[Marxism] Reactionary croaks

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Mar 27 11:02:04 MDT 2012

NY Times March 27, 2012
Hilton Kramer, Critic Who Championed Modernism, Dies at 84

Hilton Kramer, whose clear, incisive style and combative 
temperament made him one of the most influential critics of his 
era, both at The New York Times, where he was the chief art critic 
for nine years, and at The New Criterion, which he edited from its 
founding in 1982, died early Tuesday in Harpswell, Me. He was 84.

His wife, Esta Kramer, said the cause was heart failure. He had 
developed a rare blood disease and had moved to an assisted living 
facility in Harpswell, she said. They lived nearby in southern 
Maine, in Damariscotta.

Admired for his intellectual range and feared for his imperious 
judgments, Mr. Kramer emerged as a critic in the early 1950s and 
joined The Times in 1965, a time when the tenets of high modernism 
were being questioned and increasingly attacked. He was a 
passionate defender of high art against the claims of popular 
culture and saw himself not simply as a critic offering informed 
opinion on this or that artist, but also as a warrior upholding 
the values that made civilized life worthwhile.

This stance became more marked as political art and its advocates 
came to the fore, igniting the culture wars of the early 1980s, a 
struggle in which Mr. Kramer took a leading role as the editor of 
The New Criterion, where he was also a frequent contributor.

In its pages, Mr. Kramer took dead aim at a long list of targets: 
creeping populism at leading art museums; the incursion of 
politics into artistic production and curatorial decision making; 
the fecklessness, as he saw it, of the National Endowment for the 
Arts; and the decline of intellectual standards in the culture at 

A resolute high modernist, he was out of sympathy with many of the 
aesthetic waves that came after the great achievements of the New 
York School, notably Pop (“a very great disaster”), conceptual art 
(“scrapbook art”) and postmodernism (“modernism with a sneer, a 
giggle, modernism without any animating faith in the nobility and 
pertinence of its cultural mandate”).

At the same time, he made it his mission to bring underappreciated 
artists to public attention and open up the history of 
20th-century American art to include figures like Milton Avery and 
Arthur Dove, about whom he wrote with insight and affection. Some 
of his best criticism was devoted to artists who had hitherto been 
regarded as footnotes.

“Nothing gives me more pleasure,” he wrote in a 1999 catalog essay 
for the painter Bert Carpenter, “than to discover unfamiliar work 
of significant quality and intelligence.”

Roger Kimball, the managing editor of The New Criterion, said of 
Mr. Kramer: “As a critic of culture, he had a broad range. He 
wrote on everything from novels and poetry to dance and 
philosophy, but it was as an art critic that he was best known. 
His chief virtue was independence. He called it as he saw it — an 
increasingly rare virtue in today’s culture.”

Hilton Kramer was born on March 25, 1928, in Cape Ann, Mass. As a 
boy he gravitated toward the local artists’ colony and spent long 
hours in Boston’s art museums. After earning a bachelor’s degree 
in English at Syracuse University in 1950, he studied literature 
and philosophy at Columbia, the New School for Social Research and 

While studying Dante and Shakespeare at the Indiana University 
School of Letters in the summer of 1952, he struck up an 
acquaintance with Philip Rahv, the editor of Partisan Review, who 
encouraged his critical ambitions.

Art, by pure chance, provided his entry point — specifically 
Harold Rosenberg’s essay on action painting, published in Art News 
in December 1952.

Mr. Kramer regarded it, he later said, as “intellectually fraudulent.”

“By defining Abstract Expressionist painting as a psychological 
event, it denied the aesthetic efficacy of painting itself and 
attempted to remove art from the only sphere in which it can be 
truly experienced, which is the aesthetic sphere,” Mr. Kramer said 
in an interview on the occasion of receiving a medal from the 
National Endowment for the Humanities in 2004. “It reduced the art 
object itself to the status of a psychological datum."

He wrote a rebuttal to Mr. Rosenberg and submitted it to Partisan 
Review, which published it in 1953. The magazine’s enormous 
prestige established him as an important art critic overnight, 
giving him, as he recalled in a 1996 essay, “a ticket to a career 
I wasn’t yet certain I wanted.” He was invited to write regular 
art reviews for Arts Digest, a fortnightly. Clement Greenberg, the 
most powerful critic of the day, asked him to write on art for 

In 1955, Arts Digest became a monthly magazine, Arts. Mr. Kramer, 
who was hired as its managing editor and became its chief editor 
in 1961, turned it into one of the most highly respected art 
journals in the United States. He also wrote art criticism for The 
New Republic and The Nation.

