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Kramer vs. Kramer

The Revenge of the Philistines: Art and Culture, 1972-1984
by Hilton Kramer
(The Free Press, 445 pp., $25)

WHEN Hilton Kramer retired as chief art critic of the New York Times in March of 1982 and, underwritten by an ammunition and chemical company called the Olin Corporation, founded his cunningly named New Criterion, there was some carousing in New York art circles. King Stork, in a reversal of the ancient fable, had left the swamp to King Log. By then, Kramer’s manner had become one of the fixtures of American art discourse. You could hear him blocks away like a truck with a shot muffler warming up in an alley—his arrhythmic, industrial strength prose; the unconstrained ideological bias; his nostalgia for issues and cliques of New York intellectual life in the fifties (an emotion whose intensity was all the more remarkable for the fact that he was too young to have played a real part in them); his rancor in attack and his bravery in defense.

Kramer wrote clearly. Few read him for pleasure, but none could deny his intelligence, his tenacity, or his imperviousness to art fashions. Over the Kramer earned a name for incorruptibility in a field much afflicted by back-scratching. He did not take freebies, as both Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg had so conspicuously done. He did not deal, as several of New York’s star museum personnel in the sixties and seventies unabashedly did.  was a moralizer (albeit a somewhat erratic one) in a field whose ethical sense secured by the loony American belief that art is the fluoride of the soul, is no better (and in some ways worse) than the rag trade’s. Thus he widely respected and narrowly loathed. Oderint dum timent—no dishonorable motto for a critic. The American art market, which in the early eighties was entering the most bloated, fashion-ridden, and image-infatuated phase in its whole history, was not sorry to see him quit the pulpit of the Times.

It soon became clear that his successor meant no harm to anyone. In place of those paragraphs creaking with argumentative zeal and political spite, one now got what Cyril Connolly, 20 years earlier, had called John Russell’s “spun sugar style.” Russell’s range was much wider. Kramer seldom had anything fresh to say on art made before Courbet or outside the West, and was almost exclusively concerned with modernist (i.e., post-1870) painting, sculpture, and photography. Russell, a man of larger enthusiasms and a broader historical culture, could write attractively and at length on almost any from Paleolithic to Matisse pot plants. Given the eclectic diet offered by American museums and galleries, this was no small journalistic advantage. But the real difference was one of temper. Kramer rarely ducked a fight and Russell never got into one. There was more piss and vinegar in Mimi Sheraton’s food columns for the Times than in Russell’s art criticism. lt projected a Panglossian vision of the art world as an ideal republic of the like-minded, the discreet cultivated, and the sunny, promotion and manipulation go unmentioned and museum policies remain essentially unquestioned.

From the Times’s point of view, this was ideal. It suited the heavy stress, imposed by its management from the late Plentis onward, on guiding the reader through the forest of cultural spectacle as consumer. Manning the glory-pump never Kramer’s forte, but it is Russell’s. Of course, the change was part of a general trend; this conversion of so much art-journalism into Reviewzak, accompanied by an unconflicted, lyrical promotion of “art experience,” fitted the dominance of the market. Neither should one ignore Russell’s occasional ability to pop some glass into the soufflé, as when writing about the spurious values of “cultural exchange”; it amounts to little more than the trading of already-exchanged paintings, with no serious intent beyond making another crowd-pleaser—“Treasure Dachas of Soviet Russia,” as it were, to be paraded before the Washington public by the National Gallery, with the help of the egregious Armand Hammer. But when Blake said “Damn braces, bless relaxes,” he was absolutely right, which accounts for the nostalgia some Times readers feel for Kramer.

The latest view from the New York Hilton is an anthology of some 85 pieces, written between 1972 and 1984 and mostly published in the Times and the New Criterion. Like all critical journalism written under pressure—and the strain of writing on art for the Times is unique in art criticism, for it can entail cranking out 3,000 to 4,000 words a week—they vary widely in grace. Some, like his reflections on the 1974 “French Fainting 1774-1830: The Age of Revolution,” or his short note on the late Cèzanne show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1977, are perfunctory responses to major curatorial achievements and do not bear reprinting. For some reason, events like these bring forth Kramer’s flattest prose: he can tell you that aesthetic excitement is there, but he cannot convey it except with bromides like “we now feel that we are seeing [Mont Saint Victoire] for the first time.” On the other hand, the long essay on the revamping of MOMA that closes the book is one of the most cogent reflections I have read on the nature and mission of this Kremlin of modernism. In between there is a fairly full parade of Kramer’s strengths and weaknesses as a critic. One is glad to have them all, since quite a lot of Kramer’s journalism does transcend the hurried and ephemeral nature of his Tiedium, and since generally publishers seem reluctant to publish critical anthologies on art; it does not pay.

