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Hilton Kramer & the critical temper
On the life, work, and mindset of Hilton Kramer.
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No one, if he could help it, would tolerate the presence of untruth in the most vital part of his nature concerning the most vital matters. There is nothing he would fear so much as to harbor falsehood in that quarter.
—Plato, The Republic, Book II
Prose. Many of the recollections that followed Hilton Kramer’s death, age 84, on March 27, 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 window pane. 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 suppose that is the least you should ask for from a writer of critical prose. You would be right. It is the least you should be able to ask for. The disappointing thing is how rarely you get it. You always got it from Hilton. Column after column, essay after essay, year in and year out for more than forty years, Hilton delivered the goods about art, literature, politics, and cultural life generally. He was not only remarkably clear in his writing, he was also prodigiously productive. The four plump compendia of his critical writings—The Age of the Avant-Garde (1973), The Revenge of the Philistines (1985), The Twilight of the Intellectuals (1999), and The Triumph of Modernism (2008)—contain only a portion of his published work. Until illness silenced him in the last decade of his life, Hilton was an indefatigable as well as an articulate observer of the cultural scene.
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. It was also practical. Back in the 1980s, I wrote an essay about the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, the grand panjandrum of pessimism. Hilton read it and instantly saw that it lacked something essential. Today, Schopenhauer’s philosophy has been relocated to off-site storage in the university. But back in the early decades of the twentieth century it exercised a broad and mesmerizing appeal. It features prominently in Thomas Mann’s great novel Buddenbrooks, for example, something I didn’t know but that Hilton did. I read the novel, rewrote the essay, and found that the Thomas Mann connection brought everything into focus.
The point is that 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.” One of Hilton’s favorite stories involved the movie director and actor Woody Allen. Back when Hilton worked at The New York Times, he happened to be seated next to Allen one night at a dinner. He asked whether Hilton ever felt embarrassed when he encountered socially artists he’d written disparagingly about. Without missing a beat, Hilton replied, No, why should I be embarrassed? They made the crappy art. I just described it.
Hilton’s response was both witty and innocent—witty, because it was a riposte unanswerable, innocent because it was only on his way home from the event that Hilton remembered he had written a negative review of The Front, a piece of left-wing agitprop about the Hollywood blacklist, in which Woody Allen acted.
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 exudes. “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. “No one,” said Plato, “would tolerate the presence of untruth in the most vital part of his nature concerning the most vital matters.” 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. This may be the place to say a word about abstract art. Hilton is sometimes regarded as a champion of abstract art. It would be more accurate, I believe, to say that he was a champion of good art, by which I mean art that, whatever its genre or technical prowess, was palpably true to our experience of life. An inventory of Hilton’s criticism shows that he wrote as often, and as enthusiastically, about figurative as about abstract art. Unlike Clement Greenberg, he never thought (as Greenberg wrote in 1959) that “the very best painting, the major painting, of our age is almost exclusively abstract.” If modernism, as Hilton put it, remains “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.
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 that 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—what Clement Greenberg called “avant-gardism”—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 first-hand 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. That is why he reacted with such contempt when, back in the 1980s, the social scientist Edward Banfield suggested that museums relinquish the art objects in their possession to the lucrative art market and replace them with reproductions—“high quality” reproductions, he stressed, though perhaps not too high. “If one is willing,” Banfield wrote,
to settle for copies that are “excellent” (meaning that no one but an expert can detect a difference with the naked eye), the cost will be less. And if one is willing to have copies that are just “very good” (meaning that an experienced and careful viewer gets almost as much aesthetic satisfaction from them as from an original) the cost will be lower still.
Yes, and as Hilton points out, “the costs—in dollars, anyway—would be lower still if we just chucked art out of our lives altogether.” Mr. Banfield’s book was called The Democratic Muse, but in fact his proposal was not only profoundly anti-aesthetic but anti-democratic to boot. What this “ghastly intellectual fraud” entailed, Hilton observed, was a policy of “reproductions for the plebs, originals for the rich.”
Some of Hilton’s readers were taken aback by the passion of his critical responses. “Ghastly intellectual fraud” is pretty severe. And Edward Banfield, it is worth noting, was a political conservative, someone with whom Hilton would have agreed on many other topics. 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 arts-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 a revelation of reality.
