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Modernism as Kitsch

Hilton Kramer’s thirty-year culture war

If you are one of those who dismiss the art critic Hilton Kramer as a kind of antiquated aesthete with a deep anger against the modern world and a mad glint in his prose, you should know that it wasn’t always that way. Although nowadays his magazine, The New Criterion, specializes in Allan Bloom-style laments about leftist barbarians undermining Western culture, there was a time when he was capable of writing about high- and not-so-high-culture figures with humor, insight, and even balance. Here, for example, is how he described a 1978 Whitney Museum show devoted to the enigmatic New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg (he of the famous “View of the World from Ninth Avenue”):

The public that attends a Steinberg exhibition … does not resemble the public at other exhibitions. It moves differently and behaves differently, for it does not look as much as it reads. It also smiles a lot. Its whole manner of absorption—and there is no question about its being absorbed—is quite different from that of people looking at painting or sculpture. A Steinberg exhibition arches the back and concentrates the mind. It is an intellectual puzzle as well as a visual entertainment. It abounds in ideas. It both embraces the world “out there” and yet obliterates it, turning everything the Steinberg mind touches into—what? A comedy of manners, certainly. But also a comedy about art and its processes of thought . . . .

This was lively and interesting, the sort of observation that makes even those of us who don’t particularly care for Steinberg (such as this writer) want to keep on reading. Now consider a typical bit of late-Kramer bombast, circa 1987, in which the writer rages like a sidewalk crazy person at the leading cultural institutions of American society:

From the lecture halls of the Harvard Law School to the glossy pages of The New Yorker, from the boardrooms of innumerable universities, museums, and publishing houses to the classrooms where the arts, the humanities, and the social sciences are being deconstructed and destroyed, it is the policies and doctrines bequeathed to us by the New Left in its alliance with the counterculture that determine the principle agencies and exert the dominant influence.

And if you think that’s a remarkable bit of conspiracy theorizing, have a look at Kramer’s, er, unique take on American cultural history from the vantage point of the fourth year of the Clinton administration:

About the cultural as well as the political consequences of Stalinism, our historians are only now—thanks, in part, to the opening of the Soviet archives—beginning to tell the full story of what amounted to a massive and largely successful campaign of ideological brainwashing, conspiracy, and intimidation . . . . [A] good deal of American cultural life may be said to have been Stalinized, and at certain intervals—in the cultural life of the 1960s, for example, and with the imposition of political correctness and multi-culturalism in the 1980s and 1990s—has been repeatedly re-Stalinized ever since.

Despite repeated red scares, purges, and right-wing crusades, it seems that Communism—the official Moscow variety, spelled with a capital “C”—is as powerful as ever. Although less astute observers might take certain developments, e.g., the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, as evidence that Communism had weakened as an ideological force, Hilton Kramer, art critic, knows better.

In a superficial sense, Hilton Kramer seems like just another member of the old Partisan Review circle of intellectuals who started out left and wound up moving further and further to the right in response to Sixties radicalism—some would say in response to figuring out where the money came from. The political landscape is full of such converts, ex-Stalinists, ex-Trotskyists, or ex-SDSers like Peter Collier and David Horowitz. What makes Kramer’s case more interesting than most is, first, that he did it all in the name of modernism, a movement that, at least as far as art is concerned, has always had certain vaguely anti-bourgeois connotations and, second, that he has taken aesthetic modernism much further to the right than most people would have thought possible. While some might recall the right-wing antics of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, or Louis-Ferdinand Céline, in our own times it is generally assumed that the only aesthetic opinions one is likely to hear in the land of reaction are Tom Wolfe-style snipings at the New York art set with their white wine, black-on-black clothing, funny pictures, and impenetrable theoretical discourse. But Kramer reminds us that it ain’t necessarily so: One can defend Picasso and even write appreciatively about Julian Schnabel and still be a card-carrying member of the loony right. How long he’ll be able to keep it up, though, is another question. On one hand, there’s no doubt that his presence has provided the random collection of cranks who make up the American right with a certain intellectual credibility they wouldn’t otherwise enjoy. On the other hand, a man of refined sensibilities like Kramer can’t help but be increasingly uncomfortable among the gun-toting, Darwin-denouncing, militia-forming know-nothings who are the constituency for the only politics Kramer now finds he can stomach. Perhaps this painful situation is what explains his increasingly wild-eyed rhetoric.

