Tuesday, January 10, 2006


This is an extremely interesting article (which I linked to in this week's Carnival of the Insanities and meant to write about sooner!) where Roger Kimball, author of the book The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art, discusses some of the nuances of the art criticism of Professor Michael Fried, a well-known academic art historian. The discussion centers on Fried's critique of Gustave Courbet and Kimball's masterful description of that critique. Here is one small portion:
But ask yourself this: what would Courbet have to say if someone told him his painting strove to "eliminate the distinction" between the sexes? Or that it was concerned with "the metaphorics of phallicism, menstrual bleeding," etc.? The scattering of grain in The Wheat Sifters (1853-1854), Professor Fried tells us, "can also be seen as a downpour of menstrual blood--not red but warm-hued and sticky-seeming, flooding outward from the sifter's rose-draped thighs."

Unfortunately for this interpretation, Courbet clearly, indeed cleverly, painted grain, not blood. It is one of the triumphs of that painting that he is able to make his pigment seem so light and airy; pace Professor Fried, it impresses the viewer not as something that floods outward from the sifter's thighs but that floats down from the sifting pan she holds out before her. Look and see.

Here as everywhere Professor Fried operates with a formidable criticus apparatus. It is hard not to be impressed by his bibliography. Almost a quarter of the book is given over to notes: long, arcane notes, notes that wander and digress, notes that include lengthy passages from Hegel and Marx and Walter Benjamin in German, Jacques Lacan in French. Professor Fried has read a lot, and he doesn't let you forget it. But what happened to Courbet?

Many of you will know the children's books "Where's Waldo?" Reading what Professor Fried has to say about Courbet, I sometimes feel that he has given us a textual version of that game: "Where's Gustave?" Courbet is there, but you really have to look. (Here is where PowerPoint came into its own.)

It is amusing to contemplate what Courbet would have thought of Professor Fried's interpretation of his work.

This is indeed all very amusing, and I, too, have sat and listened to a number of art museum docents propagate the same kind of academic foolishness that Professor Fried is taken to task for. Read the whole article which is just delightful.

The problem --or rather, the reality is--that art is a critical part of life and through it one can can become aware of all the potential of what life can be. It is a way for humans to bring real, concrete meaning to abstract concept. As a selective recreation of reality, art uniquely captures and presents an idea or emotion in a way that can be grasped and understood by an observer. It provides, in other words, a "sense of life" --an instinctual fuel--that can inspire and motivate the perceiver--or, it can have the opposite effect.

That art criticism--along with almost all other academic humanities departments-- has been taken over by the postmodernists should suprise noone.

But it should concern them.

If you wonder why our nation seems so divided and why there is so much animosity and emotional hysteria directed against traditional values and ideas upon which this country was founded, you need look no further than the pervasise and unrelenting trickle down of postmodern theories and thinking in education, art, politics and all the social areas of life. Even science has not been immune from the nihilism and anti-reason and anti-reality agenda of the postmodernists.

If you want to understand why nothing seems to make sense; why language is abused and words don't seem to have the same definitions anymore and can sometimes even mean the opposite of what they used to; why contradictory discourses and distortion of truth; and ad hominem attacks and a distinct reluctance to face reality are all a part of the "reality-based" community--you need look no further than postmodernism.

Postmodern thinking has been embraced wholeheartedly by a segment of the population that is desperately trying to explain the enormous failures of socialism and communism in both theory and practice. It represents an angry and resentful cri de coeur with fist raised against the universe, for daring to impose reality on them. They have developed an entirely new strategy. Instead of speaking "truth to power" they speak "nonsense to power" in an effort to deconstruct and trivialize both the truth and anyone who dares to seek it.

One thing that deeply offends me is their appropriation of the popularized understanding of some of Freud's ideas as a justification for their insanity. Let me illustrate.

