“Death to Picasso”

Columnist, editor of The New Ctiterion and scourge of academic political correctness, Roger Kimball, has cited Waugh in an article in the conservative/libertarian weblog PJ Media. This was in the context of a “PC” debate that arose from recent unrest in Charlotte, North Carolina (which the geographically-challenged Kimball misidentifies as located in Virginia). A law professor posted a Twitter message in a feed that was describing an ongoing protest demonstration that had extended onto the streets and was blocking traffic. The message was : “Run them down” (not sure about the punctuation). That was considered so incendiary that the professor was the subject of an investigation at the University of Tennessee where he taught at the law school.

Kimball was reminded of the messages Waugh once used to close his letters:

There was a period in which Evelyn Waugh habitually ended his letters with the injunction “Death to Picasso.” What if he had included this in a tweet? But of course, a character like Evelyn Waugh would be impossible in today’s Lilliputian regime of political correctness.

The period when Waugh used this phrase in letters was fairly brief, covering a few weeks in January 1946 in the wake of a controversy caused by Waugh with a letter to the Times relating to an exhibit of Picasso’s work at the V&A Museum. Letters, 214-22. Waugh’s choice of media hardly seems comparable to the instant messaging systems used today. Indeed, even to tweet such a message seems scarcely relevant, since it was not aimed motorists stranded in an angry mob of protesters. His addressees–Nancy Mitford and Penelope Betjeman–were unlikely to take his exhortation literally or to physically injure the artist.

In the end, the Tennessee professor was exhonorated by the dean of the law school who, according to Kimball,  ruled that he:

was exercising his First Amendment rights. No disciplinary action would be taken. But the dean did go on to bemoan the “hurt and frustration” felt by those who had been “offended” by the tweet. Brave soul that she is, however, the dean declared that she would “move forward to rebuild our law school community.”


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