Jewish World Review
April 11, 2012/ 19 Nissan, 5772
Hilton Kramer vs. Artspeak
It seems like cheating, writing an obituary for Hilton Kramer, art critic extraordinaire. Since his best obituary is his own body of work. It reflects the man himself: educated, independent, clear-eyed, rooted in a culture of the best that has been thought and said -- and painted. He was opinionated in the best sense of the term. That is, someone who has earned the right to an opinion and isn't just throwing one off to meet a deadline.
Hilton Kramer never went along with the crowd, but he didn't just reflexively buck it, either. He was his own man following his own discerning mind -- and eye. To read him was an education itself. It wasn't necessary to agree with the man to learn from him. Always. Year after year, he dared to say the obvious. Calmly but authoritatively. He had earned the right.
He might grow impatient with fools, but there was no doubt he knew one when he saw one or, worse, had to read one. Mainly out of a sense of duty.
Over his 84 years, having seen so many stylish trends in the art world come and go, so many emperors rushing by without clothes, he would simply note one more. Such is heroism in an age when just being able to see the obvious, and say so in clear English prose, has becomes a rarity among art critics. The language of so many of them has become so entangled in a pretentious argot of their own, it long ago rose above mere comprehension. ("This practice of intensifying bodily potentials to act and become is an affirmation of desire without lack which signals the nonclimactic, aimless circulation of bodies in a symbiotic assemblage.")
No wonder Mr. Kramer stayed chief art critic of the New York Times only so long as he could stand it -- and only so long as its management could stand him. For he'd come to be an embarrassment -- as people who routinely tell impolitic truths tend to do. And bad for the art market besides. No wonder he annoyed the arts establishment, which never failed to fall for the latest, newest, shiniest fad before moving on to the next with equal enthusiasm.
Hilton Kramer just wouldn't go along quietly with that kind of art "criticism," which was more like art merchandising. He labored under the great handicap of believing in the permanent things, first things. Like beauty and truth, even though the very mention of such outdated concepts would be sure to inspire hoots from the kind of sophisticates who knew better, or thought they did. Or rather assumed they did, thought so rarely entering their minds. When pinned down, they could always take refuge in their jungle of impenetrable artspeak.
How explain Hilton Kramer's instinctive, then habitual nonconformism? Maybe it was because he was educated -- in the old sense of the word. Rather than indoctrinated. He clearly had to be squelched. The man was a walking, talking, and worst of all, writing personification of thoughtcrime. In his every line. His was "a mindset that must be crushed," to quote a revealing phrase from the repertoire of today's totalitarian liberalism.
How did Hilton Kramer become -- and remain -- immune to the hopelessly tangled vocabulary of artspeak? My theory: It was because he wasn't an arts major, never even completed an arts course. He would major in English and philosophy at Syracuse even while organizing his own off-brand art museum.
It was while doing post-gradate work -- Dante and Shakespeare at Indiana in the early 1950s -- that young Kramer teamed up with another unorthodox thinker: Philip Rahv, who would give him his big break with Partisan Review, which in those days was always defying the conventional "wisdom" in the arts.
It was for Partisan Review that Mr. Kramer reviewed Harold Rosenberg's fleetingly popular essay on the fad of the day, Action Painting. In that essay, he's explained that art isn't art at all -- but some kind of cumulative, culminative psychological experience, if you'll excuse the artspeak.
There are certain kinds of prose that do more to obscure thought than clarify it, and Hilton Kramer could never take it seriously. He called the whole Action Painting thing "intellectually fraudulent," a phrase he would find useful, and all too relevant, over the next half-century as one passing fad succeeded another. No wonder he wasn't due for a terribly long career at the New York Times.
Instead of the artist-idols of the day, Hilton Kramer adored Bonnard and Matisse -- art that was an esthetic experience, not a pretext for psychotherapy or politics or any other unsatisfactory substitute. The poor man must have read too much in the classics, or just had an eye. For whatever reason, he insisted on judging art as art, as the work itself, rather than as something else, anything else, including political graffiti or a joke on the viewer.
The object of art, Hilton Kramer well understood, is art, not anything beyond itself. It is an end, not a means. A quality that, in its imperishable power, reduces us to vowing, with Rilke on viewing an archaic image of Apollo: You must change your life. In that sense, art is indeed a kind of religion, of faith -- a revelation and imperative.
Anything else being passed off as art in his time, Hilton Kramer saw and dismissed: Pop Art ("a very great disaster"), Conceptual Art ("scra ook art"), Postmodernism ("modernism with a sneer, a giggle, modernism without any animating faith in the nobility and pertinence of its cultural mandate"). He had to concede that Jackson Pollock's work was a triumph -- not of art but of celebrity.
Hilton Kramer's taste might be described as high modernism, and he never gave up discovering and recommending those who had practiced it -- Milton Avery and David Smith were among his favorites -- or despising the passing parade of those who now, as each year passes, can be seen as low modernists. Very low.
When the very definition of art must be modified, it is no longer art -- the way Socialist Realism is no longer realism, let alone real. Until finally art becomes non-art. As in Pop Art and the cult of Andy Warhol, who spoke of his product as Business Art. ("Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art," he once explained, and there's no denying he made a lot of money at it. He just didn't make art.)
Hilton Kramer was very much the odd man out in an Art Age that celebrates vagina monologues and a style that might best be described as Trashtalk Elevated, and the more elevated, somehow the trashier. Till it makes ordinary obscenity seem eloquent, even honest.
At his death, Hilton Kramer was still standing against the crowd, whether in the pages of the New Criterion -- his refuge, fortress and look-out tower -- or in his ever readable and re-readable essays. Which will remain new as only thought rooted in the old can be. His writings were never the newest thing. It's hard to think of a greater obituary tribute than that.
Paul Greenberg Archives
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