Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Another Reason Why I Critique the Leftists But Can't Join the Conservatives

Some readers of this blog take me to task for being an apologist for academia. Others criticize me for challenging the leftist bias (as I see it) of the academy. Another group gives me a hard time for 'trying to have it both ways.'

Here's an example, from National Review Online's The Corner, of why I won't join up with the conservatives even though I'm sick to death of the dominant approaches to culture in the academy:

When the week before last I asked for explanations of the horns on Michelangelo's Moses one reader of this happy Corner made an especially good suggestion: Ask Roger Kimball. Roger is an editor of The New Criterion and author of the marvelous new book, The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art. Here's Roger's reply:

I have not pondered the question much, but I am skeptical of the 'cornu' interpretation: I suspect that the horns represent not Michelangelo's interpretation of a passage from Exodus but rather his effort to provide a visual and emotional correlative for the kind of severe religious sublimity that Moses embodied. A quality that is often discerned in Michelangelo's work is terribilit?: a term that is hard to define but that embraces the sublime. What we see in Moses here--Moses the law-giver, Moses the chap who has just had an awful (in the old sense) encounter with God--is the results of an artist's effort to represent visually something that exceeds the boundaries of the representable: the horns are a sort of objective correlative of that overwhelming moral awesomeness: forbidding, grotesque, yet commanding. That, anyhow, is how it appears to me at first blush. (The proper question here, I suspect, is not 'What does it mean?' but 'How does it feel?' That is, the issue is less one of symbols and semantics than one of aesthetic force and religious passion.)
Herewith, at last, a completely satisfying explanation of what Michelangelo was attempting. The convention of portraying Moses with horns may very well have arisen because of a mistranslation of one or two terms of Hebrew into Latin. But Michelangelo uses it not out of confusion or ignorance but for the high purposes of his art.

In a single paragraph, an entire course in art appreciation. With thanks to Roger--and to the reader who suggested I ask him."

In a single paragraph, a crapload of mystification and fuzzy-wuzzy hot air when five minutes of research would have given an answer.

As Ruth Mellinkoff shows in her book The Horned Moses in Medieval Art and Thought, the image of Moses with horns was ubiquitous in the Middle Ages due to the mistranslation of the Hebrew. Even after the scholastics had figured out the mistranslation, the image persisted for centuries because the artists were not reading the scholastic treatises, but working from a visual tradition in which everybody knew that Moses had horns because that's what he looked like. If an artist had made a hornless Moses, it wouldn't have looked right.

The reviews I've read of Kimball's The Rape of the Masters make me think I'd agree with the critique of amateur psychologizing and tedious political analysis of the artworks of the masters. But if the proposed solution is to return, as he does in the above paragraph, to the kind of gooey, unsupported assertions of greatness and sublimity, then I know that I and a lot of other scholars, who, like me, are bored with and unconvinced by deconstruction, political analysis, etc., won't be taking this path.
"The horns are a sort of objective correlative of that overwhelming moral awesomeness: forbidding, grotesque, yet commanding" -- that does not explain 'Why horns?'
"The proper question here, I suspect, is not 'What does it mean?' but 'How does it feel?'" -- well, that's convenient, since there's no arguing with how something feels. It's exactly as solipsistic as the kind of analysis that conservatives rightly deride: 'Chaucer makes me feel oppressed, so he must be oppressive.'

Look, it's great to appreciate art, and art should make you feel something. But the job of the critic is to attempt to explain what the art does and why it works that way.

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