First, the strengths. Kramer has never been afraid of going against the grain—indeed, of hacking right into it when he needs to—on artists he wants to defend. On the qualities (to take only a few names) of Fairfield Forter, or Philip Pearlstein, or Louise Nevelson, or the exquisitely elegant and serious sculpture of the late Elie Nadelman, he radiated solid conviction and real sympathy at a time when few critics, if any, were prepared to undertake a deep defense of them. He was one of the first American art critics to take photography seriously, and his essays on Fox Talbot, Steichen, and especially Irving Penn are well worth preserving. On more-trodden ground, such as the sculpture of Alberto Giacometti, he can be not merely eloquent but moving. Why the massive feet on the sticklike figures? Because, Kramer argues:

They affirm a principle of gravity that, for the maker of sculptural objects, is perhaps the only perfectly knowable thing. . . everything else being hostage to the subversive vagaries of the subjective mind. The place where the figure meets the earth was, for Giacometti, the only still point in a turning world; and it was at that point that sculpture—as he understood it— was required to begin again and again and again To build upon that isolated point of Fixity was what Giacometti was “trying to do,” and it . . . made him a “conservative” in the art of his time

(If you don’t mind Kramer’s hubris in calling his magazine the New Criterion, you won’t mind the absence of quotation marks around Eliot’s “still point of the turning world”)

KRAMER can also be dangerous to meritorious painters with exaggerated reputations. One hears the familiar thrashing and puffing in the thicket as he creeps up on Morris Louis and levels the elephant gun:

The crux of the experience we take away from these pictures [is] the experience of color, ravishing to the eye, as it is conceived by a mind in thrall to the very technique that yielded so many small perfections. Morris Louis was not the first modern artist to discover that by jettisoning a great many of the traditional resources of painting, something small and perfect might be achieved with what remained. But it was something small, and it is a mockery of great art—or a convenient amnesia—to claim otherwise.

And on the really overblown, like Barnett Newman or the insufferably bombastic Clyfford Still, whose 1979 show at the Metropolitan was so remarkable a collapse of curatorial spine, he can be deadly:

It naturally had to be the largest exhibition ever devoted to the work of a living artist by that institution And it was still, of course, who selected the show, which came mostly out of his own storerooms; and it was he who wrote his own catalog and otherwise acted as his own curator Such favor is never won on the basis of esthetic merit alone. No doubt his often-professed detestation of the ways of the art world was genuine, but Still played upon the susceptibilities of that world like Horowitz at a keyboard In the end the art world had nothing to teach him about getting ahead

Kramer is not very good at description. His efforts to convey the plastic, visual density of a given work are fairly dry. For a critic who places such stress on authenticity of feeling, this is a disadvantage. He gets less articulate feeling for the visual into 2,000 words on, say, Pierre Bonnard than John Updike can put into 200 words on a suburban housewife’s pubic hair. He is more comfortable with injunctions, but these verge at times on parody—he actually writes leads like “Perhaps the best way to understand an artist like [Richard] Diebenkorn is to re-read T. S. Eliot’s essay, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’. . .”

ON HIS favorite subject, the Decline of the West, he tends to write with a mixture of indignation and circularity—the echt tone of neo-con complaint. His basic maneuver is simple: to define his terms in such a way as to exclude whatever offends his beliefs. This enables him to make remarkably cut-and dried, sheep-and-goats decisions as to what are, and are not, the true thaumaturgic relics of modernism and thus, by inference, of High Culture. In this way we learn what is serious and what is frivolous; what can be revived (African tribal art in 1905) and what cannot (Bouguereau in 1975); what is worth talking about, and what can simply be pitched into the great Gehenna of Camp, the Sheol of Pseudo-Radicalism, where an undifferentiated mass of everyone and everything that has incited Kramer’s displeasure, from Hudson River paintings to Susan Sontag, from rock music to Andy Warhol’s wig, from Marcel Duchamp to T J. Clark, lies bubbling and stinking.

