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A Serious Critic for Unserious Times

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A Serious Critic for Unserious Times

Hilton Kramer rejected political correctness to champion aesthetics and standards in art. Summer 2022
Arts and Culture

When I was an art history graduate student in the early 1990s, Hilton Kramer (1928–2012) was a peripheral figure for my colleagues and me. We didn’t read The New Criterion, which he cofounded and published from 1982 to his retirement in 2007. All of us were too young to remember his tenure from 1965 to 1982 with the New York Times, during which he wrote more than 1,000 reviews of exhibitions. He was the paper’s first art critic.

Political correctness wasn’t pervasive enough in those days to paralyze our brains, so no one dismissed him as a right-winger, a Nazi, or a racist. Still, his take on contemporary culture made him seem antique. “We are still living in the aftermath,” he wrote in 1982, “of the insidious assault on the mind that was one of the most repulsive features of the radical movement of the Sixties.”

Neither an art historian nor an academic, Kramer was a self-taught scholar, which made his view of art history fresh and quirky. He saw the art marketplace change from the 1960s through the 1980s, powered by new buyers, many of them volatile, tasteless, commitment-phobic, and always clamoring for something new. He hated the triumph of irony in the 1960s as the basis for much new art. This was the grease on the skids that took art from the soulful to the soulless. He thought kitsch a waste of time.

Kramer was best known in his day as a champion of Modernism in art. For him, Modernism was, first of all, a liberation movement. It overthrew lots of things and produced a hundred styles. Picasso, Matisse, Miró, Léger, Pollock, and Rothko—names we all know—show the range. All were rebels. Modernism in art belonged to a broad social, political, and economic movement starting in the nineteenth century that was driven by the abandonment of disguises and fake distinctions. This movement affected everything, including aesthetics, and most of Kramer’s writing is concerned with aesthetics only. Modernism was the confident, positive triumph of the individual (both artist and viewer) over officialdom, of progress over senescence—always freewheeling and inventive. It was a great tossing out of phoniness, emperors with no clothes, cheap melodrama, and philistinism of all stripes. Modernism was the discipline of freedom and truth. That’s the big idea.

This didn’t mean that avant-garde artists were supposed to run out and shoot the first archduke they found. Modernism in art was its own Drain the Swamp movement, but the hygiene was aesthetics. Kramer’s take on Pre-Raphaelite art is instructive. Its style and subjects—languid ladies with flowing hair, moral messaging, decorative flourish, and tight finish—visually defined the Victorian zeitgeist. In his view, it took a water cannon to clean the “literary excrescences” that made it so awful. Good art wasn’t propaganda, and it was no one’s tool but the artist’s. The truth that a Modernist artist sought went beyond the mundane. Strange for a newspaperman to think this way, but Kramer believed that the daily headlines were the last things that should interest an artist.

After reading hundreds of his columns, I would call Kramer prescient. By the late 1960s, he had spotted the then-nascent forces shaping high culture today. Political correctness became the new jingoism. Diversity, boutique socialism, and privilege studies now rule the roost. Of the Whitney Biennial, he was blunt. It, along with most contemporary biennial art exhibitions, “seem[s] to be governed by a positive hostility toward—and really visceral distaste for—anything that might conceivably engage the eye in a significant or pleasurable visual experience.”

Kramer didn’t think that good art was a gimmick aimed at a giggle or a sneer. He had standards and believed in quality, but he wasn’t pompous, and he saw quality in many different things. He abhorred the invasion of semiotics, feminism, Marxism, and multiculturalism in the study of art, feeling that they undermined aesthetics as the basic criteria for judging art; they made art a branch of social studies.

His writing comes with a handicap now, since he was a serious person, and we live in an unserious time. He was also direct, and we live in an age of hypocrisy, convolution, and denial.

