The temptation to avoid when reflecting on the past, especially when it comes to the state of our culture, is that of giving in to nostalgia. Although there may be some truth in nostalgic reflections, for the most part human beings haven’t really changed much. They can be good or bad, but mostly they are somewhere in between.
Moreover, culture is forever changing depending on various and often unpredictable trends. But perennial questions of good and evil remain. Given these facts, there are innumerable opinions about what makes a good critic. There are often heated debates that tend to devolve into mere displays of narcissism on the part of the pseudo-critics themselves (made worse by the Twitterfication of intellectual discourse). One thing that remains indispensable for any successful critic, however, is an ability to see things clearly—both ethically and aesthetically.
Since its inception in 1982, The New Criterion’s mission has been grounded in precisely this kind of clarity. On the occasion of the magazine’s 40th anniversary, a new collection of essays highlights some of the best intellectual criticism the magazine has published over the years.
Collected and edited by the magazine’s editor and publisher (and American Greatness regular) Roger Kimball, The Critical Temper: Interventions from The New Criterion at 40 features writers such as Victor Davis Hanson, the late, great Kenneth Minogue, Myron Magnet, Gary Saul Morson, Marco Grassi, James Panero, and many more. The book serves both as an excellent introduction to those who are just discovering The New Criterion, as well as a reminder for seasoned readers who can go back to reflect further on these gems of intellectual criticism.
One of the characteristics of The New Criterion has always been a high level of excellence in critique. One was always free to disagree with what the magazine’s writers wrote, but it was always also clear that The New Criterion was never interested in promoting a particular ideology. What mattered and still matters today is the clarity and intelligence of an argument as well as its authenticity.
These days, we tend to call out many things as “fake news,” but I wonder if we shouldn’t just as readily start calling out fake critics.
Hilton Kramer (1928-2012), the founding editor of The New Criterion, knew how to spot an intellectual fraud, and then as now, there were plenty. As Kimball writes in his introduction, “part of Hilton’s genius” was “an unerring instinct for the fraudulent.” There are many snake-oil salesmen who regularly peddle ideology and pretend it is serious discourse. Throw in some big, intellectual words at the unsuspecting public, and you’ve got yourself what is supposed to pass as a “public intellectual” (Ibram X. Kendi and Nikole Hannah-Jones come to mind).
Of course, Kramer’s mission (which under Kimball’s direction has seamlessly continued) was not merely to spot a fake, but to expose him or her and what makes their fakery apparent. Fake has a more encompassing meaning in this case. It is someone who has no intellectual integrity, and who is an unserious critic. In his introduction, Kimball writes,
‘serious’ does not mean ‘somber.’ It certainly does not mean ‘academic.’ It does mean that tone is more than a cosmetic resource. It is a matter, at bottom, of respect, of dignity. Seriousness is compatible with humor, but not with frivolity. . . . Hilton’s unwavering, instinctive commitment to the truth underlay his whole practice as a critic.
It’s easy to wax eloquent, using lots of pretty and big words—thousands upon thousands of them in many cases—and still ultimately say absolutely nothing. Too many would-be critics appear to engage in the exercise merely for the sake of hearing their own so-called glorious erudition that has no relation to the world they critique or, even reality itself.
We are not beings who live outside of life. On the contrary, we derive our humanity by always living in the midst of the chaotic fallibility of man, while still seeking to illuminate the natural order of things. One of the aspects of The New Criterion is precisely this idea of relationality. But it is more than an idea! It is critical thought rooted firmly in the reality that in order for civilization to prevail over barbarity, those who would be civilized must have properly understood the relation between an individual and community, between the private and public sphere.
The New Criterion is not merely about aesthetics, as Kimball points out in the introduction. If that were so, then it would fall into the category of that dreadfully dull and self-proclaimed authority on art, Clement Greenberg, who, like so many today, was more interested in hearing his own narrations become the popular understanding of moral superiority, all while ignoring the necessary ethical integrity of a critic. Beware of the “false prophets” in criticism!
Instead of giving in to that temptation, the magazine’s essence lies in a continuous exploration of the tense relationship between ethics and aesthetics. One can be a “disinterested” art critic, and certainly there ought to be an objectivity in any critic that propels his thoughts. But what this means is that the objectivity of a critic should not be stained by an ideology, which quickly turns into a narcissistic and humorless mental masturbation. On the contrary, the objectivity of a critic is composed of a firm and clear understanding of what is good and what is evil. In other words, a critic must evaluate intelligently and carefully the merits of art, literature, and culture in general, and so, in this, his thoughts must not be clouded by the grip of ideology. Yet, at the same time, he cannot let mere aesthetics take the place of ethics.
The New Criterion has always been about an appreciation of culture, and not only American culture. In particular, the magazine has been a home for many communist dissidents, and the editors have always had a deep appreciation of many Russian and Eastern European thinkers and writers. In addition, the heart of the magazine is its rejection of barbarism. As Kimball writes, “The New Criterion is not, we 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.” This certainly cannot be just an aesthetical exercise. If it were so, then frauds wouldn’t be recognized and called out for their lack of integrity.
We are living through strange times, and much of what we are witnessing seems unprecedented. Yet the perennial questions of good, evil, truth, and beauty remain. This is not a simple-minded “conservatism” but what British philosopher Michael Oakeshott called a “conservative disposition”: a certain habit of being that is relational and dialogic, one that elevates our humanity and our endeavor to flourish, and that firmly rejects any ideology. The New Criterion continues to do that even as it engages with those important perennial questions with an astute and clear-eyed disposition. Here’s to 40 more years and beyond!