HAMLET: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
POLONIUS: By th’ mass and ’tis—like a camel indeed.
HAMLET: Methinks it is like a weasel.
POLONIUS: It is backed like a weasel.
HAMLET: Or like a whale.
POLONIUS: Very like a whale.

[W]here art history is concerned, in the beginning was the eye, not the word.
—Otto Pächt

Why do we teach and study art history? A question that elicits a complicated answer. To learn about art, yes, but also to learn about the cultural setting in which art unfolds; in addition, to learn about—what to call it? “Evolution” is not quite right, neither is “progress.” Possibly “development”: to learn about the development of art, then, how artists “solved problems”—for example, the problem of modeling three-dimensional space on an essentially two-dimensional plane.

Those are some of the answers, or some parts of the answer, most of us would give. There are others. We teach and study art history—as we teach and study literary history or political history or the history of science—partly to familiarize ourselves with humanity’s adventure in time. We expect an educated person in the West to remember what happened in 1066, to know the plot of Hamlet, to understand (sort of) the laws of gravity, to recognize The Venus of Urbino when he sees it. These are aspects of a huge common inheritance, episodes that alternately bask in and cast illuminations and shadows, the interlocking illuminations and shadows of mankind’s conjuring with the world.

All this might be described as the dough, the ambient body of culture. The yeast is supplied by direct acquaintance with the subject of study: the poem or play, the mental itinerary a Galileo or Newton traveled, the actual work of art on the wall. In the case of art history, the raison d’être—the ultimate motive—is supplied by a direct visual encounter with great works of art. Everything else is prolegomenon or afterthought, scaffolding to support the main event, which is not so much learning about art as it is experiencing art first hand.

Another question: What has happened to the main event? Suppose you dropped into Art History 101 at your local college, haunted the annual meeting of the College Art Association, perused the major journals and new books devoted to art history: what would you discover? Doubtless a wide variety of things. Here and there you would find art history pursued as outlined above: as an educational endeavor concerned with genuine scholarship that aimed above all at facilitating the direct encounter with important works of art.

But the dominant trend—the drift that receives the limelight, the prizes, the academic adulation—is decidedly elsewhere. Today, the study of art history is more and more about subordinating art—to “theory,” to politics, to just about anything that allows one to dispense with the burden of experiencing art natively, on its own terms. This is accomplished primarily by enlisting art as an illustration of some extraneous, non-artistic, non-aesthetic narrative. Increasingly, art history is pressed into battle—a battle against racism, say, or the plight of women or on behalf of social justice. Whatever. The result is that art becomes an adjunct to an agenda: an alibi for . . . you can fill in the blank by consulting this week’s list of trendy causes.

In a word, what we are witnessing is the triumph of political correctness in art history. Political correctness operates by transposing life to an alien jurisdiction, judging our endeavors by the peremptory diktats of presumed virtue. It is worth stressing that the chief issue, the chief loss, lies not in the particular program being espoused: the war on patriarchy, the struggle against capitalism, the march against “formalist values” or “bourgeois ethics.” Whatever one thinks of those campaigns—love them or hate them—the chief diminishment lies in the displacement of art, its relegation to the status of a prop in a drama not its own.

This generally happens in one of two ways. The first involves a process of spurious aggrandizement. You hail the mediocre as a work of genius, for example, or pretend that what is merely repellent actually beneficently transforms our understanding of art or life. If art is no longer to be judged primarily in terms of aesthetic achievement, it is vulnerable to usurpation by any importunate bandwagon: the one marked “egalitarianism” just as much as the one marked “anarchy,” “opportunistic nihilism,” or “fatuous revolutionary politics.”

Footnote: One of the most insidious expressions of this process of de bas en haut involves a travesty of traditional aesthetic judgment. One thinks of those cheerleaders for Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs of the sado-masochistic demimonde who pretended to admire them for their formal excellence: the exquisite triangulation of the bullwhip being reminiscent of, etc., etc. (Their sneer: “You want aesthetic appreciation? We’ll give you aesthetic appreciation—of garbage.”) The vocabulary of aesthetic delectation was reforged into a demonic parody of itself. The moral is that art is no more immune from perversion than any other realm of human endeavor.

