ART : COMMENTARY : The Little Journal That Can't : The New Criterion, now in its 10th year under Hilton Kramer, has looked to neoconservative doctrine as its muse

Christopher Knight is a Times art critic

Here's a quick fairy tale about the life of art in the past quarter-century:

Behind a great, groaning dam built from the hard-won bricks of Eternal Cultural Standards and the mortar of Aesthetic Quality, there has risen a dangerously swollen tide of artistic debauchery: Pop artists, Minimalists, Conceptualists and other horrid children of the 1960s, along with their more recent, equally debased progeny, the teeming multiculturists.

Together, they threaten ruinous deluge on the helpless villagers in the peaceful valley below. What to do? What to do?

Enter Hilton Kramer, the Little Dutch Boy of art criticism. With first one finger, then another, soon all 10 and, finally, even a few agile toes, the pugnacious critic heroically struggles to plug the widening web of cracks and leaky holes.

Hurrah! The villagers have been saved!

The End.

This Classic Comics version of Kramer's career, complete with an ostensibly happy ending, doesn't quite match the actual story. That began in 1953, with his job as an editor at the old Arts Digest, and continues today at the New Criterion, the monthly review of art and culture he has edited since 1982. With a special anniversary issue last September, and now on the brink of 1992, the magazine is in its 10th season of publishing.

An anniversary being an appropriate moment for reflection, it's surely time to ask: What contribution has the New Criterion made to our artistic life? The answer is rather grim, but not without significance.

The New Criterion addresses music, theater, dance, books and, occasionally, architecture, along with topics of general intellectual interest, such as the state of academe. Within its handsomely designed, illustration-free pages, however, a special position of prominence has always been claimed for the visual arts.

In the nearly 20 years between his jobs editing magazines, Kramer wrote lively art criticism at the New York Times. Which is to say he occupied the most prominent, highly visible platform to which an art critic could then aspire.

With talent buoyed by luck, he had been in the right place at the right time. Kramer came up through the ranks in the years that New York's centrality in the international art world was being secured. When finally he arrived at the New York Times in the 1960s--first in the junior slot behind John Canaday, then as senior critic--he soon became the voice of the art world's hometown paper.

Kramer understood, in a way that neither Canaday nor Kramer's own successor, John Russell, ever did, that journalistic criticism required not only knowledge, but also a gift--and a stomach--for polemics. Many readers loathed Kramer's aesthetic ideology, which was (and is) based on a narrow and simplistic grasp of Modernism. They read him anyhow.

Thus, no small shock greeted the sudden news in March, 1982, that at the age of 54, he would step down to launch the New Criterion. Why would art's reigning disputant set aside mass media, a principal channel of influence in the modern era, for the relatively obscure world of "the little magazines"?

In retrospect, the answer seems clear. Kramer removed his polemic from the art world, which he regularly bemoaned as a lost cause, to insert it into a more powerful realm that might be able to make a long-range difference. He took it to the world of politics.

In the early '80s a new breed of Washington think tank, with direct ties to the Reagan-Bush White House, was working diligently to topple the liberal Establishment. A handful of journals, many subsidized by influential foundations, offered important platforms for targeted circulation of their conservative ideas. Kramer decided to join them.

Prominent among the initial underwriters of his new venture was the John M. Olin Foundation. Samuel Lipman, music critic of Commentary, the influential magazine of conservative politics, assumed the role of the New Criterion's publisher. Both Commentary and Olin had been important to the rise of the neoconservative doctrine, which had been crucial to Ronald Reagan's 1980 election to the presidency.

Kramer vaingloriously named his magazine after the Criterion, T.S. Eliot's British journal of the 1920s and '30s. The New Criterion--or, as wags immediately began to call it, the Neo-Criterion--set itself a task. Given a shifting political landscape and a friendly Administration, Kramer's slim new monthly review meant to hold aloft a neoconservative standard for the arts.

The inaugural issue couldn't have been more direct. A column by Norman Podhoretz, mandarin editor of Commentary, opined on the English literary critic and Puritan moralist F.R. Leavis, while Joseph Epstein, neoconservative editor of the American Scholar, went on at length about the decayed condition of "The Literary Life Today." Thus did the new magazine claim instant credentials as a neoconservative bulwark, while signaling fraternity within the like-minded ranks of small-circulation publications with large-scale ambitions.

