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A Review of

The  Rape  of  the  Masters

by Miles Mathis

Roger Kimball

The most infuriating thing for me in reading The Rape of Masters, by Roger Kimball, was that—except for a few almost caviling comments—I could find nothing to disagree with.  You will think that this upset me only because I like to play the part of antagonist: to set up a target and show my ingenuity at hitting it over and over.  But this is not it, sorry to say.  I have much sounder reasons for wanting to find flaws in the book, reasons I will share in the second half of this review. 

       In the first half I will praise the book in specific ways and then make my negative comments.  You can decide for yourself if they were worth mentioning or not. 

       Mr. Kimball’s thesis is correct, his examples are well-chosen, his descriptions of the paintings are lucid and to-the-point.  His historical quotes are incisive and often funny (I laughed out loud at this quote from Henry’s James: “A remarkable economy of means but also a remarkable economy of effect.”)  His learning is deep and broad, and, what is rarer, this learning seems to be joined by both wisdom and humility.  It is also in the company of a real passion for art, a passion that very few in art criticism can claim, I think.  In short, the book was mostly a joy to read.  It was also a joy to find that Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Metropolitan, felt able to publicly agree with Mr. Kimball on the back cover of the book.  I was a little surprised by this, since in recent times Mr. Montebello still felt such a thing to be impolitic.  I don’t want to put feelings into Mr. Montebello’s head—what I mean is that I am unaware of his taking sides so publicly before.  This could be no more than a commentary on my reading habits.  But I had assumed that the status of Modernism had kept the Met’s director from endorsing critiques of it.  And now I assume that the slipping status of Modernism makes it possible for him to do so.  Understand that I feel this is a good, maybe even a great, thing. 

        Now for the caviling comments.  [Those who have seen my articles may not be surprised to learn that I find Mr. Kimball to be further toward the center than me on most of these comments.]  Mr. Kimball is very kind to Mark Rothko.  I have my suspicions that this was a political move.  I suspect that Mr. Kimball did not want to take all of his examples from pre-Modern art.  You will say that the post-Impressionists are twice represented, but to my mind this does not count.  Rothko’s inclusion was therefore a nod to the center.  Rothko is after all quite popular, even among those it is hard to dismiss as phonies.  Rothko is pleasant in a small way, and Mr. Kimball stays on this point.  He wanted to save his ire for the post-structural critics, so he chose a Modern painter who was not too offensive and let the writers destroy themselves upon him.  The chapter on Rothko works well, so Mr. Kimball can easily claim success.  But I do think that at some point in the future Rothko is due some stronger fire.  The moderns have had a pass for too long now.   “Pleasant in a small way” has never justified the sort of money and fame that Rothko or his paintings have enjoyed. 

      Mr. Kimball’s multiple quotes of Clement Greenberg surprised and angered me.  The quotes were not strong in themselves, so this was either another political move—in order not to seem too partisan—or it was an expression of real fellow feeling, which feeling I cannot understand.   I see no common ground between Mr. Greenberg and Mr. Kimball.  Greenberg is marginally less ridiculous than those Mr. Kimball skewers, but Greenberg showed them the way.  His example of arrogance and blindness was all-important, historically.  Add the obfuscations of Derrida to the presumptions of Greenberg and you have the literary paradox of Lubin.  

       The greatest outright error Mr. Kimball makes is not in regard to art but in regard to Achilles.  He implies that bringing the “bruiser” Achilles into a discussion about sexual ambiguity or cross-dressing is absurd; but it was not the post-structuralists who first did that, unfortunately.  The belief that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers goes back to Aeschylus and Plato, who, as ancient Greeks, were more expert on the subject than I will ever be.   I am not saying this makes Mr. Kimball’s criticism of Alpers less true, but it does leave an opening for the opposition.  Alpers and the rest of these ridiculous critics certainly overcomplicate every work they look at, but it can be argued that occasionally Mr. Kimball oversimplifies.   I don’t believe that Silenus is in the company of a lover in Rubens’ famous painting, but I also don’t believe that Achilles was simply a bruiser.

