Sunday, May 6, 2012

More on Hilton Kramer

The May issue of The New Criterion was in large part dedicated to the memory of the recently departed Hilton Kramer, founder and visionary behind that influential journal of culture and the arts. Particularly worth reading are editor Roger Kimball's lead essay and the reminiscences of the legendary Joseph Epstein, long-time editor of The American Scholar, but a browse through all of the tributes is well worth the time spent.

An interesting tidbit that I hadn't read before was that when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn finally decided to allow his reclusive privacy in Vermont to be violated long enough to allow the New York Times to interview him, one of his stipulations was that he would only speak to Hilton Kramer, then art critic for The Gray Lady. It was a request that must have seemed unusual at the time, since there were any number of literary or political editors or reporters who would have been more logical choices from the perspective of the Times. Kramer's reputation for honesty had apparently preceded him, making him someone Solzhenitsyn could depend on to tell the truth -- something Solzhenitsyn valued above all other qualities. Kramer's review of The Gulag Archipelago couldn't have hurt, in all fairness to the competition.

On another note, long-time readers of The New Criterion are so used to the fact of that periodical's unstinting championing of things like abstract expressionism in painting and the honesty of certain kinds of modernist architecture that it is easy to forget what an unusual sell this combination of modernist art and conservative culture and politics must have seemed at the time when seeking start-up funding from largely conservative foundations.

The combination made perfect sense to Kramer, for whom the two were organically woven together in his critical life. Those who may have been skeptical (present company included) but who read the journal through the years came to understand modernism in a new light, seeing its many currents,learning to separate the pretentious from the profound, the trendy from the potentially timeless. Most importantly, we discovered the that while engagement with a "canon" of proven artistic worth is an irreplaceable anchor to one's aesthetic life, life without contemporary artistic engagement with the human condition is an impoverished one, even when it involves sifting through dusty sands of trendy post-modernism to find that occasional jewel...

This issue has some interesting comments and anecdotes about Kramer making that sale (in part through the good offices of Irving Kristol.) He of course did, and the rest, as they say, is history.

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Afterthought (what would MH be without digressions and afterthoughts? -- or parenthetical filiations, for that matter): While working yesterday with one of the progeny at the ancestral homestead, planting trees for the next generation to enjoy, that phrase came up in the course of conversation. He, shovel in hand, asked the following question -- since the saying has long been "and the rest, as they say, is history," wouldn't it today be more proper to say "and as they say, 'the rest, as they say, is history?'" My reply felt feeble but I tried: besides its obvious infelicities, eventually a third "as they say" would have to be added to the phrase, and so on. True?

Musings for a weekend...

1 comment:

The Old Criterion said...

No. I think a third would never be necessary, because the first one is a kind of continual present tense, forever updating itself.