PRINT September 1974


Contemporary Art and the Plight of the Public: a View from the New York Hilton

Hilton Kramer, The Age of the Avant-Garde, An Art Chronicle of 1956–1972 (New York: Farrar, Straus And Giroux, 1973), 565 Pages.

A DECADE AND A LITTLE more have passed since Leo Steinberg composed, for an audience at The Museum of Modern Art, the popular lecture which characterized the situation of the public for contemporary art as a “plight.”1 Postulating an immediately functional idea of a public as grounded in the most generally shared experience of attentive beholders, Steinberg restored the artist and the critic to their places within that very large community. Their “plight” he then described as invested with “a certain dignity.” “There is a sense of loss, of sudden exile, of something willfully denied—sometimes a feeling that one’s accumulated culture or experience is hopelessly devalued, leaving one exposed to spiritual destitution.” This periodically renewed sense of loss, of deprivation was then proposed as the condition of esthetic innovation in our century, and its pathos offered, in a characteristically confessional gesture, as a guarantee of true seriousness.

We have, I think, no beholder so public within this public, so intimately acquainted with that sense of loss and its attendant grief, as Hilton Kramer. His career, extending from the editorship of Arts Magazine through his present work as art editor and senior critic of the New York Times, has been roughly coextensive with the maturing and dissemination, the ascent and hegemony of American art. In the rising euphoria, the festive rituals attendant upon its triumphs, he has been present, at some distance, not as a celebrant but as a censor, steadily articulating his sense of these past 20 years as the most problematic moment of the period we call modern.

Kramer came to the work of art criticism with a number of distinct advantages. Of these, the first was the admiring sense of a critical tradition for literature and its stylistic paradigms; the second was an ear trained by an obviously intensive commerce with those paradigms and their immediate successors. Ruskin, James, Fry, Eliot, Stevens, and the generation of American poets and critics who reached maturity in the 1920s form the company invoked with some regularity in his writing. They are joined by their French contemporaries, Mallarmé, Apollinaire, Valéry, Cocteau, but rather rarely by their successors on either continent, so that it is with a slight start of surprise that one encounters an epigraph by André Bazin or an allusion to Robbe-Grillet. The recurring references and allusions, then, are to a literary or belle-lettristic tradition that extends from the Victorians to the period of the entre-deux-guerres. The major art historians and theoreticians are rarely invoked, and these caesuras, like these allegiances, have undoubtedly shaped a style distinct in its concision and rhythmic assurance from that of any other critic now at work. It is, in fact, a style quite singular in its aspect of an instrument early mastered and consistently tuned. I therefore assume it has been for others, as for myself, a frequent, compensatory pleasure to come upon Kramer’s stately, well-constructed periods in the welter of the Times, as elsewhere. (One imagines, as well, his own wry response to a rap on the knuckles from Roger Shattuck, of all people, for a fault of style denounced in Shattuck’s appallingly cavalier and vulgar review in the New York Times Book Review of January 6, 1974.)

These allegiances, then, have doubtless determined the form in which Kramer consistently works: that of the short essay, thankfully innocent of footnotes, averaging about 1500 words in length and exceedingly well turned. He has assumed those journalistic restrictions of time and space which encourage the natural gift for the polemical thrust and the aphoristic parry. They do not, of course, foster the development of a closely argued position, or a sustained intellectual effort and exchange. The art editor of the Times is somewhat removed from anything one might consider an intellectual arena or a space of dialectical interaction; he is propelled toward the eminence of the cathedra. The pressures, obligations, the dynamics of the relation to the vaster public and the market foster a certain apodicticity of tone. Arts Magazine, under Mr. Kramer’s extremely able editorship, projected a sense of shared intensity of commitment which made it considerably more than an anthological review. One felt the manner in which Kramer, Sidney Tillim and Sidney Geist (the latter two are artists of unusual critical energy and skill) projected a certain lively reciprocity, strengthening the somewhat marginal status of the magazine. Forming a responsible opposition, they treated the esthetic and critical enterprise of the 1950s and early 1960s as a text for the polyphonic articulation of a critically dissident scrutiny. The Times is the last place in the world for that sort of effort, and the successive appointments of Peter Schjeldahl and John Russell, men of no visible critical commitments whatever, work toward the support of received opinion.