This was evident already in his first major foray in criticism, an attack on Harold Rosenberg’s once-famous idea of “action painting.” The piece, which appeared in Partisan Review in 1952, put the twenty-four-year-old Hilton Kramer on the map. Rosenberg pretended to peer deeply into the existential engine room of art. In fact, as Hilton put it in a later reflection on Rosenberg, he substituted talking about the psyche of the artist for talking about the work of art. “This shift of critical focus away from the artist’s completed work,” Hilton wrote,
had an effect quite the opposite of what was intended. It alienated the visual realities of painting from the crux of the discussion, leaving the audience free to regard the creation as being little more than the psychological residue of the artist’s personal crisis. In making the existential component not only dominant but all-encompassing, Mr. Rosenberg succeeded in reducing Abstract Expressionist painting to a cultural datum utterly discontinuous with the art history that actually produced it.
Hilton freely acknowledged Rosenberg’s prowess as a phrasemaker, his intelligence, the “vivacity” of his prose. What he deprecated was the void that opened up between his verbal lucubrations and the art that was his ostensible subject.
In the realm of culture, that void is filled by sentimentality, kitsch, or some other species of untruth to experience. In the realm of politics, the compact between mendacious fantasy and power fabricated illusions that could be as murderous as they were 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. In a review of Anne Applebaum’s magisterial Gulag: A History, Hilton recalled his uneasiness about Hannah Arendt’s essay “The Concentration Camps,” which he had read when it appeared soon after the war. “The horror of the concentration and extermination camps,” Arendt wrote, “can never be fully embraced by the imagination for the very reason that it stands outside of life and death. . . . The fear of the absolute Evil which permits of no escape knows that this is the end of dialectical evolutions and developments.” Come again? What, besides imparting a bit of teutonic owlishness, could Arendt have meant by standing “outside of life and death”? Where did “dialectical evolutions and developments” come into the story? It is one of the great if harrowing virtues of Applebaum’s book that it regards the monumental horror of the Gulag with unblinking concreteness. It was a matter not of “standing outside life and death” but of death and degradation tout court, on an industrial scale. There were no dialectics at play, only the diabolism of human, all-too-human evil.
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. Hilton quotes George Steiner, who reviewed the book in 1974 for The New Yorker. “To infer,” wrote Steiner, “that the Soviet terror is as hideous as Hitlerism is not only a brutal simplification but a moral indecency.” Recalling this passage in 1991, Hilton noted that
Steiner’s sense of moral indecency . . . has probably been modified by recent events in Russia and Eastern Europe. The noise of all those Lenin monuments being toppled must have reached even his reclusive ears. Yet it is important to recall attacks of this kind, which always had less to do with the realities of Communism and the Soviet system than with the need to uphold the pieties of Left-liberal orthodoxy, if we are to understand the assaults still to come on the writers who insisted on telling the truth about the longest reigning tyranny of the twentieth century.
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.
The spectacle of toppled Lenins reminds me of a story Hilton liked to tell about his visit to the Soviet Union in 1967. He was part of a platoon of New York Times reporters sent to cover the fiftieth anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. That sojourn resulted in lots of emetic celebrations of Soviet “achievements,” but not from Hilton. Like the rest of the Times contingent, Hilton was closely shepherded by Intourist handlers (i.e., KGB agents) but he managed a few off-roster meetings. There was the poet who, living in garret-like penury, was engaged in the illicit activity of translating Wallace Stevens (talk about counter-revolutionary literature!). Hilton threw his hosts into confused panic when he asked to meet the artist who supervised the production of the statues of Lenin that were then ubiquitous in the totalitarian state. They hadn’t anticipated such a request. What was this wily American up to? After considerable hemming and hawing the interview was approved and Hilton was driven to the factory that disgorged the totemic figures. There were hundreds of plaster and stone Lenins in various states of completion—gigantic oversize Lenins for your town square and diminutive Vladimirs suitable for desk or mantlepiece. Hilton toured the facility, asked the usual polite questions, and then was ushered into the artist’s office where there was the obligatory green baize table and large flask of vodka. A couple of drams later he quietly asked a devastating question. Were there up-and-coming young artists available to keep this great revolutionary tradition alive? No! The artist banged the table and let loose a torrent of lamentation about how difficult it was. The younger generation had no interest in the Revolution. They had been seduced by bourgeois individualism. It was almost impossible to find young artists to carry on his work. The story all but wrote itself.
