In the mid-nineteenth century artist Gustave Courbet crashed onto the suffocatingly Classical French art scene to ruffle its settled academic feathers. Wrote one art historian,
"Courbet employed a technique alien to the established traditions and audiences for art... For the Realist Courbet, this alienation entailed a rejection of the academic and bourgeois juste milieu and an espousal of the formal principles found in nonclassical and working class popular art" (212).Courbet was hated for it.
I mention this because that is almost exactly what happened last night, where in a packed house at the Studio School (so tightly packed it was much like a cage), Roger Kimball ruffled the academic feathers of a comfortable theory-laden academy, and was hated for it. But this isn't just a Kimball puff-piece. Do read on.
Allow me to set the stage: The evening, entitled "Courbet Seen Twice," entailed a debate between Michael Fried, a Rhodes Scholar, Johns Hopkins tenured, successful art historian and critic who uses fashionable theories to give his readers ingenious, and I mean ingenious, spins on Courbet's paintings... and Roger Kimball, the non-academic art critic who is attempting to say that, at least when it comes to this kind of academic art history, the emperor has no clothes on. Below I offer a loose transcript of the debate, including the remarks of the woman next to me who seemed generally representative of the room.
Kimball: Kimball begins with a clever (if a bit silly) Powerpoint presentation where he claimed that reading Fried is like reading Where's Waldo?, except the game is Where's Courbet? in all the theoretical kerfluffle. To give you just one example of the excesses that Kimball uncoverd, in his analysis of this painting (which seems like a mere hunting scene), Fried writes:
"We are led to imagine the roe deer's genitals or at any rate to be aware of their existence by the exposure to our view of the roe deer's anus, a metonymy for the rest... I would further suggest that, precisely because the roe deer's anus stands for so much we cannot see - not simply the roe deer's genitals and wounded underside but an entire virtual face of the painting - such an effect of equivalence or translatability may be taken as indicating that the first, imaginary point of view is more important, and in the end more 'real,' than the second" (50).Kimball's point was that whereas the job of the critic or art historian should be to illuminate a piece of art, writing such as this gets in the way of the art, and such writing is indicative of art history writing today. So much for Kimball.
Woman next to me: While refusing the customary applause, remarks "Supercilious blankhole," very audibly.
Fried: Fried begins his speech by critiquing Kimball for using Powerpoint. Fried switches to slides (despite the fact that there was an four minute delay due to a slide malfunction... no comment), and commences his remarks.
Woman next to me: "Give him hell Michael!"
Fried: In a stimulating and impassioned lecture, Fried convinces the room that his analysis of Courbet actually does have merit (though the deer anus bit goes conveniently unmentioned). The theme that Fried sees in Courbet's ouvre is an entire career of a painter trying to paint himself into his painting, each work being in fact a successively candid record of an artist trying to become art. I actually found Fried's presentation rather convincing, and it was also full of all those great art history lecturer extras, i.e. the vigorous slide-lit gesticulations, anecdotes about privileged behind-the-scenes museum visits, etc. So much for Fried.
Woman next to me: Much applause. "WOOOO!!! Michael!!!"
Question and answer session: First came (of course) not a question but a statement from clearly distraught member of the NYC art-scene. In a beautifully thick accent she announced:
"I have to state that it is a shame Michael for your generous eye to have to be on the defensive like this."Later, after Kimball said something else about excessive interpretations getting in the way of art, the same woman spontaneously exclaimed,
"Next they'll be shutting down the museums!"I suppose by "they" she meant the, and yes it did come up, "N" word (that convenient way of both inciting ire and avoiding having to deal with an argument). But through it all Kimball reasserted that he simply doesn't see Fried's interpretation. It's just not there. Boos and hisses ensued from much of the room.
Last question: To close, the moderator kindly asks if the two can find something about Courbet that they agree on. Roger offered the peace pipe and said he liked Courbet's Allegory, but before he could continue was cut off by Michael Fried saying, and I quote,
"There is absolutely nothing Roger thinks, likes or believes that I could agree with."As I suggested above, and as I'm sure Michael Fried is aware of, similarly nasty things were said about Courbet.
But there was something said, I think, that the two men could agree on. At one point in the evening Fried responded to a questioner by saying that wave after wave of interpretive responses to art were permissible,
"granted they are not mere subjective fantasies but get closer [with each successive interpretation] to the truth about the object."Yes, I imagine both men, in a calmer setting, would be able to sign onto that statement. In fact, such a confessionally un-postmodern utterance sounds like it could have come straight from a Neo-con quarterly. What makes it interesting is that it was said by Michael Fried. It was, I believe, the most conciliatory thing said all evening. There are many in the academy who wouldn't say that, and Kimball's beef should be, primarily I think, with them.
I think Kimball could have conceeded that Fried, at least in what he presented last night, made a rather convincing case. The phase of Western art history that began with Courbet does fast become about painting, and this painting turning in on itself is what ultimately spelled the doom of Western art. Fried then may be right, and if acknowledged, this ingenious indication of Courbet's wrong turn could ultimately serve Kimball's agenda to get back to art as "a source of delectation and spiritual refreshment," rather than just a mirror of itself.
On the other hand, can't Fried see that all is not well in the academy? Doesn't the very thing that Fried sees Courbet doing in his art happen in academic writing, that is, the academician regurgitating her or himself in prose? In an age where in order to critique the scholarly establishment, a detractor is forced to use a pseudonym as in this recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, something is disconcertingly entrenched. And could Fried perhaps admit that there are places where in his writings he went a bit too far (i.e. the deer anus bit) and even a bit contra Courbet? In a statement that surely should give anyone trying to read something into Courbet at least a moment's pause, Courbet announced in 1851,
"I am not only a socialist... but above all a Realist... for 'Realist' means a sincere love of the honest truth" (206).Perhaps last night was a case of Kimball calling Fried to task, and Fried, without admitting it, shaving off some interpretive excesses and getting back to actually illuminating Courbet, which he did quite well.
And if you'll indulge my M.Div. for a moment, here's a final comment: Fried at one point in the evening made the observation that the attempt for the artist to become part of his art was Courbet's goal, and it was of course a "fundamentally unrealizable" one. Well, it was realized at least once. Might so pitting Courbet against the Incarnation be considered yet another wave of interpretation that "gets closer to the truth about the object" itself?
Merry Twelfth day of Christmas everybody.