I should imagine, however, that Kramer would neither complain of these limitations nor consider himself in any way their victim; the short form, the relentless periodicity, the special obligations and disciplines inscribed within this post, occupied for almost a decade now, comprise a choice. Since his appointment to the Times, Kramer has confined his extracurricular writing largely to literary or other, more general publications. The one essay, on Charles Sheeler, published in a major art journal (Artforum, January, 1969) was startling at the time for the manner in which it exemplified, with no single modification of length, form, tone, or critical approach, the brief essay form developed for the Times. It had very much the aspect of a guest appearance; its tone and level of discourse suddenly evoked quite another public, another historical moment. In The Age of the Avant-Garde, the large volume which now reassembles the work of 15 years, it recedes into its proper place as one of Kramer’s more routine efforts.

All these essays but one are presented, with original publication date, in sections or groupings determined variously by relations of style, school, genre or chronology. Photography and criticism have their places next to the massive sections on the nineteenth century, the School of Paris, German and other northerners, art in the seventies. The initial and title essay, undated, was published, to the best of my recollection, in the October, 1972 issue of Commentary. I have not, within reach, the originals of these texts, almost all of which I read as they appeared, but it is my feeling that they have not been much revised. Kramer’s stylistic assurance and ideological stability would seem to preclude this. I can, however, testify to at least one instance in which further reflection or the passage of time has dictated the generous excision of a testy assault.

Well, then, how is one to characterize and appraise this critical enterprise in its largest and its most particular senses? I begin, almost at random, with the immediate and somewhat casual naming of some distinguishing strategies and traits, secure in the intimation that the fundamental commitments of method and of taste which underlie that assurance and stability will lead us very quickly to the center of this work. There is, then, the effort to examine, to revise existing historical canons, the qualified dissension from a number of dominant critical evaluations which produce a consistent effort to expose to critical reconsideration elements otherwise ignored or patronized. An entire generation of American figurative artists such as Leland Bell, Anne Arnold, Mary Frank, William King and their now somewhat more distinguished colleague Philip Pearlstein are so considered and defended. And there is the parallel effort in behalf of a recent American past: Maurer, Dove, Friedman, Walkowitz, Romaine Brooks, Prendergast and H. Lyman Saÿen. One notes, as well, the consistent and spontaneous response to the work of women artists; no critic has been for so long a time so concerned to place them, through a reviewer’s constant attention quite uninflected by ideological considerations, in the center of this country’s artistic life.

There is the felt commitment, articulated in a dozen or more of these critical and historical reevaluations, as practically everywhere else, to an art of “expression” as against that of (mere) “decoration.” In this somewhat vague and tenaciously invoked antithesis, one senses the polarity of abstraction and representation at work in advocacy of a humanism which still awaits the philosophical justification of its esthetic privilege. Thus Ellsworth Kelly’s work is accommodated for the manner in which

in the Chatham paintings, certain pictorial elements persist. Sooner or later, one cannot help noting that the division of rectangles in these paintings, is, essentially, a division of light and shadow. . . . Oddly enough a style that at first glance looks totally removed from any attachment to nature is nonetheless deeply evocative of a certain naturalistic poetry.

Here at once—one need go no further—we glimpse Kramer in the posture of the plight of deprivation, but consoled, as he takes a second, closer glance; what had seemed to be missing, subtracted, as it were, from a preexistent vision (work) is, upon closer inspection, restored. “Naturalistic poetry” is regained upon perception of its spatial strategy as originating in representation, and the work is rescued from “hermeticism,” and restored, in a revealing phrase, to “a normal course of aesthetic response.” I want, for the moment, to note the particularly brief and elliptical quality of this celebration, returning to that presently, and pass quickly to another of Kramer’s major positions: his disengagement from the major energies at work in Abstract Expressionism and its critical exponents. Kramer is probably alone in his refusal to see Pollock as both a seminal force and a major painter, and he is also somewhat singular in his appraisal of de Kooning’s work of the 1940s as unquestionably more important than that of the ’50s. The double dissent epitomizes his particularly tangential relation to critical opinion of the past 20 years, and his direct opposition to Rosenberg and Greenberg, the two American critics to whom he has devoted serious consideration.

