Jed Perl: How Hilton Kramer Got Lost in the Culture Wars

Roundup: Talking About History

Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic.

Hilton Kramer, who died on March 27 at the age of 84, was a much more complicated man than is sometimes acknowledged. He was both a neoconservative cultural warrior who liked nothing better than plunging into a noisy, nasty battle and an exacting aesthete for whom life would have been impossible without the sustenance of art and literature. I certainly saw both sides of Hilton during the decade that I wrote for The New Criterion, beginning in the mid-1980s. When we went out for lunch in a little French restaurant in the West Fifties that Hilton admired for its tarnished savoir-faire, I think I recognized, behind his masklike self-confidence, traces of the young man from Massachusetts who had embraced intellectual and bohemian Manhattan with a lover’s ardor. And when I read his craziest polemics—there were times when he seemed to believe that The New York Times and The New York Review of Books were responsible for everything that was wrong with American culture—I knew that behind the fire and brimstone there was the pain of a brokenhearted lover, who despite his irrepressibly upbeat demeanor could not bear what Warholism had done to the world of artists and writers where he had always felt most at home. He was right about Warholism. He was right about political correctness. He was right about other things. The trouble was that the fight took on a life of its own, until the warrior in Hilton nearly crushed the aesthete....

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