Hilton Kramer's Life of Cultural Discernment Meant Speaking Truth to Art
by Bradley W. Anderson
When the Russian writer and dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn at long last decided to allow his reclusive privacy in Vermont to be invaded by the New York Times for a 1980 interview, he did so under one condition: he would speak only to one man at the Times: Hilton Kramer, their chief art critic. It was an unusual request, since there were any number of literary or foreign-affairs experts who would have been more logical choices from the perspective of the Times. Solzhenitsyn was perhaps the most famous and unapologetic Russian Orthodox Christian in the world, and yet he chose, as the one man he trusted at the New York Times, a not particularly religious man.
What mattered was that Kramer's reputation for honesty had preceded him, making him someone Solzhenitsyn could depend on to tell the truth—something Solzhenitsyn, too, valued above all other qualities. Sealing the deal was perhaps Kramer's review of The Gulag Archipelago in the Times a couple of years prior. From that essay alone, Solzhenitsyn would have known that Kramer believed what was told in the Gulag—a story of systematic and decades-long terror in the Soviet Union going back to the earliest days of the Bolshevik revolution.
Perhaps just as importantly, Solzhenitsyn knew from Kramer's other writings on art and culture that he was no jingoistic booster of whatever America and the West happened to be up to at the moment. Kramer rather shared the Russian author's skeptical view of where Western culture was headed—deep into a world of nihilism, unbelief, and cultural decadence. While each was coming from a different vantage point—Solzhenitsyn from without, Kramer from within—both were observing the phenomenon and critiquing it with tools fashioned from the flotsam and jetsam of a disintegrating culture.
A Beachhead Established
Hilton Kramer died last year, and with his passing a great friend of what Russell Kirk liked to call "the permanent things" was lost. While he made his name at the New York Times, penning reviews and essays that chronicled the ebbs and flows of contemporary art and culture, his primary legacy is that he was the founder and long-time editor of the influential journal, The New Criterion. Among the broader public, most have probably not heard of that journal and even fewer have heard of Hilton Kramer, but his influence was both broad and deep, extending far beyond the small (about 6,500) circulation of his magazine. Such numbers pale beside those of better-known publications of cultural influence such as the New Yorker or Harpers, let alone major newspapers like the New York Times, but the impact of a periodical cannot be determined merely by circulation figures and advertising dollars.
What Kramer accomplished with the founding (in 1982) and eventual success of The New Criterion was nothing less than the establishment of a beachhead on the hostile coastline of a postmodernist nihilism that had by then firmly captured the fancy of the world of "high culture" in America. We see that nihilism in contemporary art of all kinds: novels and poetry, painting and sculpture, music and theater. Whether expressed with angry destructiveness or sardonic sneers, it is all part of the same Zeitgeist, and Kramer didn't like it. His story is a remarkable one that illustrates how one man, working with a small group of like-minded writers and thinkers, can have a profound impact on the broader cultural scene. At the risk of trivializing it with a common catchphrase, it is the story of how one man can make a difference.
The Journalistic Path
Kramer, a New Englander whose college education was at the well-respected but hardly "elite" Syracuse University, took a path that would be unusual today for a budding intellectual. In spite of being respected and feared as an arts critic by artists and academics alike throughout his career, he self-consciously chose a path as a journalist, proving that one does not need the imprimatur of a university post to engage in rigorous analysis of culture and the arts. As Roger Kimball, current editor of The New Criterion, noted in the lead essay of a special issue (May 2012) devoted to Kramer's memory, one of Kramer's favorite quotations was from Ernest Newman, a music critic for the London Times, who remarked that "journalist" was a term of contempt applied by writers who are not read to writers who are.
That quotation sheds light on Kramer's understanding that it is not enough to have good ideas and sound principles. Those ideas and principles must also be expressed in forums where they can engage other opinion-makers, and thus eventually the broader public. That process of engagement cannot take place solely in the ivory towers of the university or solely at the level of popular journalism; the discourse must simultaneously occur at various levels and in multiple forums. Sometimes cultural and artistic movements begin at the esoteric levels of academia or high culture and then percolate out into popular culture, ending up on television or in the pages of Reader's Digest; other times, changes take place in the opposite direction, beginning with movies or popular music, and ending up having doctoral dissertations devoted to them and college courses taught about them.
Smaller, serious journals of criticism and ideas play a critical role in the process of evaluating and making sense of the overwhelming load of ideas and artistic output of a vibrant culture, as do the arts pages of major newspapers and magazines. From this position in the middle, so to speak, a journal like The New Criterion can address trends in the academy and discuss the latest scholarly works on artistic and cultural issues, and, at the same time, critique trends of serious social and moral consequence emerging in the popular culture.
