Editors’ note: It is difficult to believe that it was ten years ago last month that Hilton Kramer, the founding editor of The New Criterion, died, aged eighty-four. Time really does seem to speed up as one gets older. To mark the occasion, we adapt parts of Roger Kimball’s essay from our special memorial issue about Hilton of May 2012.
Many of the recollections that followed Hilton Kramer’s death dilated on the nature of his prose. “Clarity” usually came towards the top of the list. George Orwell somewhere likened good prose to a transparent windowpane. It revealed what it was about without calling attention to itself. It disappeared in rendering the thing it described. Hilton’s prose displayed that Orwellian clarity. Not only did you always know where you stood reading an essay by Hilton Kramer, you knew exactly where he stood, too. And you knew precisely what he thought about the subject under discussion.
You might disagree with Hilton’s judgments—many did, and vehemently—but you always knew what his judgments were.
Yet another oft-noted aspect of Hilton’s writing was its intelligence. You might disagree with Hilton’s judgments—many did, and vehemently—but you always knew what his judgments were and you had confidence (assuming you were smart yourself) that he knew whereof he spoke. That, of course, only added insult to injury for those who disagreed with him. Hilton’s range, not only in art history but also in the history of ideas, was formidable. Moreover, Hilton’s engagement with ideas was the opposite of academic. He liked to quote a remark by the British writer Ernest Newman, for decades the music critic for the London Times: “journalist,” said Newman, is a term of contempt applied by writers who are not read to writers who are. Between the academic and the journalistic approach to ideas, Hilton embraced the latter. It was not a matter of popularity or currency. Nor was it a matter of rigor (though academics like to pretend that it is). It was a matter of the proper application of ideas to the metabolism of life.
There was yet another characteristic of Hilton’s prose that struck many of his readers. Leaf through the recollections and you find plenty of references to his clarity and intelligence. You will also discover another quality that people struggled to get a handle on. Some called it “severity.” In fact, Hilton praised as often as he deprecated. But he was famously reputed to be a “severe,” “acerbic,” or “judgmental” critic. The last adjective always puzzled me. What manner of thing would a “non-judgmental,” i.e., a non-critical, i.e., a non-discriminating, critic be? Hilton liked to quote Walter Bagehot in this context: “The business of the critic,” said Bagehot, “is to criticize.”
For a critic, making judgments, distinguishing good from bad, better from worse, is the name of the game. It was a game at which Hilton excelled. Many recollections noted the “confidence” or “authority” that his writing exuded. “Mandarin” was another favorite epithet. All those descriptions circle around what I think was a central—maybe the central—quality of Hilton’s work as a critic: a ferocious allegiance to the truth of experience.
That quality is much rarer than you might suppose. It is a multifaceted attribute, as much a matter of temperament, of character, as it is a matter of conscious deliberation. It colors not just one’s critical judgments but also one’s whole approach to the vocation of criticism, which, as Matthew Arnold said of literature, is in its highest sense a “criticism of life.” Criticism is a serious business because life is a serious business.
“Serious,” I hasten to add, does not mean “somber.” It certainly does not mean “academic.” It does mean that tone is more than a cosmetic resource. It is a matter, at bottom, of respect, of dignity. Seriousness is compatible with humor, but not with frivolity. Hilton’s unwavering, instinctive commitment to the truth underlay his whole practice as a critic. The quality of that commitment helps explain why he regarded himself as a modernist.
Modernism” is a word with many meanings. As Hilton understood the term, it describes not just a particular style or period of art but an attitude towards the place of culture in the economy of life. If modernism, as Hilton put it, remained “the only really vital tradition that the art of our time can claim as its own,” it was not because of its association with abstract or other “experimental” forms of art. It was because modernism recognized that traditional sources of spiritual nourishment had been irreversibly complicated. The “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the “sea of faith” that Matthew Arnold descried in “Dover Beach” was now an inextricable part of our cultural inheritance. Preserving or reclaiming what was vital in that inheritance, and adapting it honestly to the vagaries of new experience, was the high and serious task of cultural endeavor.
Hilton loathed everything that traveled under the banner of postmodernism not because it was “playful” (as was sometimes said) but because it betokened a terrible cynicism about the whole realm of culture, which is to say the realm of human engagement with the world. Postmodernism, said Philip Johnson, doyen of the genre, installed “the giggle” into architecture. He was right. But that giggle bespoke not the laughter of joyful affirmation but the rictus of a corrosive and deflationary snideness, a version of nihilism. It is not always easy to distinguish the two. That was part of Hilton’s genius: an unerring instinct for the fraudulent.
