Against the Grain: The New Criterion on Art and Intellect at the End of the Twentieth Century edited by Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball. Ivan R. Dee, 463 PP., $35 (cloth), $16.95 (paper).
September 1, 1995        

“‘Lord, enlighten thou our enemies,’ should be the prayer of every true reformer,” wrote Mill in his essay on Coleridge. “Sharpen their wits, give acuteness to their perceptions, and consecutiveness and clearness to their reasoning powers. We are in danger from their folly, not from their wisdom: their weakness is what fills us with apprehension, not their strength.” Over the last three decades, those of us who share these sentiments have had our prayers answered in the shape of The Public Interest, The National Interest, Commentary and The New Criterion. True, neoconservatism may have sometimes seemed to consist mainly of superficially plausible arguments for profoundly pernicious policies-- a blessing we would perhaps rather do without. But for such ingratitude Mill had an answer:

"Even if a Conservative philosophy were an absurdity, it is well calculated to drive out a hundred absurdities worse than itself. Let no one think that it is nothing to accustom people to give a reason for their opinion, be the opinion ever so untenable, the reason ever so insufficient. A person accustomed to submit his fundamental tenets to the test of reason will be more open to the dictates of reason on every other point. Not from him shall we have to apprehend the owl-like dread of light, the drudge-like aversion to change, which were the characteristics of the old unreasoning race of bigots."

And anyway, not all their opinions are untenable. In its crusade against the politicization of contemporary culture, The New Criterion is -- on the whole, in the main, and not to put too fine a point on it -- right. Notwithstanding the importance of legal and social equality for women, homosexuals, and members of racial minorities, most of the cultural strategies employed in the service of these ends have been -- again, on the whole; and with many exceptions, not always duly acknowledged by conservative critics -- misguided and counterproductive. Multiculturalist pedagogy; the promotion of “cultural diversity” through arts administration, philanthropy, and public policy; academic departments of Women’s Studies and Afro-American Studies; the project of “critical theory”; and in general, the greatly increased weight -- in teaching and research, hiring and funding, programming and grant-making -- given to explicitly political considerations: altogether these things have done more harm than good. They have undoubtedly made possible some valuable work and attracted some people to culture who would otherwise have been lost to it. But they have also generated a really staggering amount of mediocre and tendentious work. And not only do these ideological priorities make for less accomplished artists and scholars; they also make for less effective citizens. Attempting to turn one’s professional enthusiasms and expertise to political account can distract from -- can even serve to rationalize the avoidance of -- everyday democratic activity, with all its tedium and frustration. As Richard Rorty has pointed out in these pages: “One of the contributions of the newer [the radical-academic] left has been to enable professors, whose mild guilt about the comfort and security of their own lives once led them into extra-academic political activity, to say, ‘Sorry, I gave at the office.’”*

This, at any rate, is my interpretation of (admittedly a very small sample of) the vast literature on the contemporary culture wars. It is a view formed in not insignificant measure by reading The New Criterion. Along with books and essays by Richard Bernstein, Russell Jacoby, Christopher Lasch, Diane Ravitch, Robert Hughes, David Lehman, Frederick Crews, Harold Bloom, Helen Vendler, Camille Paglia, Irving Howe, Katha Pollitt, Harold Fromm, Robert Brustein, and others, the magazine’s steady documentation of absurdity and outrage, its chronicling of intellectual sins both grave and venial, has worn down and finally worn away my initial sympathy with the cultural program of my political comrades, Of course, excruciating firsthand experience with the writings of Edward Said, Houston Baker, bell hooks, Donna Haraway, and other leading cultural radicals has also done its part.