To put it mildly, his view of modernism is rigid, messianic, and easily taught. It goes as follows. Around 1880 Western painting and sculpture, especially in the institutional forms through which they were presented to the middle classes (the Salon in France, the Royal Academy in England), had been utterly debased by popular taste. Languishing in the exile of kitsch, they were delivered from this unseemly bondage by three great leaders, Cèzanne, Matisse, and Picasso. This liberation did not mean anarchy (as pompier conservatives claimed at the time) or even a sudden rush of experimental freedom (as professional avant-gardists, a dwindling band, still claim). On the contrary, it was a return to “rigor,” “seriousness,” “constraints,” and “strict esthetic probity,” to take only four of the phrases that Kramer is apt to brandish as though he, too, had recently invented the disciplines they connote.

Nobody said modernism was meant to be easy. It was the stern Messiah, not the yelling shitting baby, of culture. And precisely because its demands were not easy, the messianic pattern was fulfilled by the appearance of various pop-up Antichrists and deluded (if gifted) evangelists, insisting in their clamorous tongues that modernism had disruptive or even political uses: German dadaists, French surrealists, Russian constructivists, and expressionists of every stripe spilling their guts on the table, mucking up discourse and promising factitious Utopias. Kramer is glad to accept ana extol those elements of their work that accord with, or even derive from, Apollonian modernism. He dislikes expressionist hysteria and rejection, while approving its restoration of “feeling.” He can approve the Dutch constructivists hope for a Utopia based on metaphysical rather than political plans: “In a century that has been riddled with poisonous ideologies and repugnant visions, what a clean sweet smell this particular movement has left behind, even for those who remain sceptical of its claims!” He sees no point in posthumously stomping Madame Blavatsky or Rudolf Steiner, whose batty ideas about universal harmony, as taken up by Mondrian and Kandinsky, did more to influence the content and course of abstract art than all the established churches put together. But when a political Utopia fails, Kramer is in there with hobnails on. He has only one thing to say to its artists: See? Didn’t I Tell You?

THE FAILURE of modernist art and architecture to reform any society, despite the renewal programs set forth by their makers, is one of the common-places of our century. The trouble is that one can spend so much time poking fun at, say, Corbusier’s failed hope to produce a better kind of worker that one scants his actual achievement, which was to produce a better kind of building. No artist could stand between Stalin and his nearly 19 million dead. All the protest art of the sixties and seventies could not save a single Cambodian from Nixon and Kissinger, let alone from Pol Pot. Works of visual art neither save kill; if Joseph Thorak and Arno Brek had not made their soapy colossi for Hitler, the death toll of non-Aryans would have been the same, though Albert Speer’s architecture may be a different matter. What really counts, in the world of ideological influence, is mass media—film and print in the thirties, TV today. This is the century in which painting and sculpture lost their power to administrate social dreaming. Yet there is no doubt that works of art can open the individual mind to social dissent, and there is something grating and mean-spirited about Kramer’s attempts to deny that this can have any value at all.

Kramer’s avowed quarry is postmodernism and its discontents. In explaining the shifts of taste and aesthetic responsibility that produced this Weasel word, he gets it a bit less than half right. Why did the absolute institutional authority achieved in the sixties by High Modernism—roughly, mainstream painting from Seurat and Cèzanne, through cubism, constructivism, and on to abstract expressionism—seem to vanish into the sand by the end of the seventies? What produced the revivals of discredited and ignored bourgeois styles—the refenestration, as it were, of Landseer and story-painting and the Hudson River School, of French pompier art and Beaux-Arts architecture, re-Raphaelites and Nazarenes and minor Symbolists, of Gallè glass, Cassandre posters, Mucha prints. Mackintosh chairs. Wlener Werkstätte silverware, Dunand lacquer, Jean-Michel Frank interiors? Why, in short, was so much more of the art and design of the last 150 years suddenly deemed museologically acceptable? Kramer’s answer is simple. It was camp taste, bored and alienated by the high stringencies of modernism, revolting against its institutional clout. “In our museums everything from Salon painting to the inanities of kitsch has been dusted off, freshly labeled, and solemnly placed on exhibition, almost as if the modern movement had never altered our view of them.” That this “alteration” should itself remain unaltered seems a project dear to Kramer’s heart. It is as though history (or at least the history o taste) reached its permanent climax around 1960. For an anti-Marxist, Kramer is quite the millenarian.