Room for One More
In 1982, many of Kramer's contemporaries were incredulous that he would step down from what was perhaps the most prestigious job one could have in his line of work—chief art critic for The New York Times—throwing it all over for the risky venture of starting a new periodical. It was an incomprehensible move from a career-development standpoint (Kramer was only 54 at the time), and even for those sympathetic to his cultural vision, voluntarily giving up the biggest bully pulpit in the country (America's unofficial "newspaper of record," with a circulation of over one million until very recently) was a major gamble.
Kramer had had the personal integrity not to pull any punches while writing for the Times, but his clear-eyed critiques often provoked conflicts with higher-ups who disagreed with his views, and his ambit was largely restricted to the visual arts. At the helm of his own publication, not only could he venture broadly across the entire spectrum of the American scene, but he could also provide a forum to a variety of critics—mostly younger ones who would otherwise have had little outlet for their talents—weaving the entirety into a comprehensive critique of American higher culture. In Kramer's opinion, such a critique was long overdue. In the introductory essay to the first issue of The New Criterion, he stated that the job of criticism was "to distinguish achievement from failure, to identify and uphold a standard of quality, and to speak plainly and vigorously about the problems that beset the life of the arts and the life of the mind in our society."
While acknowledging that there was no shortage at that time of journals and magazines devoted to culture and the arts, Kramer spoke plainly about why he was convinced there was room for one more—one that addressed an unmet need in the world of criticism and commentary:
Kramer was quite clear in his mind about just when the normal ebbs and flows of America's cultural life had taken a distinctly sharp turn for the worse, saying that "we are still living in the aftermath of the insidious assault on the mind that was one of the most repulsive features of the radical movement of the Sixties." While most individuals of traditional sensibilities are acutely aware of the assault on traditional morals that began in the 1960s and has continued to the present day, it is less common to think of it as an "assault on the mind." And yet it was and is so.
The Inexcusable Failure
Which brings us back, in a way, to the Solzhenitsyn anecdote that began this essay. For Kramer, the radical left in all of its forms—Marxism, Leninism, Stalinism, the progressive movement, and the radicalism of the 1960s and beyond—loomed over the twentieth century, and he wrote extensively about its effects. In his 1999 book, The Twilight of the Intellectuals: Culture and Politics in the Era of the Cold War, he wroteabout the progressive movement that was strongest between the 1920s and the early 1960s in America and that persistently slipped leftist thought into the mainstream, undermining traditional Judeo-Christian morality and the values of Western civilization. He specifically discussed the way in which these political and cultural commitments took on a religious fervor:
One might fairly object that virtually any movement that involves a political element can take on, for some, a religious tenor. Kramer's deep critique of the political left, however, takes this into consideration. For him (who spent most of his life as a self-described liberal), what was most inexcusable was the failure of the left ever to come to terms with the enormity of what communism actually produced in the twentieth century, and its failure to condemn it in no uncertain terms.
Writing about Josephine Herbst, a once-prominent novelist who had made him (inexplicably, from his perspective) her literary executor, Kramer talked about learning from her papers how deeply committed she was, like so many American intellectuals of her time, to defending Stalinism. During the height of the countercultural revolution in American universities, he also learned, based on the steady stream of graduate students sent to him for access to her papers, the extent to which leftist professors were quietly going about the process of rehabilitating the image of Herbst and other Stalinist intellectuals of the 1930s and 1940s.
While not minimizing the fact that self-deception and lying are in part the result of things other than politics, Kramer wrote about her with a sense of compassion for the way a political ideology had brutalized her and other adherents of the Bolshevik "religion" no less than it brutalized those it oppressed:
An Aggressive Secular Faith
Which again brings Solzhenitsyn to mind. One of the criticisms of The Gulag Archipelago is its mind-numbing length, the seemingly endless details of the persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church, of intellectuals, of dissidents of every stripe, and of millions of bystanders who were innocent by any standard of judgment. Could all of this not have been more effectively conveyed in a few hundred pages?
The quotation above from Kramer shows why this level of detail was necessary. Solzhenitsyn knew that he was not dealing with a garden-variety repressive regime merely interested in power. He was exposing the reality of life under an aggressive secular faith, a faith with ardent and well-placed adherents and secularist sympathizers throughout Western countries, adherents whose faith not only allowed them to believe lies and to tell lies in the interest of promoting it, but also expected them to lie whenever told to do so, and, eventually, without any prompting whatsoever.
All of this might seem excessively political territory for an art critic. The reality, though, is that the times in which Kramer found himself writing were ones in which the boundaries between art and politics had been intentionally shattered. Intellectuals and artists of the twentieth century, cut off from the religious and cultural heritage of what was once simply referred to as Christendom, proved in their professed state of unbelief to be deeply susceptible to political religions that rivaled any merely spiritual "great awakening" in their ecstatic claims and their demands for complete surrender of the self. As Kramer later wrote, "the Cold War was always as much a war of ideas as it was a contest for military superiority."