Kramer was born in Gloucester, on Cape Ann in northeastern Massachusetts, in 1928 and majored in English at Syracuse University. He started writing for Partisan Review in 1952. The next year, he wrote a story for the magazine criticizing the culture critic Harold Rosenberg’s advocacy of Abstract Expressionism. Rosenberg, writing for Art News, said that art by Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and Willem de Kooning was a “psychological event” driven by the artists’ individual biographies, rather than an aesthetic act or an engagement with existing subject matter. Rosenberg approved of this; Kramer did not. If artists were making art as a psychological event, he felt, this implied that the viewer would need to be a psychologist to access it. Such artists, Kramer argued, annihilated not only content but reality.

For Kramer, just 25, the Partisan Review essay was a feat of intuition translated into authority. In those days, within the tiny art intelligentsia, mano-a-mano moments like these were atomic. Rosenberg’s nemesis, Clement Greenberg, hired Kramer to write for Commentary. Kramer later became editor-in-chief for Arts Magazine and, in 1965, the art news editor at the New York Times. In 1974, he became the paper’s chief art critic.

Kramer’s art history and sense of the start of what we call Modernism in art begins with J. M. W. Turner, the nineteenth-century British master of swirling, abstract seascapes. Kramer almost never wrote about the Old Masters; he may have thought that he was unqualified. Besides, the Old Masters weren’t really part of his Times beat. The galleries and museums rarely did Old Masters shows, and the art market for this work was based in London.

Turner, he felt, divorced color from drawing. Color didn’t fill in the lines because Turner didn’t have lines, which for Kramer meant that he felt free to break rules. He conveyed less the visual content of nature, or nature dressed for display, than nature in the raw—not its simple look alone, but its energy. Turner painted from experience, and he strove to present the truth he construed from that experience as profoundly and directly as he could.

Kramer saw every work of art as a piece of fiction, an abstract of something real and tangible. Real objects exist, but the artist modifies, or interprets, how he perceives them. The best artists shed social constructions, distractions, and disguises until they reach something essential. That’s what makes Modernism a radical art movement.

He thought Turner was onto something, but in exploring Modernism, Kramer’s foundation was French. Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) was, for him, the ur-Modernist. A little later, Cézanne’s artistic children, Henri Matisse (1869–1954), Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), Piet Mondrian (1872–1944), and Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944), were the most analytical, serious, and influential figures in peak Modernism. Amid their differences, they were all essentialists and abolitionists of pomp and cant.

Each chased a Modernist ethos in a different way, in Kramer’s view. Cézanne started the fragmentation of the subject in earnest. He made his buildings, landscapes, and people from cones, rectangles, and cubes—coolly seeking structure. Picasso fragmented further, giving us Cubism and, later, women carved to pieces and reassembled in a way that resembled violence. Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) at the Museum of Modern Art was his first big brothel picture, with fragmented women wearing African masks and looking like beasts.

Kramer loved Édouard Vuillard (1868–1940) for his balance of exquisite chromatic observation, charm, and wealth of common experience with a toughness—a reduction of every form into a flat, though sometimes tiny, field of color. Vuillard took Seurat’s cool, detached observation and gave it affection and warmth. Vuillard was one last step to Matisse, who was the bigger, more intense, artist—intelligent, absolutely serious in his pursuit of harmony and order. Picasso, Kramer felt, got lost in his libido, but Matisse stayed true to a vision of a serene paradise. Picasso might have mastered dissonance, but Matisse gave the eye’s satisfaction a spiritual dimension.

Matisse was, for Kramer, the greatest painter of the twentieth century. Matisse sought what the artist called “an art of balance, of purity and serenity, an art devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter.” Kramer loved The Red Studio (1911), which hangs at MoMA. He loved Matisse’s palette and considered him a brilliant colorist but also admired his quiet sense of order. Most early critics of Matisse thought that he was too decorative, in contrast with Picasso’s strength and passion. Kramer saw him as the ultimate heir of Giotto, Piero della Francesca, and Raphael. Matisse’s quest for balance, purity, and tranquility was the most egalitarian of journeys, spanning centuries and the full range of human emotion. For Kramer, Picasso and Matisse were the twentieth century’s two Modernist giants—standing at opposite poles.