Kramer wrote the lead essay. "Postmodern: Art and Culture in the 1980s" laid out yet again his familiar position: The once-vital Modernist avant-garde, now fully institutionalized, had seen its hard-won achievements and unfinished ideals horribly disfigured by dual forces dominating contemporary life. One curse was mass culture, the other was the liberal Establishment.

Not surprisingly, among the New Criterion's first targets was the National Endowment for the Arts--that recalcitrant cell of ostensible liberals within Washington's newly conservative policy-making Establishment, born of the hated Kennedy Administration and christened by L.B.J.'s failed Great Society. Kramer's dim view of the NEA was known even to casual readers of the New York Times.

With his publisher, Lipman, now occupying a seat on the presidentially appointed citizens panel that oversees the NEA, perhaps Kramer could actually do something about it. Less than a year after their magazine was launched, the NEA announced a symposium to discuss the future of its tiny grant program in art criticism. Twenty-four critics from around the country were invited to assess the program, with an eye toward its revision. (I had the pleasure of participating.) Because all 24 were writers, and because open and unencumbered discussion was being sought, participants were asked to refrain from publishing accounts of the two-day meeting in their respective publications.

According to one of those charged with selecting the panel, Kramer was the sole critic the staff was specifically instructed to invite by then-NEA Chairman Frank Hodsoll. So, a good deal of dismay--not to mention suspicion of a setup--was expressed when a blistering account of the symposium subsequently appeared in only one publication: the New Criterion of November, 1983.

Kramer's essay, "Criticism Endowed: Reflections on a Debacle," thoroughly misrepresented the wide-ranging discussions. "Most of those present were pleased with the program as it was," he announced. In truth, during the meeting's lengthy summation not one participant had spoken in favor of maintaining the status quo.

Kramer never disclosed that he had left the symposium long before it ended. But more outlandish still was his indictment of supposed conflicts of interest, which he alleged had grossly compromised the program's integrity.

What made this claim remarkable was its means of delivery to the NEA's policy-making overseers on the National Council--a group that just happened to be scheduled to discuss the symposium's findings at its November meeting. As the council session was being called to order, member Lipman scurried around the table distributing his own magazine, hot off the presses, complete with his editor-participant's supposedly "disinterested" commentary, to his soon-horrified colleagues.

In short order, the NEA program in art criticism got the ax.

Why this cunning embrace of Realpolitik ? For the first time since his youthful days at the helm of Arts magazine, Kramer-the-editor was now obliged to produce hard results, or risk his funding source. One minuscule program at a federal agency is pretty small fish, but at least it was a start--especially since the annihilation represented a speedy "victory" over a national array of dissenting critics. For neoconservatives, symbolism has always meant a lot.

Only once during his nine years at the New Criterion has Kramer's critical contentiousness made itself felt beyond such relatively narrow confines as this--and then it was through an article that appeared not in his own journal, but in his old haunt. In July, 1989, he wrote a lengthy, inflammatory article for the Sunday New York Times in support of NEA censorship. It deftly thrust a hot poker into the eye of the looming censorship Cyclops, which proceeded to thrash wildly across the land until finally it got stopped in a courtroom in Cincinnati.

Echoing the fulsome rhetoric of Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), Kramer's polemic was intellectually shabby. He nattered on about the inalienable right of citizens to squelch art exhibitions not to their liking but paid for with tax dollars. Never did he deign to reconcile the obviously anti-democratic nature of this crude, majoritarian position.

Instead, he busily pushed cheaply emotional hot buttons. (In one memorable slide, "taxpayers" were seamlessly transformed into "parents with young children to protect.") Not surprisingly, the New Criterion has been a fiesta of hot button pushing. Apocalyptic, saber-rattling essay titles--"The Assault on the Museums," "Modernism and Its Enemies"--turn up the heat.

The prevailing tone of the magazine is the arrogant sneer, filed to a keen edge for the purpose. There are notable exceptions. A favorite lead sentence, from Lipman's lissome pen, was his solemn declaration: "As is the case with most child prodigies, my early musical experience was rich but frightfully narrow." Hauty self-aggrandizement, which is the correlative of a sneer's condescension, regularly sneaks in.

Like most magazines with an ideological ax to grind, the New Criterion suffers most from predictability. Inquiry immediately gives way to rote. Indeed, the simple pairing of author and subject in the table of contents usually gives everything away.

