Why start The New Criterion?

There are no doubt many reasons for wanting to start a new review, but the primary one was long ago stated by Sir Walter Scott while he was involved in preparations for launching The Quarterly Review. Writing to Gifford in October 1808, on the eve of the Quarterly’s initial appearance, Scott declared that “The real reason for instituting the new publication is the disgusting and deleterious doctrines with which the most popular of our Reviews disgraces its pages.” The journal Scott had in mind was, of course, the Edinburgh Review. But he—fortunate man!—lived in a tidier and more fastidious intellectual universe than ours. Today we know to our sorrow that there are many worse disasters to be visited upon the life of culture than the Edinburgh Review. We are surrounded by the evidence wherever we turn. The feeling of dissatisfaction with existing journals, and with the ideas and practices that govern them, is therefore likely to be especially acute just now for anyone capable of recalling a time when criticism was more strictly concerned to distinguish achievement from failure, to identity 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. . . .

A very large part of the reason for this sad state of affairs is, frankly, political. 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. The cultural consequences of this leftward turn in our political life have been far graver than is commonly supposed. In everything from the writing of textbooks to the reviewing of trade books, from the introduction of kitsch into the museums to the decline of literacy in the schools to the corruption of scholarly research, the effect on the life of culture has been ongoing and catastrophic. Yet the subject is one that has scarcely been studied. It would probably take the combined talents of a Gibbon and a Tocqueville to tell the whole shabby story on the requisite scale, but one does not have to be a genius to recognize some of the more egregious results of this flight from intelligence and intellectual scruple. The cultural landscape is littered with its casualties and debris. . . .

The time has surely come for criticism to turn its back on this intellectual vaudeville act, which wears a fancy radical face when performing for the public while at the same time—backstage, as it were—availing itself of all the advantages and preferments that our society offers in such abundance. It is time to apply a new criterion to the discussion of our cultural life—a criterion of truth. This is by no means a simple or an easy task. The defense of high art in a democratic society has never been a simple or an easy task. It is in the very nature of democracy, with its multiplicity of interests and tastes, for the task to be difficult. Yet it is imperative that we recognize, as the first condition for any serious criticism of the arts in the contemporary world, that it is now only in a democratic society like ours that the values of high art can be expected to survive and prosper. The dishonesties and hypocrisies and disfiguring ideologies that nowadays afflict the criticism of the arts are deeply rooted in both our commercial and our academic culture. They govern much that is written about the arts in the media, and much that is taught about them in the classroom. For all practical purposes, indeed, they constitute a very large part of the mainstream of our cultural life today. It is therefore all the more urgent that a dissenting critical voice be heard, and it is for the purpose of providing such a voice that The New Criterion has been created.

—From “A Note on The New Criterion (1982)

The posthumous life of the avant-garde

For the “normal condition” of our culture has become one in which the ideology of the avant-garde wields a pervasive and often cynical authority over sizable portions of the very public it affects to despise. That it does so by means of a profitable alliance with the traditional antagonists of the avant-garde—the mass media, the universities, and the marketplace—only underscores the paradoxical nature of the situation in which we find ourselves. It is in the interest of this ideology to deny the scope of its present powers, of course. Its continuing effectiveness—its ability to come before the public not only as an arbiter of taste but as an example of moral heroism—is peculiarly dependent on the fiction of its extreme vulnerability. The myth of the underdog, of a struggle against impossible odds with little hope of just recognition, is an indispensable instrument in the consolidation of avant-garde influence.

But this is only part of the myth that is fostered in the avant-garde scenario. Central to its doctrine of embattled and threatened virtue is the notion of what Lionel Trilling has called the avant-garde’s “adversary” relation to the larger (bourgeois) culture in which it functions. If the institutions that now serve as conduits of avant-garde claims are no longer shy about acknowledging this adversary role, it is because the role itself has acquired an unquestioned historical prestige. We have all been brought up on the legend of avant-garde martyrdom, with its celebrated episodes of tardy vindication. Nothing is more familiar to us than the literature of cautionary tales recounting middle-class resistance to and stupidity about “advanced” artistic innovation. The history of modern art abounds in such tales, which are often chronicles of genuine suffering when they are not mere comedies of cultural manners. As a result, the tendency of modern critical thought, whether sympathetic to avant-garde objectives or openly hostile to them, has been to accept without question an essential, perhaps even a metaphysical, antagonism separating high culture from the middle class—an antagonism readily confirmed in our guilty feelings over the crowded roster of abused and misunderstood genius.