Spurious aggrandizement describes one strategy in the war against art. It blurs the distinction between high and low, elevating the detritus of popular culture to the status of fine art. (Andy Warhol: “Art is what you can get away with.”) The second main strategy proceeds in the opposite direction. It operates not by inflating the trivial, the mediocre, the perverse, but by attacking greatness. Sometimes the assault is direct: a moustache planted on the upper lip of the Mona Lisa. More often, it is by some strategy of indirection. The work of art is seized as an occasion for critical lucubration, for political sermonizing, for theoretical or pseudo-theoretical exegesis. Here, too, there is an element of spurious aggrandizement: of the interpreter. But for the work of art, the result is a despoliation, the rape of the masters.

In “The Authorship of In Memoriam,” the English essayist Ronald Knox “proved” that the real author of that familiar poem was not Alfred, Lord Tennyson, as many of us have supposed, but Queen Victoria. Knox’s essay is a delightful jeu d’esprit, an amusing poke at the poor souls who believe that Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays commonly attributed to Shakespeare. But Knox wrote with tongue in cheek. His essay is funny because it is meant as satire. Those academics who undertake the rape of the masters might be funny were they not in earnest. But earnest they are. They write to traduce, not satirize. More precisely, they poach upon the authority of art in order to pursue an entirely non-artistic agenda. Their interest in art is ulterior, not aesthetic.

Some examples. In “Blacks in Shark-Infested Waters,” an immensely influential article published in Smithsonian Studies in American Art (Winter 1989), Albert Boime argues that Winslow Homer’s well-known painting The Gulf Stream (1899) “reveals [Homer’s] understanding of the relationship of economics to the plight of blacks and their survival.” Yes, well. The canvas portrays a lone black man struggling in rough waters on a dismasted sloop; in the distance, a storm threatens; closer to hand, a group of sharks thread through the waves. It is a powerful painting. But Professor Boime, who teaches art history at UCLA, is not interested in powerful paintings. He is interested in the plight of blacks in nineteenth-century America. So he seizes upon Homer’s painting (and Watson and the Shark [1778] by John Singleton Copley) in order to illustrate his morality play.

The Gulf Stream by Winslow Homer

Three or four stalks of sugar cane sprout from the hold of the boat in Homer’s picture, jumbled tentacles that reinforce the sense of swelling visual drama. But according to Professor Boime, “Homer’s conspicuous representation of the stalks, totally out of proportion to the boat and its lone passenger, assumes a symbolic and metonymic connotation in its intimate relationship to the history of slavery in the West Indies.” Does it? Or is it rather the case that Professor Boime “assumes”—perhaps “imports” would be better—that “symbolic and metonymic connection”?

When some clients asked about the fate of the man pictured in the boat, Homer told his dealer that “You can tell these ladies that the unfortunate negro who is now so dazed & parboiled will be rescued & returned to his friends and home, & ever after live happily.” Homer’s tone betrays understandable exasperation: he had offered the public a painting, not a news story. But for Professor Boime, the artist’s comment justifies an additional sermonette:

Homer’s ironic tone carries with it the masculinized aura of the Victorian male who admired risk-taking situations remote from the realm of “ladies,” but it also signifies the opposite of what he stated. . . . [How does Profesor Boime know this?] Homer’s black man is both hero and victim, collapsing the old categories of triangular formalism into a powerfully condensed metaphor of implicit power blocked.

Maybe. Or maybe the whole idea of “collapsing the old categories of triangular formalism” was invented lock, stock, and barrel by Professor Boime, who is more concerned to declare his correct attitudes about race than to appreciate Homer’s painting in its own terms. “Blacks in Shark-Infested Waters” is twenty-five closely printed pages of social history in which Winslow Homer and Copley are enlisted to support a thesis about how two “North American artists from privileged white middle-class backgrounds . . . transmitted the attitudes of their peers toward blacks.” The art is incidental.

