The Vital Greatness of The New Criterion

A discussion recently broke out on Twitter between two prominent conservative journalists. The subject was Lando Calrissian, a character from the 1980 Star Wars film The Empire Strikes Back. One pundit argued that Calrissian deserves his own film. The other conservative, a columnist for The New York Times, agreed, and explored the thesis in more detail.

This discussion, two grown men arguing about a kids’ popcorn movie series that’s nearly forty years old, made me newly appreciate The New Criterion. A journal of culture, politics and art, The New Criterion has been defending and celebrating the best of Western civilization for more than three decades. In all that time it has never covered popular culture.

As I have argued before, there is much to celebrate in it. However, in the last several decades we’ve seen pop culture attain near total dominance in our lives. Saturday Night Live had gone from biting and surreal comedy to an American institution. The outsider punk rock I listened to in college had broken into worldwide acceptance with Nevermind, the 1991 multiplatinum album from the band Nirvana. It is now sufficiently mainstream to be featured in fashion shows.

Video games went from the arcade, a dingy nerd subculture, to home consoles and then became blockbuster Hollywood films. After almost being cancelled in the 1980s, the character Batman has become the star of several hugely successful films. Rap traveled from the ghetto to the suburbs, and from there to the White House. Fantasy author George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones has become a worldwide hit on HBO.

This is where The New Criterion provides such an essential voice. The successive waves of pop culture have become a tsunami that threatens to wipe out consideration of the more highbrow arts, leaving younger generations enthralled by Kim Kardashian, unable to name a classical composer, and believing that Quentin Tarantino is a great artist.

The New Criterion was co-founded in 1982 by Hilton Kramer. Kramer had been the main art critic at the New York Times from 1982 to 1985. In a move that few so-called brave liberal journalists would not have the guts to pull off, Kramer left the Times to run The New Criterion. New York Times critic William Grimes wrote that Kramer “saw himself not simply as a critic offering informed opinion on this or that artist, but also as a warrior upholding the values that made civilized life worthwhile.”

One of the first things that brought The New Criterion to my attention after I graduated from college in 1990 was “The Trouble with ‘Angels,’” a scathing and fearless review of Angels in America, the then-new play by the leftist and gay activist Tony Kushner. At the time, it was just not acceptable for any right-thinking person to not adore the very left wing and very gay Angels. “Mr. Kushner has written the most thrilling American play in years,” wrote Frank Rich in The New York Times. Angels in America won the 1993 and 1994 Tony Awards for Best Play. The play’s first part, Millennium Approaches, received the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The New Criterion resisted. Donald Lyons noted that “the huzzas occasioned by Angels are not really about this slender, derivative, and vulgar play; they are rather victory chants in celebration of the takeover of a culture.”

Lyons called out Kushner for using scenes of sickness and horror to make up for weak melodramatic writing, and went on to observe that “in its ludicrous pretensions to greatness that barely mask a corrupt cynicism and a smug didacticism, [Angels in America] does seems exquisitely Clintonian to me. Come to think of it, that descending female angel may have a health-care scheme tucked up her wing.”

Here was something learned, funny, and biting, a combination of expertise and the sharp truth-telling of the punk music I loved in college. Every voice in the popular culture was demanding submission to Kushner’s play, and Kramer’s journal stood up and loudly said: No.

More recently, The New Criterion stood up to feminists who wanted to censor the 1938 painting Balthus’s painting Thérèse Dreaming. Activists Mia Merrill and Anna Zuccarro, initiated an an online petition calling on the Metropolitan Museum of Art to remove the art or provide a note with Therese Dreaming to explain the painting in connection to “the current news headlines highlighting a macro issue about the safety and wellbeing of women of all ages.”

“This is not only comically opportunistic; it is also offensively patronizing,” observed Julia Friedman in The New Criterion. “It presumes that the viewer is too stupid to see the provocation of Thérèse Dreaming and react to it accordingly.” Friedman noted that while Merrill is right to say that paintings need to be seen in context, that doesn’t mean “imposing our contemporary moral and political assumptions upon them.” She goes on: “If anything, Balthus should be understood in the context of interwar European figuration, which is replete with sublimely visualized evidence of human monstrosity. One might even argue that his work helped the ‘masses’ cope with the trauma and cultural betrayal of the Great War. To apply anachronistic judgments to the subject matter of Balthus’s paintings without considering their content, which hinges heavily upon their disregarded visuality, is nothing but ideological pandering.”

