Hilton Kramer: A Dissenting Obituary

Hilton Kramer: cover photo for The Revenge of the Philistines

Hilton Kramer, the art critic and founding editor of The New Criterion who died at age 84 earlier this week, rather enjoyed his own reputation for being fearsome and formidable. Take a look at the back cover of his essay collection The Revenge of the Philistines (1985) where Kramer presents himself to the world as a very severe killjoy, almost like a caricature of the critic as hanging judge. “Would it kill him to crack a smile?” a friend asked when he saw that photo. (The photo is pasted above).

Yet as off-putting as he could seem from afar, Kramer enjoyed many close collaborators and admirers, who are already bearing witness to his virtues. Since others writers are making the case on behalf of Kramer,  I want to enter a few dissenting notes about his writing and public presence.

Back in his salad days in the early 1950s, Kramer’s big break came from publishing in Partisan Review and he saw himself as heir to that magazine’s stance of being both politically and aesthetically engaged. Unfortunately, his politics were absurd. He started off as a cold war liberal (with perhaps a few social democratic sympathies). In the early 1960s even served as art critic for The Nation, an alliance that both he and the magazine would later regard with bemused puzzlement.  In reaction to the turmoil of the late 1960s Kramer became a very fierce and unbending neo-conservative, of the sort that prefers ideological purity to any acknowledgement of reality.

In a 1987 essay on Sidney Hook, Kramer with his characteristic obtuse overconfidence argued that Mikhail Gorbachev was a far bigger threat to the free world than Joseph Stalin had ever been. “Under Stalin, both the military power of the Soviet Union and its vast espionage apparatus were seen to constitute a danger to every non-Communist society in the world – yet Gorbachev commands a far greater war machine than any Stalin ever had at his disposal, and if recent revelations are any guide, a no less effective espionage network,” Kramer asserted. “By every significant measure, the Soviet Union is a far more formidable adversary today than it was forty years ago, and one of the things that makes it more formidable is its unbroken record of conquest in the intervening years. It already enjoys an unchallenged hegemony in more parts of the world than it did forty years ago, and the momentum of its drive to seek further conquests shows no sign of abatement.” Equally in keeping with his impervious intellectual manner was the fact that when Kramer reprinted this essay in his 1999 collection The Twilight of the Intellectuals he carefully excised this passage, displaying an appropriately Soviet willingness to re-write history.

The same perverse ideological prism that allowed Kramer to see Gorbachev as worse than Stalin also made him regard the various social movements of the 1960s (feminism, gay rights, the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, environmentalism) as agents of subversion and destruction rather than attempts, however partial and flawed they might be, to build a more decent and equitable society.

Perhaps the worst part of Kramer’s worldview was his rigid gender politics, which infected his criticism with an intellectually debilitating homophobia and sexism. Kramer, of course, would have rejected any account designation of himself as a homophobe and sexist. As he once told New York magazine, “Some of the people I’ve been closest to in my life have been homosexuals.” But whatever his personal conduct might have been, as a public figure Kramer stood in steadfast opposition to the idea that gays should be open and equal citizens in a democratic polity. He did this moreover not by making any rational arguments against gay equality but by constantly and snidely assuming that the very practice of gay sex was naturally repugnant to all right-thinking people.

Derisive hooting and cheap shots were his favourite rhetorical modes, as when he referred to the gay rights movement as “orifice politics.” He once criticized Gore Vidal for writing “in praise of buggeryand on another occasion offered this account of artistic style known as camp: “the origins of camp is to be found in the subculture of homosexuality. Camp humor derives, in its essence, from the homosexual’s recognition that his condition represents a kind of joke on nature.” I hate to be pedantic about such matters but Kramer seemed to be unaware of certain biological and social facts that many clever high-school students are able to figure out these days: that not all gays engage in anal sex while many heterosexuals do and that gay relationships, like straight ones, can be cemented by love as well as by sex.  Notoriously, Kramer’s distaste for public displays of gay identity fuelled his tireless crusade against Robert Mapplethorpe late-period photography but I would argue that there is a gay-fearing subtext to virtually every essay he wrote on a gay artist or writer.

All this gay-baiting occasionally exacted a personal toil. The very conservative gay critic Bruce Bawer loved Kramer as a father figure and published in virtually every issue of The New Criterion for nearly a decade. Yet even Bawer broke with The New Criterion and Kramer when the journal published a cruelly mocking account of a gay pride march in 1993.

As for Kramer’s gender politics, it is hard to forget the absurd claim he made in a 1991 Partisan Review symposium that “orthodox feminism” dominated television, offering as evidence “the ads in which the women are all so much smarter than the men, and the general depiction of women in their social roles, in their vocational roles now determined by the feminist agenda.” About one of America’s most prominent female intellectuals Kramer wrote, “In the end, Mary McCarthy’s politics were like her sex life—promiscuous and unprincipled, more a question of opportunity than of commitment or belief.” When writing about sexually active heterosexual male intellectuals (notably McCarthy’s ex-husband Edmund Wilson) Kramer somehow avoided the word promiscuous.  Like a school yard bully, Kramer knew that slut-shaming is reserved for girls.

If Kramer’s politics were distasteful, his better self occasionally shone through in his art criticism and editorship.  He was a very gifted journalistic art critic, with the rare skill of being able to write intelligently about aesthetic matters under the constraints of newspaper deadlines and word counts. During his long tenure at the New York Times from 1965 to 1982, he elevated the paper’s cultural coverage, bringing to the daily press some of the brainy excitement of The Nation and Partisan Review.

His great strength as a critic was his forthrightness. He knew his mind and never hedged or equivocated. When describing the art he loved best – the masterpieces of high modernism created by European and American artists from 1890 to 1960 – his blustery prose achieved a hard-edged eloquence.

