When is a lower-case e like a clitoris?
Unlike the Mad Hatter’s “How is a raven like a writing desk?” chestnut, there is actually an answer, though it is as silly and unsatisfying as later generations’ attempts at finishing off Lewis Carroll’s riddle: when you’re a tenured professor and you can write anything you want without fear of your colleagues mocking your blatant, fanciful misinterpretations.
The professor in question is David M. Lubin, the Charlotte C. Weber Professor of Art at Wake Forest University (which also continues to pay Maya Angelou six figures to use her Hallmark cards as class texts). The sphinx’s question above is inspired by his bizarre analysis of “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit” by portraitist John Singer Sargent. Lubin’s narrative can’t even be called tangential: he takes the name Boit; jumps to the French word boUe (meaning box); lingers on the phallically plunging 1 and its “circumcision” by the circumflex; detours into the differences between the straight, erect, capitalist E and the curvy, clitoral, lower-class e; and winds up saying that Boit is boUe minus E, which is of course Edward Darley Boit’s penis. Therefore the Boit daughters are trapped in the “box” of femininity by culturally ascendant male-dominated capitalist society.
Lubin cheerfully admits that not a single one of those thoughts ever passed through Sargent’s mind. But the professor excuses his attempts to shove them in there by asserting that “somehow a psychic transfer or transmutation occurs between the verbal part of the creative mind . . . and the visual part.” At this point, he should be treated like anyone else who talks about psychic transfers and transmutations: mocked, pitied, and soon forgotten. Instead he’s been praised, envied, and widely read.
He is not unique. In “The Rape of the Masters,” New Criterion editor Roger Kimball presents eight paintings, along with an academic’s ridiculous commentary on each. Others are equally as silly as Lubin’s: visions of a Madonna with Child seen in three bands of Rothko color, or castration anxiety inserted into a Courbet hunting scene. But the silliness is a bonus; what’s important is how far removed the commentaries are from the works they discuss: the paintings disappear from sight, and only academic digressions are left. Staple our pages to the canvas, say the critics, because without our words you’ll never understand what’s beneath.
This is an old heresy, perhaps the first: it answers to “gnosticism.” Heresies have a way of coming back around; where once gnosticism concerned itself with saying people needed special secret knowledge to be saved, now it’s saying people need special secret knowledge to understand art in a culturally conscious way. Of course, to these particular heretics, salvation and cultural consciousness are one and the same.
But all these billowy dons, these black-gowned conspiracy theorists, receive their gnosticism secondhand: it’s manufactured by Marx and processed through Adorno or Foucault, before it gets squeezed out by David M. Lubin or any of a thousand like him. That intellectual regression is
Kimball acts as a kind of curator for an exhibit of stupidity.
symptomatic of the gnostics: when Socrates says that knowledge leads one to a greater awareness of how much more there is to know, they take it as an invitation. They fiddle around with phallic punctuation, turn in the wordplay gyre, become ever more irrelevant and extreme.
What should be done about them? Not much, really. Many are already so loopy that they’re only taken seriously by other professors; refuting them point-by-point would be as useless as trying to explain to a sociologist the flaws in the labor theory of value. But where one cannot lecture, one can point a finger and laugh, and it is ridicule that Kimball recommends. An old prescription, but an effective one: examples can be found in just about any literature that comments on the human condition (Ecclesiastes is a personal favorite). Indeed, many writers dear to libertarians have specialized in ridicule, from Voltaire to Mencken to O’Rourke.
Kimball can’t match those luminaries; too often he makes direct appeals to the reader, like an amateur thespian winking at pals in the crowd. The best sections of “The Rape of the Masters” are those in which he acts as a kind of curator for an exhibit of stupidity: choosing excerpts with care, and using his words as gallery lights, to accentuate the phrases that best display the author’s peculiar gifts. Curiously, this approach is not too far off from Duchamp’s signing a urinal and enter- ing it in an art competition, and the Dadaists earn a backhanded compliment in the introduction: “[T]hough impish, they are at least direct.” (p. 11) Kimball puts the works of modern art critics on display, but only after he’s drawn mustaches on the publicity photos of each and everyone.
If the book were an actual exhibit, it would barely fill a small room: “The Rape of the Masters” is too short by half. While it’s tough to fault Kimball for not subjecting himself to more art- circle gnosticism, his publishers could spare a few blushes for charging more than 15 cents for each page of large- print text. And if they wanted people to read the book in public, they certainly could have designed the book so the spine and dust jacket don’t shout “RAPE MASTERS,” as if the book were a tribute to the disciples of de Sade.
A more substantial problem is that Kimball views art as subject to some sort of Gresham’s Law of criticism. But even though bad commentary has practically driven good out of the academy, Kimball’s regular employment indicates that some sort of counterweight exists: as art critic for the Spectator of London and National Review, he reaches an audience many times that of the average tenured radical. Deranged musings on clitoral vowels are like hyperinflated deutschemarks: officially sanctioned but worthless, good only for carting around by the wheelbarrow. Outside the academy, though, is a vibrant black market, full of barter and intrigue; every day more people join it, abandoning the gnostics to their vacant wit and straining barrows. Like any hyperinflated system, there’s no doubt that this one is headed for a crash; the only question is if anyone will notice.