To the Editor:
Roger Kimball’s The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art, reviewed by Steven C. Munson [Books in Review, October 2004], attacks me at length for a book I published twenty years ago in which I put forward the remarkable thesis that the Victorians were sexually repressed and that one of them, the painter John Singer Sargent, made a series of apparently “Freudian slips” in his group portrait of the daughters of a fellow artist. In eighteen pages of ad hominem assault, Kimball mentions me by name no fewer than 70 times. Yet Mr. Munson, in his review, refers to me as David “Rubin” instead of Lubin. Could this too have been a slip, perhaps revealing something about Mr. Munson?
Mr. Munson, it appears, has read none of my work apart from the polemically chosen quotations in the book under review. He seems not even to realize that my rumination on Sargent appeared in a 1985 publication that has long been out of print, and thus is not exactly representative of current endeavors in art history, as Kimball’s book misleadingly maintains.
Mr. Munson concludes his review by suggesting that today’s revisionist art historians are worse than Nazis: “the current revisionism is more insidious, since it is not enforced or sponsored by state power but is rather the result of a voluntary exercise of academic freedom.” Does he really stand behind the claim that academic freedom, one of the hallmarks of democracy, is more insidious than scholarship restricted under totalitarianism?
David M. Lubin
Wake Forest University
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
To the Editor:
An exposé of what has been passing for art history in recent times is certainly worthwhile, but it is not something that just anyone can undertake. At the very least, the author should be able to distinguish between a Marxist hack like Albert Boime and a genuinely original scholar like Michael Fried.
Fried’s purpose in Courbet’s Realism was to explicate Courbet’s greatness. In the section of Fried’s book used by Roger Kimball, and discussed in Steven C. Munson’s review, Fried was trying to rescue Courbet from the dull-witted sledgehammer tactics of the very ideologues whom Kimball attacks in The Rape of the Masters. Fried conceded that a feminist perspective might indeed shed some light on the history of art. But with regard to Courbet, he argued, it had brought nothing but jargon to the table. His point was that the usual fuming about the “masculine gaze” and “women as objects of masculine sexual possession” did violence to the complexity, many-layeredness, and “strangeness” of Courbet’s genius.
Mr. Munson’s review makes it clear that he too probably thinks Kimball a little too simpleminded for the job at hand. This makes me wonder even more whether Mr. Munson has actually read Courbet’s Realism.
New York City
Steven C. Munson writes:
Whether the misspelling of David M. Lubin’s name was the result of failing eyesight or careless typing, I hope he will accept my apology. His justified anger at the mistake is a reminder that the man who said, “I don’t care what you print about me as long as you spell my name right,” was making an important point.
As for Mr. Lubin’s other points: first, the fact that what he wrote twenty years ago has now apparently come back to haunt him is nothing to be ashamed of. Who among those of us who write for publication has not wished, upon reflection in the fullness of time, that he had said something better, or differently, or not at all? Unfortunately, with writing—as opposed to, say, certain types of felony—there is no statute of limitations. What Mr. Lubin wrote two decades ago “still counts”—unless he has decided to disavow it, but I see no sign of that. And if Roger Kimball has not misquoted him or taken what he wrote out of context—and Mr. Lubin offers no evidence to indicate that this is the case, either—he has no legitimate grounds for complaint.
Second, the word “insidious” means subtle, and in the context in which I used it I think it is exactly right. The effort to impose a politically correct ideology in an environment of academic freedom is by its very nature a far more subtle enterprise than straightforward state censorship. For Mr. Lubin to conclude from this that I think today’s PC art historians are “worse than Nazis” is both silly and obtuse.
Like Mr. Lubin, Philip Leider offers no evidence to show that the quotations in Roger Kimball’s book, in this case pertaining to Michael Fried, are inaccurate or have been removed from their proper context. Moreover, Mr. Leider’s contention that, “with regard to Courbet,” Fried argued that “a feminist perspective” had “brought nothing but jargon to the table” makes me wonder how closely he has read Fried’s book.
Let me quote again what Fried had to say about Courbet’s painting, Young Women on the Banks of the Seine:
My argument can be summed up by saying that in the Young Women, what appears at first to be simply or exclusively a strongly oppositional thematics of sexual difference (the women as objects of masculine sexual possession) gives way to or at the very least coexists with a more embracing metaphorics of gender (a pervasive feminization of the pictorial field through an imagery of flowers). . . .
If that is not jargon, and feminist-inspired doubletalk to boot, I don’t know what is. Nor is it the only example cited in Roger Kimball’s The Rape of the Masters. As Kimball writes, Fried’s “discussion is full of meditations on ‘the metaphorics of phallicism, menstrual bleeding, pregnancy, and flowers,’” including the statement that the scattering of grain in Courbet’s painting The Wheat Sifters “‘can also be seen as a downpour of menstrual blood—not red but warm-hued and sticky-seeming, flooding outward from the sifter’s rose-draped thighs.’”
How such positively gross meanderings could be part of an effort to “explicate Courbet’s greatness,” or even his realism, frankly eludes me. Mr. Leider may see a qualitative intellectual difference between Fried’s writings and those of “a Marxist hack like Albert Boime,” but, on the basis of what I have read, I’m afraid I do not.
And this of course is the main point of Kimball’s book: that what now passes for art scholarship is often little more than politically colored personal weirdness decked out in suitably esoteric academic terminology.
Interestingly enough, Mr. Leider’s assertion that Michael Fried “was trying to rescue” Courbet from his more heavyhanded colleagues actually confirms one of the main points of my review: namely, that the revisionist art historians, animated by an ideological imperative (whether acknowledged or not) to discredit traditional and sensible ways of understanding the cultural products of the West, often end up shying away from the ultimate logic of their analysis and seeking to save their subjects from the depredations they have just visited on them. Whether this occurs within the boundaries of a single author’s essay or book, or whether it is the result of intramural critique, is beside the point. In both cases, the intellectual process—a highly questionable one, in my view—is essentially the same.
Finally, whatever disagreements I might have with Roger Kimball, there is no doubt that he is a gifted, indeed indispensable, critic, editor, and polemicist, and, as I said in my review, his book deserves the widest audience possible.