The Washington Post’s Senior Critic-at-Large Robin Givhan is on a theological tear of late. She’s taken aim at Colorado marketing and graphic design entrepreneur (and Christian) Lorie Smith, whose free speech case was recently argued to the Supreme Court, and whom Givhan accuses of not “want[ing] the nuances of individuality to chip away at the certainty of dogma.” And, separately, she’s accused religious conservatives of disinterest in “understanding the nuances and contradictions of theology” and instead “carving out a how-to guide for a certain kind of life.”
Yet, ironically, Givhan’s recent writing on Smith’s court case and a new exhibit on religion at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture has engaged in impressively uncharitable (and un-Christian) rhetoric. And, to boot, in order to make her case she quite incoherently contradicts things she wrote just last month. In fact, it is Givhan’s own writing that evinces close-minded dogmatism and ideology.
Givhan’s Definition of Art
In a Dec. 6 WaPo op-ed, Givhan expresses displeasure that Lorie Smith’s legal team referenced a column Givhan wrote in 2017, in which she supported American fashion designers’ boycott of then-First Lady Melania Trump. Smith’s legal team compared that boycott to Smith’s refusal to craft wedding websites for same-sex couples because she has a religious objection to their unions — for Colorado to demand she do so amounts to compelled speech. “This is not what I had in mind when writing that column,” writes the irksome Givhan.
Givhan takes particular issue with Smith’s claim that her professional work constitutes art. “Is she creating art? Or simply an artful commodity,” writes Givhan. “Smith and her lawyers toss around the word ‘art’ as if it’s common. As if it’s easy. But art is what people aspire to by opening themselves up, not shutting themselves off.” She ends her op-ed with this broadside: “Smith and her lawyers seem intent on making sure that in the not-so-distant future we’ll all be decidedly worse.”
Art in the Service of Ideology
Admittedly, the above could at least be a plausible complaint by someone who won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for criticism and is a nationally respected art critic. Yet just last month Givhan wrote two features in which she cast a dramatically wide net regarding what constitutes art in her praise of artist Mickalene Thomas and a new book entitled “AphroChic: Celebrating the Legacy of the Black Family Home.”
In her piece on Brooklyn-based artist Thomas, Givhan lauds her work for, “mov[ing] Black women into the foreground.” See for yourself: Thomas’s recent work is little more than collage, sometimes with meandering outlines of objects drawn on top. But for Givhan, “Thomas’s aesthetic — not just the pieces at l’Orangerie, but her entire body of work — is a corrective. It’s a reclamation of history and future history.” In other words, Thomas’s work is wonderful because it furthers ideological aims that are important to Givhan.
In her other recent piece, Givhan waxes eloquent about the “beautiful interiors” that are also “statements about identity, autonomy and, most important, security.” Much of the article is a discussion lamenting “white privilege” and “racial injustice” as it relates to home ownership and decor. Photos of homes in the book are aesthetically pleasing enough, but what’s obvious is that Givhan’s appreciation is because it underscores her own ideological narratives about race.
When one surveys Ghivan’s writing on art in recent weeks, what’s clear is that her definition of it is entirely self-serving, inconsistent, and ideological: If it promotes her political priorities regarding race, sex, or gender, it’s to be celebrated; if it doesn’t, it’s to be demeaned as not art at all, its creators derided as backwards and bigoted. She even argues, in her criticism of Smith, that art should be about people “opening themselves up, not shutting themselves off.” Yet how is “black art” and “black home decor” not by definition narrowing one’s artistic vision?
All Rhetoric, No Argument
What’s most arresting about Givhan’s theological and artistic musings is that if you go in search of an actual argument in her attacks against Smith and conservatives, you won’t find it. Her writing style is all sleight-of-hand, applying hints, innuendos, and provocations to batter her adversaries. Her diatribe against religious conservatives is worth quoting for this very reason:
These last few years, the country has seen a good deal of self-righteous cruelty cloaked in politicized religion. Some people have turned their Christian faith into a battering ram to invade their neighbors’ privacy. Evangelicalism has bound itself up with Trumpism. A minority of people use their righteous sense of clarity to discriminate against those who identify as LGBTQ. They use the law to bully young people who are trying to fully understand their sexuality. They turn the search for identity into an embarrassment or a sign of failure instead of recognizing that struggle is part of what defines the human condition.
Some religious folks move with breathtaking certainty to fight for laws and rules that always seems to involve making someone else feel less welcome in their school, in their community, in this world. They claim to have the answers to impossible questions. They aren’t so much interested in understanding the nuances and contradictions of theology as they are in carving out a how-to guide for a certain kind of life. They are focused on judgment more than mercy and when they talk about loving the sinner but hating the sin, it’s just a way to excuse themselves for doling out punishment and vitriol and calling it Christianity.
Self-righteous busybodies, ignorant and self-assured bullies, judgmental and punitive haters — this is how Givhan describes those with whom she disagrees. But what’s the actual argument? There is none. Indeed, a person could, in theory, have all the negative traits described by Givhan and still be right. In truth, for The Washington Post’s senior critic-at-large, uncharitable and un-Christian name-calling, not syllogism, does all the rhetorical work. And corporate media and their award-giving organizations wonder why conservatives don’t take them seriously.