The list typically reads like an outtake from "Jeopardy," the TV game show in which answers precede the questions. Consider the editor's contribution to September's anniversary issue, an essay with the dire title "Has Success Spoiled the Art Museum?" The more apposite question might be: Does anyone actually need to read it to find out what Hilton (Doomsday) Kramer's answer will be?

More than one observer has pointed out that a linchpin holding together Kramer's critical ideology isn't merely rickety, it's nonexistent. Yes, the Modernist avant-garde has been fully institutionalized. But, asserting an equation between art's institutions and the far left--or even the liberal Establishment--as the New Criterion regularly does is just plain loony.

Anyone who thinks the most powerful institutions of art in the United States maintain anything other than conservative or, at the very least, centrist points of view, all of them devoutly capitalist in commitment, will also likely be found baying at the moon on the odd winter night. The far left is but a pesky gnat buzzing about the gray institutional elephant.

A serious fly in the New Criterion ointment, it infects most every view the magazine espouses. Take "political correctness," the latest bandwagon of pop sloganeering that ostensibly anti-pop Kramer & Co. have climbed aboard.

PC asserts that all manner of institutions in our society now feel that they must adhere to a rigid code of conduct and beliefs--typically, liberal conduct and beliefs. Exactly how this adherence to a code might differ from the usual neoconservative demand for the maintenance of firm "standards" does not get discussed. (Neocons are in fact desperate for political correctness; they just don't want the politics to be liberal.) Yet, the intellectual flimsiness of this approach is best demonstrated by its loud clash with another Kramer doctrine of much longer standing.

Until the PC hot button came along, Kramer's writing was filled with woeful lamentations for the widespread arrival, among members of the '60s generation and after, of what he quaintly calls an "anything goes" mentality. How the slackness of an "anything goes" philosophy might square with the rigid demand for a code of political correctness--now being attributed to exactly the same crowd--is anybody's guess. It is also one of the Mack truck-size holes in what passes for a New Criterion world view.

Remarkably, the introductory note to the New Criterion's anniversary issue reached a new level of political diddling. (It's unsigned, but Kramer's fingerprints are all over it.) Among the most vulgar, even spiteful pieces of writing published in the magazine to date--and that's saying a lot--it tars the legions of past dissenters from New Criterion aesthetic dogma with flag-waving appeals to America's military triumph in the Gulf War and to the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and the since-dismantled Soviet Union.

The apparently ruinous effect on the U.S. economy doesn't get mentioned; but, with the inevitable apparition of an Un-American Aesthetic Activities Committee floating on the mind's horizon, storm warnings are then posted for the future. Multiculturalism ( eek! ) actually gets likened to the brutally repressive cultural revolutions in Hitler's Germany and Maoist China.

Because such ravings are, well, ravings , a far more important consideration presents itself in determining exactly how important--or not--the New Criterion has been as a journal of art these last many seasons.

Two years ago, at the invitation of the Art Dealers Assn. of Southern California, Kramer was invited to lecture at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on the state of art in Los Angeles. His withering denunciation was no surprise (he'd delivered a nearly identical diatribe at the County Museum of Art a few years before), but his chosen argument was most revealing.

Los Angeles did not have, and would not have, a significantly developed art life, Kramer announced, until it could support at least one example of a serious, intellectual journal of criticism. And he was explicitly not talking about the kind of glossy, promotional, advertiser-oriented magazine that had come to dominate art publishing.

Forget that the New Yorker was a bit out of date in his L.A. lore. (The critical journal Art Issues had then been publishing for nearly a year, as it still does today.) More important was what followed.

The highest function of such a journal, Kramer went on to explain, was to critically secure the reputations of important artists, who would otherwise languish. Without that, the life of culture was doomed.

During the question-and-answer period that followed this stern (and, yes, often sneering) lecture, I asked Kramer to name a single artist, living or dead, whose reputation had been secured in the previous seven years by any critic toiling in the pages of the New Criterion. As the audience shifted in their seats he blanched, stammered, paused, blanched again--and soon changed the subject.

I didn't blame him. I couldn't think of one either.

I still can't, despite the passing of additional years and a fairly thorough review of nearly a decade's worth of monthly issues. Even abandoning one's own independent measure and taking up Kramer's old criterion for achievement, it's fair to say the New Criterion has been a colossal failure as a magazine of the visual arts.

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