Killing Art

I recently had occasion to quote Charles Péguy’s observation, from a 1905 essay called “Notre Patrie,” that “It will never be known what acts of cowardice have been motivated by the fear of not looking sufficiently progressive.” 

The cowardice in question can be intellectual or moral as well as physical, something that is vividly illustrated by Holland Cotter’s moist, mincing, over-the-shoulder-glancing review for the New York Times of a small but exquisite exhibition of paintings by the great Venetian Renaissance painter we know as Titian (d. 1576). The exhibition, “Titian: Women, Myth & Power,” is ending its three-city run at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The show centers around six large, mythological paintings commissioned by the future Philip II of Spain in the 1550s. 

Based on themes drawn from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the six paintings, reunited in this exhibition for the first time, are among Titian’s most celebrated, and for good reason. Painted between 1551 and the early 1560s, they show Titian at the apex of his powers. Cotter recognizes and affirms the greatness of the paintings but he is nervous, very nervous. You’ll know why when I tell you that pride of place is given to the Gardner’s own, newly restored work, a depiction of the Rape of Europa, a story illustrated by many artists, including Rubens, Guido Reni, and Goya, but not a theme likely to find approbation among contemporary feminists, the audience to which the Times is chiefly concerned to cater. 

The story is a familiar one. Europa, out picnicking with friends, is approached by Zeus in the shape of a bull (this story’s metamorphosis). He charms her, abducts her, and whisks her away to Crete where, as Ovid himself put it in another poem, cetera quis nescit. 

The Rape of Europa, 1560–2

Here’s Cotter on the story. Europa, he notes, hands wringing, 

is abducted and forcibly impregnated by a god [“a serial abuser,” no less] in disguise— [it] can’t help but put us on red alerts today, when accusations and verified reports of sexual assault on women appear almost daily in the news. In fact, the whole cycle, with its repeated images of gender-based power plays and exposed female flesh, invites #MeToo evaluation, and raises doubts about whether any art, however “great,” can be considered exempt from moral scrutiny.

Is there a more perfect epitome of the rancid, politically craven philistinism of the New York Times than this passage? Maybe, but if so, I am blissfully innocent of it. Wafting off almost every syllable of Cotter’s summary is a timid ideological subservience that combines stunning historical obtuseness with a hothouse moral smugness. Even the quotation marks around the word “great” are redolent of the saprophytic spasm. 

“Repeated gender-based power plays and exposed female flesh”: imagine that! How can it be that neither Ovid nor Titian had been boosted up to Holland Cotter’s plane of anaphrodisiac, testosterone-free, elastrated sexual enlightenment? 

Do you, Dear Reader, think that Titian’s gorgeous painting “invites #MeToo evaluation”? Or do you find yourself, as I do, tittering quietly at the image of these squads of unattractive would-be maenads presuming to interdict Titian because he gloried in “exposed female flesh” or reminds them of Andrew Cuomo? Did I mention that Holland Cotter is “co-chief art critic” of our former paper of record as well as a recipient—of course he is—of a Pulitzer Prize, one of those sugar plums that the Times bestows on some of its more obedient scribes? 

I just finished reading the Iliad aloud with my family. The McGuffin of that story turns on girls. It opens with Agamemnon being forced to return Chryseis, whom he’d taken as war booty, to her father. In a snit, he demands that Achilles surrender Briseis, whom Achilles had enslaved after sacking her city. Achilles reluctantly parts with the wench, but retreats to his tent in a rage. Much un-PC slaughter ensues. Also “gender-based power plays” galore. No wonder various schools are demanding that Homer be canceled. He would not survive “#MeToo evaluation.” 

But then neither would much of Western art or literature. Poor Holland Cotter and his feminist clients are in for a hard time. For it’s not only Titian who fails to pass muster. It’s nature itself. Nature is not only “red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson put it. It is also full of those “gender-based power plays” we are taught to despise. 

I am waiting for a doctoral dissertation that examines the “#MeToo” movement in light of the multibillion-dollar cosmetic and female fashion industry. Among the questions that scholarly investigation might explore is why the sex that, by nature, devotes itself to attracting male attention also pretends to be shocked—shocked—when it succeeds. I understand that it is impermissible to raise such questions, and so I won’t. But I would like to see them raised. 

