In The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art, Roger Kimball selects a handful of paintings to show how post-modern art critics invent meaning to suit their own political agenda, or to fit current fashionable theory necessary to their academic careers.
The chapter on Mark Rothko most easily and obviously makes Kimball's point. The painting in question, "Untitled, 1953," is not the one linked here but is very similar, and the differences make no difference to the argument. The painting consists of a few blocks or bands of color. A critic named Peter Selz wrote Rothko's "paintings can be likened to annunciations." Annunciations of what? Surely not the Annunciation? Selz goes on to compare the painting to the space between God's and Adam's fingers on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and further likens it to the first day of Creation.
Here a clear absence of meaning is apparently intolerable to a man who presumably would have no truck with the Christian or Biblical meanings clearly present in so many classical paintings. The last two thousand years of art weigh on Selz's mind in spite of himself.
The other paintings in Kimball's book are traditionally representational, but the trendy critics insist on providing meanings that only they can see, because they are more aware, intelligent, intuitive, sensitive than everyone else. Thus the non-sexual portrait by Sargent of four little daughters of his friend Edward Darley Boit is teeming with sexual undertones, according to Professor David M. Lubin.
This sort of analysis is an unpleasant remnant of the 20th century habit of analyzing everything in Freudian terms, a mind trick common among certain professors trying to assert their superiority, and college boys trying to influence impressionable girls, though now Freudian interpretations tend to give way to uber-feminists brow-beating everyone with political theory and self-righteousness. These are the people who are smarter, hipper, and at the same time more moral than you. Amazingly this ego-driven assertion of incoherent and untenable free-association as a replacement for reason has even oozed its way into the hard sciences: note the latest exhibition by Columbia professor of physics Emlyn Hughes, who stripped in front of his class.
The examples Kimball uses are familiar, not unusual these days. This kind of art criticism is analogous to political analysis that sees racism (and sexism, etc.) everywhere. If nothing is there, as in Rothko's painting, talking heads see something. If something is obviously there, they see something else. And they are going to tell you what you are really thinking, and what the artist is really thinking, regardless of what the artist said or painted, and regardless of what you think you think.