—From The Age of the Avant-Garde: 1956–1972 (1973)

"Camp" & the rise of postmodernism

Exactly how this conversion was accomplished tells us much about the inner dynamics of modernist sensibility, especially its tendency to empty art of its “content” and establish style as its true subject matter. (That we feel obliged to place the word content in quotation marks is itself a reflection of this tendency.) For the purposes of this conversion, no instrument has proved to be more powerful or more pervasive than the attitude of irony we call Camp, which has the effect of neutralizing the substance and aggrandizing the style of whatever it embraces. Irony ridicules, of course, and ridicule normally wounds and discredits. But the ridicule of Camp is a mock ridicule that contains a large element of praise, accommodation, and affection. Irony of this special sort places us in a relation of comic intimacy with the objects of its attention. It encloses them in an atmosphere of flirtation and familiarity. The antagonism normally associated with the ironic attitude is merely feigned. By focusing on what is truly outrageous in these objects, and then lavishing a fulsome solicitude upon precisely that aspect of them, Camp makes a joke of the offending attributes while at the same time suggesting that there is something endearing—even, perhaps, something necessary and redeeming—in their very absurdity.

Camp, in short, confers legitimacy on what it pretends to ridicule. But the kind of legitimacy it confers is distinctly double-edged. For what it offers to the cognoscenti—a “forbidden” pleasure in objects that are corny, exaggerated, “stupid,” or otherwise acknowledged to have failed by the respectable standards of the day—is not at all the same as what it bequeaths to the “straight” public that believes itself to be abiding by those very standards. The Camp attitude thus works to preserve modernism’s distinction between the avant-garde and the philistines—between “us” and “them”—even while engaged in the task of reviving the philistine art that the avant-garde had formerly consigned to oblivion.

—From “Postmodern: Art and Culture in the 1980s” (1982), reproduced in The Revenge of the Philistines: Art and Culture 1972–1984

 On "A Susan Sontag Reader"

What gave Sontag’s early essays their aura of daring and controversy was the remarkable air of confidence she brought to the task of defending and codifying the values implicit in this movement to strip the arts of what she herself described as “moral sentiments.” Bidding a not-so-fond farewell to art that was conceived, as she put it, as “a species of moral journalism,” she hailed the advent of a “new sensibility,” whose most distinctive feature was said to be that “it does not demand that pleasure in art necessarily be associated with edification.” Fundamental to the new sensibility—as she wrote in her manifesto-like essay “One Culture and the New Sensibility” in 1965—was “a new attitude toward pleasure.” And it was as the Pasionaria of this new, pleasure-seeking revolution in sensibility that Sontag emerged as a critical spokesman of the Sixties.

—From “Susan Sontag: The Pasionaria of Style” (1982), reproduced in The Twilight of the Intellectuals: Culture and Politics in the Era of the Cold War

John Dewey's influence on Sidney Hook

The price of that influence came high . . . for Dewey’s is a spiritually arid philosophy. It leaves the soul (as I believe it must be called) defenseless and virtually mute in the face of extreme experience. For the poetry of life it has no way of accounting, and for dealing with the tragedies of history—not to mention the tragic dimension of human experience—its problem-solving mentality has proved to be a feeble instrument. There is a touching moment in Hook’s chronicle when he speaks of his discovering the novels of Dostoevsky in his freshman year at City College. “For years I nourished the hopes of writing a book on Dostoevsky . . . on the sweep and significance of his ideas,” he writes. And then he adds, surprisingly: “Despite my absorption with political and social affairs, I still believe that the questions of God, freedom, and immortality are the most important of all questions that human beings can face.” From an avowed rationalist and atheist, this is an extraordinary admission, but we hear little more about it in the course of his long autobiographical chronicle. Those were not, for the most part, the kind of questions that were given priority on Dewey’s philosophical agenda, and it was to Dewey, not to Dostoevsky, that Hook gave his intellectual allegiance.

—From “The Role of Sidney Hook” (1987), reproduced in The Twilight of the Intellectuals

Thoughts on politics & culture

The defense of what I wish to call art—a word I shall use here to represent what it is that the creators of high culture in every field achieve in all of the arts and humanities—the defense of what I am calling art can never be successful on any terms worth fighting for if it is completely and irreversibly subordinated to politics, even our own politics.

Art, as I wish to understand it—and this includes scholarship, too—must be defended and pursued and relished not for any political program it might be thought to serve but for what it is, in and of itself, as a mode of knowledge, as a source of spiritual and intellectual enlightenment, as a special form of pleasure and moral elevation, and as a spur to the highest reaches of human aspiration. Art must be savored and preserved and transmitted as the very medium in which our civilization either lives and prospers—prospers intellectually and spiritually—or withers and dies. To subordinate art to politics—even, as I say, to our politics—is not only to diminish its power to shape our civilization at its highest levels of aspiration but to condemn it to a role that amounts to little more than social engineering.

