It is difficult to evoke, now, the impact Hilton Kramer’s powerful essay “The Age of the Avant-Garde” had on me when Commentary first published it in 1972. Few essays of that time broke through the prevailing current of countercultural intoxication, and for a college student who had been swept up by waves of promised Nietzschean transformation, the sober signs of a counter-reformation reflected in Hilton’s analysis were bracing.

The only other essay I recall having a similar impact (at least on my nascent consciousness) also appeared in Commentary in 1971: “The Holiness of Sin,” by the magisterial historian of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem. That essay dealt with the transformations set in motion by the sixteenth-century false Messiah, Sabbatai Zevi, whose followers, in order to reconcile his perverse and bizarre acts with their own grandiose theories and expectations of salvation,...


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