In Defense of Standards; Reasons for Championing Modernism

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 19, 2006 | Go to article overview

In Defense of Standards; Reasons for Championing Modernism


Byline: Stephen Goode, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Hilton Kramer is a national treasure, an indispensable part of the American art world today. No one argues with greater eloquence the case for high aesthetic standards at a time when those standards have been debased.

No one attacks with greater precision the jargon that corrupts art writing, or ridicules more tellingly the three ideologies that now dominate "thinking" about art: gender, race and leftist politics.

"The Triumph of Modernism" is a collection of Mr. Kramer's essays of the past two decades, many from the New York Observer and the New Criterion, the journal Mr. Kramer has edited from its beginning and which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary.

Though these essays and reviews cover a myriad of subjects, they share common, underlying themes. There is lament for a nearly lost time when the art world valued aesthetic sensibility, and when high artistic achievement was recognized and prized for the rare, difficult thing that it is.

There are delicious jeremiads attacking the meretricious, fad-obsessed art world of today, with its willful and destructive refusal to recognize a distinction between high and low culture, and its sad preoccupation with gender, race and leftist politics as the final arbiters of what art should be.

Yet amid the pessimism and regret for a lost world, Mr. Kramer is hopeful. Many of his finest pieces celebrate great artists of the past (and their enduring influence), such as the German Max Beckmann and the Frenchmen Henri Matisse and Pierre Bonnard.

And he voices enthusiasm for high artistic achievement of a more recent vintage, the work of Odd Nerdrum, a Norwegian, for example, and of the American John Walker, and of the late American artists Richard Diebenkorn and Christopher Wilmarth.

What's most encouraging is that Mr. Kramer believes that within our degraded art world itself there lies a way out of what it has become. "The pressure of human experience" -] by which he means "the allegiance art maintains to the pulse of lived experience" will work to subvert the frivolousness of so much of contemporary art.

For Mr. Kramer, what characterized the art world before the present "forces devoted to disintegration" took their toll was a "seriousness" about art which regarded art as something mastered only over time, whether by the individual artist struggling to realize his vision, or by the critic or connoisseur learning to appreciate and recognize what is truly good.

It is this seriousness about art and its purpose united with the pressure of experience, he argues, that is the enemy of the shallow and faddish and will aid the art world in learning, once again, the importance of distinguishing the genuine from the fraudulent.

In the past, the work of influential critics (who were often first-rate writers) such as Clement Greenberg, Mr. Kramer writes, was "always firmly anchored in concrete aesthetic experience." Art museums, in those days, were places "we looked to . . . for our touchstones of artistic quality and achievement."

The study of art at great institutions such as Harvard was "based, above all," Mr. Kramer recalls, "on the close, comparative study of individual art objects, and one of its goals was to produce a certain kind of expert intelligence aesthetic intelligence."

But beginning in the 1960s this world came to an end, at least for the most part, in Mr. Kramer's opinion. Critics and academics now judge art not on aesthetics, but on whether it advances a progressive political agenda, he writes, while an impenetrable, soul-destroying jargon, spawned by these "intellectual" fads, dominates writing about art.

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