A Damaged and Disorienting Portrait

In May 1914, a feminist entered the Royal Academy in London carrying a concealed meat cleaver to attack John Singer Sargent’s portrait of novelist Henry James. “I have tried,” the woman explained, “to destroy a valuable picture because I wish to show the public that they have no security for their property nor their art treasures until women are given political freedom.” Skilled restorationists were able to repair Sargent’s painting. But legal scholar William C. Duncan fears that the ideologues now swinging their ideological meat cleavers at “a vastly different kind of portrait” are causing cultural harm less easily repaired. In particular, Duncan fears that activists now agitating for state recognition of same-sex “marriage” are seriously damaging a critically important social institution. “If our legal portrait of marriage is damaged through oversimplification or by removing key aspects of its nature,” Duncan warns, “it is doubtful that it can be restored as easily as a painting.” The oversimplification of marriage that disturbs Duncan is that which removes from its definition any acknowledgment of procreative sexual differences or of the abiding obligations to children born of those sexual differences. When legal theorists or jurists leave these procreative sexual differences out of their new and de novo definitions of marriage, “the omission is glaring,” Duncan asserts, “because procreation and child-rearing have been central to the meaning of marriage and the justifications for the state’s recognition of it.” Duncan thus recognizes the wisdom in Roger Scruton’s understanding of marriage: “Marriage has grown around the idea of sexual difference and all that sexual difference means. To make this feature accidental rather than essential is to change marriage beyond recognition. . . . By admitting same-sex marriage we deprive marriage of its social meaning, as the blessing conferred by the living on the unbo
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