Kimball goes on to note much later in the essay:
Consider the prominence of outlandish sexual themes in so much contemporary critical work. In one sense, it is simply part fallout from the toxic legacy of Freudianism. But the important thing is to realize the extent which the sex card is deployed as a weapon by these academics. You can't read two pages of this stuff without being told about how the work in question "challenges" or "transgresses" traditional moral norms. The real enemy is the received social and moral sensibility out of which the work emerged and in which it has its original meaning. Thus it is that the shocking sex stuff is always part and parcel of an effort to "destabilize" the hegemony of "white patriarchal capitalist" society, etc.

Indeed, a useful study might be made of the way in which the normalization of previously tabooed sexual attitudes and behaviors has been at the forefront of cultural radicalism since the 1960s. Sex is merely the first bridgehead, the easiest point of entry, for an ideology dedicated to revolutionary social change.

It is in this sense that much of what travels under the banner of sexual liberation is really part of a campaign for de-civilization.

What Kimball perceives as "toxic legacy of Freudianism" is not really what he supposes. What has been appropriated by the postmondernists is the pop-psychology translation of Freud, who was first and foremost a scientist in his approach to the mind. Freud believed that his ideas and theories which were based on observable behavior would eventually be validated by science. Simply because some of his followers behave as if Freud were the psychological Mohammed and that everything he had to say was the word of god, is no reason to reject all of the groundbreaking thinking that made Freud the historical figure he is.

Freud himself said, "Sometimes a cigar really is a cigar," after all. He was the product of a sexually-repressed Victorian society and he was merely observing some of the psychological pathology of a society that ruthlessly repressed all aspects of sex. But Freud never promoted sexual exhibitionism or sexual "outlandishness" in the name of psychological health.

The specifics of his theories of sexual repression had considerable applicablility to the society he observed as well as our own. The generalities of his theory --i.e., the techniques and his ideas on the basic concepts on the structure of the mind--remain applicable today.

But Freud was latched onto in order to explain why socialism had failed to lure the proletariat from the comforts of capitalism. Marxists, waiting for that glorious day when the people would rise up in justified revolution against their oppressors, looked around until they found a psychological theory that could potentially bolster Marx's economic logic and predictions of history.

The psycholgical theories of Freud seemed to the Marxists to explain why these "Joe Sixpacks" had not followed the Marxist blueprint- they were repressed:
Joe Sixpack is a product. He is a constructed part of an oppressive and dysfunctional competitive system--but one that is overlain with the veneer of peace and comfort. He is unaware of oppression, unaware that he is a cog in an artificial technoloigical system--unaware becuase the fruits of capitalism that he roduced and thinks he enjoys consuming are sapping his vital instincts and making him physically and psychologically inert [ed. note - and unable to fulfill his Marxist role of rising up against Capitalism).

Thus Marcuse had an explanation for the new generation of revolutionaries-in-training for why capitalism in the 1950s and early 1960s seemed to be peaceful, tolerant and progressive--when, as every good socialist knew, it could not really be--and for why the workers were so disapointingly un-revolutionally. Capitalism does not merely oppress the masses existentially -- it represses them psychologically.

Well, Freud can't be held responsible for a total misunderstanding and misapplication of his theories. Someone is repressed possibly, but I would beg to differ about whom and why.

Sigmund Freud's powerful book Civilization and its Discontents argued that human instincts are out of sync with modern civilization; that aggression and other instinctual needs were once absolutely necessary for survival in a dangerous world, but that today these archaic impulses impede our ability to live happily in the present day and age. Among other innovative ideas from this short, but important work, Freud posits that the same aggression that was once directed towards survival, in the modern era is frequently turned inward, to the Self, rather than outward toward the environment, and causes the psychological phenomenon of depression. In psychiatry we refer to this as "aggression turned inward".

Our brains and bodies were designed for the "fight or flight" response--when in danger or threatened in any way, we physiologically respond with a burst of adrenalin (a hormone more formally known as epinephrine, a catcholamine); and that compound initiates a series of biological reactions that prepare us to either run away from the danger or to stand and fight.