He married the former Esta Teich in 1964. She is his only 
immediate survivor. Mr. Kramer became art-news editor of The New 
York Times in 1965 and in 1973 succeeded John Canaday as the 
newspaper’s chief art critic. He was a prolific, forceful critic 
at a time when the art world was undergoing sweeping stylistic and 
institutional changes. Pop Art, Minimalism and the myriad 
tendencies grouped under the term postmodernism asserted their 
claims after the heady days of Abstract Expressionism. Museums, 
eager to capitalize on the public’s growing appetite for modern 
art and enticed by the box-office success of blockbuster 
exhibitions, took a more populist approach to the kinds of shows 
they mounted and the way they presented them.

Mr. Kramer made it his mission to uphold the high standards of 
modernism. In often withering prose, he made life miserable for 
curators and museum directors who, in his opinion, let down the 
side by exhibiting trendy or fashionably political art.

The Whitney Museum of American Art, in particular, felt the full 
force of his scorn every time it raised the curtain on a new 
Biennial, whose roster generally favored installation, video and 
performance art, usually with a political message and an emphasis 
on gender and ethnic identity.

Mr. Kramer would have none of it. “The Whitney curatorial staff 
has amply demonstrated its weakness for funky, kinky, kitschy 
claptrap in recent years,” he wrote in a review of the 1975 
Biennial, “and there is the inevitable abundance of this rubbish 
in the current show.”

Two years later, he threw his hands up in despair. The Biennials, 
he wrote, “seem to be governed by a positive hostility toward — a 
really visceral distaste for — anything that might conceivably 
engage the eye in a significant or pleasurable visual experience.”

Mr. Kramer was impassioned in his praise when art met his high 
expectations. “He was a high modernist, but he embraced a rather 
diverse lot that ran the gamut from Richard Pousette-Dart to 
Pollock to Matisse to the Russian constructivists,” Mr. Kimball said.

He could surprise. Julian Schnabel, precisely the sort of artist 
one would have expected him to eviscerate, won qualified praise. 
He was at times, Mr. Kramer wrote in reviewing one of Mr. 
Schnabel’s first shows in 1981, “a painter of remarkable powers.” 
He would later greet with enthusiasm, at least initially, the work 
of the highly eccentric Norwegian figurative painter Odd Nerdrum.

“He really had a good grasp of modernism — maybe too good a grasp, 
because he tended to ignore other things,” the critic Donald 
Kuspit said. “I admired his seriousness, although I think he 
became more and more frustrated with the scene, the focus on 
emerging artists at the expense of mature artists.”

In 1982, Mr. Kramer left The Times to edit The New Criterion, a 
monthly journal of culture and ideas created to take a contrarian 
view of multiculturalism, ethnic and gender politics, and other 
currents coming into prominence in the arts, as well as a 
neoconservative take on cultural politics generally.

He plunged into acrimonious debate on cultural politics, staking 
out a conservative position in attacks on the artists and programs 
financed by the National Endowment for the Arts and the National 
Endowment for the Humanities, and revisiting the political debates 
of the McCarthy era and the 1960s.

In his mind, the battle lines were clearly drawn “in this age of 
irony and institutionalized subversion.”

On the one side, postmodernism, “a revolt against the basic 
traditions of Western civilization.” On the other, modernism, 
whose ideals he characterized as “the discipline of truthfulness, 
the rigor of honesty.”

 From 1993 to 1997 he wrote a column in The New York Post devoted 
to criticism of what he regarded as liberal bias in the mainstream 

Many of his essays on art and politics were republished in four 
collections, “The Age of the Avant-Garde: An Art Chronicle of 
1956-1972” (1973); “The Revenge of the Philistines: Art and 
Culture, 1972-1984” (1985), “The Twilight of the Intellectuals: 
Culture and Politics in the Era of the Cold War” (1999); and “The 
Triumph of Modernism: The Art World, 1985-2005” (2006).

Mr. Kramer remained unfazed by the furor his criticism aroused and 
professed to be somewhat puzzled at his reputation. “I’m really 
not very angry at all,” he told New York magazine in 1984. “I am 
appalled at times; astonished, disappointed, anxious, worried. I 
think of myself as judicious.”

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