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Beauty Betrayed: A review of "The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art," by Roger Kimball

Paul Johnson

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One of the cultural treasures Britain lacks, and America happily possesses, is the monthly review New Criterion, which among other valuable duties keeps a watch against destructive contemporary trends in the arts and literature. Its managing editor is Roger Kimball. He is particularly keen to spot, analyze, and denounce unhealthy developments on the campus. Some years ago his book Tenured Radicals exposed the way in which ideological fanatics of the Left were hijacking university chairs to promote extremist politics, instead of giving the students entrusted to their care the education for which they, their parents, and the community had paid. This much-read and discussed book had a perceptible effect.

Kimball has now turned his attention to a particular and important aspect of this process: the teaching of art history in American universities. In America, as in the West generally, the study of art as a historical discipline has expanded enormously in the last half-century, and now attracts large numbers of students, especially women. I am not sure whether this development is welcome. It does not necessarily reflect a growing love and understanding of art generally. Many students regard art history as a soft option, an entertaining way of passing the time before they move on to serious matters--getting a job, marriage, etc. Nor is it clear that there are enough university teachers of sufficient quality to cater to this increased demand for instruction in art history. After all, until the 1930s there was little serious study of the subject outside Germany, where it had deep roots in the 19th-century university system. In Britain and America, art history was largely written by wealthy amateurs like John Ruskin and Kenneth Clark, whose fortunes enabled them to do the traveling and on-the-spot investigations which raised them to professional status; or to those, like Bernard Berenson, who made a living in the art trade. (In France there was a quite different tradition of literary men pronouncing on art, running from Diderot, via Baudelaire and the Goncourts, to André Malraux.) The real academic experts, beginning with E.M. Gombrich and Nicolas Pevsner, came from Germany as cultural immigrants, particularly after Hitler came to power in 1933. They brought not merely their persons but entire institutions: thus the Warburg Institute, Britain's first college of art study, was essentially a refugee from Hitler's terror. At the same time, about 350 German art historians emigrated to the United States, and the systematic study of art on U.S. campuses was the work of this diaspora.

Read the entire article on the Claremont Review website (new window will open).

Posted: 12-Apr-05

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