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Features

January 1995

Samuel Lipman, 1934-1994

by Hilton Kramer

Samuel Lipman, who served as the publisher of The New Criterion from its inception in September 1982 until his death on December 17, 1994, was one of the most remarkable figures of his generation in America. He was at once an artist and an intellectual—a gifted pianist, a brilliant writer, an incisive critic, an inspiring teacher, an accomplished administrator, and, in his later years, a fiercely articulate participant in the controversies that have shaped the critical debate about the future of high culture in our tragically divided society. In each of these roles, moreover, he proved to be a man of resolute character, firm conviction, and unwavering loyalty to the high ideals that governed his life and his work.

An earlier generation knew him as a pianist. He had made his recital debut as a child prodigy in San Francisco in 1943, his New York debut at Town Hall in 1955. As he wrote in these pages in 1988: “I have spent most of my life playing the piano, performing music from Bach and Scarlatti to Olivier Messiaen and Elliott Carter.” In the late Fifties, he took time off from his musical life to earn a master’s degree in political science at the University of California at Berkeley, where he was a Woodrow Wilson Fellow. The musician who had studied with Darius Milhaud, Pierre Monteux, Hugo Weisgall, and Rosina Lhevinne was thus as well acquainted with the writings of Edmund Burke, John Stuart Mill, and Karl Marx as with the scores of Bach and Schoenberg, and this unusual combination of professional artistic experience and intellectual mastery was the defining characteristic of his many-sided career.

It was this rare combination of aesthetic and intellectual interests that gave his music criticism its extraordinary authority when he turned his talents to that field of endeavor in 1975 as the music critic of Commentary. No sooner did Sam Lipman make his debut in that role than he received what had to be for a music critic of his generation the highest accolade—the praise of the late Virgil Thomson, who in a letter to Commentary described his writing as “brilliant for its straightforwardness, common sense, and musical judgment.” It was those same early essays in Commentary that led, first to my own friendship with Sam and then to our intellectual collaboration in founding The New Criterion. I had been brought up, so to speak, on the music criticism of B. H. Haggin and Virgil Thomson, which set a standard that nothing else in the New York musical press came close to meeting in those days. Reading Commentary’s new music critic, I felt at once that I was in the presence of a powerful critical intelligence, and one that was remarkably independent of and undeceived about the exaggerated claims and politically-inspired cant that was increasingly making public discussion of art and culture a dialogue of fools and ideologues. I immediately arranged to meet this new writer, who turned out to be even more interesting, and more formidable, too, in person than in print; and there thus began the conversations—intense, wide-ranging, at times wildly amusing, and always deeply serious—that continued for nearly twenty years until the final stages of Sam’s illness brought them to an end last month.

About his specific achievement as a music critic, no one has written better than John Gross, who, upon the publication of Music After Modernism, Sam’s first book, in 1979, observed that “His great distinction is that he is equally good at taking music on its own terms, and setting it firmly in a social and intellectual context; when he writes about it, he also addresses himself to broad cultural issues, and what he has to say is invariably penetrating and pungent. He has a fine sense of the human comedy, too; he is adept at bringing out the flavor of a musical personality, or casting a sardonic eye down the corridors of contemporary musical power.”

As readers of The New Criterion have ample reason to know, the “broad cultural issues” that John Gross spoke of in 1979 came to occupy a more and more urgent place in Sam’s writing and public speaking as the role of the federal government in cultural policy expanded, bringing in its wake both a lowering of artistic standards and an intensified politicization of the arts. His later books—The House of Music: Art in an Era of Institutions (1984), Arguing for Music, Arguing for Culture (1990), and Music and More: Essays, 1975–1991 (1992)—provided the most trenchant examination of the implications and consequences of this melancholy development in our cultural life that any writer of the time has given us, yet these books also explored in concrete detail what was happening to the culture of classical music as a result of this political assault.

No writer of his day was better qualified than Sam Lipman to deal with these questions of art and politics as they were being translated into public policy. This was the reason why his six-year tenure on the National Council of the Arts, to which President Reagan appointed him in 1982, proved to be something of a turning-point in the history of the National Endowment for the Arts.

