Surprisingly enough (to me), Roger Kimball and I seem to agree at least on one subject:
The issue, it is worth stressing, is not the orientation of the politics–Left vs. Right–it is rather the politicization of intellectual life tout court. That is, the task is not to replace or balance the left-wing orientation of academic life with a right-wing ideology but rather to de-politicize academic, i.e., to champion intellectual, not political, standards.
If I thought Kimball truly believed this, I'd say that the "conservative" critique of the humanities as they are now taught in American universities would be worth taking seriously. Unfortunately I just can't accept that he does, largely for reasons that are implicit in some of Kimball's additional comments in this interview:
I believe that the arts provide a good barometer of cultural health. They reflect the fears, obsessions, aspirations, and ambitions of a culture. It tells us a great deal, I think, that terms like "transgressive" and "challenging" have emerged as among the highest words of praise in the critical lexicon. It tells us, among other things, that much art today is less affirmative than corrosive, that it places itself in an adversarial attitude toward the traditional moral, aesthetic, and cultural ambitions of our culture.
I would agree that the arts are a good indicator of "cultural health," if by this we meant that a healthy culture manifests a great deal of artistic activity--that it produces a significant number of people who value art enough to want to create it. But of course this is not what Kimball means. He means that art is directly reflective of a culture's "health" in moral and spiritual terms. He means that art is valuable primarily if not exclusively to the exent it works to foster such health, ideally to "affirm" traditional assumptions and practices.
A culture doesn't have "fears, obsessions, aspirations, and ambitions." Only people have these things, individual people. Ultimately a critic like Roger Kimball doesn't have much use for individual artists, individual readers or viewers or listeners. Art is not about heightened experience or even simple pleasure; it's about "culture," about the social norms that art can help to reinforce, the ideological "ambitions" it exists to define. Even when Kimball speaks of the "silence" great art can provoke, he's really talking about the silence enforced by the cultural authority which can be conferred upon art (by people like Kimball), which demands recovery of "a sense of the unfailing pertinence of our cultural inheritance." It's the "inheritance" that matters, not the particularity of works of art, nor the distinctive kind of experience (which can indeed involve "silence") that they afford.
Kimball's insistence on the cultural relevance of art is finally not that different from the similar insistence by current academic criticism that art is most useful as an object of "cultural study." Both look past the aesthetic properties of art in order to examine its purported efficacy as a cultural force or its illustrative value as a cultural "symptom." The biggest difference between conservative critics such as Kimball and most academic critics is that for Kimball art should be "affirmative," while for the academic critics--and Kimball is correct about this--it is precisely the transgressive and corrosive qualities of art that are most highly prized. I believe that art at its best is indeed "subversive," but not in the narrow political sense of the term presently conveyed by academic criticism. As I put it in a previous post, "Through art we become aware that the world can always be remade. Art is the enemy of all certainties and settled doctrines. This is not likely to be acceptable to political critics of either the left or the right. . ." Which is why Roger Kimball probably will never really advocate for the "de-politicization" of art or of academic study. His view of what art is good for is always already intensely political.