Dean Of The Arts

Like most people, I never cared very much about fine art except for the occasional stroll through MOMA or the Whitney or the Guggenheim or LACMA, or some random visit to a gallery in West Hollywood or Tribeca. And so I never read the late Hilton Kramer‘s art criticism, which appeared in the N.Y. Times from ’65 to ’82, and also in Arts Magazine, the N.Y. Observer, New Criterion, The Nation, etc. Not my world, didn’t give a hoot…sorry.


Art critic Hilton Kramer (1928 — 2012)

I’m such a fine-art peon, in fact, that when I read yesterday about Kramer’s death my only vivid recollection was from a famous passage in Tom Wolfe‘s The Painted Word (’75). It stayed in my head because it suggested that not only Kramer but perhaps an entire community of art critics had crawled into their own posterior, and that this, perhaps, was why I never found their articles compelling.

While reading a 4.28.74 Kramer piece in the Times about a Yale University Art Gallery exhibition (it was called “Seven Realists: Pearlstein, Bailey, Mangold, Wiesenfeld, Fish, Posen, Hanson”), Wolfe wrote that he was “jerked alert” by Kramer’s pronouncement that “to lack a persuasive theory is to lack something crucial — the means by which our experience of individual works is joined to our understanding of the values they signify.”

Kramer’s statement left Wolfe elated and flabbergasted because in his head it was a key that opened a proverbial lock. “Then and there I experienced a flash known as the Aha! phenomenon,” Wolfe wrote, “and the buried life of contemporary art was revealed to me for the first time.

“All these years, along with countless kindred souls [whom Kramer has characterized as that 'larger public that knows nothing about modernist art']… I had assumed that, in art, if nowhere else, seeing is believing. Well — how very shortsighted!

“Now, at last, on April 28, 1974, I could see. I had gotten it backward all along. Not ‘seeing is believing,’ you ninny, but ‘believing is seeing,’ for Modern Art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text.”

Kramer was a conservative-minded fellow who allegedly took a dim view of various Marxist-lefty-nihilist undercurrents in modern art, and it was apparently this that led to his resignation from the Times in ’82. But don’t take it from me.

9 thoughts on “Dean Of The Arts

  1. Not sure what your reference point is here. By ‘fine art’ are you referring to all art – Rembrandt, Renoir, etc. – or are you just referring to modern art, i.e., Braque, Picasso, Mondrian, Modigliani, etc.?

    If the latter, Kramer is nothing to go by. A rigid conservative, he basically felt that art had gone done the tubes since the 1910s. Had no use for Dada, Surrealism, Pop, etc.

    Yes, there’s a lot of bullshit art out there, artists who do overly intellectualize or have a rigid political agenda, but gee, when I see some of Jackson Pollack’s paintings, I just think of the energy and life they convey. Something Kramer couldn’t possibly understand. I mean, the guy wears bow ties! Like George Will, he’s just another right-wing anal retentive.

  2. Tom Wolfe is a great writer. Well said. I need to meander through an art gallery and just take it all in. The art I like, the art that makes me ? The art I don’t care for. I hate to say it but a meander through an art gallery might be better than two hours spent in a movie theater.

  3. “The motes, scales, conjunctival bloodshots, and Murine agonies fell away!”

    It’s the grain, I tell ya! He’s talkin’ about the grain!

    There’s your problem. All that grain storm bothers you because you lack something crucial. You lack a theory of the grain. Glenn Kenny and Robert Harris have a theory of the grain, and it all falls away for them.

    Seriously, Hilton Kramer talking about a theory being crucial is like all those Yale literary critic types talking about literature as if it only exists in order for literary critics to have theories about it. Theory is what they do for a living, so of course they think it’s the most freakin’ important thing in the world.

  4. I dream of a world in which critics and academics write about other critics and academics, and deconstruct what sort of baggage and hangups they have.

  5. “Like most people, I never cared very much about fine art.”

    Love it when Wells identifies with the fat, flip-flop masses.

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