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.)