        These are substantive cavils.   Now for a formal cavil.  The book is too short.  It is a bit too concise (except for the introduction).   The critique of Eisenman’s book reads like it is just a tack-on to chapter 6.   Chapter 7, at 12 pages, is by far the shortest in the book.  There Mr. Kimball glosses Heidegger and Derrida, but in my opinion the argument would have benefited from a bit more spinning-out.  The Epilogue is likewise disappointing.  It reads like the skeleton of another chapter.  I would have liked to read Mr. Kimball’s full comments on Las Meninas and its brutalization by the various litterateurs.  Instead we get a hasty wrap-up that looks like it might have been ordered by the publisher.  Mr. Kimball hints at time constraints.  But we don’t want excuses, we want a finished book, whenever it is finished.  He might argue that it is better to leave the reader wanting more than wanting less, but in attacking the hydra it is probably best to have ones full arsenal in place from the start.


This begins the second half, where I explain my prejudices going in.  To jump straight to the point, these prejudices were put on high alert by the dedication to William F. Buckley.  I have read the National Review and do not find it a useful ally in my pro-artist arguments.  Mr. Kimball’s magazine The New Criterion is also a source of my prejudice, since I have seen that he and Mr. Kramer often tie their arguments about art to a broader cultural critique I cannot agree with.  This explains my inability to read this book with complete joy.  In fact I am deeply conflicted.  My alliances with the left and the right are both so partial that it is difficult to take any solace in them.  On the one hand I see that in the short term, those critics who claim to come from the left are a much greater threat to me as an artist.  Mr. Kimball and the right are absolutely correct about them: they are deadly to all true emotion and creation.  Nor do I doubt that Mr. Kimball and Mr. Kramer are pro-art, pretty much by my own definition of that term.  They would seem to be my natural allies. 

       Those who were not surprised to find me to the right of Mr. Kimball on the first two substantive issues may be surprised to find me far to the left of him on most non-artistic issues, but that is the fact, I am afraid.  Let’s face it, art is not a contemporary priority: even I don’t define myself politically based on my artistic opinions.  I define myself politically by my opinions on economic policy, social policy, education, the environment, etc.  I don’t find that either the right or the left address any of my concerns on any of these issues, any more than they address my concerns on art.  But the left often disregards them with less brutality and finality.   The left, at the grassroots level anyway, still has a soft spot for various idealisms (except, amazingly, in art).   The right is a hard-nosed realist, and what artist ever found that an inspiring theme?  It used to be that even the realists were idealists (I am talking of artists now).   I don’t need to search for examples.  It would be hard to find a counter-example, in fact.  People have never gone into art because they were hard-nosed realists, politically or otherwise.  Even the most well-grounded artists—take Mr. Kimball’s example of Rubens—were never materialists by the current definition.  Meaning they may or may not have been progressive—as in supporting equal opportunity—but they were not economic reductionists either.  I cannot see Rubens subscribing to the primacy of economics anymore than I can see him subscribing to the primacy of politics. 

       Mr. Kimball does not judge art politically, and I thank him for it.  But as I see it, the right in general tends to judge everything, including art, primarily on economic standards, and this is hard to prefer.  One might say that the modern person tends to judge everything economically, whether that person is left or right.  And while this is true, the right prides itself on being better at it.   Beyond Mr. Kramer and Mr. Kimball and a few other anomalies, I do not see a lot of artistic feeling coming from the right.  One might say that the philosophy of the right discourages such feelings.  The right is the businessman father who forbids the son or daughter to become an artist.  The son or daughter is the dreamer who does it anyway, despite the risk (or probability) of poverty.  This foolish risk is based on an idealism, and we all know (since we have been told so from the right) that foolish-risk idealisms like this arise from the left.  All this is admittedly a cliché, but clichés are based on a distillation of experience.  This cliché certainly does not contradict my experience or my readings of history. 

       Beyond all this is the undeniable fact that a contemporary realist does not enter the field primarily in order to make a lot of money.  There are always exceptions.  Some are making a lot of money and some may have orchestrated it all.  But an artist who transcends the avant garde and truly impresses Mr. Kimball will be unlikely to have done so for economic reasons.  Nor is he or she likely to be an admirer of Mr. Buckley.  I could be wrong, but I think my reasoning is common sense in this case.  I am not being novel or stating anything extraordinary.

