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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

December 29, 1991|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | 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.

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