In the situation that we are facing today in the study of the arts and the humanities, the temptation to emulate our enemies in subordinating art to politics will inevitably be great, because such a course offers—or at least gives us the illusion of offering—the shortest route to short-term victories. But if it is our civilization that we believe to be at stake in this struggle, then this temptation to grasp at whatever short-term victories might be achieved must be resisted in favor of the longer-term objectives. Otherwise, I believe we shall merely find ourselves collaborating with our enemies on the destruction of the very thing we have set out to defend and preserve. Art must be defended and pursued and preserved for what it is rather than as a political instrument in the service of some other cause. The defense and advancement of art cannot be deferred to some hypothetical future when, as we might prefer to believe, the struggle will be less arduous and the conditions more propitious. The defense of art must not, in other words, be looked upon as a luxury of civilization—to be indulged in and supported when all else is serene and unchallenged—but as the very essence of our civilization.

From “Studying the Arts and the Humanities: What Can Be Done?” (1989), reproduced in Against the Grain: The New Criterion on Art and Intellect at the End of the Twentieth Century

On "Making the Mummies Dance"

We shall be a long time assessing the full impact of Tom Hoving’s directorship of the Met on our art museums, and on their place in American cultural life. Yet in a way that its author hardly intended, the publication of Making the Mummies Dance makes that assessment a lot easier. For this is an egregiously shallow and mean-spirited book, and a book, moreover, that has absolutely nothing to say about the life of art in our time. For serious thought it substitutes malicious gossip and the tiresome rituals of self-promotion. It thus reminds us of the intellectual void that was always at the center of Tom Hoving’s tenure as director of the Met. It spells out in gruesome detail what happens to a great art institution when it passes into the hands of a spoiled smarty-pants whose principal success was to gull a lot of important people (who should have known better) into believing that money, politics, publicity, and what Tom Hoving liked to call “flash” and “fun” would serve as an adequate substitute for vision and leadership. In Making the Mummies Dance, the momentous affairs of one of our greatest cultural institutions are reduced to the level of talk-show scuttlebutt, which is the only level on which Tom Hoving has ever excelled.

—From “Hoving’s Biteless Barking” (1993), reproduced in The Triumph of Modernism

Solzhenitsyn & the French Left

It will forever remain one of the ironic lessons of history that the moral force which finally shattered the influence of Sartre and the French Left on their own home ground came not from any effective dissent in the intellectual capitals of the West but from a heroic survivor of the very system whose evils they had long denied. It was the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago in France in the early 1970s that finally reduced this whole tradition of political falsehood to ideological rubble. . . . Publication of The Gulag Archipelago was the turning point that finally made it possible for the truth about the French Left’s mythification of the Soviet system to be openly discussed as a historical scandal of huge proportions.

—From “The Flowers on Sartre’s Grave” (1993), reproduced in The Twilight of the Intellectuals

Stalinism & the Hollywood blacklist

The immense power and influence on American cultural life that had been exerted by the Communist Party in the era of the Popular Front had been conveniently forgotten. It was considered bad taste to remind people of Stalin’s crimes—or, indeed, of the immense role played by Stalinism in this country’s politics and culture. It was still firmly believed by most liberals—the folks that wrote for The New Yorker, The Nation, and The New Republic, for example—that Alger Hiss was innocent. Many of those people also worked for the Times, and one of them tried to get me fired for writing “The Blacklist and the Cold War.” It was bad luck for him, however, that the editor he appealed to for my dismissal happened to be the editor who had commissioned me to write the article in the first place.

—From “The Blacklist Revisited” (1997), reproduced in The Twilight of the Intellectuals

 The twilight of the intellectuals

For better or for worse, we now find ourselves confronted by what has come to be called a “postmodern” movement in politics and culture. Whether we regard this development as a deliverance from the baleful illusions of the past or a descent into nihilism and decadence, the fact remains that we have entered an era in which the orthodoxies of Marxism and modernism no longer exert their old authority.

This does not mean that radical impulses which governed the Marxist quest for a socialist utopia have lost their power to inspire intellectual revolt. Far from it. But it is in the nature of this “postmodern” revolt—which is in so many respects a revolt against the basic traditions of Western civilization—to manifest itself as a cultural revolution rather than an open avowal of radical politics. This cultural revolution, which commonly goes by the name of “the culture wars,” has, in turn, taken modernism to be one of its principal objects of disparagement and deconstruction. Thus, the “two avant-gardes” that did so much to define the spirit of intellectual life in this century have themselves been so radically deconstructed that they can no longer claim the primacy that was granted them in the period of their ascendancy. It is in this sense that we live today in the twilight of an intellectual era.

—From “On the Style and Politics of an Intellectual Class” (1999), reproduced in The Twilight of the Intellectuals

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 Number 9, on page 2
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