Hilton’s habit of frankness was of inestimable value in my own career. I first met him in the spring of 1983. I was then a graduate student at Yale, but, like Balthazar at that famous feast, I had seen the writing on the wall. The academic option, which had once seemed so attractive, was, like an item on a computer menu, grayed out. I had looked into The New Criterion, then in its first year of publication, and liked what I saw. Armed with an introduction from my Greek tutor in college, I made a date to have lunch with Hilton. We met at the Century Association in New York. It was an impressive engagement for a twenty-something refugee from the People’s Republic of Yale. As Hilton knew, I was hoping for a job at The New Criterion. None was available at the time, but there were plenty of opportunities for writing. In short order, I had my first assignment, a review of a book about William James by Jacques Barzun. In due course—slightly overdue course, if truth be told—I turned in a piece about twice as long as assigned. Hilton printed the whole thing, thus paving the way for the hundreds of pieces, signed and unsigned, I have contributed to The New Criterion over well nigh thirty years.
It was only much later that I learned from Hilton that my review of the book by Jacques Barzun had been the source of some consternation. For one thing, I had been pretty hard on the pragmatism of William James, and by implication on Jacques Barzun, who apparently was not pleased. Was there a more eminent personage in academic life than Jacques Barzun? I doubt it. And who was Roger Kimball? The insouciance of youth rarely calculates eminence. Even more shocking, in some circles, was the criticism I offered of a latter-day pragmatist, Richard Rorty. At the time, there was a feeling that Rorty, an academic star, might harbor pro-American, even conservative sentiments. He soon dispelled that illusion, revealing himself to be a chummy nihilist of decidedly left-wing opinions. But for one shining moment many conservatives cherished the hope that here, at last, was a prominent academic they could call their own. One very distinguished conservative commentator wrote to Hilton to complain about my piece. Hilton responded by defending the essay and promptly giving me another assignment.
I said earlier that, reading Hilton, you always knew where he stood. It was that way in person, too. For a writer, that is a gift of incalculable value. If you’re an editor, it is the easiest thing in the world to distribute indiscriminate praise. You please your interlocutor and save yourself a world of intellectual labor. Hilton’s praise was never indiscriminate. He did every writer the courtesy of taking their work as seriously as they ought to have taken it. Like Montaigne, he understood that admonition and correction were among the highest offices of friendship. This made Hilton as great a teacher as he was an editor. In another age, he might well have had a distinguished academic career. But the implosion of higher (and, by now, of lower) education in this country—its dumbing down, its politicization, its emancipation from any real engagement with human realities—rendered that impossible.
The pedagogical habit was woven deep into Hilton’s make up. Anyone who knew him well would at some point hear the story of how he got his name. The loathsome Gore Vidal—whose only real distinction is having been found repugnant by not one but two cultural giants, William F. Buckley Jr. as well as Hilton—liked to refer to Hilton as “the Tel Aviv Hilton,” thus simultaneously revealing his anti-Semitism as well as his malign fatuousness. In fact, Hilton owes his name to Miss Hilton, a grade-school teacher in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where he grew up. When one of his older brothers was home sick for some months, she came daily after school to tutor him, free of charge. Imagine a public school teacher doing that today! Hilton’s brother got well; he didn’t have to repeat the year; and Hilton’s parents, when he was born, named the newest Kramer Hilton in honor of her. I have no doubt that the spirit of Miss Hilton lived on in her namesake. I like to think a bit of Miss Hilton, and of Hilton Kramer, too, somehow persists in young James Hilton Kimball. One friend of ours asked whether we named our son after the author of Lost Horizon and Goodbye, Mr. Chips. No flies on that novelist, but, no, it was after the non-fabulizing Hilton. RIP.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 May 2012, on page 6
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