As 100 percent American as blue jeans, bubble gum, and bebop jazz.

But the Hilton Kramer story is best understood as an epilogue to the remarkable 1983 study by Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art (published, by the way, at just about the same time that The New Criterion was getting off the ground). Guilbaut traced the evolution of abstract expressionism from the anti-capitalism of the Thirties to a movement so mainstream that the State Department was ultimately able to make use of it in its anti-Soviet Kulturkampf. Since one of the few things everyone could agree on about action painters splattering pigment onto oversized canvases was that they had verve, then the society that produced them had to have verve as well—a syllogism that, Guilbaut showed, served the early U.S. culture warriors well. But before the State Department could utilize abstract expressionism in this manner, it had to strip it of its Depression-era radicalism. Rebellion had to be firmly separated from revolution so that it could be rendered as 100 percent American as blue jeans, bubble gum, and bebop jazz. Radicalism had to be domesticated. As the art critic Clement Greenberg, Kramer’s mentor and one of the main players in this affair, put it in 1961 without the least touch of irony: “Someday it will have to be told how anti-Stalinism, which started out more or less as Trotskyism, turned into art for art’s sake, and thereby cleared the way, heroically, for what was to come.”

What was to come was formalism at its most hermetic, a theory which held that art could succeed as art only if left undisturbed in its own separate realm, sealed off from any and all outside forces.

This process was well under way by the time Kramer happened on the scene in the early Fifties. Born in Massachusetts to a solidly Democratic, working-class family in 1928, Kramer graduated from Syracuse University in 1950, bounced around as an English grad student for a bit, and then, after an unhappy year at Indiana University, got his first big break when Philip Rahv, one of Partisan Review’s two founding editors, accepted an article he had submitted on new developments in the American art scene. Such was the magazine’s influence that Kramer (whose “dirty little secret” was that he had never taken an art course) became an instant authority. Offers to write poured in from Art Digest, Commentary, The Nation, and elsewhere. Then, in 1965, came the ultimate plum, a job offer from the New York Times, where he would eventually serve as cultural-news editor and chief art critic. Why did Kramer do so well? A look back at some of his early criticism suggests that it was a combination of an infectious, enthusiastic style, an air of authority (even if not totally earned), and political dependability. As Kramer was later to write, modernism by this point was enjoying an unprecedented hegemony over the art field. Its rivals—the regionalists, the social realists, etc.—had all been banished to Siberia, victims of a new orthodoxy that held that anything that was not abstract was not modern and that anything that was not modern was not genuine art. It was an orthodoxy that Kramer not only supported but believed in—politically, intellectually, and morally.

Kramer nonetheless spent his first years in and around the Partisan Review carefully picking his way through the ideological mine field. While veteran PR-istas argued about Trotsky and the Bolshevik Revolution and Clement Greenberg struggled to hold on to some vestige of Marxism along with his ever more severe formalism, Kramer held his tongue. All the while, though, he was moving toward a class analysis of his own, one that rejected any ideological connection between the avant-garde and the left. The real connection, he was coming to think, was between the avant-garde and the bourgeoisie. For years, the two had been mortal enemies. But then a few wealthy collectors eventually broke the ice, purchasing works that had previously been despised, and rapprochement soon led to a full-scale embrace. For most critics this union of bohemia and Babbittry has been a little embarrassing, to say the least. For Kramer, though, it has carried the sort of millennial promise his colleagues once pinned on “the revolution.” “Like partners in a stormy but enduring marriage,” Kramer wrote in 1985, “the avant-garde and the bourgeoisie came more and more to depend on each other and even to resemble each other.” One side learned how much it could shock and mock its patrons without alienating them completely, while the other learned to suffer along with their new creative-genius friends as they explored new forms of expression. Indeed, not only did the capitalist class embrace modernism, Kramer wrote, it “created special institutions—museums and exhibition societies, schools, publications, foundations, etc.—which functioned, in effect, as agencies of a licensed opposition.” The result was something new in the history of Western culture.

