In the 1980s, growing up in the ideological confines of the Upper West Side, I first knew I liked Hilton because the people around me didn’t. Or at least they professed not to, all the while turning, first thing, to his front-page art reviews in The New York Observer. I began to suspect that they objected to what he wrote not because it was wrong, but because it was taboo. For me, nothing could have been more appealing.
Ten years ago, when Hilton helped rescue me from graduate school and an uninspiring career in academia to join The New Criterion, he was revealed as simply a truth-teller with a typewriter. For a few hours in the room next door, he happily click-clacked through the social mores and false faiths of “what’s new” to reveal what’s true. In his columns he blew the whistle on our fake avant-garde while defending its genuine heirs. Then he went out for a long lunch.
Hilton appreciated the “historical epoch” of modern art because he saw our age as being little more than its carnivalesque reflection. In his fearless essay “The Age of the Avant-Garde,” he called out those “traditional antagonists of the avant-garde”—the media, academia, and the marketplace—now in “profitable alliance” pimping the next big thing. More than that, he cared about what artists and writers actually did rather than what the culture thought they should do.
It is for this reason that Hilton became a hero to so many artists—a fact that I’ve long known but which was reinforced by the calls that came in after his passing. He gave artists license to ignore the hype. He encouraged them to follow their vision. It was the same for writers, and why his magazine has never tried to edit the voice out of its essays. There isn’t only one good way to write, just as there isn’t only one good way to paint. What matters is that our creations never compromise to what’s expected. We are, of course, a compromising species, far more apt to wonder what others will think before we think for ourselves. Hilton therefore led by example. He was the most uncompromised critic I’ve ever known.
James Panero is the Managing Editor of The New Criterion
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