Kramer loved "The Red Studio" (1911) by Matisse, whom he considered the greatest artist of the twentieth century. (© 2022 SUCCESSION H. MATISSE/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK / DIGITAL IMAGE © THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART/LICENSED BY SCALA/ART RESOURCE, NY)

Kramer tended to downplay the polarity of abstraction and realism. Many people get tripped up by the notion that the two are separate universes. Since Modernism is the assertion of the individual, it doesn’t mean a single style or theme; it’s all over the place visually. Kramer sees the best artists, and the best of Modernism, as peeling an onion to get to deeper, fresher elements of the actual thing. This can take the artist far from the surface look, or keep him close to it. Impressionism, he believed, explored “the intensity of nature seen freshly.” Forms might have been indistinct and brushstrokes irregular, but the object remained, altered by the artist’s emotional response to it. It was emotionalism and expressionism leavened by discipline.

The best art, Kramer believed, has what he called a moral purpose. I’d quibble with the word “moral.” Morals are personal and vary based on an individual’s upbringing and experience. Kramer, rather, saw the best art as rooted in ethics, those broadly held standards of best conduct—going beyond family, tribes, or taste—that make us a human community. Rigor, honesty, expressiveness, vision, yearning, and conviction are at the center of the art he liked best.

Kramer didn’t write about religious belief often. He was Jewish—not observant, but religious feeling wasn’t far. He wasn’t dogmatic about faith but was keen on soulfulness. He considered the early Modernists like Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich, the most extreme abstractionists, as not dogmatically religious artists but certainly searchers after God. They were willing to abandon direct, discernible references to recognizable objects to get beyond materialism and the desperation, unbelief, and lack of purpose that it foments. Kramer thought that the best art broached topics like immortality and the meaning of life.

As his career unfolded, Kramer’s thinking became more explicitly social and political. In the 1970s, Kramer had grown more and more troubled by the left-wing drift of the Times, his employer, and by the 1990s, he had written brilliant pieces on, among other literary figures, Whittaker Chambers, whom he admired, and Lillian Hellman and Susan Sontag, whom he didn’t. Kramer’s book The Twilight of the Intellectuals (1999) is about culture and politics during the Cold War; its first section is called “In the Service of Stalinism.”

In the 1970s, Kramer began to see broad cultural trends having a deleterious impact on art. Even in the 1960s, he wasn’t happy with what he was observing in New York’s top galleries and American museums. He felt that the truth-seeking mission of Modernism ran off the rails, probably because a surfeit of prosperity made people spoiled. Modernism in art might have been a liberation movement at one time, but things were getting muddy and directionless. And what direction he saw, he didn’t like. Kramer thought that de Kooning (1904–97) had run out of steam by 1960. He found Rothko increasingly sad and depressing. Pollock (1912–56) had a brief period of triumph in the late 1940s but quickly became repetitious, decorative, and deflating. Kramer called his work after 1950 “Abstract Expressionist Salon painting.” For Kramer, that was a big insult.

Two artists—Andrew Wyeth (1917–2009) and Salvador Dalí (1904–89)—were totems for much of what Kramer came to dislike most in contemporary art. He conceded their technical proficiency but felt that they had no real vision other than self-promotion. Wyeth offered an image of American life—“pastoral, innocent, and homespun—that bears about as much relation to reality as a Neiman Marcus boutique bears to the life of the old frontier.” Of Dalí, Kramer writes:

He understands very well the modern appetite for violence and scandal, and has made a career of catering to this appetite, spicing each successive dish with sufficient outrage and surprise to keep the public a little baffled, a little angry, a little appalled, but always delighted, impressed, and—above all else—interested. He is a master showman who lavishes his real genius on the instruments of public relations.

Kramer saw Pop Art’s celebration of kitsch and camp as a giddy repudiation of substance. It relieved high culture of its rectitude and critical consciousness. In one of his many articles on Pop Art, Kramer quotes the architect Philip Johnson: “What good does it do you to believe in good things? It’s feudal and futile. . . . I think it much better to be nihilistic and forget it all.” Kramer found this poisonous. He rejected Pop Art as a “cult of the facetious.” It takes Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse, and Mondrian out to the trash, replacing them with a bemused sterility that Kramer associated most with Andy Warhol (1928–87): infantile, mercenary, and “half-straight, half-gag double talk.”