Modernism, then, has been betrayed from inside: its curatorial and critical watchmen, drugged out in the sixties and asleep in the seventies, allowed the gates of the citadel to be overrun by “cultured” barbarians, the vengeful philistines of his title. These philistines are a new breed, sired by modernism on popular culture. They are not the old-style, know-nothing Tories of the twenties or fifties, intent on discrediting Picasso or Matisse. That is what makes them so insidious—they feel they can enjoy Picasso and Matisse and other lesser things. This offends Kramer’s sense of hierarchy. Their motto was written by Susan Sontag, in Notes on Camp (1964):

Ordinarily we value a work of art because of the seriousness and dignity of what it achieves. But there are other creative sensibilities besides the seriousness (both tragic and comic) of high culture. . . And one cheats oneself, as a human being, if one has respect only for the style of high culture, whatever else one may feel or do on the sly.

These moderate and sensible words strike Kramer as sinister: they imply a “relaxation” of modernist tension. One gets the impression that Sontag, his bête noire, is to blame for everything that went wrong in the seventies and eighties. With his jaws locked on her leg, Kramer does not see the more realistic explanation. Simply put, all this stuff was revived for two reasons—historical curiosity and the suction of a colossally expanded art market. When you run out of Masaccios, you sell Bronzinos; when Florentine mannerist painting is picked clean, you move to the Bolognese seicento; and so on down the line, to the detested pompiers.

The market runs on re-discovery. It craves product. So does the surplus of museums, seeking to fill their exhibition schedules, and the surplus of scholars, hunting for fresh subjects. By no means everything that has been exhumed in this way is as contemptible or peripheral as Kramer makes out. By the same token, the market project of contemporary postmodernism is to sell nominally avant-gardist kitsch to a class of American collectors swollen to a hundred times its old size This can best be done by wielding the language of “renewals,” “advances,” and “breakthroughs,” a dry crust of market clichés that nonetheless evokes Piivlovian reflexes in the neophyte. Kramer loathes kitsch so much that he will neither analyze it nor admit its sources in the free-market capitalism he admires. He would rather blame it all on camp “subversion,” the loss of that siege mentality that he places (mistakenly, I think) at the core of modernist seriousness. And while he rightly notes that the eighties have released a spate of frivolous, pretentious, and decadent art (for proof, consult the East Village, or the last Whitney Biennial), Kramer is not totally immune to its charms He appears, for instance, to take Julian Schnabel’s bombast seriously.

THERE ARE ALSO times when, in his zealous defense of the hierarchies, Kramer presents as his own invention things that have been said for years, and truculently defies conventions that no longer exist. A case in point is Pierre Bonnard. Kramer argues that Bonnard has long been underrated because art writers are too fixed on intentions and programs, at the expense of sensuousness and pictorial intensity. He did not fit the orthodoxies of art-world radicalism—unlike, for instance. Marcel Duchamp In a 1984 review Kramer quotes a spiteful obit on Bonnard, written by some flunky of Picasso in 1947, calling him merely “facile and agreeable.” “It was probably inevitable,” Kramer adds, “that we would have to wait until Cubism . . . had quit the cultural stage before Bonnard would come to be recognized as the master he is. That moment seems at last to have arrived” Yet some 35 years before, and at intervals through the fifties, Patrick Heron (whose essays Kramer used to publish in Arts Magazine) argued most eloquently that Bonnard’s influence on younger artists, by the late forties, had already surpassed Picasso’s, and that he was to be placed among the Big Four of modernism since Cèzanne. By the time of the Royal Academy’s great Bonnard retrospective in 1966, virtually every European and English critic took this as settled. To suggest that Bonnard’s achievement waited for Kramer to unveil it in the eighties is either amnesiac or American-provincial. More likely, it is a bit of both.

THEN there are the Kramer vendettas, during which the mask of Johnsonian weight slips and reveals a yenta. One gets the tone in his sneers at R. B. Kitaj, whose elaborate web of pictorial reference to the catastrophic entwining of Jewish, German, and Russian history happens to be one of the few intelligent efforts at history-painting in our time. Kitaj’s work is by no means as hermetic as Kramer says, and it soon opens to a sympathetic reading; but in any case, the one thing it is not is the pictorial prattle of a falsely nostalgic lefty, and that is exactly what Kramer makes it out to be—”the unexamined cultural pieties of an American intellectual of the Partisan Review period given a very facile graphic form.”