       If this is true it means that Mr. Kimball is in the strange position, not me.  Once he gets beyond his sensible critique of the senseless writings of the left, he is in no man’s land.   The old arguments from the right (and I am thinking of old-style aristocratic arguments) may have supported artistic achievement, but the new right is a completely different beast, grounded in a soulless economics and fundamentalist religion.  Attempting to make a serious argument for serious art from the right side of American politics is almost as absurd as the arguments from the left.  The left cannot explain how Deconstruction, illogic, and fake art are progressive, and the right cannot explain how the grossest materialism since the late Roman empire is supposed to act as a counter to this.  Mitigating gross materialism with dogmatic irrationalism might be called the policy of all parties, the only difference being the specific form of irrationalism.  The right prefers the J-writer and Paul, the left prefers Derrida.  The old-timers of the right like Mr. Buckley are in serious denial if they think there is no connection between their philosophy and the movement of American politics in the second half of the 20th century.  We are not here despite his successes but because of his successes.  To think otherwise is to find himself in the same boat as the Marxists who argue that the various world communisms are not really Marxist.  They both want to take credit for all the successes and pass the blame for the failures.

        In Mr. Kimball’s brief quotes of Nietzsche in this book, he puts what would be called a right spin on Nietzsche.  I have no problem with this.  What Mr. Kimball claimed Nietzsche meant is precisely what I think Nietzsche meant.  Nietzsche was one of the fiercest hierarchists in history, and I don’t think there is any denying it.  He doesn’t fit the left’s description of him as one of the founders of Modernism.   Nietzsche was at his anti-Socratic best when defending artists against various encroachments.  But we must remember that Nietzsche was also very much against the State.  Please do not read that to mean “against the welfare state” or “against big government,” for that would be wrong.  Nietzsche was against the State like Thoreau was against the State.  He was against it all, right and left, in all its various guises as do-gooder or problem solver, as dictatorship or giant committee meeting.  Beyond that, Nietzsche philosophic reading of life as a whole was as far from an economic reading as it is possible to be.  If he were alive today he would rave against the decadence and disintegration in the arts and in culture as a whole, but he would rant about equally against our glorification of economics.  That is to say, he would be as likely to take a staff position at National Review as he would to take a staff position at ARTnews.  

        This digression into Nietzsche is useful since it underscores one of my central theses.  That being that none of the contemporary social or cultural or philosophic arguments, right or left, is pro-art.   Both sides quote Nietzsche and claim Nietzsche, but neither one has learned his central lesson, which is that high art and culture do not and cannot evolve out of economics or politics or philosophy or even what Nietzsche called psychology (this was before Freud, you know).  Art springs from individual passion.  Only a government that encouraged (or, realistically, best refrained from discouraging) individual passion, could be at all useful to art.

      Pragmatists will say that it is naïve to expect any government or culture to be pro-art.  Life is not pro-anything.  Life is a struggle.  Disregarding the obvious counterexample—is the U.S. not pro-business?—let me rephrase in even balder terms.  Contemporary culture is so hostile to art it passes all belief.  We have hit levels of anti-art that no one would have thought possible.  We have even exceeded the levels of Hitler and Stalin, since we are now killing art in the name of democracy and fairness. Soviet and Nazi art was just boring and uninspired; it was hardly worse than other slow periods—mannerism, late romanticism, choose your goat.  But now we have perfected the inspiration-killing machines.  We have invented the cultural ethos that is fully capable of preventing art.  And what is more we have disguised it so that no one can see the evidence.  All are accomplices and none are aware the crime.  No one who is not already fifty years in the future could recognize the act for what it is.  We have dressed the artistic pogrom in the garb of progress.  We have made the death of art seem like an historical necessity, and we have done this with much more subtlety than the bad guys of the past ever dreamed of.   The lastman has been ushered in on a velvet cushion, and he does not even know who he is. 

