Roger Kimball's book The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art was a fun, quick read from cover to cover. If you have ever been subjected to recent art criticism, this book provides catharsis.
With humor and wit, Kimball confronts the obfuscating rhetoric that clothes political agendas -- not with his own competing rhetoric and agenda but by trying to let the artwork speak for itself. Whereas so-called art critics, bedecked as they are with prestige, institutional backing, and economic privilege, tend to flabbergast, intimidate, and discourage, Kimball encourages his readers to take a step back, have a good laugh at what currently passes for academic art insight, and counter it with a good dose of common sense. He often quotes artists themselves, as well as their contemporaries, to provide a clearer view of how they understood each artwork under discussion.
Kimball considers a number of cases of art criticism that he assures us are representative of the current practices in the field (rather than outliers or exceptions), systematically exposing them and de-jargonizing them while diagnosing the intellectual diseases at work in each case. Having been through a number of college art history courses at a prestigious university, I can attest that his selection of texts certainly is representative of the fare foisted upon my classmates and I. One of my favorite instances here is a perfectly ridiculous text on "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit," a beautiful group portrait by John Singer Sargent. The art historian who penned the text, one Professor Lubin, wanders so far afield that he starts reading perverse sexual meaning into words that don't even appear in the painting or in the title of the painting, but only in the pun on the title that the author admits to fabricating himself and that would have never occurred to the artist or the patron. It is in this bizarre way that he purports to "find" the meaning inherent in the artwork. From the book:
"Professor Lubin's first point is that the French word for box, boîte, is only one letter and an accent mark away from the surname of the painting's subject: "Boit." "The Boit Children makes a visual-verbal pun by translating into Les Enfants de (la)Boît(e): the children of Boit and the children of the box." In fact, it is not the painting that makes the pun - and a silly enough pun it is - but Professor Lubin. And that's just the beginning of the charade....
"Professor Lubin readily admits that "It far oversteps the bounds of credibility to think that Sargent had any of this in mind before, during, or after he painted the painting." "For this relief, much thanks"! (Hamlet I:1) But then he cheerfully tells us that, notwithstanding what Sargent thought, we shouldn't be surprised "if somehow a psychic transfer or transmutation occurs between the verbal part of the creative mind... and the visual part." Psychic transfer? Transmutation? What is this, Shirley MacLaine meets art history?"
Kimball quotes Lubin at length as the latter goes on (and on) about vagaries of the significant connections between certain - ahem - anatomical parts and the uppercase and lowercase of the letter 'e' (because -- don't forget! -- the letter 'e' is conspicuously absent from the name in the title of this painting! Following this?). All he has to do here to reveal Lubin's absurdity to the sound-minded is simply to quote him!
In short, Kimball has done a wonderful service: He selects representative tests of art criticism, translates them for his reader in the context of the real work, the practices of the artist, and his times, and calls them out for what they are: self-serving academic and political garble dressed up in very fancy pseudo-psychology, pseudo-philosopy, and, most of all, just words, words, words... Words that ultimately obscure the paintings they purport to describe. Kimball continues on more witty and enlightening jaunts with paintings by Courbet, Rubens, Winslow Homer, and van Gough and their critical aggressors, valiantly defending the honor of the masters along the way.
While he does a delightful job of pointing out the ridiculous aspects of the current state of art criticism and the intellectual rot that has for a long time posed as learning, I do dock Kimball a few points for trying to enlist to his aid a number of artists and critics who are complicit in this decay. For example, Kimball amusingly rips apart a piece of art criticism or two dealing with the canvases of Marc Rothko, but not before a few pages of dedicated to apparently serious appreciation of that painter. He seems to accept, if not validate, Rothko's place in the canon of Western Art as written by the very critics and academics he is lampooning. Rothko's current prestige and place in the art world relies almost solely on the basis of the ridiculous climate of the arts made possible by the decay of common sense and the love of beauty. The only way Rothko can be so highly revered as he currently stands is through the rejection of beauty and the acceptance in its place of fatuous theory and political jockeying.
Kimball also tries to enlist Clement Greenberg as an ally in his interpretation of Paul Gauguin without putting Greenberg in his proper context as one of the primary founders of the strains of art history attempting to do away with beauty as a central theme in understanding art. In fact, Greenberg himself was one of the first critics to reject the beautiful representation of volumetric form in paintings as meritorious and in its stead have a theory of art that valued "flatness" per se. This of course flies in the face of the tradition of Western painting which, from the time of Leonardo and even before, considered the beautiful and accurate rendering of three dimensional form one of the key marks of beauty and indicators of the accomplishment of an artist.
