In response to:
Painting the Unpaintable from the September 27, 1990 issue
To the Editors:
Richard Dorment’s take on my book The Art of Exclusion: Representing Blacks in the Nineteenth Century [NYR, September 27] was viewed through the narrowest aperture of his ideological spectrometer. The first half of the review was informed by facts and ideas mostly summarized in my text and given a theological spin, and ends with a quote from my book on Homer’s The Gulf Stream that seemed “right” to Dorment. Then, at the beginning of the second half—as if he suddenly caught himself in the act of praising an adversary—he does an abrupt about face and dogmatically asserts that in my examination of the pictures I missed “the point of each and every one.” Since almost everything that he had stated up to that point (and most of everything that followed) agreed with what I had written, what precisely was his point?
Perhaps the problem lies in Dorment’s assumption about our differing methodological approaches: Dorment imagines that his theocentric view of art “that asks the most profound questions about the nature of the universe,” leaves no place for my approach that admittedly is more temporal. I see culture, with all its institutional ideologies and biases, as a refracting prism that mediates our formulation of, and aesthetic responses to, moral and theological questions, i.e., Dorment’s “higher truths.” Dorment perceives the subject matter of the art he loves as allegories of transcendental religious truths that he distills into cosmic contests between Good and Evil, while I try to gain insight into the everyday world in which the works were fabricated and displayed. Actually, our two readings are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, one of the key texts of the period of Copley’s Watson and the Shark was minister Samuel Hopkins’s Dialogue Concerning the Slavery of Africans of 1776 that interpreted the conflict between the Mother Country and her colonies as a form of divine retribution for holding human beings in bondage. (The existence of this tract also serves to refute Dorment’s astonishing statement that slavery was not yet enough of a “social issue” to influence culture.) At no time has a theocentric explanation of material phenomena disproved the existence of those phenomena, but simply accounted for them as a profession of faith in a “higher” law.
Dorment’s mid-review crisis jolts into full gear as he tries to reconcile his assimilation of my arguments with his particular belief system. He opens a series of quotations on individual pictures from my text and then concludes ex cathedra that I did not understand the picture in question (or never saw it). Now this act of damnation would naturally entail some omniscient grasp of “those profound questions about the nature of the universe,” and it becomes evident that our reviewer writes as if he is privy to the canonical meanings of the pictures. Dorment’s prophetic style even predisposes him to pronounce on one of the characters in a painting that he “can understand English.” Now this is the kind of visionary insight that is still denied to more conventionally minded historians like myself.
One striking example of the reviewer’s inconstancy: in denying that Watson had any ties to slavery he declares that, “Since the events depicted in the painting took place in Spanish-owned Havana, not the British colonies, there are no slaves shown in it, and Watson’s (sic) name appears nowhere in the title, the theory strikes me a (sic) fantasy of the author’s.” In this garbled text does Dorment mean to say that the picture is not about Watson and that slaves were not present in “Spanish-owned Havana”?
Finally, Dorment’s hasty dismissal of Guy McElroy’s seminal catalogue, Facing History, displays a singular unawareness of the field generally, McElroy, who died recently from the complications of a severe auto accident that left him almost completely paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair, put together a major study of representations of African Americans that incorporated current research in social history, social art history, and critical theory. Since I knew through direct contact what McElroy had in mind and the sheer extent of his effort to realize it, I could not but feel outrage when I came back to Dorment’s callous description of my attempt to contextualize the mutilated Watson as a pretext to bring “the currently fashionable subject of the disabled into the question.” Not only does this remark betray Dorment’s insensitivity, but seems especially crude when I recall McElroy’s heroic efforts to overcome society’s stigmatizing of his body on two counts.
Department of Art History
University of California
Los Angeles, California
Richard Dorment replies:
If Professor Boime really believes that I agreed with “most of everything” in his book, then he did not read my review with much attention. In his discussion of Copley’s A Boy Attacked by a Shark he declares that “Watson had himself represented as a victim of divine wrath for his own involvement in slave trading.” He further states that the picture exposes the hypocrisy of the British colonies in demanding freedom from England while continuing to countenance slavery at home.
I pointed out that a) Brook Watson was not a slaver, b) the picture is not set in a British colony, c) there are no slaves shown in it, and d) Watson’s name was not mentioned in the original title. If Boime does not understand the relevance of these facts to his own interpretation of the picture (my “point”), then further explanation would be a waste of breath.
More, Why is it “visionary” to assume that an American slave would understand English? And by omitting the word “fully” and substituting the word “culture” for “art” in citing my review, Boime distorts what I wrote about the relationship between the social issue of slavery and the visual arts.
I could go on, but I won’t. There is something more important to say.
I thought Professor Boime had merely written a bad book. In the light of the wholly unwarranted smear in the last paragraph of his letter, I now question whether he writes in good faith. As he knows (because the information was printed in The New York Review’s notes on contributors), I live in London and write about British art. I had no knowledge of the circumstances of Guy McElroy’s death, which were not reported in the British press. By ingeniously linking a legitimate comment I made about his book to McElroy’s accident, Boime implies that I did.
I hope this cheap shot will not deflect attention away from my warmly felt criticisms of his book.