Hilton Kramer, who died today at the age of 84, put his money where his mouth was. He was one of the most important men in American culture, the chief art critic of the New York Times from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s when being the chief art critic for the New York Times made him perhaps the central figure in American aesthetics. And yet he chose to vacate that position to start a small monthly journal about the arts called the New Criterion, in which he could give free rein to his own highly refined understanding of what it meant, in a time of relaxing standards and decaying distinctions, to be truly engaged in keeping the flame of high culture alive.
He wrote with exceptional clarity and even a certain ferocity about issues that might seem gossamer to most—the understanding of a certain painting, the tone and perspective of a certain fashionable book. For Hilton, art was not to be admired but to be argued over, to be taken with the utmost seriousness. It was not to be treated as though it were a fragile thing ready to break at the slightest pressure; if it broke under critical study, if it wasn’t made of heartier and tougher stuff, it wasn’t deserving of the attention. (Here’s an example: His “Age of the Avant-Garde,” which appeared in COMMENTARY in 1972.)
This tough-mindedness—and Hilton was nothing if not tough-minded—is what hastened this Greenwich Village bohemian’s ideological journey from Left to Right. The philistinism of the New Left and the 1960s radicals, their arrant sentimentality and their belief that art should exist in service to their political views, inspired both contempt and outrage in him. He became an American conservative because only American conservatives had come to believe that Western culture was the great flowering of man, and that it had to be defended and upheld.
Hilton came to occupy an almost uninhabitable critical space of his own construction, in which he entered mid-century Modernism into the Pantheon of greatness and then stoutly defended that Pantheon against any later intruders. The daring and experimental art and fiction and poetry of his own youth was considered highly praiseworthy, whereas the transgressive efforts created and displayed in his middle age drew from him exactly the sort of response the Abstract Expressionists had drawn from leading critics in his own early days. While it is almost certain that the work to which he took a hatchet will not survive the test of time, it’s far from clear that the work he did champion will either—outside the world of collectors and academics.
I didn’t like him—and he didn’t like me more—but there was never any question Hilton Kramer was a man to reckon with, a formidable intellect and a writer of great exactitude, incorruptible and dedicated, and in Hilton’s own terms, there could probably not be higher praise. Our intellectual life cannot survive without people like him. Hilton took it as his mission to enlighten, to talk about what was enduringly great, to defend critical standards against the constant efforts to coarsen them, and to live as though art and culture were all that mattered.
He wrote two dozen pieces for COMMENTARY, and this is my favorite—a review of two novels, one by V.S. Naipaul and one by Joyce Carol Oates, that shows his gift for finding interesting and unexpected things to praise and his even more exemplary talent for the eviscerating attack.
I won’t say we shall not see his like again, because if that is so, then we’re sunk, and we’re not.