We should always endeavor to “push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you,” Flannery O’Connor once said. At Touchstone magazine, Bradley W. Anderson looks back at the late Hilton Kramer, the founder of the New Criterion magazine, now published by fellow PJ Media columnist Roger Kimball, and Kramer’s push back against both the excesses of modernism, and what Anderson calls “The Perverted Amalgam of Postmodernism” as well:
Any age has its darkness, and the age of modernism was decidedly not an exception. Kramer pointed out that even Eliot had “illustrated the apparently unavoidable paradox that the advent of modernism brought with it the seeds of its own perpetual renovation.” This “perpetual renovation” had the potential for decadence as surely as it had the promise of fresh insights into the particularities of modern life, and no one knew this better than Kramer. Much of his life as a critic was spent exposing the humbuggery and snake oil that is often gathered under the label of “postmodernism” (or of “modernism” for that matter).
Like any heresy, postmodernism was not so much a new movement (although many a charlatan wanted to claim it to be so) as it was a perverted amalgam of old ones. There had always been streams of modernism that were assaults on the life of the mind and spirit (such as Dadaism), but the latter half of the twentieth century saw those trickles turn into veritable floods. Apart from the objectionable moral content of postmodernism (of which there was plenty, to be sure), Kramer wrote that:
The problem with postmodernism is not that it embraces architectural ornamentation or representational painting or self-referential plot lines. The problem is postmodernism’s sentimental rejection of the realities of modern life for the sake of an ideologically informed fantasy world. In this sense, modernism is not only still vital: it remains the only really vital tradition for the arts.
There one has it: the nexus between dangerous and vicious “ideologically informed fantasy worlds” (such as communism) and perverted strains of art created by those whose “loyalty is to something other than the truth.” Those strains serve not to remind man of the higher things to which he is called, but rather to enslave him to the passions, which plague him quite enough without any assistance.
Most of us have known only a steady disintegration of Western culture during our lifetimes. In America, our heritage can be understood properly only in relation to the historical reality of Christendom—both in the ways our country has embraced it from the beginning and in the ways it has rejected it from the beginning (and continues to reject even more parts of that heritage with every passing year). It is not irrational to wish to withdraw from a disintegrating culture, but that impulse has a way of containing the seeds of its own fulfillment.
T. S. Eliot saw the rot and hollowness, but kept working, creating monumental art and crafting essays about literature, ancient and modern, that spoke to the intellectual and spiritual needs of his time. Solzhenitsyn did the same thing, and furthermore once wrote that an artist has to engage life as he finds it, not as he wishes it to be. Both men brought their considerable intellectual resources to bear on the task of reconstructing wastelands.
Hilton Kramer is no longer with us, and many of the things he wrote about are now in the history books, for better or for worse. But The New Criterion, the journal he founded and nurtured to adulthood, is still here. Those who would themselves seek to engage and understand more deeply the milieu in which we find ourselves today—cultural, artistic, religious, and moral—could hardly do better than to add its pages to their reading, continuing the conversation.
Kramer left his lofty perch as the chief art critic with the New York Times to launch the New Criterion, but not before this classic incident occurred, as told by Roger Kimball:
Hilton praised as often as he deprecated. But he was famously reputed to be a “severe,” “acerbic,” or “judgmental” critic. The last adjective always puzzled me. What manner of thing would a “non-judgmental,” i.e., a non-critical, i.e., a non-discriminating, critic be? Hilton liked to quote Walter Bagehot in this context: “The business of the critic,” said Bagehot, “is to criticize.” One of Hilton’s favorite stories involved the movie director and actor Woody Allen. Back when Hilton worked at The New York Times, he happened to be seated next to Allen one night at a dinner. He asked whether Hilton ever felt embarrassed when he encountered socially artists he’d written disparagingly about. Without missing a beat, Hilton replied, No, why should I be embarrassed? They made the crappy art. I just described it.
Hilton’s response was both witty and innocent—witty, because it was a riposte unanswerable, innocent because it was only on his way home from the event that Hilton remembered he had written a negative review of The Front, a piece of left-wing agitprop about the Hollywood blacklist, in which Woody Allen acted.
Would any Timesman employed by today’s incarnation of the Gray Lady dare to speak Truth to Woody in a similar manner?
(Via Maggie’s Farm.)