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I’d seen Hilton Kramer, the leading art critic who died yesterday, described using those very words in one of the articles I read this morning.  The description is both an honest compliment and, at the same time, an admonishment because it recalls an earlier time, the 1950s and 1960s, when critics like Kramer would wax eloquent about art and culture in long, rambling essays filled with obscure literary references and the kind of big words we no longer tolerate today. In many of the posthumous  articles about Kramer’s life and career there’s an undercurrent of pity; recalling a once-great mind clinging to an irrelevant past, asleep at the wheel, no longer a part of the very art world he helped create.

Kramer wrote for the Nation, the New York Times, and the New York Observer before founding his own magazine, the New Criterion, in 1982. He was smart and honest and insightful, and also deeply conservative politically. That conservatism permeated his work thoroughly but he had an intellectual rigor that seems almost quaint these days.

I’d read some of Kramer’s before, here and there. I disagreed with a lot of what he had to say about art and I thought his criticism of liberal intellectual culture, which he largely blamed for the decline of the arts and of our society in general, was a little broad-brush in a way that undercut his intelligence a little. But I always learned from him, as is usually the case when you pay attention to smart people from the other end of the spectrum.

Drowning Girl (Roy Lichtenstein, 1963) Kramer was not a fan.

Kramer spoke for an age when we didn’t confuse weirdness with talent, when we had a respect for (though not necessarily a slavish adherence to) traditions, when we valued craft and quality. He shared my aversion to Warhol and  labeled Lichtenstein “vacuous,” according to this tart little obit from Elaine Woo of the Los Angeles Times.  He railed against political correctness before the phrase was coined. He was a harsh critic of postmodern art and conceptual art and I completely agree with what I take to be one of his central beliefs; when everything is art, nothing is art. He may have been an bit of an intellectual snob but, hey, so am I.

Sure, Kramer’s best years were behind him, but in a lot of respects his best years were also our best years. We used to have discussions about things, be they art or culture or politics, and we could respect opposing viewpoints and even acknowledge some validity in them. The Hilton Kramers of the world have been rendered obsolete by clever but empty sound bytes and 300-word snippets without meaning, like bones with no meat. We win debates by being louder and more shrill, by finding a “hook” that renders facts meaningless. Style, not substance, rules. We’re all being fed some kind of bitter cotton candy that doesn’t fill us up but rather makes us fat and sluggish and rots our teeth.

Feast your eyes on The Age of the Avant-Garde, written by Hilton Kramer and published in Commentary magazine in 1972. Most people would read about half a paragraph before tossing it aside, picking up the remote, and turning on Ice Road Truckers.

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