For readers interested in the subject of art history and those looking for further entertainment along these lines, I recommend Tom Wolf's The Painted Word to understand the earlier stages of the sickness of the art world and gain a broader critique of certain facts that Kimball either takes for granted or doesn't recognize as part of the problem.
Overall The Rape of the Masters proves clarifying, fun, and refreshing. I would heartily recommend it to anyone, especially those who deal with art critics or interact with the art world establishment in any way. From the author himself: "... I hope that The Rape of the Masters will provide some inoculation against academic intimidation. The claims made by the critical marauders I discuss in this book are so outlandish, and they are typically expressed in language that is so rebarbative, that many people are stunned into acquiescence or at least into silence. It pleases me to think that The Rape of the Masters will help counteract that anesthesia, prompting more people to object to the objectionable."
I think that Kimball's book will bear out these hopes admirably. Students in particular, approaching the discussion of art within mainstream academia or other art criticism circles, will do well to arm themselves with this work before undergoing the mental assault typical of the field. I wish I had been thus armed myself.
What do you think? Does art criticism intimidate you? Do you have a hard time with interpretations of paintings that seem to be irrelevant to what's actually on the canvas?
“The new school of art and thought does indeed wear an air of audacity, and breaks out everywhere into blasphemies, as if it required any courage to say a blasphemy. There is only one thing that it requires real courage to say, and that is a truism.” - G. K. Chesterton
It is said that each is entitled to his own opinion.
There is much truth in this. However, this phrase is often used to justify the indefensible. A certain author that I knew once put forward the following silly scenario to show the limits of this phrase: are people entitled to the opinion that loaded shotguns should be kept in nurseries for young children to play with? Of course not. Few but those with ulterior motives, including fear, would ever say such a thing would be an acceptable 'opinion.' The true responsibility that everyone has is to form their opinions in accordance with the good, the true, and the beautiful.
Opinions are not valuable just because we happen to have them - they become valuable when they are well formed. The flip side of this is that they can actually be very harmful when they are poorly formed. For some reason, bad opinions are justified because of a false belief that all opinions are equal and it is impossible to sort them out.
Let's turn this idea of opinion to the subject of art.
There is a saying that good art should speak for itself.
In general, I hold this to be true. Good art should be immediately appealing, with such qualities as a beautiful and harmonious color scheme, excellent drawing, beautifully sculpted forms, harmonious composition, and division of space. Even the untrained eye will immediately appreciate works that are excellent in these ways, so the work, to a certain extent, speaks for itself. As this kind of art appreciation goes, it is a very good thing.
However, I would put forward the idea that it is the responsibility of the civilized man to have cultivated good taste; in literature, music, clothing, and many other things, but particularly visual art. Sight being perhaps the strongest of the five senses, forms which we take in visually are particularly potent. All the forms that we take in, whether we actively surround ourselves with them or passively float through them, affect our souls and leave their imprints on us, This effect is multiplied when we consider how the forms in our lives also affect our loved ones, friends, neighbors, and our community broadly. (You've seen me write about this already in my artist's statement.)
But -- what is good taste and how does it apply to the visual arts?
'Good taste' is simply to have a well formed opinion, in accordance with the realities of the Good, the True, and particularly the Beautiful, when it comes to questions of art. GK Chesterton says: "A good critic should be like God in the great saying of a Scottish mystic. George MacDonald said that God was easy to please and hard to satisfy."
A man of good taste should delight in the good - even relatively small goods - and be able to recognize and compare goods so that he knows which are the greater and which are the lesser. The man with thoroughly refined tastes may even be able to identify causes of the goodness he perceives and help others to understand and appreciate that goodness. For example: the man with good taste in wine is able to indicate to his companions particular aspects of flavor, scent, and structure, comparing these qualities to other, familiar flavors and smells in order to enlighten his friends. (If you are an aficionado, by the way, I need learn from you sometime.) Of course the development of such an ability to taste comes from cultivation; being familiar with many varieties of wines and being able to remember them and mentally compare past experiences to present ones. This usually comes only through serious study.
So too, the man with good taste in art can appreciate amateur art, even a child's doodles, for the good that it is. He can appreciate the excellences a Benson has over a Bruegel (and vice versa) and recognizes the sublimities of Michelangelo and Vermeer as the heights of their particular types of painting.
But the person with good taste can also call a spade a spade and say when a lesser artist, propped up by fads, doesn't measure up to the esteem with which he's awarded by the Art World Elites, the curators and the gallerists (for instance). Often in our current art climate, however, the choice is even clearer: between what is beautiful and that which is downright ugly. Often this level of taste -- of objecting to the ugly and deformed claiming the mantle of high art -- takes no more than a little bit of common sense and (perhaps, at times, a fair bit of) courage.