Art is incidental for the influential English feminist Griselda Pollock, too. But she adds “gender” and sexual politics to Professor Boime’s concern with race. In Avant-Garde Gambits: Gender and the Color of Art History, she eviscerates Paul Gauguin for supplying

the fantasy scenarios and the exotic mise-en-scène for not only masculinist but also imperialist narratives. Gauguin, like Picasso, is regarded as a major father of modern art, a term rich in both reproductive and sexual connotations.

Thanks for that gloss on the word “father”! Would Professor Pollock be happier if Gauguin were described as “a major mother of modern art”? Note that Avant-Garde Gambits is no obscure piece of academic makework but rather the text of the Walter Neurath Memorial Lectures, a series that has included such eminences as Lawrence Gowing, John Pope-Hennessey, Kenneth Clark, and John Elderfield.

Professor Pollock lavishes a great deal of attention on Manao Tupapau (1892) (the title means “spirit thought”), Gauguin’s famous homage to Manet’s Olympia. The painting portrays a young Tahitian woman lying belly down, naked, on a bed, her head turned toward the viewer. Standing in the background is a spectral figure representing the spirit of the dead. In several letters, Gauguin explained that his aim in Manao Tupapau was partly to capture a particular harmony of color and movement and partly to communicate the woman’s fear as she sensed the presence of death. A particular challenge, he said, was to portray the naked woman without suggesting “something indecent.” “As soon as the idea of a tupapau has occurred to me, I concentrate on it and make it the theme of my picture. The nude thus becomes subordinate.”

For Professor Pollock, however, Manao Tupapau is less a painting than an indictment. It is racist. It is sexist. It is colonialist. It is capitalist. Drawing on such figures as Franz Fanon, whose Wretched of the Earth is a fashionable document in the library of pro-terrorist literature, and Jacques Lacan, whose radical Freudianism has been a godsend to sex-obsessed obscurantists everywhere, Professor Pollock charges that

[i]n Gauguin’s work as it circulated in Paris, the body of Teha’amana [the woman depicted in the painting] is a fetish doubly configured through the overlapping psychic structures of sexual and racial difference. In art, as the nude, the female body is refashioned fetishistically, in order to signify the psychic lack within bourgeois masculinity which is projected out onto the image of “woman.” The culturally feminized and racially othered body also carries the projected burden of the cultural lack—the ennui—experienced by some of the Western bourgeoisie in the face of capitalism’s modernity.

Professor Pollock criticizes Gauguin (and others) for creating “an imaginary world named ‘the Tropics.’” But she has populated a far more tenuous venue with her fervid imaginings. One need not be a particular fan of Gauguin’s work to see that Griselda Pollock has left it far behind in her effort to disseminate (if I may use the term) her feminist gospel.

Overt political fantasy is not the only popular method by which the rape of the masters is accomplished in the academy today. There is also hermetic over-interpretation—or perhaps hermetic non-interpretation would be a more accurate description. This assault on art operates by owlishly menacing irrelevance. There are many accomplished and influential practitioners, each of whom contributes his (or her) own distinctive quotient of absurdity. For sheer preposterousness, no one can top the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. In his book The Truth in Painting (1987), Derrida offers his readers—what a patient lot they are!—some 130 pages on Van Gogh’s famous painting of a pair of peasant shoes.

The competition for the most ludicrously overinterpreted painting in the world has yet to be held. But the odds are strong that Van Gogh’s little painting would win hands down. It has, after all, been the subject of a long essay by Martin Heidegger (“Van Gogh’s painting is the disclosure of what the equipment, the pair of peasant shoes, is in truth”) as well as a prolix essay by Meyer Shapiro taking issue with Heidegger. And those essays unleashed a torrent of words words words from which poor Van Gogh labors to this day.

