It would be tempting to describe Hilton Kramer, who died last week at 84, as the last of his breed, his kind: the cultural mandarin who, perched near the top of the totem pole, issued pronouncements on arts and letters with the confidence and erudition of, say, an Edmund Wilson or John Ruskin.
But that would not be quite accurate. Kramer was, indeed, a late survivor of the postwar generation of public intellectuals—critics and essayists and the occasional academic—who came of age with America’s superpower status, when the cultural capital moved from Europe to New York. He made his mark in the early 1950s with an attack on the Marxist art critic Harold Rosenberg, which was published in Philip Rahv’s Partisan Review. He was an early and ardent champion of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism and, as a New York Times art critic during the late 1960s and ’70s, a defender of aesthetic values in art during a cultural dark age. As founding editor of the New Criterion he fought, for two decades or more, what appeared to be a rearguard action against the debasement and politicization of high culture in America.
All that is true, and all of it describes the kind of critic of the arts who, removed from the trenches and confusion of the marketplace, takes a stand from the comfort of his easy chair. But that is only partly a description of Hilton Kramer. The writer who, under the tutelage of Clement Greenberg, succeeded him as the most important art critic of his day was a participant as well as an observer, a combatant as well as chronicler, and the kind of critic who sees in the wider culture those fundamental values (or lack of values) in the society he inhabits.
In that sense, the significance of Kramer’s move in 1982 from the New York Times to the New Criterion cannot be overstated. As anyone at the Times will attest, a critic’s sinecure there is an open invitation to omnipotence: Kramer was not only the country’s most distinguished commentator on art, he was, ex officio, its most powerful arbiter as well. To have walked away voluntarily, and constructed a home in a new, untried monthly founded in the image of T. S. Eliot’s brief experiment in cultural journalism—“in the forefront both of championing what is best and most humanely vital in our cultural inheritance and in exposing what is mendacious, corrosive, and spurious”—Kramer took a decisive leap into the unknown.
And decisive is the operative word. By the late 1970s, it is safe to say in retrospect, there was a dangerous crisis of the spirit in American life, reflected in both politics and the arts. The prolonged and ultimately disastrous Vietnam war, combined with the urban upheavals of the 1960s, had gravely damaged the social and political fabric. The twin specters of nihilism and Marxism hovered over the culture. Faith in the fundamental health and integrity of the American experiment was at a low ebb; the art and music and aesthetics of the times reflected an incipient sickness and self-loathing.
By 1982 there were furtive signs of political recovery, but the excesses of the previous two decades still blighted the arts and humanities. The great institutions of American cultural life—museums, universities, professional associations, and journals—had been infected with Marxist notions of politics and materialism. The aesthetic distinctions that had always mattered in the arts were suddenly suspect. Into this breach rode Hilton Kramer. Fearless, just, indefatigable, but above all devoted to the highest principles of art and intellectual distinction, he surveyed the wounded landscape in the pages of the New Criterion and never hesitated to exhort his countrymen—whether individual artists or their patrons or their government—to return to first principles, and rediscover the sublime and enduring qualities of Art.
And he did it, by the way, with a unique combination of vigor and good humor, of harsh excoriation and bemused indulgence, which always served to separate him from most critics of the culture. But did he succeed? It is difficult to say. Some of those infections that he identified and lamented—the overestimation of popular culture, the invasion of politics into fine art and connoisseurship—remain chronic, and the “culture wars” in which he enlisted are still being fought.
Yet it may also be said that, having taken up arms, Kramer deserves credit for the extent to which the corrosion has retreated, and the principles he championed are acknowledged as part of a larger conversation. Above all, by his conspicuous role in defining the norms and nature of American culture, Hilton Kramer affected his times for the better, and his thoughts are now cemented in a permanent foundation.
Philip Terzian is literary editor of The Weekly Standard.