Just as Solzhenitsyn chronicled the history of oppression in the Soviet Union in painful detail, knowing it was necessary, Kramer's writings recorded the history of the corresponding war of ideas as it took place in the art galleries, museums, and literary institutions of the West.
Witty & Innocent
As a critic, Kramer was willing to engage what had become a politicized art world, rife with ideology. When necessary, he would take on the ideology head-on, but what he much preferred to do was simply to talk, truthfully and honestly, about the art itself. At the center of his understanding of a critic's responsibilities (he treated his work as a vocation, not a career) is that there are standards by which good art can be distinguished from bad, or, to put it more gently, by which some works of art can be objectively deemed better than others.
He further believed that some ideas are healthy for a society and that others are pernicious. During his long immersion in the art world, he never turned a blind eye to the fact that certain works are promoted and others denigrated for reasons that have nothing to do with artistic merit. Whether in reference to an inferior painter who was the toast of New York because of the fashionable political views he held, an overrated photographer whose claptrap was the talk of the town because of its shock value, or a play that got good reviews because of the artist's social connections, Kramer was not afraid to shine the light in dark corners that others might pretend weren't there. Needless to say, while he was respected and feared, he was also often not liked, especially by those who knew he was onto their game.
One story told many times about him is worth repeating (Kramer himself was said to have remarked that anything worth saying is worth saying over and over again): Kramer found himself one evening at a fashionable dinner in New York beside filmmaker Woody Allen, a great favorite of most movie critics. Allen asked whether Kramer was ever embarrassed when he ran into artists in social situations after he had panned their work. Kramer's reply was, "No, why should I be embarrassed?" He went on to tell Allen that if anyone should be embarrassed, it should be the artist, who created the bad art in the first place. "I just describe it," Kramer said. Roger Kimball, writing after Kramer's death, noted that
The story is an amusing one, but more than that, it puts flesh on a characteristic of Kramer's that many commented on after his death: his commitment to honesty. One might hope that those who would presume to critically analyze art and the culture that produces it would of course be honest—but one might also hope for too much.
The world of the arts and of criticism at its highest levels is a rather small one, and the currencies of mutual back-scratching are the usual ones—the critics who say the nice things are the ones who get invited to the smart social functions; your brilliant intern gets an entry-level editorial job at the other guy's magazine (but perhaps not if you just published an essay demolishing the premise of his recent front-cover article); you are, on the strength of your deft ability to write witty but ultimately harmless pieces, invited to write major essays for "important" and well-paying magazines. That sort of thing. One suspects that Kramer was not on Woody Allen's short list when the latter gave his own dinner parties. One is equally certain that it didn't influence Kramer one way or the other.
Kramer and his editorial partner, the pianist and music critic Samuel Lipman, who became the publisher of The New Criterion, indicated the level of influence they were striving for when they chose the name of their magazine. They were signaling that they intended (taking into consideration differences in cultural milieu, individual talents, and the tasks at hand) to emulate the great T. S. Eliot and his Criterion, which was published in London during the 1920s and 1930s. While short-lived and of miniscule circulation (900 copies at its peak), that publication was nonetheless one of the most influential literary journals of the twentieth century, edited by a man who was perhaps that century's greatest literary genius, so they were choosing to set the bar high.
There are differences between The Criterion and The New Criterion, to be sure. Most prominent among them is the much broader scope of the latter. Eliot's magazine was focused on literature, while Kramer's took a much broader view, covering dance, theater, music, the visual arts, the media, fiction, and non-fiction. In addition, The New Criterion, recognizing that any barrier between art and politics had been smashed and splintered into irrelevance by the leftist countercultural revolution of the 1960s, consciously and unapologetically addressed political issues and fads, especially with respect to their effect on our cultural institutions and their influence on the content and style of artistic endeavors.
One striking point of similarity between Eliot and Kramer is the consistency of their critical vision, or, to borrow the term Kimball uses in the essay mentioned above, their "critical temper." In the New York Times review of Kramer's book, The Triumph of Modernism,
It is indeed true that there is a remarkable consistency to Kramer's work through the years, but the same can be said of Eliot and other great critics of the past. Some of the consistency reflects their unchanging opinions about fundamental truths, but even more of it comes from an internal attitude of honesty in appraising artistic works and cultural phenomena. In the various essays written in tribute to Kramer after his death, there were many stories about his almost guileless approach to the art and artists he wrote about.
Even more striking, in some ways, were the stories of Kramer, as editor, giving free rein to bright young writers and standing by them when they drew withering criticism for having boldly (and sometimes recklessly) slain sacred cows or at least stepped on their hooves. This he did even when he didn't personally agree with their conclusions and when backing them up involved an element of personal cost. Not only did Kramer intend to be honest himself, but he also wanted the writers he was nurturing to be honest—to learn to be true to their critical instincts, their artistic impressions, their sense of morality, and their reasoning abilities.