For this level of taste, look no further than the example of the boy who said the emperor was, in fact - and quite simply - naked.
Thus, the responsibilities of good taste vary and take different forms in different circumstances. All of us, however, do have an obligation to the Beautiful in whatever circumstances we find ourselves and no matter how cultivated our tastes are or if we are just starting out on the journey of appreciating the beautiful. We cannot call what is beautiful ugly or claim that what is ugly is beautiful, nor can we claim a shallow or lower beauty is equal to a higher or more profound one.
When somebody suggests that a Pollock is equal to a Michelangelo, it would be appropriate for you to laugh as if at a bad joke and then ask the poor fellow to please be serious. Just as no one is, in fact, "entitled" to the opinion that loaded shotguns should be kept in every nursery, likewise some opinions regarding art merit only flat rejection.
As an exercise in developing good taste I have assembled a Pinterest Board of the 10 best images of Our Lady in Western Art. Tell me what you think! Share your thoughts and let me know if there are any images that you would put in the top 10 and which ones you might let drop out. I am always trying to refine my taste too!
Why did I leave my comfortable job to pursue classical art training?
I had been teaching at an all-boys prep school for six years. I loved my colleagues and had great bosses I respected and loved to work for. I loved the young men that I taught. My wife and I were just starting our family - we already had our first beautiful baby girl! With these responsibilities in mind, my wife and I had decided to leave the security and comforts of my job as head of the Art Department at The Heights School so that I could go back to being a student myself, full-time, under Master painter Paul Ingbretson.
Many people would say it was crazy (and likely they were saying it). I left a very good career path that didn't entail a fraction of the risk and outright financial loss that turning down years of income in exchange for years of tuition would. And yet my wife and I weighed these realities and with a little fear, a lot of hope, support from family, and a firm will, took the leap and moved our small family up to Manchester, New Hampshire to start this foolish little enterprise.
So why did I do it?
For me a big piece of that choice goes back to my grade school experience when my family attended Saint Vincent De Paul Church. Many people in our mid-sized Midwestern Town referred to it as "St. Vincent Deluxe" -- for easily inferable reasons. And yet despite being one of the wealthiest parishes around, it was a truly ugly building. It is what I referred to as a "Pizza Hut church" whose squat architecture speaks much more of fast food than of beauty, transcendence, and elevation of the mind and heart. It's one of many such buildings erected by Catholic parishes in the United States during the dark days of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. The stained glass windows were more sandy grout than actual glass. Their designs were clumsy at best -- upon reflection, I think they have much more in common with the pixelated graphics of an early Nintendo gaming system then the amazing patterning and geometry of the stained glass of Chartres or even a modest 19th century chapel. I believe it had some rough hewn statues, Stations of the Cross, and a crucifix that was inoffensive at best. Besides these, the sanctuary was very bare. But perhaps even more offensive than the barrenness of the church sanctuary were the very ugly murals just outside, in the vestibule. Stark blue-faced figures, reminiscent more of aliens than of human beings, marched across the bright orange walls of the vestibule in a world constructed of violently hacked, jagged paint strokes. They were supposed to illustrate the life of St. Vincent de Paul... I only knew that I didn't want to be around them.
With all this wealth and opportunity, why didn't we have a beautiful church? We as a parish community could certainly afford it.
Then, during my 8th grade year, my parents took me on a trip to Rome. What an experience! I was deeply moved by the great beauty I found there. The stark, colossal grandeur of the statues in St. John Lateran; St Peter's Basilica with its amazing Colonnades; the wonders of the Vatican Museums -- particularly the Sistine Chapel -- but most of all the paintings in the Jesu (a grand, post-Reformation Church, that is the head Church of the Jesuit order) spoke to me as nothing else I had ever seen before.
The beauty and vigor of the figures from the Jesu touched me deeply. Perhaps a little over-the-top, the figures burst forth from their architectural frames into the space of the viewers. They spoke to me unmistakably of the Saints being of our world, having power to intercede for us, to change the world for the better... and all of this communicated by the excellent craftsmanship, care, and vision of all-but-unknown artists. Here were men and women who looked like me, but perhaps a little higher, cleaner, more noble. I wanted to be like them and I was convinced that they would want to help me. I felt profoundly the bridge between Heaven and Earth through this artwork and it helped me to watch, to stay, to pray, and to enjoy the house of God - almost nothing could have been farther from that aesthetic experience than the experience of the vestibule at St. Vincent de Paul's back home.
And yet the communities who had made these grand, amazing churches didn't have nearly the resources in terms of technological sophistication that the community of St. Vincent's had.