Andy Warhol’s Pop Art style embodied what Kramer called “a cult of the facetious.” (© 2022 THE ANDY WARHOL FOUNDATION FOR THE VISUAL ARTS, INC./LICENSED BY ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK/DIGITAL IMAGE BRIDGEMAN IMAGES)

It’s striking that many of the artists Kramer prized the most in the 1970s and 1980s—Milet Andrejevic, Helen Torr, Morris Kantor, Elsie Driggs, Augustus Vincent Tack, Mary Frank, Anne Arnold, and Richard Hunt, among others—never took off. Most are known to art insiders and niche collectors. Besides their obscurity, these artists had a few things in common: superb craftsmanship and a unique vision. Otherwise, these late favorites were all over the map. Arnold (1925–2014) created quirky sculptures of animals and people, using wood. Andrejevic (1925–89) was a Realist painter of landscapes and scenes of everyday life. Kramer saw in his work “a purity of tone and a gravity of feeling” absent in the work of more “clamorous” Realists like Richard Estes, who were gaudy and not much more than tricky copyists. About Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, Keith Haring, Richard Prince, and Barbara Kruger—among the biggest names in 1980s art—he couldn’t have cared less.

Kramer saw high culture as bearing three impossibly heavy structural burdens as it stumbled into the twenty-first century. One was the state of art history—“so many minuscule talents burrowing in ever tinier reaches of the mind,” as he put it. Kramer memorably skewered the field in “The ‘Apples’ of Meyer Schapiro,” a 1981 essay in The American Scholar. Schapiro (1904–96) taught at Columbia for decades, fomenting a new art history that introduced class conflict and social upheaval as interpretive contexts. Initially a scholar of Romanesque art, Schapiro became a central figure in Modernist scholarship. He was a Jew, as well as a Marxist. He served as the éminence grise for younger art historians looking to make the field—a rarefied subject that demanded good taste and a travel budget—into a means to explore social, political, and economic problems.

Reviewing a compendium of Schapiro’s scholarship published in 1979, Kramer disputed Schapiro’s reading of Cézanne’s The Apples. Cézanne, Schapiro believed, revealed a “displaced erotic interest” and “an unconscious symbolizing of a repressed desire” in the picture of two apples, which he considered surrogate breasts. Kramer felt that this reading was absurd, as was Schapiro’s intellectual justification, which began with Horace and Virgil, borrowed from Flaubert and Baudelaire, and ended with a flourish: psychologists studying dreams. The painting’s aesthetic characteristics were buried, Kramer said, by blather and a false reading.

Earlier in his career, Kramer noted, Schapiro was quick to drain religious fervor from Romanesque church sculpture. He called the style “a new sphere of artistic creation without religious content and imbued with values of spontaneity, individual fantasy, delight in color and movement, and the expression of feeling that anticipate modern art.” Kramer was appalled that an art historian would dispute the obvious role of religion in religious art while inflicting on Cézanne an entirely speculative sexual agenda. Schapiro was happy to see aesthetic impulses as a reason to throw medieval spirituality under the bus, but even happier to jettison Cézanne’s aesthetics for repressed impulses dating to the artist’s childhood. This, Kramer felt, was an intellectually dishonest double standard. It was the art historian, not the artist, who was repressed.

A few years later, in The New Criterion, Kramer wrote “T. J. Clark and the Marxist Critique of Modern Painting,” a review of Clark’s just-published book, The Painting of Modern Life, which he describes as “just another contribution to the propagation of the mythic phenomenon which lies at the heart of the Marxist conception of history: class conflict.” Kramer took offense to Clark’s denial of “even the slightest degree of aesthetic independence from the iron laws of history.” The Impressionist fascination with industry was a classist rebuke to labor. Impressionists like Monet and Renoir, who depicted Paris’s boulevards, celebrating Baron Haussmann’s redesign of Paris, cleansed the city of its restless, working-class slums, Clark wrote. Their choice of subjects—boulevards, leisure, train stations—grew from class allegiances. That all art is, first and foremost, sociological reportage, a symptom of social ills, or a weapon to change the world became gospel before too long. For Clark, the measure of an object began and ended with how well it advances or thwarts revolution. Kramer saw this as a perversion of art.

