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Counterpoints: Celebrating the New Criterion at 25

I was a charter subscriber to the New Criterion 25 years ago. This past September the magazine kicked off its twenty-fifth anniversary festivities with an issue featuring such regulars as Jay Nordlinger (its music critic) and James Bowman (its media critic) as well as such outstanding special contributors as Professor Harvey Mansfield, Andrew McCarthy (who contributed “The new juristocracy,” on the Supreme Court) and Mark Falcoff (who contributed a terrific essay on Evelyn Waugh’s Black Mischief). The festivities have continued through the year with each monthly issue.

I remember receiving the magazine’s pre-publication solicitation to subscribe in the mail. The magazine’s editor was to be the prominent New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer, whom I remembered as the author of the 1976 essay on the Hollywood blacklist (“The Blacklist and the Cold War”) that I thought was the best thing I had ever read in the Times. (The essay is now collected in Kramer’s The Twilight of the Intellectuals.) The publisher of the magazine was to be the estimable (prematurely deceased) Samuel Lipman, whom the masthead fondly memorializes as its publisher, 1982-1994. The magazine was to take a traditionalist approach to matters cultural and literary.

The magazine sounded like a great idea to me. I happily signed up and have been a faithful reader ever since. I think it has more than fulfilled its promise and become a great magazine. Roger Kimball now shares editorial and publishing duties with Hilton Kramer while David Yezzi and James Panero hold down the fort as executive editor and managing editor, respectively. (Roger has also taken over the reins at Encounter Books from founder Peter Collier.) This week Kimball and Kramer mark the New Criterion’s twenty-fifth anniversary with the publication of Counterpoints: 25 Years of The New Criterion on Culture and the Arts, an anthology compiled from the best of the magazine’s work over the period. In honor of the book’s official publication this week I asked Roger if he would add a note for Power Line readers. He kindly responded:

A lot has changed in the quarter century since The New Criterion first hit the newsstands and our subscribers’ mailboxes. Who then, for example, had heard of the Internet? But the fundamental cultural challenges that led Hilton Kramer and the late Sam Lipman, our founding publisher, to start the magazine have not changed–or, rather, they have only intensified as the pressures of mediocrity, on the one hand, and political correctness, on the other, have metastasized into and deformed more and more precincts of our cultural life. Counterpoints, drawing generously on the magazine’s cultural and intellectual reportage over the last 25 years, is partly a pathologists’ scrap book, partly a therapeutic directive. Above all, we hope, it is a tonic example of lively and well-written criticism that manages, as Horace enjoined, to delight as well as instruct!
For us, the imperative of criticism has revolved primarily around two tasks, both of which are generously represented in Counterpoints. The first is the negative task of forthright critical discrimination. To a large extent, that means the gritty job of intellectual and cultural trash collector. In a note in our inaugural issue, we spoke of applying “a new criterion to the discussion of our cultural life–a criterion of truth.” The truth was, and is, that much of what presents itself as art today can scarcely be distinguished from political sermonizing, on the one hand, or the pathetic recapitulation of Dadaist pathologies, on the other. Mastery of the artifice of art is mostly a forgotten, often an actively disparaged, goal. At such a time, simply telling the truth is bound to be regarded as an unwelcome provocation.

In the university and other institutions entrusted with preserving and transmitting the cultural capital of our civilization, kindred deformations are at work. Pseudo-scholarship propagated by a barbarous reader-proof prose and underwritten by adolescent political animus is the order of the day. The New Criterion sallied forth onto this cluttered battlefield determined not simply to call attention to the emperor’s new clothes, but to do so with wit, clarity, and literary panache. We acknowledge that these have been hard times for the arts of satire and parody. With increasingly velocity, today’s reality has a way of outstripping yesterday’s satirical exaggeration. Nevertheless, The New Criterion has always been distinguished by its effective deployment of satire, denunciation, and ridicule–all the astringent resources in the armory of polemic. But The New Criterion is not only about polemics. An equally important part of criticism revolves around the task of battling cultural amnesia. From our first issue, we have labored in the vast storehouse of cultural achievement to introduce, or reintroduce, readers to some of the salient figures whose works helped weave the great unfolding tapestry of our civilization. Writers and artists, philosophers and musicians, scientists, historians, controversialists, explorers, and politicians: The New Criterion has specialized in resuscitating important figures whose voices have been drowned out by the demotic inanities of pop culture or embalmed by the dead hand of the academy.

It is worth noting that our interest in these matters has never been merely aesthetic. At the beginning of The Republic, Socrates reminds his young interlocutor, Glaucon, that their discussion concerns not trifling questions but “the right conduct of life.” We echo that sentiment. The New Criterion is not, I hope, a somber publication; but it is a serious one. We look to the past for enlightenment and to art for that humanizing education and ordering of the emotions that distinguish the man of culture from the barbarian.

The New Criterion is often described as “conservative” and praised or disparaged according to the political coloration of the speaker. In fact, we are a liberal publication, understanding the term “liberal” in the sense that Russell Kirk used it when he observed that he was a conservative because he was a liberal. “Conservative”: that means wanting to conserve what is worth preserving from the ravages of time and ideology, evil and stupidity. In some plump eras, as Evelyn Waugh observed in one of his essays, the task is so easy we can almost forget how necessary it is. At other times, the enemies of civilization transform the task of preserving culture into a battle for survival. That, we believe, is where we are today. And that is one reason that The New Criterion‘s effort to tell the truth about culture is as important today as it was in 1982. Counterpoints is a wide-ranging record of The New Criterion’s contribution to this imperative task.

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