I had also heard of beautiful buildings that were built in the rural area of New York State where my mother had grown up -- made by poor French and Irish pioneers and farmers. I heard stories of these elegant churches filled with carved wood and stone that, before my time, had been replaced with other Pizza Hut churches. I began to suspect that the ugly churches came about not through a lack of money or technology but because of a type of spiritual crisis: a lack of love and dedication (to Beauty and to the Source of Beauty -- as Saint Augustine said, the "beauty ever ancient and never new").
From that point on I started to feel called to dedicate myself to the pursuit of beauty.
Through the years that pursuit took different forms.
I had always drawn, but having been to Rome, interest in classical and baroque art started engaging me in a new way. I took some classes in high school, but never had any art teacher who seemed to be offering what I really wanted. I learned about Caravaggio, and was swept away by the same sense of wonder at the beauty of light and form combined with the beauty of the presence of the Divine so close to us that I had experienced in the Jesu.
I went to college; my parents encouraged me to "find something that I loved and figure out a way to get paid for it." To my parents' somewhat restrained horror I really took the first part of their message to heart, trusting that I would figure out the second part in time: I majored in Studio Art and Philosophy. Here again, I was disappointed at the lack of any teacher who could teach me what I was truly craving: how to draw the beauty, the truth - how to create an image of that higher Vision that those great Italian Masters I had seen in Rome had done.
In fact, I found they couldn't even teach me excellent technique for approaching any visual subject.
By the time that I was just about to graduate. I really didn't know what to do next. I knew I wanted to pursue "art" but had gained only enough knowledge to know that I needed a lot more training to be able to make the beautiful things that I hoped to make -- that I was haunted by, that I felt were burning at my heart.
I didn't know where to get such training though, so I decided to get a job and continue my search.
As the head of the Art Department at the Heights School I did that in one of the most supportive and generous communities that I could imagine. I taught my grade school and high school students, I took classes from different realist artists and started to learn more about the reviving tradition of realist, Western Art. A breakthrough came when I visited the studios of Henry Wingate in Front Royal, Virginia. Some friends had told me about him, encouraging me to get in touch and visit him. When I reached out to him, telling him about my history and desire for training, Henry generously invited me out to his studio.
What I saw there blew me away.
Henry's studio was a whole building, the size of a small house, tailored to the needs of a traditional artist. It had a huge room with an enormous north-facing window. Multiple panels, custom made to fit the window, could be placed over or removed from different areas to completely control the flow of light. It had a large, raised pedestal where he drew and painted from live models in natural light. And it had his work: beautiful still life drawings and paintings; large, imposing portraits; but most of all, his epic grand-scale religious figurative work. I felt like I had stepped into the studio of one of those great Italian Masters. It was unlike any other Studio I've been to before and I knew I was on the right track.
I wanted to study with Henry, but to my disappointment he informed me he was not taking any students. However he directed me towards the master under whom he had studied: Paul Ingbretson. It was a very exciting moment in my journey. If Henry could make paintings like this, maybe someday I could as well.
A year passed before I could visit Paul's studio. I'd seen some of his work online, but the thing that really took my breath away when I finally visited were the colors in the still life. By that time I had visited a number of studios of contemporary realist painters; I had seen much of their work in galleries; I'd been to many great galleries in the US, the UK, Italy, and France. I have never been as impressed with color in still life. The vibrancy and freshness of the color without exaggeration or over-saturation, combined with disciplined drawing, was so powerful and yet so calm and restrained! It was truly a revelation of Beauty for me. I had never suspected until then what an exciting thing still life painting could be.
The decision had been building for a number of years. I had often talked with my wife about it and finally we both had enough clarity to see that after our first child, if we didn't make the jump to have me study painting then, we probably never would. We had to choose between settling down and taking the "leap of faith." We had both decided that we were committed to beauty. We recognized that real sacrifices often have to be made in order to pursue the highest goods, and we both recognized that learning how to make beautiful images for others and to present a vision of true beauty -- in short, working actively in building up a culture of beauty -- is something worth sacrificing for.
We had both seen our share of Pizza Hut churches as well as a popular art culture that rejects and often attacks beauty; we had seen how many people were seeking true beauty and were unable to find it; and we recognized the need for people to act to change the culture for the good, the true, and the beautiful. We had discerned that we felt a call to be such people - culture warriors, perhaps some might say - in the service of Beauty. We also realized that we had only one life to live, and that if we didn't make the jump we would probably regret it for the rest of our lives.
And so -- we jumped!
What do you think? Is there a dream out there that you would pursue if you had the chance? Tell me about it.
Hello there, I'm John H. Folley. Thanks for visiting the Beauty Advocacy Blog, where it's my job to help you become a more discerning art appreciator.
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