Colleges and universities used to teach art history to encourage connoisseurship and acquaint students with the riches of our artistic heritage. But now, as Roger Kimball shows in this witty and provocative book, the student is less likely to learn about the aesthetics of master works than be told, for instance, that Peter Paul Rubens’s great painting “Drunken Silenus” is an allegory about anal rape. Or that Courbet’s famous hunting pictures are psycho-dramas about “castration anxiety.” Or that Gauguin’s “Manao tupapau” is an example of the way repression is “written on the bodies of women.” Or that Jan van Eyck’s masterful Arnolfini Portrait is about “middle-class deceptions…and the treatment of women.” Or that Mark Rothko’s abstract “White Band (Number 27)” “parallels the pictorial structure of a pieta.” Or that Winslow Homer’s “The Gulf Stream” is “a visual encoding of racism.”
In The Rape of the Masters, Kimball, a noted art critic himself, show how academic art history is increasingly held hostage to radical cultural politics–feminism, cultural studies, post-colonial studies, the whole armory of academic anti-humanism. To make his point, Kimball shows how eight famous works of art (reprinted here as illustrations) have been made over to fit a radical ideological fantasy. Kimball then performs a series of intellectual rescue operations, showing how these great works should be understood through a series of illuminating readings in which art, not politics, guides the discussion. The Rape of the Masters exposes the charlatanry the fuels much academic art history and leaks into the art world generally, affecting galleries, museums and catalogues. It also provides an engaging antidote to the tendentious, politically motivated assaults on our treasured sources of culture and civilization.