What was probably Hilton’s most original achievement in this regard was his definitive anatomy of the Alexandrian quality of today’s “avant-garde” (the scare quotes are requisite). “The Age of the Avant-Garde,” first published in Commentary in 1972, is one of his most ambitious and most important contributions to this task. The central insight of that essay concerns what Hilton elsewhere called “the institutionalization of the avant-garde.” It used to be that the Salon looked to the past and resisted aesthetic innovation. The Salon of today insists on the appearance of innovation and forgets the past. As Hilton shows, this situation is not new. If it gained majority status in the 1960s, it has been with us, in essentials, since the Teens, when the Dadaist crusader Marcel Duchamp unveiled his “ready-mades” and impishly offered them to the public as works of art.
What happened to Dada set an ominous precedent.
As Hilton noted, what happened to Dada set an ominous precedent. Among other things, it demonstrated the extent to which the outrageous can be trivialized by being institutionalized: assimilated into the predictable cycle of museum exhibitions, curatorial safekeeping, and critical commentary. The cultural situation that Hilton dissected—and it is still very much our situation—is defined largely by the aftermath of the avant-garde: by all those “adversarial” gestures, poses, ambitions, and tactics that emerged and were legitimized in the 1880s and 1890s, flowered in the first half of the twentieth century, and live a sort of posthumous existence now in the frantic twilight of postmodernism.
In part, our present situation, like the avant-garde itself, is a complication (not to say a perversion) of our Romantic inheritance. The elevation of art from a didactic pastime to a prime spiritual resource, the self-conscious probing of inherited forms and artistic strictures, the image of the artist as a tortured, oppositional figure: all achieved a first maturity in Romanticism. These themes were exacerbated as the avant-garde developed from an impulse to a movement and finally into a tradition of its own.
The problem is that the avant-garde has become a casualty of its own success. Having won battle after battle, it gradually transformed a recalcitrant bourgeois culture into a willing collaborator in its raids on established taste. But in this victory were the seeds of its own irrelevance, for without credible resistance, its oppositional gestures degenerated into a kind of aesthetic buffoonery. In this sense, the institutionalization of the avant-garde spells the death or at least the senility of the avant-garde. Look around at a museum or art gallery near you and you will see what I mean.
Hilton recoiled in almost visceral distaste from untruth. I don’t just mean that he didn’t like lies, though I do mean that. There was something more. His practice as a critic could seem startling because of its moral force. At first blush, it might seem paradoxical that his criticism regularly displayed a moral component. After all, Hilton was a critic who emphasized the autonomy of aesthetic experience. He always gave priority to firsthand experience. He prized connoisseurship, and his criticism, like Ruskin’s (Hilton greatly admired John Ruskin), dwelt on the evidence of the work itself, not on any extrinsic narrative festooned around the work.
Some found Hilton personally intimidating as well as rhetorically astringent.
Some found Hilton personally intimidating as well as rhetorically astringent. “I only met him once,” a friend wrote me the day he died, “and I was appropriately terrified.” I don’t believe the terror really was appropriate. Hilton could be a formidable polemicist, but in person he tended to be quite mild, even jovial. He was a commanding raconteur with a large library of amusing stories. He did not suffer fools gladly, or—now that I think back on it—in any other way. Yet he was engaging company. But from the very beginning of his career Hilton called things exactly as he saw them. He did not temper his disapprobation—nor his praise, come to that—to suit the politesse of any establishment.
Which brings me back to the moral pressure of Hilton’s critical writing, a feature that was as evident in his writing about painting as it was in his writing about politics. Hilton understood that at bottom the aesthetic is deeply implicated in our moral life. In this, he was like one of his culture heroes, Henry James. James’s exquisite dissections of human emotion and motivation play out on a canvas of great moral urgency. Just so, Hilton’s embrace of the aesthetic escaped the aridity of art-for-art’s-sake aestheticism because it was rooted in a larger vision of life. He insisted on the integrity of aesthetic experience because the aesthetic, the experience of beauty and its filiations with our life as moral beings, is a fundamental part of human nature. From the beginning of his career, Hilton celebrated art and literature—and the tradition of humanistic endeavor generally—not as an escape from but as a revelation of reality.
In the realm of politics, the compact between mendacious fantasy and power has fabricated illusions that can be as murderous as they are false. Hilton’s recognition of this truth nourished his uncompromising anti-Communism and his allergy to the myriad intellectual and moral deformations that allegiance to Communism begat. The Left has always had trouble coming to terms with the enormity of Communism. The tincture of perverted idealism that somehow clings, even now, to that utopian fantasy has licensed all manner of mendacious posturing, especially among intellectuals. Always there was an exemption, an excuse, a bit of moral equivalence on hand to paper over its inescapable, freedom-blighting viciousness. Publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago in the 1970s ought to have put paid to that forever. It didn’t.
It’s no wonder that during his long exile in Cavendish, Vermont, when Solzhenitsyn decided to grant an interview to The New York Times, the only reporter he would agree to talk to was Hilton Kramer. Not the Russia experts, not the political reporters or editorialists: only the chief art critic, but one whose reputation for truth-telling preceded him.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 8, on page 1
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