It is with great sadness that I report the death of my dear friend and longtime colleague Hilton Kramer, who died early this morning, age 84 (his birthday was just two days ago).
I will have more to say at The New Criterion — the magazine Hilton co-founded with the pianist Samuel Lipman in 1982 — soon. But here let me record my deep personal and professional debt to a man who not only employed me at The New Criterion — I began writing for the magazine in 1983, joined the staff in 1989 — but who also was for me a model of everything a critic should be: independent, forthright, well-informed, and above all incorruptible. Hilton always told it exactly as he saw it, and he generally saw it with revealing clarity. He was fond of quoting William Dean Howells’s observation that “the problem for a critic is not making enemies but keeping them.” I have since taken to quoting it often myself: telling the truth about things will often irritate vested interests, as much in the art world as in the worlds of business or politics, and if a critic does not irritate people it generally means he is not doing his job.
Because of his long tenure as an art critic for The New York Times, Hilton was known to the world chiefly as a writer about art. But in fact he started life as a literary critic and his mature intellectual interests embraced literary, politics, and the world of culture more generally. His book The Twilight of the Intellectuals: Culture and Politics in the Era of the Cold War (1999) is a brilliant overview of the figures — some courageous, many perfidious — that made that period such a rich if often malevolent time.
Hilton was a staunch anti-Communist and unapologetic partisan of democratic capitalism and the tradition of individual liberty it made possible. He was also a stalwart defender of high culture at a time when the demotic forces of crass commercialism, political correctness, and academic hermeticism threatened to destroy the humanizing resources of the intellectual and moral tradition of the West. The New Criterion was his chief institutional legacy to shore up this legacy. It is an honor and privilege for me to help carry on that legacy as editor of The New Criterion. I speak for our entire staff and our extended family of friends in lamenting Hilton’s passing. RIP.
Update: More here.