reflection on art". His own unfussy language is an indictment of the debased linguistic currency of so much art criticism and interpretation. Utterly refreshing.
Interesting read, a critique of a lot of academic historical writing in recent years. Post-modernist art historians have built careers on writing about painting and sculpture, both past and present, using both Marxist and Freudian theories. Their work is occasionally interesting and insightful, but often quite ludicrous and farfetched, showing neither visual nor aesthetic sensibility.
'A spade is a spade is a spade' was, for Roland Barthes, the shibboleth by which the incorrigibly parochial mind could be identified. Roger Kimball proudly owns this kind of 'straight-talking', common-sense approach from the get-go, using it as a convenient disguise under which all manner of wild distortions, gross inaccuracies and sweeping dismissals can pass for 'truth'. We see, to give one example, Jacques Derrida's philosophical treatise, 'The Truth in Painting', cropped at page 1, paragraph 5, to 'prove' that Derrida wasn't actually interested in painting at all. (Just don't read paragraph 6. Or any of the 400 subsequent pages. I'm reminded of how Richie Rich in 'Bottom' got on with Tolstoy.)
There is much that is wrong in contemporary art history - many readings in which over-zealous ideological agendas cloud the content of the art itself. Kimball, I'm afraid, is among the very worst offenders - the more so because he has the temerity to claim an objective truth for his argument, which ironically depends upon some nebulous idea of 'spiritual refreshment'. Gauguin would be nothing for Kimball but 'windy pretentiousness', if he didn't use such pretty colours.
If you hate 'political correctness', and you are scared by any philosophical thought which seems to ask difficult questions of you, then here is a book which somehow manages to straight-jacket the one with the other. Enjoy it - the academic equivalent of a pint with Nigel Farage. If you think art can be something challenging or radical, with the power to reshape the way we think and feel, you probably don't need to be warned.