Hilton Kramer, a critic known for his lofty standards, scathing wit, and writing for seemingly everyone, died from heart failure on Tuesday at the age of 84. "He was a passionate defender of high art against the claims of popular culture," wrote The New York Times' William Grimes in his Kramer obituary. Grimes adds that Kramer "saw himself not simply as a critic offering informed opinion on this or that artist, but also as a warrior upholding the values that made civilized life worthwhile."
Kramer fought those cultural battles at The New York Times when he joined the paper in 1965 until he left in 1982. He also held posts as the art critic for The Nation, and co-editor and publisher at the conservative-leaning New Criterion (which he founded). "Here is something I always marveled at, where Hilton was concerned: He was chief art critic of The New York Times, which many would consider a life pinnacle," writes Jay Nordlinger at National Review Online. "But he threw it away — left it — in order to found a little monthly arts-and-letters journal. How many others would have done that? No one?"
As you can see from Nordlnger's response, shunning The Gray Lady cemented Kramer's place in conservative media, and the paper's politics became his main subject in his TimesWatch column in The New York Post. A 1995 New York Magazine profile by Charles Kaiser used this line as a teaser: " Rabid rightist cultural pitbull Hilton Kramer Has The New York Times by its pant leg and won't let go." The profile actually reveals that he and The Times left on good terms, despite his bashing columns. "It's not my duty to provide a critical estimate of tabloid journalism," he told New York when asked about the perceived contradiction in writing for The Post while bashing The Times. Adding that his problems with his former employer came from "the extreme degree to which the reporting of the news has become politically determined by The Times."
Much of that venom is glossed over by The Times obituary today, as Grimes writes: "From 1993 to 1997 he wrote a column in The New York Post devoted to criticism of what he regarded as liberal bias in the mainstream press." It seems that Kramer also didn't want to be remembered as some sort of crank. "I’m really not very angry at all," he told New York magazine in 1984. "I am appalled at times; astonished, disappointed, anxious, worried. I think of myself as judicious."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.