• It’s been a long time between books for Hilton Kramer, whose last collection was published six years ago and who hasn’t brought out a volume of art criticism since 1985. The Triumph of Modernism: The Art World, 1985-2005 (Ivan R. Dee, 368 pp., $27.50) contains 55 essays and reviews, the most substantial of which are a series of pieces dealing with the history of and prospects for abstract art. In between these essays are sandwiched a goodly number of columns originally published in the New York Observer in which Kramer comments pithily on many of his favorite artists (Helen Frankenthaler, Alex Katz, Fairfield Porter) and some of his least favorite (Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol). Like Clement Greenberg before him, Kramer is a master of the short review, and it is a pleasure to see how he manages to say so much in so little space.
Kramer is best known for his unfavorable reviews, and in recent years he has spent an ever-increasing share of his time commenting on politics. As a result, too many younger readers are unaware that he is one of the best critical advocates we have. I saw several of the shows reviewed in The Triumph of Modernism when I was first starting to take a serious interest in art, and I vividly remember how reading what Kramer had to say about such critically undervalued modern painters as Porter, Arthur Dove, and Richard Diebenkorn helped give shape to my inchoate excitement. For all his gifts as a demolition man, it is this aspect of his work that continues to mean the most to me. Nothing is harder to write than a good review, and nobody writes better ones than Hilton Kramer.
• Rare is the scholar who can write intelligibly for a popular audience. Daniel J. Levitin, a rock musician and record producer turned neuroscientist, has mastered that priceless skill, and in This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (Dutton, 314 pp., $24.95) he summarizes with charm and flair the current state of research into the psychology of musical perception and cognition. Levitin believes that the human brain is biologically hardwired to find meaning in music, a conclusion sharply at odds with that of a growing number of evolutionary psychologists who have decided that it is a fundamentally meaningless form of what Steven Pinker calls “auditory cheesecake.” I expect you’ll be inclined to disagree with them after reading This Is Your Brain on Music, though, and not just because you want to. To be sure, Levitin’s style is so relentlessly breezy that it hardly seems possible that he could be a bona fide scientist, much less an important one. He is, though, and you can trust him to give you the lowdown on what happens inside your head when you listen to Mozart—or Stevie Wonder.