The New Criterion: The Unbearable Dourness of Being
By Jeet Heer
Gravitas (Autumn 1996)
    “We must not discriminate between things. Where things are concerned there are no class distinctions. We must pick out what is good for us where we can find it. - Pablo Picasso


The corrupting influence of popular culture has been one of the main worries of North American conservatives in the last few years. In one of his few memorable speeches as a presidential candidate, Bob Dole lambasted the mass media for unleashing "nightmares of depravity" upon the unsuspecting public; Dan Qualye, to his eventual embarrassment, made the behaviour of sit-com character Murphy Brown into a campaign issue in 1992; Bill Bennett, author of the best-selling Book of Virtues, has gone after gangtsa rap, Bart Simpson and trashy T.V. talk shows as examples of "cultural rot"; even film critic Michael Medved, co-host of "Sneak Previews", has described the entertainment industry as "an all-powerful enemy, an alien force that assaults our most cherished values and corrupts our children."

Despite this heated rhetoric, however, there is a curious hypocrisy in the conservative rejection of popular culture. Like everybody else in our society, conservatives are surrounded by it. What is more to the point, conservatives enjoy pop culture as much as anybody, and are influenced by movies, sit-coms, and rock music just as surely as is any thirteen year-old in a ghetto.

In an article in the New York Times Magazine profiling the "rising generation" of conservative intellectuals, James Atlas observed that young right-wingers "are hip to a pop culture many liberals think of as something wholly their own." Describing a party celebrating the Republican Congressional victory of 1992, Atlas noted that the strains of Smashing Pumpkins and 10,000 Maniacs could be heard amid the drinking and laughing while young speech writers and journalists compared "Newt sightings." No wonder Irving Kristol, the elderly godfather of neo-conservatism, worries not only about "the hedonism of our popular culture" but also the related "libertarianism of so many of even our politically conservative young people."

It is not just twenty-something video-addicts we have to watch out for. Movies and pop music have been around long enough to corrupt everybody in North America, except perhaps a few Amish families squirrelled away in Southern Ontario and Pennsylvania. Bill Bennett, before his career as a virtuecrat, grew up loving rock music and once almost dated Janis Joplin. Even Pat Buchanan, surely our loudest critic of "filth" in the mass media, used to slick up his hair as a teenager in imitation of Elvis. We all have our guilty pleasures, but conservatives, because of their ideological hostility to pop culture, must feel guilty about nearly all of them.

The hypocrisies and contradictions created by the right's assault on popular culture can best be seen in the pages of the New Criterion, a small but highly influential New York cultural magazine. Started in 1982 by Hilton Kramer and the late Samuel Lipman, the New Criterion has been a trend-setting magazine which has taught conservatives how to think about culture. According to its opening editorial, the magazine was created to combat "the insidious assault on mind that was one of the most repulsive features of the radical movement of the Sixties."

As Kramer noted on another occasion, the legitimization and celebration of pop culture was also one of the "insidious" legacies of that decade. "Most of the mainstream media have more or less embraced the substitution of pop culture for high culture," Kramer complained to New York magazine. "The schools have embraced it, the foundations have embraced it. They've all gone along with the left-wing attack on distinctions between high and low culture." The New Criterion's lament must have sounded esoteric and shrill when it was first made in 1982; at that time few conservatives understood or cared about the relationship between culture and politics. However, in recent years many more conservatives have begun agreeing with the magazine's call for a struggle against "the depredations of our increasingly degraded and increasingly powerful pop culture."

For deeper insight into the impact of the New Criterion and the contradictions of the conservative war against popular culture, there is no better place to look than Against the Grain: The New Criterion on Art and Intellect at the End of the Twentieth Century, a hefty anthology edited by Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball, the magazine's current managing editor.

After the introductory huffing is out of the way, Against the Grain starts with a sermon ominously titled "Treason of the Intellectuals", wherein Roger Kimball repeats a part of the catechism familiar to all readers of the New Criterion: popular culture is Bad, high art is Good, and never should the twain meet. As in all good homilies, a text is quoted and a practical example is provided so we may properly understand the larger spiritual issues:

"It is not just that high culture must be demystified; sport, fashion, and leisure now lay claim to high cultural status," wrote Alain Finkielkraut. A grotesque fantasy? Anyone who thinks so should take a moment to recall the major exhibition called "High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture" that the Museum of Modern Art mounted a few years ago: it might have been called "Krazy Kat Meets Picasso." Few events can have so consummately summed up the corrosive trivialization of culture now perpetrated by those entrusted with preserving it. Among other things, that exhibition demonstrated the extent to which the apotheosis of popular culture undermines the very possibility of appreciating high culture on its own terms. When the distinction between culture and entertainment is obliterated, high art is orphaned, exiled from the only context in which its distinctive meaning can manifest itself: Picasso becomes a kind of cartoon.