Leading by example, Kramer helped teach a generation of critics that it is not enough just to know what one likes. One must be able to articulate, reasonably and without resorting to cant, snideness, or jargon, why one work of art is better than another, and why one is worthy of praise while another is worthy only of dismissal or even condemnation. Along with his honesty, one of Kramer's great contributions to "the permanent things" was, again, this unapologetic insistence on discerning between good and bad, beautiful and ugly, and right and wrong—and his equally unapologetic determination to pass these curious and antiquated notions on to those he mentored.
Embracing Artistic Modernism
Appeals to the realities of "modern life" have been used to justify countless obscenities, desecrations, and transgressions against basic humanity, let alone against traditional morals, religion, and mores. It might, then, come as a surprise that Kramer was not an artistic antiquarian, immersed only in masterworks of a glorious past. Rather, he embraced artistic modernism, seeking to engage and describe the art being made in his own lifetime, created in response to the world he was living in. He was a champion of abstract expressionism in the visual arts because of its ability to rise above the chaotic content of modern life; he liked the simple honesty of the most insightful modernist architecture; and he admired the stark incisiveness of literary modernism at its best.
These sensibilities were not always shared by those who otherwise agreed with his negative assessment of the direction in which Western culture was heading. It was, in fact, one of Kramer's achievements that he was able to help a generation of readers see modern art through new eyes—not as a degenerate revolution against traditional standards of truth and beauty (although there was plenty of that, too), but rather as a movement that, at its best, responded faithfully, as much as the given realities of modern life allowed, to the intellectual and social changes of the last century.
In the essay "Modernism and Its Institutions," collected in Lengthened Shadows: America and Its Institutions in the Twenty-first Century, Kramer said of T. S. Eliot, himself the father of a clear-headed strain of modernism in literature, that "Eliot's effort was not to subvert tradition but, on the contrary, to salvage it from the sclerotic imperatives of an exhausted antiquarianism or impotent gentility."
Most importantly, readers discovered that while engagement with a canon of proven artistic worth—from Shakespeare to Rembrandt to Chopin—is an irreplaceable anchor, life without contemporary artistic engagement with the human condition is an impoverished one, even if the alternative involves sifting through the dusty sands of trendy postmodernism to find the occasional jewel that makes it all worthwhile.
The Perverted Amalgam of Postmodernism
Any age has its darkness, and the age of modernism was decidedly not an exception. Kramer pointed out that even Eliot had "illustrated the apparently unavoidable paradox that the advent of modernism brought with it the seeds of its own perpetual renovation." This "perpetual renovation" had the potential for decadence as surely as it had the promise of fresh insights into the particularities of modern life, and no one knew this better than Kramer. Much of his life as a critic was spent exposing the humbuggery and snake oil that is often gathered under the label of "postmodernism" (or of "modernism" for that matter).
Like any heresy, postmodernism was not so much a new movement (although many a charlatan wanted to claim it to be so) as it was a perverted amalgam of old ones. There had always been streams of modernism that were assaults on the life of the mind and spirit (such as Dadaism), but the latter half of the twentieth century saw those trickles turn into veritable floods. Apart from the objectionable moral content of postmodernism (of which there was plenty, to be sure), Kramer wrote that
There one has it: the nexus between dangerous and vicious "ideologically informed fantasy worlds" (such as communism) and perverted strains of art created by those whose "loyalty is to something other than the truth." Those strains serve not to remind man of the higher things to which he is called, but rather to enslave him to the passions, which plague him quite enough without any assistance.
Most of us have known only a steady disintegration of Western culture during our lifetimes. In America, our heritage can be understood properly only in relation to the historical reality of Christendom—both in the ways our country has embraced it from the beginning and in the ways it has rejected it from the beginning (and continues to reject even more parts of that heritage with every passing year). It is not irrational to wish to withdraw from a disintegrating culture, but that impulse has a way of containing the seeds of its own fulfillment.
T. S. Eliot saw the rot and hollowness, but kept working, creating monumental art and crafting essays about literature, ancient and modern, that spoke to the intellectual and spiritual needs of his time. Solzhenitsyn did the same thing, and furthermore once wrote that an artist has to engage life as he finds it, not as he wishes it to be. Both men brought their considerable intellectual resources to bear on the task of reconstructing wastelands.
Hilton Kramer is no longer with us, and many of the things he wrote about are now in the history books, for better or for worse. But The New Criterion, the journal he founded and nurtured to adulthood, is still here. Those who would themselves seek to engage and understand more deeply the milieu in which we find ourselves today—cultural, artistic, religious, and moral—could hardly do better than to add its pages to their reading, continuing the conversation.
Bradley W. Anderson writes from Billings, Montana.
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