Discerning and protesting against the Hegelian historicism still at work in Mr. Greenberg’s post-Marxist phase, he has, of course, in recent years moved closer to him, as Greenberg himself has moved away from the center of critical discourse and into the position of marshaling the prescriptive dimension of that historicism in the support of a pictorial orthodoxy and its commodity value. One had been genuinely startled by Kramer’s celebration of that orthodoxy in a review, omitted here, of an exhibition of Color Field painting organized a year or so ago in Boston by Kenworth Moffat; it involved an apparent revocation of judgment which still puzzles and disturbs. Kramer had, however, ended his repeated attacks, during the late 1960s, on the sculpture of Morris and Andre and upon their intellectual sources and ambiance, by invoking Greenberg’s embarrassingly feeble lamentations on “novelty” and “the triumph of ideas over art.”

There is, in fact, a sense in which Kramer, Greenberg, and Rosenberg all begin, by the late ’60s, to move much more closely together in the rhetoric of their defenses and rejections. Uneasy with the radical revision of immediately post-Cubist sculpture and its rejection of pictorial sources, they join in a chorus of regret for the decorum and gratifications of that tradition. Kramer’s refusal to review these “effects of mise-en-scène,” his derisive dismissal of “the repertory of playlets dealing with the drama of spatial perception” echo somewhat peevishly as well the shrill injunction to “Defeat Theatre!” dispensed from Cambridge in those days. There are, however, other ways, more complex and intimate, in which Kramer’s work demands to be specifically reconsidered in relation to that of both Greenberg and Rosenberg.

It has, I think, been clear to all of those who read him most attentively that the account of Rosenberg’s “eschewal of analysis of form as an inferior, if not an altogether irrelevant, interest” applies as easily and powerfully to Kramer’s own work. It is, in fact, almost surprising that Kramer manages, quite without the aid of the scrupulous and sophisticated descriptive techniques which have characterized the best of critical writings these last 15 years, to convey the relative weight, intensity, and coherence of the work that engages his sympathy. Eluding the pictorial factuality, the sculptural materiality, the spatial, formal coloristic particularities, the compositional dynamics of painting, he presents us with the rounded picture, the portrait of the artist and his oeuvre as instances, exemplary or cautionary, as the case may be, of the cultural and historical dilemmas of his time. He is visibly and deeply touched by the manner in which the artist assumes the complexities and contradictions of those dilemmas. Figures such as Trajan and Pearlstein are treated with the special respect reserved for those who work against the grain of history—and, incidentally, for those who work within the figurative mode, free from the corruption of the (merely) “decorative” impulse.

Kramer moves, in the first section of the book, through Impressionism and Neo-impressionism as through much of contemporary art, describing the general contours of a historical situation, the thrust and stance of esthetic enterprise, and one moves, with him, through the essays on Pissarro, Degas, Seurat, Redon, Puvis de Chavannes, Beardsley, Art Nouveau, Whistler (we are now on page 70) with barely a reference to a specific pictorial fact. The techniques of formal description do not inflect his analytic impulse. Adjectival references inform us of “a beautifully constructed picture with a delicate, soft light . . .,” “the wonderfully open and free qualities” of Seurat, the “superb pieces of draftsmanship” that is Simeon Solomon’s Anguish of Miriam. The career of a lifetime, assembled in short lists of titles, is subsumed in a single general phrase. Kramer is everywhere at pains to establish the niceties of historical distinctions, but they are rarely anchored in visual or formal ones, so that an early essay on Medardo Rosso, praiseworthy for the intensity and freshness of its response to a neglected oeuvre, contains not one reference to a particular sculpture. The longish essay on David Smith, composed on the occasion of Smith’s fiftieth birthday and constituting for many readers their introduction to the work of the greatest of American sculptors, is the best example of Kramer’s application of these distinctions and generalities on a larger scale. The short essay on Picasso’s Guitar of 1911–12 acknowledges the momentousness of a single source for Smith’s mature style in an exceptional and refreshing exercise in the analytic mode.