Great artists, Kimball wants us to believe, are Brahmins who inhale deep pollution when brought within even the presence of the untouchable hoards of popular artists.

This is manifestly and demonstratively untrue; very few great artists, at least in the modern West, believe in caste. Picasso did not have to wait for "High & Low" to be introduced to Krazy Kat. Gertrude Stein took pleasure in translating American comic strips for Picasso's benefit and George Herriman's Krazy Kat was a particular favourite with both the writer and the painter. In addition, Joan Miro and Willem de Kooning, both painters who knew a thing or two about high culture, admired Herriman's art and borrowed from it. Indeed, aside from the Herriman family, de Kooning probably holds the largest private collection of Krazy Kat art.

The corruption goes even deeper: great artists are not the only traitors in our midst. Even some of the New Criterion elect have worked to subvert the absolute distinction between high art and low. Hilton Kramer, believe it or not, enjoyed an exhibition of Krazy Kat comic strips and was moved to rationalize his pleasure in this manner, "...the boundaries as well as the governing tastes of both popular culture and the fine arts have shifted so radically in the interim that the Krazy Kat drawings are likely to look more like classics than a good many paintings and sculptures that are nowadays on view." Fortunately, this bit of heresy appeared in the New York Times and did not besmirch the pages of the New Criterion. Even in a long essay on de Kooning reprinted in Against the Grain, Kramer finds no occasion to mention Krazy Kat.

If the bishop sins, how can mere priests resist temptation? Outside the pages of the New Criterion, in the profane world of popular journalism, many of the magazine's regular contributors are almost embarrassingly enthusiastic when they write about popular culture. If you read Christopher Ricks on Bob Dylan, Terry Teachout on Bugs Bunny cartoons, Donald Lyons on the Honeymooners, James Bowman on Batman (both the animated and live action versions), Joseph Epstein on John R. Tunis (who wrote novels about baseball and basketball for teenage boys), and John Simon on Flash Gordon, you realize that it is possible to celebrate popular culture without losing your critical marbles. But, of course, none of these items appeared in the New Criterion, an establishment where critics have to leave some of their enthusiasms at the door.

The New Criterion's editorial narrowness seems all the more constricted when compared to Cyril Connolly's Horizon, a literary magazine of the 1940s that Kramer extravagantly admires. "It was a measure of Connolly's sense of the historical moment," Kramer has argued, "that he so eagerly welcomed writers whose literary purposes were so different from his own." Ironically, the example Kramer cites to illustrate this quality is Connolly's decision to publish George Orwell's essay on "Boys' Weeklies", a pioneering study of popular culture. While Kramer may praise Horizon's editorial capaciousness, the New Criterion has been guided by a different agenda.

The contributors to the New Criterion must live in a state of perpetual cognitive dissonance as they seek to balance their lived experiences against the governing ideology of the magazine. During the course of a eulogy for Samuel Lipman, Joseph Epstein celebrated his friend's invincible ignorance of pop culture:

Midway in his more than four-year battle with leukaemia, while talking about quack cures for cancer, I mentioned to Sam that I had somewhere read that Steve McQueen, in the last months of his battle with cancer, had gone to Mexico in search of a cure not allowed in the United States. "Who," asked Sam, after a pause, "is Steve McQueen?" Sam was then fifty-eight and had spent all his life in America; and I thought to myself, boy, Sam really knew how to live. How Sam lived was as an immitigable highbrow. Not long after I first met Sam, one evening when we were walking in Washington, I asked him if he watched many movies or much television. "I consider the movies and television," he said, without breaking stride, "dogshit."

This is a telling anecdote but it is odd that Epstein praises this part of Lipman's personality. Joseph Epstein has become America's premier familiar essayist in large part because he is supremely well-versed in the quotidian aspects of contemporary life. His essays are laced with idiomatic phrases, up-to-the-minute slang, brand names, jingles half-remembered from radio ads and Broadway shows, and hundreds of other knowing details observed in everyday life, including, of course, details taken from the movies and television. Epstein's power as a writer derives from the fact that even when writing about highbrow matters he keeps his feet firmly planted in the real world. Epstein the essayist has enough common sense to realize that if you want to enjoy the pleasure of owning a dog, you have to tolerate a little dogshit.