The second of high culture’s structural burdens for Kramer was the change in the art market. Until the 1970s, the best art exhibitions, including ambitious loan shows, were organized by dealers at their galleries. The landmark 1970 exhibition One Hundred Years of Impressionism was hosted at Wildenstein’s. The art market was small. Collectors tended to be serious and informed. Dealers were few, too, and developed long-term relationships with artists and collectors. News from the art market reached the separate worlds of money and media glacially. But glamour and celebrity had already begun to intrude, beginning in the 1960s. Soon marketplace success and chic came to define the canon. Kramer believed that money was an invasive species in the art world, treating its creations as mere investments.

Kramer understood the value of the commercial art gallery in keeping standards elevated. Dealers take risks on artists. They show courage. They make discoveries. They rotate shows often. They show art to the public for free. Dealers knew their artists in depth, and often supported them through rough patches. Museums make decisions slowly, by committee, and long after critics have vetted an artist. The collapse of the small and mid-level gallery economy and the current hegemony of a few big dealers would have distressed Kramer.

The third burden was the state of museums, which Kramer saw as the traditional keepers of standards. His bugaboo was Thomas Hoving, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1967 to 1977. Hoving, he believed, started a trend in American museums that continues in fits and starts. Hoving made everything he touched, however serious or arcane or complex, a branch of show business. From there, museums slid into the realm of mass culture, competing with shopping malls, video games, television, and sports as just another source of entertainment. But the entertainment industry already existed to give people what they wanted; it was the job of museums, Kramer believed, to give them what they needed. He was right—though he sounded like an old Victorian to say it.

Kramer’s most controversial piece in the Times was a 1976 article, “The Blacklist and the Cold War,” which assessed the revisionist trend to rehabilitate the Communist sympathizers barred from working in Hollywood in the early 1950s. He thought that his long article was balanced—presenting, as it did, the considerable complexities of the time but also the many lies told by people who were clearly Communists, as well as the facts surrounding a lesser-known blacklist that Hollywood, the theater, book publishing, and newspapers would enforce against peers who were vocally anti-Communist.

In a 1976 "New York Times" essay, Kramer took a revisionist view of victims of the blacklist and McCarthy hearings of the 1950s. (CSU, ARCHIVES/ EVERETT COLLECTION INC/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)

As the 1970s proceeded, he was appalled by how thoroughly people in entertainment, as well as historians and journalists, whitewashed an ugly episode of civic cannibalism. He believed that many prominent cultural figures from the early Cold War years bore America ill will, and the revised, official storyline was not only letting them off the hook but also praising their courage. If a Manhattan conservative is a liberal mugged by reality, then this was the new reality that mugged Kramer.

Kramer was sharp-eyed when it came to spotting the perils to artists and art historians of making their work political. Until the 1960s, Modernist artists were far removed from politics. It simply wasn’t their sphere. They were focused, as was Kramer, on the imperatives of aesthetics, which are nonpolitical. The politicization of art and art history reminded Kramer of culture behind the Iron Curtain. Culture has no purpose for totalitarians except to serve the state. Art in the Soviet Union, but also in its doppelgänger Nazi Germany, was thoroughly debased as a consequence. In The Twilight of the Intellectuals, Kramer took many of America’s Cold War–era thinkers and writers to task as, at best, useful idiots and, at worst, consciously complicit.