The right, it seems, has “convictions” and “aims”; the left has “pieties” and “agendas.” The same old ducks come up in his shooting gallery, over and over again. If Writer A rejects Marxism, he or she shows a commendable evolution; if Susan Sontag speaks out against Soviet tyranny, it can only be opportunism. And how many more times do we have to hear from Kramer about the foolish pseudo-existentialist remarks Harold Rosenberg made on “Action Painting” some 35 years ago, as though these, and not the cogent, penetrating essays he wrote in the sixties and seventies, made up his intellectual legacy? Kramer has always had a sharp demystifying eye for star artists’ pretensions to scourge their only audience, the bourgeoisie. In the seventies he was the first American critic trenchantly to show what intellectual slackness lay in the now-dead words “avant-garde”; he killed this old military metaphor. Yet the red-eyed vigilance with which he pursues artists for their “radical” associations is bizarre. The extreme case in this anthology is Charles Simonds, whose miniature sculptures of mud villages and mock-archaeological sites evoke five whole pages of stilted ironizing about cultural regression, topped off with the warning that their implications for American cultural life are “dreadfully creepy.” Why is this poor butterfly on such a wheel? Apparently because— though Kramer does not say so—at the time of the review (1981) Simonds was living with the only critic Kramer detests more than Susan Sontag, the Marxist-feminist activist Lucy Lippard.

WHERE ART and politics bump into one another on the American stage, Kramer becomes a virtuoso of overkill. Let the New Museum put on a show called “Art and Ideology”—stuffed with works so banal or impenetrable that their appeal as propaganda is close to zero—and he goes into his war dance about cultural Stalinism, “so-called activists,” “a dedicated and well-organized minority faction,” “ideological straitjackets,” and the “very bad news indeed” that the New Museum gets grants and has become a “power in the art world.” On the one hand he ridicules as airy the political hopes of early modernism. On the other he seems to believe that new attempts at left political statement in art can corrupt the American polity today. This, by my reading, waffle. The truth is that the life of American art is refracted through institutions so thoroughly centrist or conservative, so fully aligned with the interests of capitalism, so grounded in the maintenance of consensus as against the fictions of “revolution,” that the far left has no more effect on it than graffiti on pyramid. But because the graffiti are at eye level, Kramer magnifies their significance. Moreover, he has only one translation for them: Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin. If this is what resistance to “intellectual fashion” means, we may indeed be in worse trouble than we think.

But “fashion,” in Kramerese, suggests the Cities of the Plain. As a Red lurks under each bed in the palace, and a structuralist or deconstructionist gibbers behind each arras, so the Long Gallery is full of—well, the other sort of people Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter don’t like. Kramer despises such folk an writes of “the homosexual’s recognition that his condition represents a kind of joke on nature.” Since the joke is one of the few in his repertoire, he tells it fairily often. Thus Grant Wood, the regionalist painter of largely factitious Iowan rural idylls—and a closet case if ever there was one—receives the inexorable tusk: “One has the impression,” Kramer harrumphs, after noting Wood’s late an unenthusiastic marriage, his indifference to manly farm labor, his remoteness from Pa and his fixation on Mom, “that women were never much in Grant Wood’s line . . . however, he liked to dress up as his father, so to speak.” One is left in no doubt that Wood’s defects as a painter—and most of the time he was a superficial one—issue from the joke in his genes.

But surely there are matters of interest to be got from an analysis, not a mere denunciation, of Wood’s sublimations; of how they may have denatured his art and led to its relentless populist idealizing of country matters; of why these idealizations were so popular with the American public from the Depression onward, and so heavily promoted as “truth” by such as Henry Luce. At such moments one realizes that Kramer, far from being the free knight on the ramparts, is rather trapped by his scenario of a Manichaean struggle between Art and Kitsch for the control of Culture. The idea of an absolute, irreconcilable standoff between “high” and “popular” culture is obsolete and can hardly even be restored as an issue. The dialogue between the two has been so much the subject of modernism itself, in the decades since Picasso put newspapers in collage and Eliot patched the Shakespeherian Rag into The Waste Land, that apartheid will not work. Or if it seems to, it can do so only at the expense of one of the art critic’s necessary tasks—to describe the way images actually work, as distinct from the way they once worked or “ought” to work, in his society. To evoke this the critic needs all his instruments—woodwinds, brass, strings, and percussion—but he is bound to miss a few nuances if his performance, like Kramer’s, so often turns into a solo on the fire bell. 

Robert Hughes is the art critic for Time magazine. His new book, The Fatal Shore, a study of the founding of Australia as a penal colony will be published by Knopf in the fall.

This article appeared in the April 14, 1986 issue of the magazine.