When is a shark's mouth not a shark's mouth? When an art critic calls it a vagina dentata, as Nicolai Cikovsky did when analyzing Winslow Homer's The Gulf Stream, an 1899 oil in which toothy fish circle a doomed boat. The sharks in the picture "can be read as castrating temptresses, their mouths particularly resembling ... the toothed sexual organ that so forcefully expressed the male fear of female aggression," Cikovsky ventured, and is quoted with delight and dread in The Rape of the Masters, Roger Kimball's irresistibly scorching roast of modern art-history scholarship.
Writing about art is hard, or pointless, because if an artwork is right there in front of you, its impact pure and true, who needs it explained? Thus London Spectator art critic Kimball compares his job to that of a marriage broker: "Effect an introduction and get out of the way."
Yet his trendier colleagues are entrenched in what he calls a sneaky, subversive "attack on art" that displaces the art itself and dilutes its power: "Their interest in art is ulterior, not aesthetic," Kimball mourns. Striving "1) to show how clever one is and 2) to subordinate art to a pet political, social, or philosophical agenda," chic academics occupy "a kind of madhouse" in which, for example, Wake Forest University art professor David Lubin looks at John Singer Sargent's The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit -- a lifelike rendering of four Victorian sisters -- fixates on the surname Boit and its similarity to the French word boîte, meaning "box," then leaps from there to "the Female Child enclosed within this geometric and ideological box [and] also trapped within a biological box: the lack of the father's E, his penis. ... In the word boîte, the letter i has lost its rounded head in exchange for a spearhead ... the circumflexion producing the look of circumcision."
Such dilations are hilarious until you realize that they're everywhere.
What stuns the reader first, and by no means accidentally, is the ocean-breeze briskness of Kimball's writing compared to the circuitous traceries from which he quotes. Academicspeak is one of the emperor's silkiest suits of new clothes. Portending to instruct, it deliberately confounds. Asserting an alliance with the underclass, it ascends such vertiginous linguistic peaks as to address only a rarefied elite -- and even then only in code. To wit, Kimball cites Johns Hopkins professor Michael Fried describing a tired hunter in Gustave Courbet's The Quarry as "if not a certain beholder at any rate a certain theoretical entity: not, I think, the beholder tout court but rather the beholder-'in'-the-painter-beholder." To Fried's assertion that the hunter's passive pose "itself might be described as a sort of castration," Kimball quips: "What is it about castration and art critics?"
What, for that matter, is it about art critics and transgressive sex? One critic suggests that Peter Paul Rubens was "protean in a gender sense," another that Sargent was "filled with a deep-seated, deeply hidden sexual ambivalence," yet another that Gauguin embraced "savage androgyny." Others insist that the artists were preoccupied with race and class. To any suggestion that the men in question mightn't have been thinking of such matters at all, the critics quoted herein argue that yes, they were -- they just didn't realize it at the time. Even while insisting that "the circumflexed i of boîte marks the absence of an s, the letter in the alphabet that ... resembles the sperm cell, the spermatozoon," Lubin acknowledges 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." In his discussion of Courbet's "castrated" hunter, Fried notes that "it seems altogether unlikely that ... Courbet himself could have understood the meaning of his enterprise." In her dissertation on the abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, City University of New York professor Anna Chave assures us that "whether Rothko would have ratified the readings set forth here or recognized his conscious intentions in them is not the crucial issue."
Such second-guessing is funny and frightening. But sometimes art does have an agenda. It got Anthony Papa out of jail. In Fifteen Years to Life, Papa -- writing from the first-person point of view, though his memoir has a coauthor -- recounts how as a hard-luck young husband and father, he let a guy in a bowling alley talk him into delivering four ounces of cocaine for $500, got caught, and thanks to New York's draconian drug laws drew the titular sentence in Sing Sing. There, amid quotidian brutalities described in a blockish style that sometimes trips over its own urgency, this first-time offender contemplated suicide, hankering as the years crawled past after "something to get out of bed for in the morning." One day, an armed robber introduced him to watercolors. Never having painted before, Papa was transformed, spending his days at the prison studio, mixing colors while squinting through a small window at the Hudson: "Despite the coils of razor wire obstructing the view, the expansiveness of the river was awesome. ... Painting became my obsession."
Some of his works won prison art shows and were exhibited in the Whitney Gallery, spawning a flood of articles such as a New York Times full-pager about the inmate whose "reality is a canvas of rage and sorrow." Papa's talent for milking the press arguably outspans his painterly skills, but who could blame him? He knew which journalists to cultivate. He knew which well-wishers to enlist in his campaign for clemency. And he knew what to paint -- electric chairs, desperate hands, caged figures: "I knew that somehow it would help me get out." Twelve years into his sentence, it did. The fact that galleries then started rejecting him -- telling Papa his work was "too scattered or it didn't match the style of the other artists they represented" -- reveals a stark double standard: As a jailed painter, Papa was a novelty to be marveled at, not unlike some apt primate in a zoo. Freedom sheared off that polemical panache.
Beyond polemics lies parody. And irony. Opposite the blazing shark-is-a-shark (castration notwithstanding) clarity of Courbet and Homer stand works such as those of Brendan Powell Smith, who retells Bible stories using only LEGO pieces. Smith's Brick Testament series spans Genesis, Exodus, the Ten Commandments, and the Nativity: Plastic shepherds jut from a geometrically stippled plastic manger floor, admiring a tubular plastic Jesus. Red plastic bricks portray the bloody Nile meeting a beige-brick desert shore. Knob-headed Magi ride peg-legged angular horses. It's a joke, though only kind of, because its captions are actual Bible quotes. But is it art? Yes, because you still want to look.
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