The National Council is the advisory body which oversees the activities of the NEA, and it is no exaggeration to suggest that few members of the Council had ever bothered to acquaint themselves with the actual workings of the NEA—not only its decisions in respect to the grant-making process but with the ideas that shaped those decisions—to the extent that Sam Lipman did. He studied the fat briefing books which the NEA bureaucracy supplied to members of the Council until he had them virtually memorized, and at the Council’s meetings was always the first to raise questions about the standards of quality which the NEA observed, or failed to observe, in conferring grants from the public treasury. He angered many people by raising such questions, and as a result became the target of ferocious attacks from the cultural Left, which for many years—but especially in the administration of Jimmy Carter—had come to look upon the NEA’s budget as a political entitlement.

The battles that Sam waged on the National Council proved to be decisive in one important respect, for they identified the problems—problems not only of artistic standards but of public taste and political prudence—that soon plunged the NEA into the morass of controversy that has left its credibility compromised and its future in doubt. It is not too much to say that the NEA would today enjoy a far greater degree of intellectual esteem and public support if its leadership—including its political patrons in Congress and the White House—had heeded Sam’s criticisms and acted upon his recommendations. What he wrote in 1979 about the attitude of our political leaders toward the fate of high culture turned out to be as true of the Reagan and Bush administrations as it was of the Carter administration that was in office at the time:

Here our numerous governing cadres have neither historical nor present attachments to such high culture. For reasons of political convenience our leaders are willing to arrange for the transfer of public monies for artistic purposes. That they have up to this point done so with a surprising amount of disinterest is perhaps no more than a sign of their basic uninterest that makes them so eclectic in their practical decisions. Thus freed from any burden of their own tastes, they are able to preside smilingly over the gradual vulgarization of what was once a civilized glory.

It was Sam’s experience on the National Council, together with what he saw happening to the culture of classical music as the mounting problems of the Eighties were turning into the runaway crises of the Nineties, that prompted his later reflections and speculations on the future of high culture in our democratic society. These reflections led him to a reconsideration of Matthew Arnold’s great book on Culture and Anarchy. I think he took some solace from the fact that Arnold too had become an object of derision and obloquy on the cultural Left, but it was really Arnold’s searching examination of what culture might ideally signify in a liberal society that caused him to make a close study of this important Victorian writer.

Sam had always been something of an intellectual prodigy, but even his closest associates were somewhat startled by the speed with which he mastered the Arnold literature and turned himself into an Arnold scholar—and all the more so, as it happened, because the later stages of that intellectual pursuit were carried out after he had entered treatment for the leukemia that brought him down last month. In that pursuit, as well as in his continuing contributions to this journal and other publications, the last years of Sam’s life were a lesson in personal courage and intellectual tenacity. One of his last appointments was to the editorial committee at the Yale University Press overseeing the publication of a new series of classic texts for the purpose of—as the series is called— “Rethinking the Western Tradition.” His own contribution to the series—a new edition of Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, with essays by Maurice Cowling, Gerald Graff, Steven Marcus, and himself—was published in May of 1994, when his illness was already far advanced.

What Matthew Arnold said of himself and his work in the Introduction to Culture and Anarchy was something that Sam Lipman himself believed with an intensity made more acute by the gravity of the historical situation in which he found himself. “I am, above all, a believer in culture,” Arnold said. “Therefore I propose now to try and enquire, in the simple unsystematic way which best suits both my taste and my powers, what culture really is, what good it can do, what is our own special need of it; and I shall seek to find some plain grounds on which a faith in culture—both my own faith in it and the faith of others,—may rest securely.”

This was also the task that Sam Lipman set for himself in the last years of his life—a task that we shall continue to pursue in the pages of this magazine, where he will be deeply missed for a long time to come.

Hilton Kramer (1928-2012) was the founding editor of The New Criterion, which he started with the late Samuel Lipman in 1982.


more from this author

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 13 January 1995, on page 5

Copyright © 2014 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com

http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/Samuel-Lipman--1934-1994-5070

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