Tuesday, March 27, 2012

RIP Hilton Kramer, 1928-2012

The art critic, high culture observer, and founder of The New Criterion passed away today. Here's a brief appreciation from The Weekly Standard, from his colleague Roger Kimball. I read and enjoyed his book Twilight of the Intellectuals, years ago. Here's my review of it on my Amazon page:


An aerial view of the culture war, July 3, 2001 By The Sanity Inspector

In a 1994 interview on C-SPAN's Booknotes, reporter and critic John Corry told how politically one-sided the _New York Times_' newsroom was in 1980. In that year, of all the reporters and editors on staff, he only knew of one person who voted for Ronald Reagan, and that was the paper's art critic, Hilton Kramer. Kramer left a couple of years later, continuing his art criticism in the _New York Observer_. But he also set out to do battle with the cultural Left, that "herd of independent minds", in Harold Rosenberg's famous phrase. Eventually, he founded the _New Criterion_, an intellectual journal, which features some of the finest cultural criticism on offer today. This book, Twilight of the Intellectuals, is as much a retrospective of his often lonely mission, as it is a survey of the political climate of American intellectual culture in this century.

_Twilight_ differs from Paul Johnson's _Intellectuals_ in treating only 20th century intellectuals. Plus, Kramer's high culture background allows him to provide the reader with more insight into his subjects' worlds, as opposed to Johnson's uniform tarring of his as scoundrels (mostly accurately, though). Kramer even expresses some nostalgia for some of the people here, such as Kenneth Tynan, giving him his artistic due over the political divide.

But in the main, his work here is a series of political polemics. "Socialism is the religion people get when they lose their religion," is how the Catholic intellectual Richard John Neuhaus described the mindset that Kramer battles here. Throughout, Kramer selects his old articles with the intent of fixing the truth about influential leftist intellectuals firmly in the cultural memory. People like Lillian Hellman, Alger Hiss, Dwight MacDonald, Mary McCarthy, and such are all known qualities now, and do not need to be refuted afresh. But they still hold places of honor in institutions where like-minded intellectuals cluster, so the task of telling the truth about them is an ongoing one. The progressive myth surrounding Hiss is still so thick that Kramer felt compelled to include two essays about his case.

His praise of Sidney Hook, the lone ranger of socialism, is fulsome, and deservedly so. Hook did much of the heavy lifting in building the Marxist mindset among American intellectuals in the Thirties, and then atoned for it with a long, noble and lonely career as an anti-communist cold warrior. He oddly tags Hook for a philistine, though, for having pooh-poohed an anti-communist arts festival with the comment that artistic greatness could appear in dictatorships, too. Hook was right on that point, though, in my opinion. A musical program of Shostakovich and Prokovieff at their best would more than stand comparison with a program of contemporaneous Western composers, caged birds though the Soviet artists were otherwise.

His estimation of Saul Bellow may be a little unfair. Bellow has never been known for being a brawler, which may explain Kramer's disappointment in his seeming acquiescence to PC attacks against him. One _Herzog_, one _Mr. Sammler's Planet_, ought to be enough to ask from any writer's career, without also being called upon to spend creative energy in opinion journal polemics.

A print reviewer of this book commented on how entering the culture wars must have retarded Kramer's potential as a critic, by draining his powers. I don't know about that, but he makes a convincing Horatius At The Gate, giving battle to the herd of independent minds, who marched in leftist lockstep so disgracefully, for so long.