Encapsulating the careers of contemporary artists in a series of loosely brushed portraits, Kramer is at pains to demonstrate the moral tension of the modern artist’s fundamental allegiance to tradition. Echoing the critical doctrine of our recent past he is, like Trilling and like Eliot before him, concerned to celebrate the tensions and paradoxes in the position of a modernist artist, viewed from the solidly entrenched position of immanent criticism. A reliance upon the literary source, the technique of encapsulation, the rejection of contemporary analytic techniques greatly facilitates such a view: esthetic and intellectual discontinuities are elided in the somewhat historicist generalities of these essays. Or, to put it differently, Mr. Kramer’s Rosenbergian eschewal of analytic techniques inclines him to another version of Greenbergian historicism.

There is, however, another, larger dimension of diffidence, which sets him apart from Rosenberg; it is an immutable resistance to any of the theoretical foundations and consequences of esthetic, political, or social innovation. It is this, above all, that has insured the extraordinary stability of his critical positions and the isolation of his present eminence. It is this that generates his uneasy disapproval of the more enterprising art and criticism of the past ten years.

Kramer’s deep and abiding attachment to the modernist movement in France, and for the culture of which it was a supreme instance, has never blinded him to the decline of its art in the period since the Second World War. Though dissenting from the general euphoria of the American art world as it redefined its view of European enterprise, he shares in the general disaffection with respect to postwar French painting and sculpture. There remains, however, the manner in which French culture has maintained and strengthened its role in the world at large, and in our American art world in particular: there remains its theoretical productivity and its conceptual hold on American art and its criticism. One is constantly impressed, though occasionally amused, to observe the way in which the theoretical options generated in present-day Paris have replaced the formal ones of an earlier period. With Fauvist, Cubist, post-Cubist energy depleted by the war, it is existentialism, phenomenology, structuralism which have animated the adventurous art and criticism of the past two decades. To these developments, as to those of Anglo-American philosophical discourse, Kramer has responded with a faint, generalized, ironic dismissal, refusing to confront the critical implications of these fresh avenues and methods of inquiry.

He is infinitely more respectful and tolerant of the Theosophical allegiances of Mondrian and Kandinsky. Indeed two articles, reprinted here as one, were devoted in July, 1972, to that very problematic relation. It is true, of course, as Norbert Frye once remarked, that Madame Blavatsky’s influence upon modern art has far exceeded that of Einstein. What, however, accounts for Kramer’s singularly accommodating view of the matter? Disdaining to consider the major philosophical and methodological sources for the art of the 1960s and ’70s, he finds, nonetheless, that “the fictions required to sustain this [Kandinsky’s] noble purpose constitute one of the most interesting chapters in the intellectual history of modern art.”

Two reasons for this exceptional gesture suggest themselves: the piety addressed to an oeuvre which, having passed indisputably into the canon, does indeed constitute an already concluded “chapter” in an established text, and the condescension appropriate to the debased idealism and the tacky religiosity of Theosophy. Piety was as inappropriate a response to the art of Morris and Andre as condescension was to the thought of Merleau-Ponty and Wittgenstein, and it is here that we begin to discern in dismissiveness the terms of an abdication.

That admiring sense of a critical tradition Kramer as a young man brought to the critical task constituted a capital which has simply not been renewed. The result is the depletion of belle-lettristic resources in the service of a historical sense that is curiously undialectical. It is, one feels, not so much the pace and pressures of journalism which give to Kramer’s recent work the sense of fatigue and ennui; it is rather the sense of closure, the premature atrophy of the inquiring, speculative impulse. The contemptuous and personalized dismissal of those artists and critics who have responded, however awkwardly, to that impulse is a form of philistinism, embarrassing in this case. Like most forms of philistinism, it is psychologistic, and personalized, imputing motives of disingenuousness or arrogance to what are, after all, phenomena of an obviously more generally social and dynamic sort. More important, however, is the rigorously undialectical quality of such thinking on the part of one who claims, on the contrary, a special intensity and agony of dialectical consciousness. It evokes Adorno’s characterization of an immanent cultural criticism “scarcely able to avoid the imputation that it has the culture which culture lacks.”

