Maverick Arts Critic Smashes Leftist Icons: New York Times Draws Special Scorn

Article excerpt

NEW YORK - Within that rarefied circle of columnists and commentators who've made the world their oyster by claiming "lifestyles," political analysis and media-watching as their beat, Hilton Kramer is by modern standards a cultural maverick.

Classically conservative, cerebral, prickly, even haughty, the former English literature professor has metamorphosed from art critic to magazine editor to political analyst to press critic with the brisk efficiency of a serial killer. It is hardly the kind of behavior Oscar Wilde recommended when he wrote that "The first duty of an art critic is to hold his tongue at all times, and upon all subjects."

From New York to Washington, Mr. Kramer has left a trail of cutting criticism and wicked wit that winds from the rough n' tough network offices of Manhattan to the genteel corridors inside the Beltway.

Writing in "MediaWatch," his weekly column in the New York Post, he described a CBS "60 Minutes" interview with former Justice Department official and convicted felon Webster Hubbell as ". . . an Oprah version of `Waiting for Godot' with Hubbell doing the silences and Mike Wallace doing the Oprah role."

For his weekly art review in the New York Observer, Mr. Kramer dismissed a "ghastly" exhibit of Victorian paintings at the National Gallery of Art, noting: "For the American art public in the 1990s, there may be some problems in understanding what the stories are about. . . . After all, we don't read Lord Tennyson in school anymore, and references to Camelot are nowadays more likely to invoke associations with the Kennedy White House than with King Arthur and his court." Mr. Kramer does not suffer fools gladly or for long, and, of late, the scalps on his belt from those he perceives as wrong-headed liberals have been joined by those he has taken from prominent Republicans and conservatives.

In his Post column, the dapper dissector recently revisited the controversy over Alexis Herman ("this melancholy subject"), President Clinton's choice for secretary of labor. Praising an article by Jonathan Chait in the New Republic for its incisive reporting on the "affirmative action nominee," Mr. Kramer wrote: "Indeed, this is a case where the liberal press, beginning with the New York Times, has been more forthcoming about Herman's unsuitability for a Cabinet post than the Republicans who sit on the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee have ever dared to be."

This was atypical praise from Mr. Kramer, whose column, titled "TimesWatch" until last September, specialized in tracking the cultural proclivities of the influential New York daily, where he worked as art critic and cultural news editor for 17 years. …