Against the Grain, forty-five selections from The New Criterion’s first thirteen years, is a less polemical volume than one might expect -- that is, it is less than wholly polemical. Much of it is simply very good critical writing: John Simon on Nabokov; Joseph Epstein on Cavafy; Guy Davenport on Gertrude Stein; Brooke Allen on Shaw; Brad Leithauser on Housman; John Gross on Beerbohm; Samuel Lipman on Walter Gieseking; James Tuttleton on Frederick Douglass. In one of the book’s more programmatic pieces, Hilton Kramer calls for a return to connoisseurship i.e., “the close, comparative study of art objects [and literary texts] with a view to determining their relative levels of aesthetic quality.” It is a cogent formulation, which the above-mentioned essays and others in Against the Grain well exemplify.

The more contentious selections are less consistently satisfying. Plenty of points are scored, but the point is sometimes missed. According to Roger Kimball, for example, Foucault was nothing more than a con man. Certainly he was a con man, but nothing more? A short chapter in Michael Waizer’s The Company of Critics carefully, dispassionately analyzes Foucault’s theory of politics, past its occasionally brilliant insights down to its fundamental incoherence. The result is no less devastating and vastly more illuminating than Kimball’s skillful hatchet job. Similarly, Gerald Graff’s innocuous suggestion that radicals and conservatives try discussing their differences before their students becomes, in James Tuttleton’s account, a devious stratagem preparing the way for academic totalitarianism. The golden rule of polemics is: state your antagonist’s view as persuasively as possible. This rule is frequently broken in Against the Grain (as well as in every issue of The New Criterion). Still, some pieces in this vein are undeniably fine, like Kramer’s fierce, gloomy, eloquent, and heartfelt vindication of traditional high culture as the proper content of undergraduate education, and a characteristically witty and penetrating address by Christopher Ricks, “What Is at Stake in the ‘Battle of the Books’?”

There is an essay by Immanuel Kant (not found in Against the Grain) entitled “On the Old Saw: That May Be True in Theory, But It Doesn’t Hold in Practice.” Contrariwise, I find The New Criterion generally right in practice -- in its judgments about “relative levels of aesthetic quality” and intellectual merit -- but mistaken on what it identifies as the crucial theoretical issue in the culture wars: i.e., relativism. The politicization of culture, Kramer and Kimball write, “rests on the contention that nothing is meaningful or valuable in itself that everything, from literary texts and paintings to personal relations, must be understood as an interchangeable token for the exercise or expression of power.” They cite as the purest statement of this execrable doctrine a sentence by Stanley Fish: “There is no such thing as intrinsic merit.” This, they thunder, is “a version of nihilism and a license for sophistry.”

"For if there is no such thing as intrinsic merit, then no judgment of quality can be anything more than a veiled political commendation or a statement of personal partisanship. Without the idea of intrinsic moral, intellectual, and artistic value, criticism and scholarship degenerates into a species of propaganda, and morality becomes little more than a cynical calculus aimed at increasing personal advantage. The New Criterion takes categorical exception to such beliefs. We proceed on the conviction that there is such a thing as intrinsic merit, that it can be discerned and rationally argued for, and that its rejection is a prescription for moral and cultural catastrophe."

Well, then, what is intrinsic merit? “Intrinsic” can’t mean “universally agreed upon,” since no aesthetic criteria are. It can’t mean “independent of inherited, unconscious, or other local determination,” since no beliefs are. It can’t, in short, mean supra-historical and non-contingent, since nothing whatever is. What Fish, Rorty, and other pragmatists contend is that all criteria start out equal and must be justified to those who would be affected by their adoption -- that democracy, in other words, is prior to philosophy. Beyond this, as Fish never tires of pointing out, antifoundationalism has no consequences. In any case, if Kramer and Kimball believe there are objective, irrefragable, rationally demonstrable aesthetic and moral criteria, they ought by now to have offered the rest of us a fairly precise idea of what they are, or in whose writings they can be found.

They haven’t, and they can’t. But then, they needn’t. They need only muddle along, employing and occasionally articulating the criteria that have emerged from our culture’s conversation since the Greeks initiated it, and showing that what used to and still usually does underwrite our judgments about beauty and truth is inconsistent with giving Robert Mapplethorpe a one-man show, or Karen Finley an NEA grant, or Toni Morrison a Nobel Prize. More than that, no one can do.

