Left cold in hot air

The Twilight of The Intellectuals

June 16, 2000

If you had asked Maurice Bowra, the most famous Oxford don and wit of his day, how old someone was, as like as not he would have replied: 'Our Age'. He meant by this anyone who came of age and went to the university in the 30 years between 1919 and 1949." So begins the epitaph and masterwork of the late lamented Noel Annan, Our Age (1990). His book was an answer to the question: Who are We? "Bowra meant those who make their times significant and form opinion. He would have thought of poets, writers, artists and dons... To be a genuine member of Our Age it was not enough to be well-born, or well-known, or pleasure-loving. Nor was it enough to be a scholar. He liked people to be quick, intelligent, and to delight in general ideas."

Annan's was an essentially British study, anchored in the common rooms of the better colleges and the proving grounds of the London School of Economics. If he had admitted Americans at all, he would surely have considered Hilton Kramer - if only to dismiss him later. "Hilton Kramer was born in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and attended the public schools there," says a note on the author: "He received a bachelor's degree from Syracuse University and studied at Columbia, Harvard and Indiana universities before teaching at the University of Colorado, Bennington College and the Yale School of Drama. Kramer became editor of Arts Magazine in 1955 and art critic of The Nation seven years later. In 1965 he was appointed art news editor of The New York Times , then its chief art critic, a position he held until 1982, when he left to found The New Criterion, which he now edits." He is, in other words, a capo in the cultural mafia of Manhattan (though he is now too grand to reside there) and an elder citizen of the republic of letters. He is the right age - an undergraduate in the late 1940s - but is he really Our Age?

He is insistent that he is: that his voice counted for something in the Kulturkampf of the cold war, at least in the American Babylon. "For certain intellectuals of my generation," he is prone to write, "literary, Jewish, liberal (as we then were) but contemptuous of progressive causes, anti-Communist, skeptical of the academy, indifferent to mass culture, enchanted by the life of art and the life of the mind, yet gloomy about what the modern world held in store for us... Saul Bellow was one of the writers who instantly became part of our conversation with ourselves and with others." That is from "Saul Bellow, our contemporary", and, we are clearly meant to infer, Our Equal. In the miscellany that makes up this volume the author and his intellectual credentials are never knowingly undersold. "Reflections on Partisan Review ", for example, contains this bravura passage: "In the spring of 1953, I sent an essay on the contemporary art scene to Philip Rahv (its editor), whom I had met the summer before at the School of Letters in Indiana... Much to my astonishment, Rahv accepted the piece and promptly published it... I had already published some literary criticism elsewhere, but this was my debut as an art critic and I quickly discovered that, owing to the intellectual authority which PR then enjoyed, publication in the magazine was in itself a ticket to a career I wasn't yet certain that I wanted. Invitations to write for other publications - including one from Clement Greenberg to contribute to Commentary - soon came pouring in, and I woke up one fine day to discover that the world, or at least the part of it with which I was now becoming acquainted, considered me a professional art critic."

From there it was all downhill. The more he became acquainted, the more he deplored. Culture and politics alike simply did not measure up. For Kramer, aesthete and littérateur , the currency was horribly, wantonly debased. In the first instance, this means a good deal of ranting about the cold war. "It was the intransigent idealism of Reagan, not Kissingerian Realpolitik , and much less the accommodationism of the liberal establishment, that won the cold war" (the weasel words of Robert Kagan, heavily endorsed by Kramer). His own enunciation is a neat suture of the vacuous and the vicious. "One of the great weaknesses that afflicted the West in this fateful struggle was the long-standing tendency of its artists, intellectuals and other opinion makers to ally themselves with any regime, no matter how brutal and undemocratic, that claimed to rule in the name of socialism." Since the 1930s, he thinks, "a good deal of American cultural life may be said to have been Stalinised, and at certain intervals - in the cultural revolution of the 1960s, for example, and with the imposition of political correctness and multiculturalism in the 1980s and 1990s - has been repeatedly re-Stalinised".

Kramer is a disciple of the moronic inferno school of art criticism ("this miasma of a degraded popular cultureI"). It comes as no surprise to find him terminally unresponsive to the main events of modernism in his time. His critical signature is sanctimonious proscription. The nullity of this enterprise has been well captured by the distinguished philosopher critic Arthur C. Danto, apropos an exhibition of recent work by the meretricious Jeff Koons. '"A new low' is what Hilton Kramer of course wrote, but he writes in much the same way on just about everything... and like a broken clock whose hands point always to the same black hour, is irrelevantly predictable and critically useless: you can always tell what time it says ('late!') but never what time it is." Kramer's position is comically clear. The Twilight of the Intellectuals is not Our Age but Sour Age.

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Keele University.

The Twilight of The Intellectuals: Culture and Politics in the Era of the Cold War

Author - Hilton Kramer
ISBN - 1 56663 222 6
Publisher - Ivan R. Dee
Price - £19.99
Pages - 363

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