        What could be more psychologically debilitating to a young artist than to see art sacrificed on the altar of things he truly believes in?  It would be like being forced to watch as your beautiful sister was killed to save your mother and father, and being told that it was all for the best.   How could the contemporary artist not be neurotic or psychotic?   What is more, this induced psychosis is no accident.  It was planned.  It is public policy.  We have decided to do this, for what we call reasons.  We have consciously decided to subordinate art to politics and economics, and we have written off the death of art as a cost of doing business with the future. 

       Another senseless death, since the triumph of fairness was never tied to the negation of art.  It may be tenuously tied to the negation of certain pictorial subjects, like “The Glorification of Attila the Hun” or something.  But the indictment of realism, which might just as easily depict “The Glorification of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks,” was never a necessary part of our progress. 

       The beautiful sister has been sacrificed to please the perverse and for no other reason.  We read about the burning of witches and other group atrocities (see, for example, Seamus Heaney’s poem Punishment) with horror because we can see from a distance the psychological transparency of it all.   Would that we could see what we are now and not just what we were or what we think we want to be.


Art flourished in the Renaissance not because it was encouraged in any way.  It flourished because the discouragement from the Catholic church and other institutions ebbed a bit, allowing a few very self-assured artists to emerge out of the muck and steal a few gulps of fresh air.   Many, like Botticelli, were swallowed back up (Savonarola scared Botticelli out of the fresh air and back down into the pit).  Why do you think so many Renaissance artists were monks or “Fras?”  This was the weak board in the fence: it was the partial historical respite that allowed them to paint.  But contemporary culture has repaired any bad wood.  We don’t have the church to define art, but we have what is better: thousands of administrators of art from across the political spectrum to cojole and ostracize, define and categorize, explain and dismiss.  And not one of these administrators is as vulnerable to real aesthetic effect as the most (or least) corrupt Renaissance pope or prince.  

      The bottom line is that both the right and the left currently act as huge centralized and institutionalized discouragements to art.  The right acts this part with its beatification of economic policy—its paeans to everyone from Spencer to Reagan—as well as with its reversion to a Hester Prynne morality and a Bismarckian nationalism.  The right preaches against the NEA (correctly) but does nothing to fill its void.  So we get national spending on art that is probably less than that of Portugal or Burundi, and the private sector is also obsolescent.  The right buys a few over-priced sofa paintings in Carmel or Santa Fe and thinks its work is done.  If you argue against federal solutions, then there must be widespread individual support of schools and markets, and there is not.  That is why serious painting and sculpture and architecture and music are finding it so hard to gain a foothold.  The wealthy are just not interested.

      The left thinks that it acts the catalyst to passion by saying “freedom of expression” over and over and over.  But what it means in practice is that you are free to create the biggest nullity you can think of.  “Your latitude in creating nullities is infinite!”  But do not create a positive thing, because that is not what we want now.    This sort of creative freedom is nothing but a paradox.  Freedom to do nothing is not freedom.


This all goes to say that although Mr. Kimball’s book is very correct and brilliant within its own binding, it still does not fit into a worldview that is useful to art.  I have had to go beyond the book to show this, but it is true nonetheless.  Artistically, the right tends to be an archivist, or a collector of antiques.  It has little interest in the living world.  One can see this in Mr. Kimball.  One can hardly imagine him traveling about the country, seeking a young artist to champion.   But without a more active support from somewhere, right or left, the history of art will remain in abeyance.  It will remain a warehouse collection of absurdities, underwritten by a pseudo-text.  Lovers of art on the right must come to terms with this.   They must understand that loving the art of the past is like loving someone else’s children.  It has more than a hint of perversity to it when ones own children are barefoot and hungry.  Art history is now: we must bring up our own children in such a way that they can also make us proud.  If we don’t it is not the children who are unlovable, it is ourselves.  More than this, the right must look closely at the sum total of its opinions.   Even if it begins to support art, it will still be shoeing with one hand and unshoeing with the other.  It will be combing the towns and villages of the 50 states, seeking the seeds of artistic regeneration, uncomprehending that its own grander policies have all but doomed the search.  Uncomprehending that in this way it is not so far from the left as it would like to think.

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