It is in his direct confrontation with the art of the avant-garde as a historically determined and limited phenomenon, it is in his attempt to step outside the ideological confines of that moment, that we see Mr. Kramer’s deepest dilemma. The Age of the Avant-Garde, whose problematic end is commemorated in the title essay, is characterized as a product of the bourgeoisie’s most conspicuous virtue: the “liberalism” and “permissiveness” which guaranteed the support and growth of its disruptive innovations. To see that permissiveness as the bourgeoisie’s most conspicuous virtue is to err, and gravely. One has not assumed the consequences of the historical dialectic if one does not see and insist upon the manner in which, at every point, the structure and ascension of the bourgeoisie exact the most terrible price from the working class, and in so doing compromise the beneficiaries of that permissiveness. The most conspicuous virtue of the bourgeoisie in its period of ascendancy was its extraordinary energy and the modes it invented for the mobilization and regeneration of that energy. It is in this sense that bourgeois culture is truly ambiguous, for its terrible energies and the organized violence of its rationalizations were, at the same time, productive and exploitative of scientific advance and esthetic radicalism.

For Kramer, “the normal condition of our culture has become one in which the ideology of the avant-garde wields a pervasive and often cynical authority over sizeable portions of the very public it affects to despise.” The key words to our understanding of this phrase are “cynical” and “affects.” For Kramer, however historically oriented his intentions, “the decline of the avant-garde,” like so many other phenomena of a deeply political nature, is still to be described in these psychologically reductive terms of cynicism and simulation. They are, of course, the terms he has used, time and again, in his repeated attacks upon the reputation and achievement of Marcel Duchamp.

It is midway through this process that Duchamp’s legendary assault upon the work of art as traditionally conceived intervened. Demonstrating that there is no such thing as an object or a gesture that within the magical museum context, cannot be experienced as art, and this demonstration has the effect of consigning both the idea of tradition and the museum itself to a limbo of arbitrary choices and gratuitous assertions, which is exactly what our culture has now become.

But Duchamp’s entire oeuvre is not only pivotal among those which reopened art to the speculative dimension, revealing the economy of the museum-oriented culture as protective of the pictorial orthodoxies secreted by it. Duchamp’s gesture, one working hypothesis among others, constitutes, moreover, a step in the analysis of the process of cultural fetishization.

Lamenting, in a penultimate essay on “Art and Politics,” the tardy politicization of our own artists, Kramer sees them as “political amateurs,” “a pampered elite making claim to the political status and the moral imperatives of a woefully exploited underclass.” Remarking that the “sacred pretensions of the so-called avant-garde have been overtaken by the actual events of history,” he discerns “one tiny bright spot” in the situation: “the politicization of the art scene has washed up, at least for the foreseeable future, all those fantastic revolutionary claims which for years have dominated the discussion and promotion of new art.”

Now, exactly what sort of thinking will take comfort in that observation? A thinking which is, again, reductive in its accusatory psychologism, and can, in fact, be said to have relinquished its claim to dialectical rigor.

It is certainly true that the American artist, recovering only recently from the violence of his initial embrace by the American middle class of the postwar period, has been tardy in his awakening, stammering in his articulation, naive and insensitive, loose and shoddy in his political action. Embarrassment and acrimony are, however, trivial responses and the analytic problems posed for the cultural critic are such that neither the accusations of self-deception and cynicism, nor the comfort to be taken in one’s own supposed transcendence, through enlightened observation of those states, has the slightest importance. The dynamics of our society implicate the entire cultural superstructure of which artists and critics, like dealers and museum officials, are a part, forcing complicity in the decay and repression of the late capitalist era. For the critic of the New York Times to imply his own exemption from that implication is unthinkable. It is again Adorno who instructs our understanding of the case at hand:

If cultural criticism, even at its best with Valéry, sides with conservatism, it is because of its unconscious adherence to a notion of culture which, during the era of late capitalism, aims at a form of property which is stable and independent of stock-market fluctuations. This idea of culture asserts its distance from the system in order, as it were, to offer universal security in the middle of a universal dynamic.2

––Annette Michelson



1. Entitled “Contemporary Art and the Plight of Its Public,” it is the opening essay of Steinberg’s collection of essays, Other Criteria, New York, 1972.

2. Theodor W. Adorno, “Cultural Criticism and Society,” in Prisms, translated by Samuel and Sherry Weber, London, 1967, p. 22.