This is not the kind of erudition one finds in blog posts about Star Wars.

The left-wing journal The Baffler recently attempted a takedown of The New Criterion, but the weakness of the piece only highlights the strength of its target. In “The Decline of The New Criterion,” John Ganz argues that editor Roger Kimball, who assumed the role when Kramer passed away in 2012, has become a Donald Trump fan. This change has resulted in TNC embracing a shameful populism: “I had assumed that the sheer snobbery of The New Criterion would prevent any kind of wish to associate with this reality TV vulgarity,” Ganz writes. Ganz admits that he “can’t remember specific articles” from The New Criterion, and “very quickly put down” books by Roger Kimball as soon as he picked them up. So Ganz didn’t really research the subject he was writing about. He just has a vague appreciation from when he read TNC when he was younger: “I enjoyed what I deemed at the time to be pretty stylish prose, I was impressed by the showy erudition, and I even appreciated their sallies of wit targeted at academic jargon. I felt they were fostering the kind of humanism I believed in, carrying on the tradition of the golden age of New York Intellectuals and Partisan Review.”

However, it seems that these days Hilton Kramer’s journal has gone to the dogs. Kimball was not always a Trump supporter, opting instead for Ted Cruz during the Republican primary. When Trump won, Kimball warmed up, based on the president’s policies on judges, the economy, immigration, Israel, and the “pragmatic, non-ideological approach to the nation’s – and the world’s – security and prosperity.”

When one actually reads Kimball’s observations on Trump and populism that were published in The New Criterion, what is found is a precise and even-tempered contemplation. “Semantic precision is not a Trumpian speciality,” Kimball writes. “But political effectiveness may be.” Kimball notes that “behind the Sturm und Drang that greeted Trump’s rhetoric on immigration, we can glimpse two very different concepts of the nation state and world order.” One sees the world as “a collection of independent sovereign countries that, although interacting with one another, regard the care, safety, and prosperity of their own citizens as their first obligation.” This is Trump’s view. The second view of the nation state “regards the nation state with suspicion as an atavistic form of political and social organization.” By striving to actually find a useful definition for an amorphous term like “populism,” Kimball, argues Ganz, attempts “to smooth over the sheer stupidity and squalor of the Trump administration, transforming it into something abstract, a ‘phenomenon’ of Politics and History worthy of furrowed brow and serious consideration.” Kimball’s insight that populism is a slippery term that can be used and misused is is certainly more perspicacious than Ganz, who simply resorts to name calling.

I’ve now been reading The New Criterion for over twenty-five years. It’s where I rediscovered T.S. Eliot, Dante, Henry James, Leonard Bernstein and The Iliad, and where I first heard about the Swedish artist August Strindberg, the poets George Green, Moira Egan and Dick Allen, John Corigliano’s 1991 opera The Ghost of Versailles. There’s also James Bowman’s expert dissections of the media, the great writing of Jay Nordlinger on classical music, and the in-depth reviews of important cultural and historical books.

Finally, The New Criterion is where I discovered Clement Greenberg, a favorite of Hilton Kramer. Art critic Greenberg (1909-1994) had been a Marxist who became an anti-communist liberal in the 1950s, and his writing on art had once caused controversy and debate. Kramer noted that in modern times “all criticism tends to be judged according to its conformity to current political orthodoxies,” and Greenberg insisted “that aesthetic considerations be given priority in the evaluation of art is to invite the most categorical disapprobation.”

One of Kramer’s favorite essays of Greenberg’s is 1953’s “The Plight of Our Culture.” In it Greenberg lamented how the liberal and fine arts have been “simplified [and] streamlined, purged of whatever cannot be made easily accessible.” This “processing,” and “packaging” “has already made lowbrow culture a distinctive product of itself.” This is a prescient view of what would eventually become our modern world of Twitter, Star Wars, and obsession with celebrities. How vital that The New Criterion is there to offer an alternative.