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How Hilton Kramer Got Lost in the Culture Wars

Hilton Kramer, who died on March 27 at the age of 84, was a much more complicated man than is sometimes acknowledged. He was both a neoconservative cultural warrior who liked nothing better than plunging into a noisy, nasty battle and an exacting aesthete for whom life would have been impossible without the sustenance of art and literature. I certainly saw both sides of Hilton during the decade that I wrote for The New Criterion, beginning in the mid-1980s. When we went out for lunch in a little French restaurant in the West Fifties that Hilton admired for its tarnished savoir-faire, I think I recognized, behind his masklike self-confidence, traces of the young man from Massachusetts who had embraced intellectual and bohemian Manhattan with a lover’s ardor. And when I read his craziest polemics—there were times when he seemed to believe that The New York Times and The New York Review of Books were responsible for everything that was wrong with American culture—I knew that behind the fire and brimstone there was the pain of a brokenhearted lover, who despite his irrepressibly upbeat demeanor could not bear what Warholism had done to the world of artists and writers where he had always felt most at home. He was right about Warholism. He was right about political correctness. He was right about other things. The trouble was that the fight took on a life of its own, until the warrior in Hilton nearly crushed the aesthete.

Hilton’s almost two decades at The New York Times—the paper which he would so gleefully attack in later years—made him into a cultural figure with a reach that went way beyond the art world. Without his Times credentials, it is hardly possible that he would have had the standing needed to launch The New Criterion in 1982. But it is in the work he did at Arts magazine in the years around 1960—he wrote for the magazine and was for a time its editor—that you see the wide-ranging curiosity and undogmatic taste that really defined his cosmopolitan spirit. Among the artists at the beginning of their careers whom he wrote about with sympathy were the abstractionists Ellsworth Kelly and George Ortman and the representational painters Philip Pearlstein and Louisa Matthiasdottir. He was fascinated by the individual artist’s relationship with the wider world, describing in one instance what he called the “Pollock myth” and how “the context assumes an importance equal to—and possibly even greater than—the work itself.” As an editor, he was welcoming to the Dadaist Hans Richter’s memoirs and to the critic Vernon Young’s writings on film. Let us not forget that some of the Minimalist Donald Judd’s best writing was done for Hilton; years later, in the introduction to his collected criticism, the laconic Judd observed that “it may be hard to believe but Hilton Kramer was easy to work for.”

In his heart of hearts, I think Hilton always prized heterogeneity. His first book—The Age of the Avant-Garde: An Art Chronicle of 1956-1972, which takes him from Arts to The New York Times—reflects his considerable range of interests, encompassing appreciations of both the “icy voluptuousness” of Richard Lindner’s “erotic fantasy” and the “Whitmanesque ambitions” of Mark di Suvero’s sculpture. Hilton wrote with great feeling about modern sculpture, cared deeply for unsung pioneers of American modernism such as John Storrs, and when photography was still seen as somewhat marginal in the art world he wrote about it at the Times with great consistency, vigor, and seriousness. The Age of the Avant-Garde and The Revenge of the Philistines—panoramic art chronicles that Hilton surely patterned after Edmund Wilson’s literary chronicles—are a passionately lucid achievement, a steady eye trained on the crazy quilt of art in New York and beyond. Hilton’s main weakness as a critic, at least as I see it, is his tendency to back away from a climax. Too often the judiciousness stands in the way of his enthusiasm; I want him to expostulate a bit more about the things he loves. What is remarkable is his extraordinary scope and pinpoint detail.

Rereading The Age of the Avant-Garde and The Revenge of the Philistines (what terrific titles!), I find myself wondering if the boldface simplifications of Hilton’s later polemics came out of his frustration at how little his most judicious judgments had done to affect the course of events. After years spent weighing the virtues of countless artists and exhibitions, he found all of his careful calculations swept away by the onslaught of Pop and the transformation of museums into funhouses. Who can wonder that Hilton lost his cool? Who can wonder that the complicator became a simplifier? I know I should not have been surprised. But I did find it strange to watch, beginning with the white-hot controversies around the funding of the National Endowment for the Arts, as this extraordinarily subtle man stood shoulder to shoulder with right-wing ideologues who cared as little for Mondrian as they did for Mapplethorpe. Hilton may have imagined that his own taste was too fine to be compromised by their outrageous crudity. Despite all he knew about the dumbing-down of the media, he underestimated the power of the press to coarsen his own ideas.

Until ill health made life in New York an impossibility, Hilton was an unfailing presence in the city, with a charm, sense of humor, and natural curiosity that could disarm even his staunchest opponents. I think there was also a deeper explanation for the fondness he inspired, even in some of those who loathed his taste and his politics. Although Hilton began at The New Criterion by quite rightly complaining that some on the Left had a litmus test for works of art, the truth was that as time went on Hilton could seem to be applying litmus tests from the Right. Eventually, he was willing to leave the impression that traditional values in the arts had an inherent relationship with what people on the Right in this country believe are traditional social values. This was a terrible lie. And it gave his opponents the license to dismiss paintings and sculptures that they in fact regarded as insufficiently hip by claiming that they were somehow politically reactionary. What was lost in this grotesque game of matching artistic values and social or political values was art’s freestanding power. But by then Hilton knew that the real explanations were far too elusive to ever be newsworthy. How, after all, do you explain why the pop-culture allusions in the work of Picasso, Léger, and Schwitters are so satisfying, while the pop-culture allusions in the work of Warhol and Lichtenstein fall flat? The arguments are by no means easy to make, especially now, when Pop Art is the establishment: A Lichtenstein retrospective is opening at the Art Institute of Chicago next month and Warhol is the subject of a major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the fall.

Despite all the fire and brimstone, Hilton may have been too much of an optimist to face squarely all the difficulties involved in defining the essential but elusive role of the arts in a democratic society. I think that part of what he loved about his years at The New York Times was the unprecedented opportunity he had to communicate with a large, heterogeneous public. But the public did not necessarily embrace his enthusiasms—or even know what he was trying to say. Moving on to The New Criterion, he came to believe that polemic might work where persuasion had already failed. Much good writing has been published in The New Criterion. But the problems in the art world that Hilton quite accurately diagnosed a generation ago have, if anything, become more acute.

Hilton soldiered on for as long as he was able. I think I speak for many people when I say that we were grateful to him for raising so many of the important questions about art and society, even when he was all too quick to embrace the wrong answers. Could it be that there are no satisfying answers? At the end of the day, that may have been what Hilton thought. He knew we were in for some tough times in 1985, when he titled his second book The Revenge of the Philistines. More than a quarter of a century later, the philistines are only more firmly entrenched.

Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic.