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.
More about: Art, New York Intellectuals, Political correctness