A quarter-century ago, Hilton Kramer, the former chief art critic of the New York Times, and the late Samuel Lipman, a distinguished pianist and critic, started a highbrow, small-circulation monthly review of the arts and intellectual life. The writer Roger Kimball, who joined The New Criterion a few years after its founding and is now co-editor and co-publisher, recently described the complacent, left-dominated cultural attitude that the magazine sought to explode. “Standards — aesthetic as well as intellectual — were low, but then so were expectations,” he told FrontPage Magazine:
Words like “transgressive” and “challenging” had just begun their bizarre mutation into terms of critical commendation, while traditional epithets such as “beautiful,” “technically accomplished,” even “true” were drifting into desuetude. What the historian Elie Kedourie called “the Chatham House Version” — that toxic amalgam of smugness, moral relativism, and cherished feelings of guilt about the achievements of Western civilization — everywhere nurtured the catechism of established opinion.
The Italian philosopher Rocco Buttiglione calls this ethos the “suicide of culture,” and worries that, unless reversed, it spells real trouble for the West.
Since Day One back in 1982, The New Criterion has pursued a twofold critical vocation, seeking to do away with that still-pervasive worldview — and to replace it. Its first task has been relentlessly negative: “the gritty job of intellectual and cultural trash collector,” as Kimball and Kramer put it in their introduction to this new anthology. A lengthy section of this book, “Contentions,” collects essays that fall under this heading, and they’re a joy to read (or re-read). Here’s the opening of one, by David Pryce-Jones: “Eric Hobsbawm is no doubt intelligent and industrious, and he might well have made a notable contribution as a historian. Unfortunately, lifelong devotion to Communism destroyed him as a thinker or interpreter of events.” No minced words there! In muscular prose, Pryce-Jones shows how Hobsbawm’s intellectual failings — his see-only-the-bad-side view of democratic capitalism and his whitewashing of Communist atrocities — grow out of a deeper moral failure, an icy indifference to human suffering.
Hobsbawm’s is just one inflated leftist reputation punctured. Other targets include Noam Chomsky, whose apologetics for the Khmer Rouge and al-Qaeda come under withering fire from Australian historian Keith Windschuttle; the bloodthirsty anti-colonialist Franz Fanon, who achieved “the Platonic form of human resentment,” according to the brilliant Anthony Daniels (who also appears in Counterpoints as Theodore Dalrymple); liberal jurists, exposed by Judge Robert Bork in one of the sharpest essays on American constitutionalism you’ll ever read; PC curators at the Smithsonian, mocked by City Journal’s Heather Mac Donald; and many more. The book, like the magazine, features dose after dose of emperor-has-no-clothes truth-telling. The cumulative effect is bracing.
The New Criterion's intellectual mission has also been constructive: restoring Western civilization’s greats to their proper status. In an era when the university and other elite institutions have refused to uphold “the best that is known and thought in the world” (Matthew Arnold) — worse, have relentlessly attacked it as racist or sexist or classist — Kimball and Kramer have offered an ongoing, ten-times-a-year, high-level education in the humanities. In the section called “Recuperations,” readers will find some splendid examples. My favorite is Joseph Epstein’s “The Intimate Abstraction of Paul Valéry,” which places the French poet and aphorist — “Everything changes but the avant-garde” is one of his many memorable maxims — in a tradition of thinkers that includes Montaigne and Henry James, “whose strength is in the texture and subtlety, the sensibility, of their minds” (something one could say about Epstein himself). John Buchan, Lord Acton, F. R. Leavis, Aldous Huxley, and Russell Kirk, among others, also receive sympathetic, if not uncritical, assessments. These essays open up worlds of further reading and reflection.
The New Criterion has always excelled in big think-pieces, ambitious efforts to capture the spirit of the age. These pieces often are not aesthetic in any narrow sense, but instead political or moral, concerned with “the right conduct of life,” in Socrates’ phrase. An impressive example in this collection is Mark Steyn’s mordant “It’s the Demography, Stupid,” which describes a Europe seemingly on its way to cultural extinction, colonized from within by alienated Islamists, whom the desiccated elites of Europe can’t muster enough force to resist; these ideas inspired Steyn’s bestseller America Alone. Kenneth Minogue’s “‘Christophobia’ and the West” is notable for its discussion of “Olympianism,” a view, increasingly prevalent among anti-Christian elites, that seeks “human betterment . . . on a global scale by forging the peoples of the world into a single community based on the universal enjoyment of appropriate human rights.” Kimball himself offers “The Fortunes of Permanence”: This manifesto, which opens the book, emphasizes the importance of high culture, the dangers of multiculturalism, and the mistake of conflating technological progress (however worthy when used properly) with human flourishing.
Everything in this book is readable — often compulsively so — which points to another aspect of The New Criterion that deserves notice: It’s a superbly edited publication. Whether it’s a measured assessment of Robert Alter’s translation of the Hebrew Bible or a review of Balanchine at the New York City Ballet or a Max Beckmann exhibit at the Guggenheim, sentences logically follow one another, as do paragraphs and themes; transitions make perfect sense. Now, many of The New Criterion's writers are among our great prose stylists — Dalrymple, Epstein, and Steyn heading the list. But Kimball, Kramer, and the magazine’s other editors surely deserve credit here, too. Given that so much of the postmodern humbug that The New Criterion struggles against is hermetic and jargon-heavy, it’s fitting that the magazine, and this book drawn from its pages, is filled with good writing.
Much has changed since The New Criterion's founding; the Soviet Union, for example, is no more. But the apocalyptic anti-culture of Islamic radicalism has become a new existential threat to Western civilization, which the continuing influence of multiculturalism and cultural relativism in our universities and media makes harder to oppose. The New Criterion’s educational mission is all the more essential in such a context. At times, as Kimball and Kramer observe, “the enemies of civilization transform the task of preserving culture into a battle for survival.”
Another thing that has changed is popular culture: For Kimball and Kramer, pop culture is a catastrophe, spirit-dimming when it isn’t spirit-killing. But I’m not sure that such a blanket condemnation is as true in 2007 as it was in 1982 or 1992. I don’t think it captures, for instance, the growing complexity and artistic achievement evident these days on television, in remarkable dramas like HBO’s The Sopranos or its mind-bending new surf-noir John from Cincinnati.
But that’s a very minor quibble. The New Criterion is a national treasure. For those who haven’t discovered it yet, Contentions is an ideal gateway. Here’s to the next quarter-century.