As unlikely as this may sound, Kramer’s distinctive prose style represented a popularization of three of his cultural heroes, the critic F.R. Leavis, Henry James, and John Milton. Leavis was the immediate precursor. Anyone who reads Kramer’s mixture of tart sarcasm and high solemnity, his barely controlled rage that is held in check and given form by Latinate abstraction, his complex, serpentine sentences that curl around the subject before starting strangulation — anyone, that is, who reads Kramer with care will hear the echo of Leavis’s prose. It was the discovery of Leavis that a modified version of Henry James’s studied involution could allow a critic to pursue an argument sedulously and forcefully while maintaining an urbane air. Kramer followed Leavis in imitating James’s syntax. To put it another way, Kramer’s stuffed shirt was a hand-me-down.
Even beyond Leavis, Kramer’s literary roots go deeper into the history of style and sensibility. Consider these typical items from the Kramer lexicon: “horrid,” “baleful,” “pernicious,” “despicable,” “malign” and “ghastly.” For an art critic, these are odd words, deliberately archaic and pointedly moralistic. Kramer’s diction is quite literally and literarily Puritan. Milton repeatedly used such words in that Puritan masterpiece Paradise Lost.

The diction of judgment and damnation moves with surprising ease from its religious home into the domain of art criticism, where souls are condemned to the eternal perdition of kitsch. Paradise Lost was not only the title but also the theme of Milton’s famous poem. A similar vision of the fall from Eden informs Kramer’s account of art history. The 1950s, for Kramer, was the paradise of high modernism when God-like artists like Picasso and Jackson Pollack walked the earth creating beauty ex nihilo. Alas, our feckless common parents (Andy Warhol and Susan Sontag) ate the apple of camp and pop art. By giving in to temptation, they doomed us all to the fallen world of post-modernism.

Kramer’s ove-rreliance on the didactic language of moral reproach hampered his critical acumen. He once defined post-modernism as “modernism with a sneer, a giggle, modernism without any animating faith in the nobility and pertinence of its cultural mandate.” By this account, post-modernism is simply a result of artists being naughty. Even if one agrees that post-modernism represents a falling off from the lofty ambitions of high modernism, Kramer’s explanation of where post-modernism comes from is almost pathetically inadequate. To really understand why modernism metamorphosized into post-modernism we need to turn to a much more theoretically-savvy analyst like Fredric Jameson, who persuasively sees post-modernism as the cultural working out of late capitalism.

Passionate and hard-working though he was, Kramer simply couldn’t measure up the genuinely front-ranking art critics of his era. He lacked Clement Greenberg’s theoretical reach, Harold Rosenberg’s phrase-making brio, Wendy Lesser’s playful ability to upturn our received ideas, or Arthur Danto’s grounding in philosophy (to name only a few distinguished contemporaries). Unlike Kramer, these critics wrote journalism that makes the same lasting claims on our attention as the best literature.

As an editor Kramer left a similarly divided legacy. The New Criterion opened shop in 1982 and for roughly a decade it offered meaty, argumentative cultural analysis month after month. While at times infuriating in its cultural politics, The New Criterion did take art seriously and gave a venue to many fine writers, notably Jed Perl, Karen Wilkin, Donald Lyons, and Bruce Bawer. It is a sign of how relatively catholic the magazine was in its early days that many of these writers didn’t share Kramer’s politics. The situation changed in the 1990s when the Cold War gave way the Culture Wars and The New Criterion became much more of a party-line right wing rag, sharing an editorial outlook that made it indistinguishable from Commentary or National Review.

In Humboldt’s Gift, Saul Bellow gave a typically malicious portrait of the young Hilton Kramer, shown in the novel to be a shallow careerist. The real Kramer was a more interesting and admonitory figure. He started off loving art and had a talent for explaining his passion but never became the first-rate critic he could have been as he started to see paintings and novels as weapons in a cultural war against enemies that existed largely in his own mind.  The gap between what Kramer could have achieved and his paltry legacy is immense and worth mourning.

3 thoughts on “Hilton Kramer: A Dissenting Obituary

  1. Dear Mr. Heer,

    If you knew Hilton Kramer you would not have written this blog. No one was fairer to women, took gays and lesbians at their true value as human beings, or was less of a racist than he. The right-wing villain you describe here does not at any point touch on the real Hilton. What he disliked was the intrusion of sex and race into realms where they had no place. He understand, for example, that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a hero and Jesse Jackson, Jr. a fraud, and was not afraid to say so in public. I could furnish lots of other examples, but doubt that I could convince you of how fundamentally wrong you are in what you have written about an honorable and good man.

    Joseph Epstein

  2. Dear Mr. Epstein,
    As I wrote above, Hilton Kramer had many friends who loved him and who can speak to his personal virtues. Some of the obituaries that have appeared have already done so and I’m sure there will be more celebrations growing out of the admiration and affection that Kramer elicited from those that knew him.

    My essay wasn’t about Kramer the man but rather Kramer the public figure. If you write in a highly-charged polemical manner about controversial issues, you should expect people to take issue with your positions. Given the energy with which Kramer threw himself into contentious debates, it is a disservice to his memory to ignore his more polorizing words and ideas.

    Kramer the man was obviously a much more complicated figure than Kramer the writer. To take just one example, I have no doubt that Kramer the man was not personally homophobic. As I noted, Bruce Bawer regarded Kramer as a second father and Kramer had by all accounts many other gay and lesbian friends. Kramer the writer penned a slew of words about homosexuality that I and many others find cruel and absurd.

    Those who loved Kramer the man have every right to remember him fondly, just as those of us who took issue with his public stances have a right to call attention to the more regrettable parts of his legacy as a critic, essayist, and editor.


    Jeet Heer

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