The one consoling thing about the farce that Holland Cotter pushes forward is that it suggests we are a very rich, very insulated culture. No other sort could possibly indulge in such errant nonsense. Feminism in general, and the skirling, insane “variants” represented by phenomena like #MeToo in particular, are only possible in those rare historical situations in which the serious business of life, momentarily, has been suspended by an enervating affluence. This is our situation now. But Robert Heinlein had some wise and admonitory words about such rare episodes. “Throughout history,” Heinlein noted, “poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded—here and there, now and then—are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.” 

But I digress. Holland Cotter wants us to believe Titian’s mythological nudes raise “troubling questions about how aesthetics and ethics can clash” and, more generally “whether any art . . . can be considered exempt from moral scrutiny.”

Here we have to make an important distinction. Art should be exempt from the pressure of politically infused contemporary passions. The fact that a painting or poem or novel does not pass muster with the feminists, the Marxists, or the partisans of the new racism of Black Lives Matter is neither here nor there. All that is a chapter of our current insanity. And it goes far beyond the world of culture, as illustrated by the fact that the University of Wisconsin just spent tens of thousands of dollars moving a boulder because someone said it had racist associations. Really, you can’t make it up. Nor do you have to: reality is always more flagrant than your imagining. 

The point is that art should be evaluated primarily by aesthetic criteria. The governing question should be: Is it a good poem/novel/painting? That said, Cotter is right that there is a sense in which art is not exempt from moral scrutiny, though you would never know that from reading what passes for cultural criticism in the New York Times. George Orwell gave classic expression to this point in “Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dalí” (1944), a review of Dalí’s autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí. Acknowledging the deficiency of the philistine response to Dalí’s work—categorical rejection along with denial that Dalí possessed any talent whatsoever—Orwell goes on to note that the response of the cultural elites was just as impoverished. 

Essentially, the elite response to Dalí was the response of l’art pour l’art, of extreme aestheticism. “The artist,” Orwell writes, 

is to be exempt from the moral laws that are binding on ordinary people. Just pronounce the magic word “Art,” and everything is O.K. Rotting corpses with snails crawling over them are O.K.; kicking little girls in the head is O.K.; even a film like L’Age d’Or [which shows among other things detailed shots of a woman defecating] is O.K. 

A juror in the Cincinnati trial about Robert Mapplethorpe’s scabrous photographs of the S&M underworld memorably summed up the paralyzed attitude Orwell described. Acknowledging that he did not like Mapplethorpe’s rebarbative photographs, he nonetheless concluded that “if people say it’s art, then I have to go along with it.” 

“If people say it’s art, then I have to go along with it.” It is worth pausing to digest that terrifying comment. It is also worth confronting it with a question: Why do so many people feel that if something is regarded as art, they “have to go along with it,” no matter how offensive it might be? Part of the answer has to do with the confusion of art with “free speech.” Another part of the answer has to do with the evolution and what we might call the institutionalization of the avant-garde and its posture of defiance. 

The larger issue concerns the proper place of culture in the economy of life. The critic Clement Greenberg, arguing for the importance of disinterested aesthetic experience, was no doubt correct when he noted that “a poor life is lived by any one who doesn’t regularly take time out to stand and gaze, or sit and listen, or touch, or smell, or brood, without any further end in mind, simply for the satisfaction gotten from that which is gazed at, listened to, touched, smelled, or brooded upon.” 

At the same time, Greenberg stressed that “there are, of course, more important things than art: life itself, what actually happens to you. This may sound silly, but I have to say it, given what I’ve heard art-silly people say all my life. . . . Art shouldn’t be overrated.” One thinks of Dostoyevsky’s exclamation that “incredible as it may seem, the day will come when man will quarrel more fiercely about art than about God.” Are we there yet?

The ironical thing about interventions like Holland Cotter’s worried effusion about whether Titian can survive “#MeToo evaluation” is that it gives us the worst of both worlds. One the one hand, it surrenders to the new puritanism of the feminist allergy to masculinity. On the other, it embraces the currently fashionable elitism that insists we subordinate everything to the blunt categories of race and sex. It is a pathetic exercise, and would be risible were it not  in the pulpit tones of a nervous, two-bit moral crusader. 

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