The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art, by Roger Kimball. New York: Encounter Books, 2005. 200 pp. $17.95 (paperback).
Reviewed by Daniel Wahl
Roger Kimball begins The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art by asking why we teach and study art history. “It is a question,” he says, “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, about how over the course of history 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 law of gravity, to recognize Mona Lisa, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, or Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère. These are aspects of a huge common inheritance, episodes that alternately bask in and cast illuminations and shadows, the interlocking illuminations and shadows that delineate 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 novel 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.
Or so one would have thought. What has happened to the main event? (pp. 1–2)
As Kimball makes clear, the main event has changed. . . .