By the 1990s, he feared that the same thing was happening again. The arts issue that concerned Kramer was the role of political correctness in demolishing art criticism, since, fundamentally, it was an assault on quality. Kramer wrote: “In a culture now so largely dominated by ideologies of race, class, and gender, where the doctrines of multiculturalism and political correctness have consigned the concept of quality in art to the netherworld of invidious discrimination and all criticism tends to be judged according to its conformity to current political orthodoxies, even to suggest . . . that aesthetic considerations be given priority in the evaluation of art is to invite the most categorical disapprobation.” I can imagine Kramer’s blood pressure rising as he wrote that long sentence in 1993, reviewing a new book collecting the writing of Clement Greenberg.

Though Kramer admired Abe Rosenthal, the Times’s executive editor, and had many cherished colleagues, by the late 1970s a new, younger tier of reporters and editors were shifting the paper ever leftward. Kramer viewed this with alarm and, eventually, disgust. He left the paper in 1982.

His post-Times years spanned multiple acts. In the 1990s, he would toss TNT spitballs at his old employer via his “Times Watch” column in the New York Post. He aimed weekly at news media bias and incompetence profession-wide, but mostly at the Times. The paper, he wrote, didn’t mind “offending people so long as they’re white heterosexual males.”

The real love and mission of his later years, however, was The New Criterion, which he cofounded with pianist and critic Samuel Lipman in 1982. Marking its 40th year in 2022 under longtime editor Roger Kimball, the journal remains devoted to “championing what is best and most humanely vital in our cultural inheritance and of exposing what is mendacious, corrosive, and spurious”—a Kramerian directive, if ever there was one. In the end, Kramer’s vision was neither conservative nor liberal but, rather, catholic in its approach to high culture.

There was nothing arbitrary about Kramer’s move to Damariscotta, Maine, toward the end of his life. Damariscotta isn’t far from Gloucester, where he grew up. Kramer was highly cultured and erudite and hardly craggy. He was incisive and trenchant and less likely than other critics to suffer fools or phonies gladly. Despite his many years in Manhattan, he never lost personal traits that marked him as a New Englander.

Kramer died in 2012 from many ailments, among them advanced dementia. Toward the end of his life, he moved to the Vicarage by the Sea in Harpswell, Maine, a small hospice. Weaned from drugs, left to walk the seaside grounds and talk, even read, he died an apparently peaceful death.

Writing a story focused on a single artist means getting into his or her head, as best the writer can. It’s no different when one is focused on an art critic—and easier, too, since a critic like Kramer left us millions of words. What would he think today? That American society has gone bonkers. What would he propose? That’s a trickier question. Kramer didn’t think much of federal support for the arts, which he believed bolstered conventional left-wing thinking. He’d surely feel today that high culture is struggling. Cratering audiences; malpractice in the classroom, leaving students ignorant of high culture and history; diminished numbers of discerning collectors and specialist dealers; and the decline of serious art criticism—all have damaged the arts.

These days, Kramer might also ask, “Where is the Right?” The state of high culture and good taste should be of deep interest to conservatives. In Kramer’s day, art critics, art historians, and the art market together promoted high standards, a need for rigor, and the privileging of aesthetics. This served Modernism well. It has served creativity and high culture well, too, both modern and classical. Each of these sectors is now befuddled or lost. The Right, Kramer would likely warn, is too often an absentee landlord on the culture front. But conservatives ignore high culture at their peril.

A project of renewal might start with education, with supporting classical and traditional music, art, theater, and dance more broadly and deeply, not just in New York and not just at the biggest venues. It might include think tanks adding art and culture to their roster of concerns. It would mean supporting magazines, like The New Criterion, that defend high standards. As for the university crisis, Kramer would probably attribute it in part to frightened leadership. “Grow a pair,” he might advise college presidents and trustees cowed by the outrage machines on campus. I’d certainly be happy to see more cojones on campus at Yale and Williams, where I studied art history. Tackling the tiresome fury among students finding racism everywhere, the assaults on freedom of speech and thought, growing anti-Semitism, and political nihilism requires both common sense and courage. Hilton Kramer had both, and much else.

Top Photo: Kramer in 1975, when he was art critic for the New York Times (FRED W. MCDARRAH/MUUS COLLECTION/GETTY IMAGES)

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