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Awards & Honors: 2004 National Humanities Medalist

Hilton Kramer

"Without art, without high culture," says art critic Hilton Kramer, "sooner or later we'll all be barbarians." As editor and publisher of the New Criterion, which he founded with Samuel Lipman in 192, Kramer is a critic who makes judgments and is not afraid of controversy.

Though he never studied art history, he was always surrounded by artists. "I was brought up in Cape Ann in Gloucester, Massachusetts," says Kramer, "which in my early years, for a good part of the year, was a thriving art community. There were a great many artists working there and art was, really, for anybody who was disposed toward it, a significant, regular part of life. So I grew up tremendously interested in painting."

As an undergraduate at Syracuse University, he studied literary history and philosophy and became interested in writing. After graduating, he found himself again surrounded by artists. "I began at the suggestion of a painter friend to try my hand at art criticism," he says. "I wrote an essay and sent it to Partisan Review, and they published it. As soon as I appeared in Partisan Review with this essay, my phone was ringing and everybody in the world was asking me to write about art for them."

The essay, "The New American Painting," was a response to Harold Rosenberg's essay "The American Action Painters," which had just appeared in Art News magazine. Kramer spoke out boldly in his first piece of art criticism. As Kramer remembers it, "This essay, I straightaway believed to be intellectually fraudulent, and I decided to say something about it. In this theory of action painting, it was claimed that for the abstract expressionist painters, 'what was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.' What these artists were said to be creating then was some evidence or residue of an action rather than a work of art that could be experienced as a work of art. This seemed to me a totally preposterous notion," he continues. "For it denied the aesthetic efficacy of painting itself and attempted to remove art from the only sphere in which it can be truly experienced, which is the aesthetic sphere. It reduced the art object itself to the status of a psychological datum."

Kramer was hired by the New York Times in 1965 as a staff art critic and became chief art critic eight years later. His work has been published in influential magazines and newspapers such as Commentary, the New Republic, National Review, the New York Review of Books, the American Scholar, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, and the American Spectator. In addition to teaching at Indiana University, Bennington College, the University of Colorado, and Yale University, he has written critical monographs on the art of Milton Avery, Gaston Lachaise, and Richard Lindner and numerous books of criticism.

Because of his outspoken views, Kramer has been no stranger to criticism himself. "For myself, I could never put Pollack on the same level as Picasso," he said in a speech, "nor could I put Rothko on the same level as Matisse. For doing so, of course, I came to be resented in some quarters. Yet, about such dissident judgments, I remained, and remain now, unrepentant, and I believe history will confirm me."

By CK