How strange then that Epstein should hold up as an ideal someone who was cut off from the everyday world. No wonder the literary essays that Epstein has written for the New Criterion, including the pieces found in Against the Grain, lack the charm and personality of his familiar essays in the American Scholar. (With My Trousers Rolled, Epstein's latest round-up of essays, testifies to his mastery of the form).

As always, Kramer goes an extra step beyond Lipman by disdaining not just movies but movie critics. "It was the New Republic," we are told, "that first changed the priorities of cultural journalism when, many years ago, it decided to lead off its arts pages not with a literary article but with a movie column. Maybe that was where the rot first set in." Wait a minute: the critics who have reviewed movies for the New Republic (Otis Ferguson, Pauline Kael, Stanley Kauffmann) have been writers of such quality that they can hardly be accused of spreading rot. Back in 1965, before his ideological arteries hardened, Kramer described Ferguson as an "extraordinary" man and praised the "energy and freedom of Ferguson's style."

But Kramer won't buy that argument because he now looks down upon even the best film criticism. "It was a bad sign [at the New Yorker] when Pauline Kael, with her penchant for extolling trashy movies, became the star of the show, for it produced a younger generation of mini-Kaels who spread the gospel of `good' trash to papers far and wide." Kramer's summary dismissal of Kael and movie criticism is absurd for many reasons, but is all the sillier because many of the most prolific contributors to the New Criterion (Bruce Bawer, Donald Lyons, James Bowman, and John Simon) have worked regularly as movie critics. Indeed, all these writers except Bowman are at their best when they write about film. Their literary and dramatic criticism lacks the vigour and spice of their movie reviews.

Jed Perl, who served as the regular art critic of the New Criterion before moving to the New Republic, is one of the mini-Kaels that Kramer condemns. Writing in the Yale Review, Perl penned a grand tribute to Kael as the Hazlitt of contemporary letters. "Kael's criticism... captures something of the sensations, the vitality, the truth of a period. And out of her experience of specific movies, she forges a new way of thinking about art in general." Like Kael's best students, Perl learned from her how to write with verve and jazz so as to capture his honest experience of the contemporary scene; the eloquence and truth of his tribute stands in marked contrast to Kramer's churlish caricature of Kael as a happy pig wallowing in the dirt.

The magazine has suffered for its myopic editorial bias against films. The last decade has been "a rich and productive moment for American independent film-making," as New Criterion contributor Donald Lyons noted in his Independent Visions (1994). Anyone who has seen even a few of the highly personal films that have been made outside the Hollywood system can hardly disagree. Consider only Reservoir Dogs, Sex, Lies and Videotape, and The Decline of the American Empire. While not quite a renaissance, we are living through an efflorescence of independent film-making that is heartening to anyone who cares about contemporary culture. The New Criterion has employed a number of critics, Lyons included, who have the passion and knowledge needed to describe this event. Alas, the editors do not believe that a serious cultural magazine should have room for contemporary North American movies.

Once again, the official theology of the magazine is at odds with the actual experience of those who write for it. In our religious life, if our behaviour contradicts our theology we should attempt to reform our actions. Our relationship with culture, however, should be ordered differently than our relationship with God. Thus, if we find ourselves taking pleasure in works of art that contradict our aesthetic ideals, we should reformulate our ideals rather than deny the validity of our experience.

The same hostility to experience that governs the magazines attitude to popular culture has increasingly infested the New Criterion coverage of contemporary culture as a whole. A dyspeptic, old-fart weltanschauung has become the magazine's defining tone. Consider the magazine's attitude towards literature: While the great critics drew their authority from the breadth of their reading, New Criterion critics often base their authority on an a priori rejection of the contemporary.

Indeed, not since the glory days of the Catholic Index has there been a group more proud of what they don't read. "One of the reasons I gave up on the regular practice of criticism," Norman Podhoretz recalled in 1984, "was that the novels I was reading seemed to me less and less worth writing about." By 1992, he confessed that, "There are times when I find it almost impossible to read for pleasure." In 1980, Joseph Epstein went so far as to issue a medical warning on the dangers of reading new novels: "Anyone who read exclusively or even chiefly, contemporary fiction would soon grow listless and depressed, his teeth would loosen and his hair fall out, and he would require long stretches away from the job, possibly in sanatoria." In With My Trousers Rolled, Epstein has happily listed all the contemporary writers he has given up on (perhaps on the advice of his doctor). "Faster than you can say Italo Calvino, I have fallen two Malamuds, three Roths, a Bellow and a half, four Mailers, and five or six Updikes behind. I have let John Irving pass me by. So too, Ann Beattie, Joan Didion, Gabriel Garcia Marquez." Kenneth S. Lynn is so hard-boiled that he refuses to read even his neo-conservative peers. "I rarely if ever read Bruce Bawer," he informed the New Criterion in 1986, "but my attention has been called to a reference he makes to me...."

