Art history was once an esteemed participant in the methods, values and goals of humanistic inquiry. Its purpose was to yield the broadened literacy that results from genuine scholarship and encounters with great art. But it has become a polemical tool for dismantling the concept of greatness and, with it, the conditions of civilized life. Roger Kimball puts it starkly: “Its enemy is civilization and the … assumptions on which civilization rests. Its aim is to transform art into an ally in the campaign of decivilization.”Many non-scholars apparently enjoyed the work, though one believed that Kimball set up "straw men" by using the most extreme examples of "art-crit" to make his point. For more, ESR (Enter Stage Right) interviewed Kimball last month.(via Justin Katz and Political Theory Daily Review)
Specifically, it is Western civilization that draws fire from academics hostile to the source of their privileges and unmindful of the origins of their own cultural assumptions. As phrased by Keith Moxey, distinguished professor of art history at Barnard and Columbia: “All cultural practice is shaped by political considerations.” So it follows that art history is—must be—”a form of political intervention.”
We have heard this before. In 1963, Leonid Ilyichev, Kruschev’s spokesman for the arts, declared: “Art belongs to the sphere of ideology.” Addressing a meeting of Party leaders and workers in the arts, he insisted that “art always has an ideological-political bent that … expresses and defends the interests of definite classes and social strata.”
He might have been addressing the College Art Association. Certainly, traditional art history still survives; but increasingly, it is practiced against the odds and the mental habits of tenured art appreciators. Kimball’s angry alarum is an extended postscript to “Tenured Radicals”, his 1990 chronicle of humanities departments corrupted by politicized agendas. Beneath the veneer of donnish rationality, lies a drive that is, at heart, a mad endeavor: the compulsion to abuse and discredit traditional values—including standards of achievement—as they manifest themselves in art.
Kimball warns against the debasement of intellectual life by opaque theorizing that sets out to mystify, shunning all obligation to clear thinking. He concentrates on the visual arts because this is the prime arena where intellectual pretension joins rhetorical inflation to promote a crack-pot cleverness that denatures the object it studies. In the arts, there is no brake on confusion between the verbal and the visual. Ornate utterance intervenes to keep us from recognizing what we see with our own eyes.
Addendum: I've included a link to reviews by "regular" readers, above. Perhaps I should do this more often as there is value in reading how other, presumably non-academic (albeit self-selecting), readers viewed a book.
Addendum II: I just discovered that I wasn't the only one as Dartmouth scholar Mikhail Gronas has already done some research in the area.
Gronas, an Assistant Professor of Russian Language and Literature, is interested in literary tastes. He wants to know why people read certain books, what drives those reading decisions, and what lies behind readers' reactions. Sociological surveys are fine, he says, but the answers are shaped by the questions. With online book reviews, like those at Amazon.com, he can begin to get a quantitative measure of taste (from the number of stars assigned by readers to a book) along with a qualitative assessment (from the personal commentary provided by readers). . .(via Political Theory Daily Review)
"Amazon.com book reviews are not based on literary theory," he says. "They are written by everyday readers, not scholars, who bring a new perspective to the topic of taste. Since online reviews are voluntary, they offer honest opinions that aren't prompted by specific questions." [emphasis mine]