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The Same Old Criterion By Stephen Eric Bronner FORMERLY THE chief art critic for the New York Times and now editor of The New Criterion, Hilton Kramer is truly an arbiter of taste. Millions have read his columns, and he is probably among the handful of critics who can make or break an artist or exhibition. That alone makes his new book worthy of serious consideration. The Revenge of the Philistines is a collection of over eighty articles. It deals with numerous artists, exhibitions, and contemporary cultural trends. But collections of this sort are often uneven and also, in hindsight, sometimes arbitrary in the choice of subject matter. The real issue for such a book is whether the whole is more, or less, than the sum of its parts. The Revenge of the Philistines stands defined by a basic thesis about the relation between modernism and postmodernism. Where “twenty years ago it was rank heresy to suggest that modernism might already have entered upon its decline,” Hilton Kramer argues that today this is no longer the case. Once an apparently undifferentiated modernist movement engaged in real battle with the provincial representatives of established tastes. While those modernist painters may have indulged in essentially irrelevant utopian fantasies and often outlandish criticisms of the established order, their assault was undertaken with a sense of “high seriousness.” The modernists emerged victorious. They fundamentally changed the cultural landscape and created new standards for judging artistic quality. Or so Kramer tells us. But now, he says, a reversal has taken place. What happened “did not conform to the myth of bourgeois resistance to change.” Beginning in the sixties with the rise of “pop art,” modernism which had long since “secured a fixed position in the cultural system,” itself became. the object of attack by a “post-modern Stephen Eric Bronner is an associate professor of political science at Rutgers University. His works include A Beggar’s Tales, a novel. and Passion and Rebellion: The Expressionist Legacy : co-edited with Douglas. Kellner. ist” avant-garde. “Standards” fell be-, fore “debased tastes.” “High seriousness” surrendered to the facetiousness of “camp.” All “moral” standpoints and quests for “truth” collapsed in the face of a new relativism. Indeed, the rejection of “the only really vital tradition” of our time led to the rejection of tradition as such. THE REVENGE OF THE PHI-LISTINES: Art and Culture, 1972-1984 By Hilton Kramer Free Press, MacMillan, New York, 1985. 445 pages, $25. The urban museum, once the noble curator of all worth preserving and honoring in high culture, was left without the values necessary to confront “extra-artistic” pressure which have been brought to bear by leftist, feminist, ethnic, or regionalist groups. Having formed powerful “post-modernist” networks, these groups now subvert the old establishment from within and subordinate artistic quality to their particular interests. Eclecticism thus replaces tradition, which only furthers the decline of “quality” and “standards.” Such eclecticism, in turn, fuels the impulses of the more overtly commercial art world and so makes the museums even more desperate for novelty. Exhibitions can therefore raise secondary pairfters to prominence and place their works next to those of the masters. In addition, through responding to the new interest in French Salon painting and other previously dominant Victorian styles, museums begin to resurrect what modernism originally sought to oppose. The banal triumphs over the, sublime. Thus, we are witnessing “the revenge of the philistines.” s 0 GOES the Gospel according to Kramer. Unfortunately, the supposedly heretical thoughts which he presents have actually been floating around for decades while some of his claims are simply wrong. Kat .; Marx consistently claimcd that capitalism has no greater enemy than tradition, and the sixties were not the beginning of the end. By the mid-twenties, cubism, futurism, fauvism, expressionism, and dada were dead; surrealism would follow along shortly. True, the American abstract expressionists would make their contributions later. Nevertheless, this was only the last gasp of a moribund patient. By the thirties, a host of European intellectuals were engaging in vehement debates about the legacy of a modernism which had already become a fixed part of fashionable European culture. It was also then that the “Frankfurt School” critique of the “culture industry” first took shape. Thinkers like Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse argued that commodification was causing the collapse of standards through an institutional appeal to the lowest common intellectual denominator. Quite popular in the sixties, Adorno and Marcuse were committed modernists who also recognized that no art form is immune from integration by advanced industrial society. To a greater or lesser extent, these and other thinkers from the thirties influenced contemporary left critics of post-modernism like Jurgen Habermas and Frederic Jameson. AND WHAT of the work of Hilton Kramer? There is virtually no attempt to distinguish among the diverse currents of modern In Kramer’s work, the entire sense of the modernist adventure its dynamism and experimental quality disappears. MMIPMENNINIONOMMIIIIMEMIM ism. There is no attempt to provide a sustained discussion of the socio-economic and political developments which made either the rise of modernism or its integration possible. It is enough for him to appear as a champion of “quality,” “standards,” “moral purpose,” and the commitment to search for artistic “truth.” Forget his stature and generally mainstream views. He is willing to take on an “establishment” defined by liberal art networks, petty jealousies, commercialization, ignorance, tastelessness, and plain decadence. Hilton Kramer, however, is also a man of the world. The Olympian critic remains highly doubtful whether his effort will achieve its effect. Thus there emerges the image of a new Don Quixote, sophisticated and without fire, Attacking currml. cultural trends, while fundamentally silpporzing the THE TEXAS OBSERVER 27