Kramer was no radical at this point, but neither was he the merry volcano we know today. In retrospect, the incident that seems to have pushed him over the edge was the 1964 publication of Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp’” in Partisan Review, an essay that purported to announce a whole new way of looking at things, a new sensibility. Sontag’s essay is best read as a delayed rejoinder to an equally epochal piece, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” that Clement Greenberg published in PR back in 1939. Greenberg’s essay had been an attempt, simultaneously ponderous and naive, to enlist high modernism in the service of socialist revolution. Kitsch, or what would later be called mass culture, was the very antithesis of real art, he argued. It served as an instrument of totalitarian control, lulling the public into complacency by assuring them that they knew what was right without having to think. Modernism, on the other hand, challenged the masses with its very difficulty. The purpose of modern art was not to declare “all power to the soviets,” “down with the imperialist war,” or anything else so heavy-handed, but to inspire its audience to think—to think about art, about culture and politics, about the human condition in all its aspects.

To which Sontag replied a quarter of a century later, the hell with it: If kitsch is cheap and anti-intellectual, it can also be fun, and fun is the truly revolutionary quality. “Many examples of Camp are things which, from a ‘serious’ point of view, are either bad art or kitsch,” she declared. But so what? “The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious.”

The essay seems to have had the same effect on Hilton Kramer that the young Bob Dylan had on Michael Harrington—one of complete shock and dismay. Kramer had believed when Greenberg laid down the law about modernism’s moral engagement. Art was going to change the world! Yet here was Sontag celebrating kitsch precisely because it was liberated from “moral relevance.” Over the years, Sontag would turn into something of an obsession of Kramer’s, becoming the epitome of the self-aggrandizing literary politician he most despised. He followed the various twists and turns in her career with morbid glee. Here was Susan Sontag as the enemy of whiteness (“the white race is the cancer of human history …”); Susan Sontag as the lifestyle revolutionary (“Rock, grass, better orgasms, freaky clothes, grooving on nature—really grooving on anything—unfits, maladapts a person for the American way of life”); Susan Sontag as the born-again anticommunist (readers of Reader’s Digest “would have been better informed about the realities of Communism” than readers of The Nation or New Statesman); Susan Sontag as a latter-day Joan of Arc in war-torn Sarajevo; and, finally, Susan Sontag as laptop bombardier urging NATO to give the Serbs hell. Every time his audience’s attention seemed to wander, Kramer would haul out yet another dumb Sontag quote as if to say, “See? This is what we’re fighting against!”

After thirty years of official irony it’s not hard to sympathize with Kramer’s outrage. But Kramer just couldn’t walk away from it. When Sontag went left, he went right; when she returned to the center, he went further right still. Kramer was caught in a dilemma, as he sometimes realized in his more lucid moments. Camp was not just a new style, it was a disease, an aesthetic parasite. It needed modernism—his modernism!—in order to strike its supercilious poses. The problem, though, was that modernism seemed too old to fight it off. It was weak, enervated, “at the end of its tether,” as Kramer would later write. To make matters worse, the more Kramer struggled, the more serious he became, the more he seemed to strengthen his postmodern enemies, providing them with exactly the puritanical butt their japes required. But Kramer fought on, and as he did all his ideas and his insights and his brilliance were reduced to a single point: The absolute moral authority of Art.

This was the passion of Hilton Kramer, the desperate effort to save what could not be saved. The more hopeless it became, the more frenzied his efforts grew. In his hands, Greenbergian notions of modernism as a stringently moral exercise were becoming something dangerously authoritarian. Modernism was becoming a fetish, an icon, as Kramer bowed in prayer five times a day in the direction of the Museum of Modern Art. His position became conservative in the most literal sense—he was struggling to conserve what he could of a tradition he knew to be dying.

