The Magazine


May 18, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 35 • By ROGER KIMBALL
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But of such stuff are large reputations made today. A classic example of the genre is found in the well-known critic Michael Fried's discussion of Gustave Courbet's 1856 painting of a hunting scene. Depicting a moment of rest after a successful hunt, Courbet's The Quarry shows, in the left foreground, a vanquished deer hanging from a branch, its head lolling sideways on the ground. To the right, receding into a shadow, the hunter -- generally thought to be a self-portrait -- leans back dreamily against a tree. Further to the right, the piqueur, the master of the hounds, sits in a brilliant slip of light blowing a hunting horn. In the right foreground two dogs, also brightly illuminated, frisk playfully.

One might wonder where in this forest scene one could conjure sex. A tired hunter, self-absorbed piqueur, two dogs, and a dead deer may not seem much to work with. Not to worry.

"I for one," Professor Fried confides, "am struck by the implied violence of the exposure to the hunter's viewpoint of the dead roe deer's underside, specifically including its genitals." From here it is but a short jump to a stratosphere of rebarative verbal eroticism: "The last observation may seem excessive," Professor Fried allows.

For one thing, I am attaching considerable significance to a "side" of the roe deer we cannot see as well as to a bodily organ that isn't actually depicted. For another, the hunter isn't looking at the roe deer but faces in a different direction. But I would encounter that 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 . . . 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.

Of course, once one accepts that "the imaginary point of view is more important" than what one discerns with one's own eyes, anything goes. Which is precisely why Fried's procedure of giving precedence to the imaginery is so popular among those contributing to art writing's bad name.

But if art writing has earned its bad name many times over, it remains to ask why this form of fatuity is so popular among our intellectual elites. Part of the reason is a kind of emotional dissociation from first-hand experience of art that seems to be a perennial temptation for intellectuals. The early nineteenth-century English critic William Hazlitt touched on this is his description of "hieroglyphical" writers. "Such persons," Hazlitt wrote, "are in fact besotted with words, and their brains are turned with the glittering, but empty and sterile phantoms of things. . . . Images stand out in their minds isolated and important merely in themselves, whithout any ground-work of feeling."

But another part of the reason that bad criticism has been so successful has to do with that perverted but widespread romanticism that mistakenly elevates art over life and gleefully dispenses with accepted canons of taste and morality for the sake of aesthetic effect.

Greenberg was right to criticize the "art-adoration that prevails among cultured people, . . . that art-silliness which condones almost any moral or intellectual failing on the artist's part as long as he is or seems a successful artist. . . . As it is, psychopathy has become endemic among artists and writers, in whose company the moral idiot is tolerated as perhaps nowhere else in society."

What is saddest, of course, is that the effect of such "art-adoration" is not to enhance but to distort one's appreciation of art. As critics busy themselves earning art writing its bad name, they do a great deal to discredit the art they profess to exalt.

Roger Kimball is managing editor of the New Criterion.