Reading Derrida is like plunging from the sunshine into a darkened hallway hung with mirrors. It takes a while to get your bearings, and even then . . . Derrida opens his book with a section called “Passe-Partout.” It’s a passport to Oz. Someone tells him, “I am interested in the idiom in painting.” “What,” Derrida asks, “does he mean?”

Does he mean that he is interested in the idiom “in painting,” in the idiom itself, for its own sake, “in painting” (an expression that is in itself strongly idiomatic; but what is an idiom?)?

That he is interested in the idiomatic expression itself, in the words “in painting”? Interested in words in painting or in the words “in painting”? Or in the words “‘in painting’”?

One thing is clear: that Derrida is not interested in painting but only in “painting.”

When he gets around to Van Gogh’s shoes, Derrida pretends to be tormented by the “problem” of whether the shoes are really a pair of old shoes as Heidegger blithely assumed.

—If the laces are loosened, the shoes are indeed detached from the feet and in themselves. But I return to my question: they are also detached, by this fact, one from the other and nothing proves that they form a pair. If I understand aright, no title says “pair of shoes” for this picture. Whereas elsewhere . . . Van Gogh speaks of another picture, specifying “a pair of shoes.” Is it not the possibility of the “unpairedness” (two shoes for the same foot, for example, are more the double of each other but this double simultaneously fudges both pair and identity, forbids complementarity, paralyzes directionality, causes things to squint toward the devil), is it not the logic of this false parity, rather than of this false identity, which constructs this trap? The more I look at this painting, the less it looks as though it could walk.

But how about talk? The more Derrida looks at it, the more it looks as though it might talk.

Derrida is one of the most adulated, highest paid, and influential academics in the world. What does that tell us? That celebrity is a license for unbridled intellectual masturbation? In part. But it is worse than just that. Figures like Boime, Pollock, and Derrida are not exceptions in the world of academic art history. They and their many confrères (Svetlana Alpers on Rubens, say, or Michael Fried on Courbet, or Anna Chave on Rothko) are the academic vanguard: they define the heights of their discipline. It is they who set the trends, start the fads, shape the discipline. Graduate students emulate them. Publishers chase them. And for what? “What is disturbing about Rubens’ Munich Silenus,” Svetlana Alpers writes about the painter’s Drunken Silenus,

is that in it gender difference is unclear. Difference is denied, or at least not marked: the body is not clearly male, nor is it female. In appearance and in behavior he exists, on Rubens’ pictorial account, in a curious no man’s and no woman’s land, between or eliding genders. . . .

Why would a male painter in our tradition represent flesh in this manner? I think it has something to do with the problem of male generativity. How are men to be creative, to make pictures, for example, when giving birth is the prerogative of women?

Professor Alpers proceeds with some verbal embroidery about “the gaze” and “the Lacanian notion of finding oneself through being looked at,” but anyone who looks at that Rubens painting can see that gender, far from being denied, is robustly proclaimed. For one thing, the tipsy, balding Silenus is heavily bearded: a subtle hint for most of us that he is male.

There is something unutterably depressing about wading through this academic gobbledegook. It’s not just the rebarbative pseudo-thought, the clichéd political sloganeering (“Eurocentric patriarchal colonialist bourgeois racist capitalist”), the minatory, all-knowing tone. That’s bad enough. But the tragedy of this reader-proof verbiage is that it acts as a prophylactic, effectively sealing off students from any direct contact with works of art. We turn to art history to open the door to art. More and more what we get is a cordon insanitaire preventing any contact with the work. In The Practice of Art History, the great Austrian scholar Otto Pächt argued that “where art history is concerned, in the beginning was the eye, not the word.” Pächt was a passionate proponent of the idea that art was “more than a mere illustration of the humanities.” It is more, too, than a mere illustration of politicized nihilism and empty theorizing. Looking at the way art history is taught today, however, you’d never know it.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 22 Number 4, on page 28
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