Kramer’s neocon proclivities were evident by 1970 when he lashed out at painters in New York for calling on museums to shut down temporarily to protest the invasion of Cambodia. By 1982, when he launched The New Criterion—“a monthly review edited by Hilton Kramer,” as every cover has proclaimed since—with a half-million-dollar grant from the Olin Foundation and other such sources, they were at full boil.

The New Criterion started out cranky and ended up worse. In an opening statement, the editors quoted Sir Walter Scott (a kitsch writer if ever there was one) to the effect that the entire enterprise was motivated by outrage over “the disgusting and deleterious doctrines with which the most popular of our Reviews disgraces its pages.” “Not since the 1930s,” the editors went on, “have so many orthodox leftist pieties so casually insinuated themselves into both the creation and criticism of literature, and remained so immune to resistance or exposure.” Within a few years, the magazine had published a neo-McCarthyite attack by the medieval historian Norman F. Cantor on the Princeton historian Lawrence Stone that was so over the top that it earned a rebuke from the neocon doyenne Gertrude Himmelfarb herself. In 1986, it published a wacky piece by Ronald Radosh asserting that a republican victory in the Spanish Civil War would have resulted in less freedom than a fascist one. (While correctly pointing out that the Soviet secret police ran riot behind Spanish republican lines, Radosh’s article made one wonder why, if Franco was preferable to Stalin in Spain, Hitler would not have been preferable to Stalin in Eastern Europe.) With the publication of Allan Bloom’s bestselling Closing of the American Mind a year later, the temperature of Kramer’s writing rose even higher. He was by now seeing feminists and deconstructionists under every bed and behind every tree, united in the common project of ransacking his precious modernist canon. By 1988, he was damning an entire generation of academics to perdition because they were conspiring to ensure that art be “categorically removed from the realm of aesthetics and placed firmly in a realm where the only legitimate questions are those that can be asked about the material—which is to say, the political and economic—conditions of its production.”

Loopy as this sounds, it made perfect sense in terms of Kramer’s alternative universe: If art is holy, its mysteries must be defended against those who would pry too closely into the circumstances in which it is created. Faith must be secured against reason. By 1989, Kramer was calling on academia to abandon sociological analysis altogether and return to the high ground of connoisseurship, “the clear, comparative study of art objects with a view to determining their relative level of aesthetic quality.” The operative word here was “relative”—Kramer was calling, in effect, for a return to the old cultural hierarchy in which artists were arranged in descending order of importance from the godlike to the semi-divine and so on.

By the mid-Nineties, The New Criterion’s tone had become so gloomy as to be positively Spenglerian. Thanks to the rock-loving, pizza-chomping, cigar-smoking Bill Clinton—in many ways, a figure even more distasteful to Kramer than Sontag—culture everywhere was going to wrack and ruin. “Culturally, morally the world we inhabit is increasingly a trash world,” sang Roger Kimball, Kramer’s tory colleague, “addicted to sensation, besieged everywhere by the cacophonous, mind-numbing din of rock music, saturated with pornography, in thrall to the lowest common denominator where questions of taste, manners, or intellectual delicacy are concerned.” Kramer meanwhile took to writing a column for that well-known fount of intellectual delicacy, the New York Post, devoted to complaining that his former employer, the Times, was becoming a PC stronghold. As a member of the Adelphi University board of trustees, he got caught up in the Peter Diamandopoulos scandal when it came out that he and Adelphi’s free-spending neocon president had run up a $552 bar tab one evening at university expense.

There are many ironies in this saga. The saddest and most compelling is the evolution of modernism from a movement coinciding, as Clement Greenberg once put it, “with the first bold development of scientific revolutionary thought in Europe,” into something more and more associated with the authoritarian right. But another has to do with the evolution of kitsch itself. Greenberg used the term to describe art that discouraged critical inquiry and rewarded political quiescence. But this is exactly what modernism itself has become in the hands of Hilton Kramer. For him modernism is an object of worship, not a tool of experimentation; a weapon to employ against those who would probe, analyze, or otherwise demystify power. The result is not modernism versus kitsch, as it had been for Clement Greenberg, but modernism as kitsch.