Hilton Kramer, a titan among conservative high culture critics, passed away today. William Grimes has a concise and appreciative tribute in the New York Times, where Kramer was art critic from 1973 to 1982. More tributes are on the website of the New Criterion, the journal of conservative cultural commentary he co-founded with the pianist Samuel Lipman in 1982.
I used to read the New Criterion avidly, not least for Kramer’s reviews. He was not only immensely learned, but also attentive to formal nuance, and able to describe such nuance in beautifully crafted prose.
But I stopped reading during the Bush II years, because the magazine was placing a stronger emphasis on political commentary that I not only disagreed with, but also didn’t find insightful. In these years, the magazine’s long-standing cultural imperative to defend high culture from multiculturalism and popular culture merged with the imperatives of the neoconservatives and faux-populists: the Great Books meet “Islamofascism,” or Allan Bloom meets Sean Hannity.
To me, the coupling of these strange bedfellows illustrates the dilemma of conservative aestheticism.
I don’t say “aesthetic conservatism,” because Kramer wasn’t one of those people who think everything went wrong with modernism. Quite the opposite: Kramer idealized the aestheticism of high modernism, from Picasso to Pollock, merging it with the Western canon. The dilemma I discern is this: the fact that men like Kramer–an intellectual devoted to the idea of an avant-garde–joined forces with a populist conservative movement whose culture choices tend toward Lee Greenwood and Thomas Kinkade: The Painter of Light™.
For me, the lesson is that the concept of a cultural canon has been so thoroughly marginalized in America that it no longer has a home on the left or the right. Among intellectuals of the left, ideas of “high culture” and “art for art’s sake” are dead. As for the right, it’s idle to pretend that the contemporary conservative movement–dominated by Protestant evangelicals, Ayn Rand types, and Sunbelt oil tycoons–pays much attention to what the New Criterion thinks of the Whitney Biennial.
And that’s a pity, because the concept of a cultural canon is both complicated and enduring. It deserves another look from both the left and right, not a glib dismissal. And Kramer was one of the most articulate defenders of this concept. I didn’t think his defense was the last word, since I don’t share his worldview. But the loss of his perspective, and his brand of criticism, leaves our cultural discourse more impoverished. And so I’ll miss him.