The story goes that one night, when Hilton was still chief art critic of The New York Times, he found himself seated next to Woody Allen, who asked Hilton whether he felt embarrassed when he ran into people whose work he had attacked. “No,” Hilton replied without missing a beat, “I expect them to be embarrassed for doing bad work.”

I love this story because it so perfectly encapsulates certain of the qualities of character and the convictions of mind that together enabled Hilton Kramer to become the best critic of our generation and one of the preeminent intellectuals of the age.

To begin with, there was the magnificent self-assurance revealed and expressed in his response to Allen’s question. In part, this was a sign of how tough he was, and of how little the conventional niceties or the demands of politesse could force him into biting his tongue. And...


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