Nooma 2, mixed media on wood panel

Some people are gifted with an ability to sit with a political or ideological opponent and have a meaningful conversation. I’m not one of those, which is probably true of most of us. We choose to spend most of our time with my like-minded tribespeople. It’s an easier path.

I don’t think this proclivity is always just about comfort and/or close-mindedness. I know for me there is a practical aspect to consider. Ask yourself: Have your views on abortion or the obligation we all have to care for each other ever been altered by a conversation with someone who approaches those issues from the other end? Rarely, right? So that human tendency to ghettoize around key issues is often pragmatic rather than just programmatic.

That said, here is an exception to that proclivity. Roger Kimball is a conservative cultural critic and stands far afield from my political and social beliefs. He has written a few jeremiads about the art world that are full of vitriol and contempt for contemporary art memes and trends. But in his book, The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art, there are a few moments where our sensibilities actually overlap in spite of his self-professed intention to “equip the reader with a nose for balderdash and absurdity.” A few passages are worth sharing here:

In one of his essays on painting, Henry James observes that “There is a limit to what it is worthwhile to attempt to say about the greatest artists”…The great occupational hazard for an art critic or art historian is to let words come between the viewer and the experience of art—to substitute a verbal encounter for an aesthetic one. As Clement Greenberg observed somewhere, art is “a matter of self-evidence and feeling, and of the inferences of feeling, rather than of intellection and information, and the reality of art is disclosed only in experience, not in reflection upon experience”…Often, the best thing a critic can do is to effect an introduction and get out of the way.

There are several reasons for this. One reason has to do with what we might call the deep superficiality of aesthetic experience. The experience of art, like the experience of many human things, is essentially an experience of surfaces, of what meets the eye. When it comes to such realities, the effort to look behind the surface often results not in greater depth but in distortion. The philosopher Roger Scruton touched on this truth when he observed that “There is no greater error in the study of human things than to believe that the search for what is essential must lead us to what is hidden.”

I have no argument with that point of view and particularly like the concept of missing depth and going to distortion. And don’t worry—I’m not smugly touting my open-mindedness. I revel in my subjectivity and have decided to eschew the pejorative connotations of that term. I don’t have a capacity for objectivity on those issues that matter the most. Embrace your subjectivity, that’s my motto. Or one of them.

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