The progressive deterioration of the New Criterion was almost inevitable given that the editorial project of the magazine was inherently contradictory from the start. Lipman and Kramer sought to create a cultural magazine that would defend the Western tradition from its assailants. Culture, however, is always in a state of flux and new art always finds itself engaged in a creative tension with tradition. A cultural magazine, while it can be enriched by tradition, cannot be vital by merely repeating rote names and formulas. As Marcel Proust, no radical, once observed, "There must in art, as in medicine and fashion, be new names."

In creating a conservative cultural magazine, Kramer and Lipman, to their credit, recruited younger writers. For all their lamentations over the lost good-old-days, Kramer and Lipman kept their magazine relatively open to the new and fresh during its first few years of publication. They were especially good at discovering and nurturing young writers. Roger Kimball, Bruce Bawer, Mimi Kramer, Donald Lyons, and Jed Perl are among those who have been given ample space to develop their voices in the pages of the New Criterion. As an incubation ward for baby critics, the magazine has few contemporary equals. In their criticism as well, Kramer and Lipman have been willing to praise young talent -- provided, of course, that the youngsters work in traditional modes and genres.

However, this openness to younger writers existed in tension with an ideological hostility to most recent innovations in the arts. Anything that came after the golden age of High Modernism, that is to say anything after circa 1958, has been anathema to Kramer and Lipman. As we have seen, popular art of any era has also been verboten. Hence the young writers recruited by the New Criterion have become prematurely middle-aged by suppressing any enthusiasms the editors might frown on. After a while, as cultural debates became more polarized, the editorial tone of the New Criterion went from being charmingly curmudgeon to being bitterly shrill.

Fortunately there is a way out of the New Criterion's dead-end. Conservatives merely have to re-think their hard stance against contemporary culture. There is no inherent reason why those who want to preserve the best of Western culture should not also be responsive to the best of popular culture. Consider the case of Hugh Kenner, the distinguished literary critic who is widely considered to be our best explicator of James Joyce and Ezra Pound. In addition to writing about the classic works of High Modernism, Kenner has also celebrated the great popular artists of this century like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Kenner's most recent book, Chuck Jones: A Flurry of Drawings (1994), is a profile of the animator who directed the adventures of Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner. "I simply don't believe in making a distinction between high culture and low culture," Kenner has said.

Kenner can hardly be considered a radical out to deconstruct Western Civilization. The son of a classicist, Kenner is well-versed in Latin and Greek as well as the modern languages (any good critic of Joyce and Pound has to be linguistically adept). Kramer would have us believe that those who challenge the division between high culture and low are Sixties radicals or their spawn. Kenner, however, wasn't smoking pot or bombing buildings back in the Sixties; he was serving as the poetry editor of National Review.

One reason why Kenner has been so open to popular culture is that in the mid-forties he came under the informal tutelage of Marshall McLuhan who taught that culture should be viewed as a whole rather than divided into neat little compartments. In 1949, Life magazine published a chart dividing culture into three mutually exclusive spheres: high-brow, middle-brow, and low brow. In his first book, The Mechanical Bride (1951), McLuhan showed what was wrong with the Life chart.

One of the "high-brow" products of this century is James Joyce's Ulysses . . . the hero of Ulysses is a "middle-brow" Dubliner with a very "low-brow" wife. There is also the ironically presented Stephen Dedalus, the esthete-artist who corresponds to Life's resentfully romantic image of the high-brow. But Joyce was a real high-brow, a man of real distinction; that is to say, he was a man who took an intelligent interest in everybody and everything. He occupied simultaneously every corner of Life's big consumer chart for helping its readers to find their own isolated cultural category. He was very high-brow, very middle-brow, and especially very low-brow. To write his epic of the modern Ulysses he studied all his life the ads, the comics, the pulps, and popular speech.

Yet forty-five years after McLuhan's brilliant attack on the Life magazine chart, there are still those who insist on maintaining artificial barriers in the arts. These people have great faith in labels like "high culture" and "popular trash", but they have less faith in their own experience of art.

"No man is a hypocrite in his pleasures," Samuel Johnson once said, but he lived before the age when pleasures were relentlessly categorized. Once we free ourselves from these artificial categories, we cease to be hypocrites about our guilty pleasures, and we can openly take delight in whatever pleases us.