Magazine article Insight on the News

Conservative Critic Sets His Sights on Low Culture; Caustic and Unapologetic, Veteran Art Critic Hilton Kramer Has Made a Name for Himself as a Commentator on the "Moral Obtuseness" Inherent in 20th-Century American Life

Magazine article Insight on the News

Conservative Critic Sets His Sights on Low Culture; Caustic and Unapologetic, Veteran Art Critic Hilton Kramer Has Made a Name for Himself as a Commentator on the "Moral Obtuseness" Inherent in 20th-Century American Life

Article excerpt

Caustic and unapologetic, veteran art critic Hilton Kramer has made a name for himself as a commentator on the "moral obtuseness" inherent in 20th-century American life.

At first glance, Hilton Kramer seems cut from quiet professorial cloth, bookish and polite. But the mischievous gleam in his eye betrays an acerbic wit that has colored his cultural criticism for more than three decades.

The erudite Kramer, founding editor of the New Criterion, a conservative monthly providing a "dissenting voice on the arts and contemporary culture," laces his conversation with frequent allusions to "the rot that has set in in our major institutions" -- universities and public schools, museums and the media, to mention a few. "And things are going to get much worse before they get better."

William Phillips, former editor of the left-wing Partisan Review (which published Kramer's first review in the fifties), describes him as "brilliant," "energetic" and "tough-minded," and New Criterion publisher Samuel Lipman portrays him as an "English man of letters: an all-around literary and artistic authority able to write widely and easily and whose judgment is formed by his own good taste."

Longtime friend Midge Decter, the first lady of neoconservatism now with the Institute on Religion and Public Life, describes Kramer as a Hubert Humphrey Democrat more likely to vote Republican. Kramer calls himself a "1950s liberal" who believes in advancement by merit and color-blind justice. "I'm of the generation for whom the word `quota' meant a kind of WASP anti-Semitism when it came to social clubs," says Kramer.

Perhaps Kramer's character and stature in the New York literary world are best captured in an anecdote Decter and her husband, Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, like to tell. Kramer, they relate, was once seated at a dinner party next to filmmaker Woody Allen. During the course of the evening, Allen asked Kramer if he was embarrassed when he ran into someone whose work he had attacked. "No, I'm not embarrassed," Kramer responded. "It is they who should be embarrassed!"

Since September 1993, Kramer has been writing "Times Watch," a Tuesday column in the New York Post that takes his former employer, the New York Times, to task for what he sees as its liberal slant on the news and its unapologetic kowtowing to the latest politically correct fads (see "Kramer Wields a Polemical Pen" page 14). "As political standards came to replace artistic standards," complains Kramer, an art critic for the Times for 17 years, "the net effect was to make the life of culture more and more hostage to the influence of the Left."

More than politics disturbs Kramer. An overall decline in standards, skill and good taste, he says, coupled with rampant egalitarianism, has rendered Americans incapable of distinguishing between good and bad or even acknowledging that some things -- a Cezanne painting, for example, or civility in human relationships -- are to be preferred. Kramer deplores what he calls "the moral obtuseness in our cultural life -- our tendency to emphasize celebrity and power, rather than integrity and courage."

Kramer's column in the Post and another on art that appears in the New York Observer, a small but influential weekly broadsheet published in Manhattan, provide him with sounding boards. But Kramer considers his work as editor of the New Criterion his central mission. "Not since H.L. Mencken and the American Mercury has literary America seen so much fur fly," wrote Adam Gussaw a decade ago in the Boston Review, a liberal intellectual quarterly. Eric Gibson, the executive editor of ARTnews, says that Kramer's opinions continue to be "closely watched, and they are respected even by those who disagree with him."

As an art critic, Kramer favors the great Venetian painters Titian and Veronese, along with French masters Henri Matisse, Pierre Bonnard and Eugene Delaquoix. …

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