It can be argued that depression and its concomitant emotional despair can be conceptualized as the inability--particularly in modern times-- to be able to "run away" or "fight" in the traditional sense. How effective would it be for the individual, do you think, if--called on the carpet by his or her boss--that individual responded by decking the boss or screaming and running out of the room? Bereft of these behavioral options in civilized society, we are still confined to the physiological response that such scenarios engender. This leads us to the concept of "stress".

What we know about "stress" and its long-term effects on our bodies and minds more than confirms Freud's psychological hypothesis. Freud was not optimistic about this situation, and believed that civilization's "discontents" were an unresolvable fact of life.

Please note that Freud did not say it was probably unresolvable for only those living in a capitalist society. Or, that it was unresolvable only for the proletariat. He said it was and is a fact of the human condition, and a problem that the human species has to deal with no matter what the economic or political system they find themselves living under.

Those systems that take into account the basic human nature that underlies Freud's hyposthesis, however, are more likely to be successful for both the individuals within it, as well as for the group as a whole.

Joe Sixpack has to deal with civilization with the same biological hardware that the postmodern elite possess. Of necessity, these elites don't consider themselves prone to the same psychological problems as the "proletariat" they hope to rule someday. That is why they are so often in denial about their own real motives and why their psychology betrays them.

These are the people screaming they are for "peace!" as they beat up those who support the military. These are the people that demand some abstract concept of "free speech"-- except when they are busy passing laws to ban it if it hurts someone's feelings. These are people who support oppressed minorities, but only as long as they remain oppressed--if they succeed and break from the party line, they have betrayed their minority group. And so on, and so on.

To say that these people have a handle on Freudian psychology--or any kind of psychology for that matter-- is like saying that the primitive savages in remote parts of the world have a handle on quantum mechanics.

From an earlier post on a related issue, I said:
...human nature must be taken into account as we evaluate the usefulness and consequences of certain economic and political systems that are advocated in the world today. We are clearly well-suited to some things and not to others. There are some social, economic, and political systems that are like the Procrustean bed and try to adjust human nature to their theories. These almost always end in catastrophy, human misery, and death. There are some social, political and economic systems which encourage war, domination, and the accumulation of wealth by the top of the national heirarchy.

Many will say that it is capitalism that does these things, but they are incorrect, and all the evidence leans to the opposite conclusion. In fact, among social, political and economic systems, democratic capitalism is probably the one and only system that is MOST CONSISTENT WITH HUMAN NATURE.

Far from encouraging the "survival of the fittest", capitalism simultaneously encourages cooperation for mutually beneficial trade as well as competition. Far from encouraging war and dominance; capitalism encourages trust and human cooperation; as well as alliances to maximize productivity and wealth creation. Far from concentrating wealth in the hands of a few, capitalism makes it possible for anyone to accumulate wealth (contrast for example the number of people who earn over $100,000 a year in the U.S., with those do in Cuba. The only really wealthy person there is Fidel Castro and his cronies. Likewise, in Iraq, the only wealthy were Saddam and his thugs). Envy is a real human emotion, but only in a capitalist system can one transform one's envy into socially acceptable action to improve one's own lot without attacking or destroying others.

In other words, the system espoused by Marx and his intellectual heirs failed precisely because it was not consistent with human nature. Freud was exactly right that unless human nature could be accommodated and accepted in society and those instinctual impulses were able to find healthy and socially appropriate outlets that benefited the individual and the society as a whole, the result would be depression and despair.

Nowhere is there more despair and human misery today than in those societies that continue to disdain human freedom while embracing any variant of Marx.

As Kimball suggests, the postmodernist heirs of Kant and Marx are not really engaged on a campaign for civilization--rather they are waging a campaign for de-civilization.

In art history, art criticism, philosophy, ethics, politics--indeed, in all the humanities-- the postmodernist socialist apologist merely retreats to a satisfying narcissistic nihilism (nyah nyah, if we aren't right about this then you can't be either) that enables them to delude themselves as to why they have been so wrong in just about every area of inquiry for the last 50 years or more.

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