Hilton Kramer, who died on Tuesday, was art critic at the New York Times for over a decade, but left the post in 1982 to start (with Samuel Lipman) a monthly review of the arts and intellectual life. Their review, The New Criterion, “created space for conservative writers to discuss topics that could not be crammed into news magazines and did not belong in publications devoted to policy minutiae,” writes John Miller in his book A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America (quoted at National Review, March 27):
In doing so, it helped conservatives, sometimes blindly loyal to hidebound traditions, come to terms with twentieth-century modernism and at the same time develop a language for rejecting the extreme relativism of an academy saturated with postmodernism.
Current editor of The New Criterion Roger Kimball (Wall Street Journal, March 27):
Hilton Kramer was often described—and accordingly admired or derided—as a conservative. Really, however, he was a liberal, in the sense that Edmund Burke, for example, was a liberal. He believed in disinterested judgment, advancement according to merit, color-blind justice—the whole menu of traditional liberal virtues that have in recent decades been enrolled in the catalogue of reactionary vices.
Above all, Kramer understood something that was central to Eliot’s work, as it was to Burke’s: Tradition is not the enemy but the indispensable handmaiden of originality and lasting cultural achievement.
Hilton Kramer was celebrated, and in many quarters feared, as a polemicist. But his most lasting legacy, I believe, is something more positive. He was most ferocious not in his criticism but in his defense of democratic bourgeois culture and the precious legacy of individual liberty it generated and sustained.
The New Criterion will publish a special issue in May dedicated to Hilton Kramer’s legacy.