The New Criterion at 25

I was a charter subscriber to the New Criterion, I came to realize this week, 25 years ago. The magazine has just published its twenty-fifth anniversary 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 contributes “The new juristocracy,” on the Supreme Court) and Mark Falcoff (who contributes a terrific essay on Evelyn Waugh’s Black Mischief).

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 magazine’s publisher 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.

Coincidentally, the new issue of the Weekly Standard carries Joseph Epstein’s tribute (subscribers only) to the obscure, recently closed New Leader magazine. Epstein devotes two paragraphs of his essay to Hilton Kramer:

The New Leader’s art critic was Hilton Kramer, whose name I first encountered in Commentary, where he wrote a no-hostages-taken review-essay of James Thurber’s The Years with Ross. After Joel Blocker left the magazine for a job at Newsweek, Mike Kolatch asked Hilton if he knew of anyone who might be interested in a job as an editor at the New Leader. “I do know someone,” Hilton said. “Me.” After editing his own magazine, Arts, Hilton had been freelancing, writing reviews for the Nation and the Progressive, and other places where the checks for contributors were written in longhand and tended to be in the low or middle two figures.

Hilton in those days looked rather like the best of the modernism he has long admired: He was well-turned out, sleek in an understated way, a touch severe (owing to large round spectacles), and wildly witty. Kolatch once asked him if every piece of art criticism had to contain the word oeuvre. Hilton answered he wasn’t sure, but could promise that every one of his would. He had a New England accent, and a comic vision of the world. “Scandalous!” was a word he used a great deal; and “shameless,” always accompanied by a sly smile, he used even more. Detached amusement was his general tone. He knew all the strange crew of odd scribblers who attempted to eke out a living writing for the New Leader and other of the intellectual magazines of those days: Edouard Roditi, George Woodcock, Keith Botsford, Edward Seidensticker, and other intellectuals now entirely forgotten. He once told me about Roditi, a homosexual who was under pressure to leave France during the Algerian war because he was living with an Algerian boy, that Roditi’s cancer was the only subject upon which Roditi was less than fully candid with him. Hilton had a laugh that I loved to be able to evoke. Knowing he would be sitting at the desk across the room from me made me look forward to coming to work. He left the New Leader after I did, to become the primary art critic of the New York Times.

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. This spring I had the great good fortune of meeting co-editor and publisher Roger Kimball, whose work in the magazine I have long admired. (Roger has also taken over the reins at Encounter Books from founder Peter Collier.) Roger marks the New Criterion’s twenty-fifth anniversary in the issue’s Notes and Comments. I asked Roger if he would add a note for Power Line readers. He kindly responded:

As I say there, it seems to me that The New Criterion is important for two rather different things. One has to do with cultural polemics: from the very beginning we were an articulate voice on the right that not only stood up for high standards in intellectual and artistic life but also took issue with the meretricious and politically compromised deformations that were undermining culture. We ridiculed political correctness and multiculturalism before those moral toxins even acquired their current names, and from our very first issue we set ourselves against the depredations of contemporary academic culture, with its reader-proof prose and commitment to viewing the world through the pink-colored lenses provided by reflexive leftism and anti-Americanism.

But the polemical side of the magazine, though it won us lots of enemies and hence a certain notorious celebrity, was really only one part of what the magazine is up to. Equally important, I think, has been our commitment to what I call battling cultural amnesia. To a large extent, The New Criterion is a rescue operation: we endeavor to breathe new life into, or rather to provide entree to the old life that still pulses largely unnoticed in the figures and movements and ideas that have gone to make up (as Arnold put it) “the best that has been thought and said” in the world. Thus it is that our pages have always been full of lively discussion of thinkers and writers, artists and men of action, whose work has defined the tapestry of humanity’s adventure in time. This aspect of what The New Criterion is all about has, I think, made us somewhat unusual among conservative magazines or at least among conservative opinion makers. John Stuart Mill was not entirely wrong he described conservatives as “the stupid party.” At least, conservatives here and in Europe have often been impatient with ideas, with high culture, seeing them as a distraction from more important realities.

Irving Kristol touched on this when, in a speech he gave at the American Enterprise Institute, he noted that “For two centuries, the very important people who managed the affairs of this society could not believe in the importance of ideas–until one day they were shocked to discover that their children, having been captured and shaped by certain ideas, were either rebelling against their authority or seceding from their society. The truth is that ideas are *all*-important. The massive and seemingly solid institutions of any society–the economic institutions, the political institutions, the religious institutions–are always at the mercy of the ideas in the heads of the people who populate these institutions. The leverage of ideas is so immense that a slight change in the intellectual climate can and will–perhaps slowly but nevertheless inexorably–twist a
familiar institution into an unrecognizable shape.” It is a central part of what The New Criterion to remind readers of this sobering truth.

Congratulations to the New Criterion on its twenty-fifth anniversary and best wishes for many more.

PAUL adds his congratulations and strongly commends McCarthy’s article to our readers.

UPDATE: I had missed Gary Shapiro’s excellent tribute to the New Criterion in yesterday’s New York Sun, but commend it to your attention: “Twenty-five years of arts and ideas.”


Books to read from Power Line