To One of the 20th Century’s Greatest Jewish Art Critics, Religion Was Never Far Off

Oct. 24 2022

At the beginning of his long and fruitful career, the critic and essayist Hilton Kramer (1928–2012) was very close with the largely Jewish circle of writers known as the New York intellectuals. A great defender of modern art—he admired especially Picasso, Matisse, and Kandinksy—Kramer was also a fierce critic of what he saw as the excesses of such later figures as Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock. He was also a dedicated anti-Communist and, later in life, an opponent of the sorts of political correctness that would now be labeled “woke.” In a careful consideration of Kramer’s work, Brian Allen analyzes the role played by religion and ethics:

The best art, Kramer believed, has what he called a moral purpose. I’d quibble with the word “moral.” Morals are personal and vary based on an individual’s upbringing and experience. Kramer, rather, saw the best art as rooted in ethics, those broadly held standards of best conduct—going beyond family, tribes, or taste—that make us a human community. Rigor, honesty, expressiveness, vision, yearning, and conviction are at the center of the art he liked best.

Kramer didn’t write about religious belief often. He was Jewish—not observant, but religious feeling wasn’t far. He wasn’t dogmatic about faith but was keen on soulfulness. He considered the early Modernists like Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich, the most extreme abstractionists, as not dogmatically religious artists but certainly searchers after God. They were willing to abandon direct, discernible references to recognizable objects to get beyond materialism and the desperation, unbelief, and lack of purpose that it foments. Kramer thought that the best art broached topics like immortality and the meaning of life.

Kramer was sharp-eyed when it came to spotting the perils to artists and art historians of making their work political. Until the 1960s, Modernist artists were far removed from politics. It simply wasn’t their sphere. They were focused, as was Kramer, on the imperatives of aesthetics, which are nonpolitical. The politicization of art and art history reminded Kramer of culture behind the Iron Curtain. Culture has no purpose for totalitarians except to serve the state. Art in the Soviet Union, but also in its doppelgänger Nazi Germany, was thoroughly debased as a consequence.

By the 1990s, he feared that the same thing was happening again. The arts issue that concerned Kramer was the role of political correctness in demolishing art criticism, since, fundamentally, it was an assault on quality.

Read more at City Journal

More about: Art, New York Intellectuals, Political correctness

Israel’s Friendship with Iraqi Kurds, and Why Iran Opposes It

In May 2022, the Iraqi parliament passed a law “criminalizing normalization and establishment of relations with the Zionist entity,” banning even public discussion of ending the country’s 76-year state of war with Israel. The bill was a response to a conference, held a few months prior, addressing just that subject. Although the gathering attracted members of various religious and ethnic groups, it is no coincidence, writes Suzan Quitaz, that it took place in Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan:

Himdad Mustafa, an independent researcher based in Erbil, to whom the law would be applied, noted: “When 300 people gathered in Erbil calling for peace and normalization with Israel, the Iraqi government immediately passed a law criminalizing ties with Israel and Israelis. The law is clearly aimed at Kurds.” . . . Qais al-Khazali, secretary-general of Asaib Ahl al-Haq (Coordination Framework), a powerful Iranian-backed Shiite militia, slammed the conference as “disgraceful.”

Himdad explains that the criminalization of Israeli-Kurdish ties is primarily driven by “Kurd-phobia,” and that Kurd-hatred and anti-Semitism go hand-in-hand.

One reason for that is the long history of cooperation Israel and the Kurds of Iraq; another is the conflict between the Kurdish local government and the Iran-backed militias who increasingly control the rest of the country. Quitaz elaborates:

Israel also maintains economic ties with Kurdistan, purchasing Kurdish oil despite objections from Iraq’s central government in Baghdad. A report in the Financial Times discusses investments by many Israeli companies in energy, development sectors, and communications projects in Iraqi Kurdistan, in addition to providing security training and purchasing oil. Moreover, in a poll conducted in 2009 in Iraqi Kurdistan, 71 percent of Kurds supported normalization with Israel. The results are unsurprising since, historically, Israel has had cordial ties with the Kurds in a generally hostile region where Jews and Kurds have fought against the odds with the same Arab enemy in their struggles for a homeland.

The Iranian regime, through its proxies in the Iraqi government, is the most significant source of Kurd-phobia in Iraq and the driving factor fueling tensions. In addition to their explicit threat to Israel, Iranian officials frequently threaten the Kurdish region, and repeatedly accuse the Kurds of working with Israel.

Read more at Jersualem Center for Public Affairs

More about: Iran, Iraq, Israel-Arab relations, Kurds