The patron saint of The New Criterion is Matthew Arnold; and rightly, for no one has written better about the proper relation between culture and politics. Arnold’s notions of “disinterestedness” and “the free play of mind” are an excellent corrective for contemporary left-wing cultural practice. All values may be political in an ultimate, metaphysical (or rather, anti-metaphysical) sense. But that -- as Fish would be the first to acknowledge -- is a null, an empty sense. In the ordinary, everyday, practical sense, there are indeed non-moral and non-political values. The hunger for beauty, for perfection of form, is as organic as the hunger for justice. To subordinate one to the other, or ignore one for the sake of the other, is, as Kramer and Kimball warn, a prescription for universal mediocrity.

Quite possibly, however, if the shade of Matthew Arnold returned to preside over the contemporary debate, he would have a word or two to say to his disciples at The New Criterion as well. For one thing, Arnold’s polemical manners were impeccable, while Kramer’s and Kimball’s are atrocious. He never wrote a rancorous word, and they never wrote a gracious one. “Sourness and light” is their critical formula; toujours attaguer their polemical maxim. “We have discovered,” they assert, “that a more delicate phraseology is not so much conciliatory as feckless: an invitation to discount the seriousness of the issue.” One can imagine Arnold’s (or, for that matter, Trilling’s) astonishment and disgust at this pronouncement.

For another thing, the New Criterionists sometimes boast that they and not the multiculturalists are the true democrats, applying to themselves Arnold’s words in Culture and Anarchy “The men of culture are the true apostles of equality. [They] are those who have had a passion for diffusing, for making prevail, for carrying from one end of the society to the other, the best ideas of their time.” But it is a hollow boast. Arnold freely acknowledged, as Kramer and Kimball do not, the dependence of spiritual equality on at least a rough, approximate material equality. Here are a few more words from Culture and Anarchy;

"Culture, or the study of perfection leads us to conceive of no perfection as being real which is not a general perfection, embracing all our fellow-men with whom we have to do. ... Individual perfection is impossible so long as the rest of mankind are not perfected along with us. ... So all our fellow-men, in the East of London [c.f. the South Bronx] and elsewhere, we must take along with us in the progress towards perfection, if we ourselves really, as we profess, want to be perfect; and we must not let the worship of any fetish, any machinery, such as manufactures or population [cf. “economic growth” or “national security”] -- which are not, like perfection, absolute goods in themselves, though we think them so -- create for us such a multitude of miserable, sunken, and ignorant human beings, that to carry them all along with us is impossible, and perforce they must for the most part be left by us in their degradation and wretchedness. But evidently the conception of free-trade [cf. “freedom from government interference”], on which our Liberal [cf. Republican] friends vaunt themselves, and in which they think they have found the secret of national prosperity -- evidently, I say, the mere unfettered pursuit of the production of wealth, and the mere mechanical multiplying, for this end, of manufactures and population threatens to create for us, if it has not created already, those vast, miserable masses of sunken people [cf. the “underclass”]-- one pauper, at the present moment, for every nineteen of us -- to the existence of which we are, as we have seen, absolutely forbidden to reconcile ourselves, in spite of all that the philosophy of The Times [cf. the Wall Street Journal] ... may say to persuade us."

In Culture and Anarchy; in “Democracy”, where he argued against the anti-government party that “the action of a diligent, an impartial, and a national government ... can really do much, by institution and regulation, to better the condition of the middle and lower classes”; and in “Equality”, with its affirmation that “Certainly equality will never of itself alone give us a perfect civilization. But with such inequality as ours, a perfect civilization is impossible” -- in these and other passages Arnold demonstrated his humane moral imagination and democratic good faith. Kramer and Kimball have yet to demonstrate theirs.

Finally, there is the complicated matter of disinterestedness, or intellectual conscience. That both Kramer and Kimball would sooner die than fake a fact or twist a quote, I do not doubt. But disinterestedness is something larger, finer, rarer than that. To perceive as readily and pursue as energetically the difficulties of one’s own position as those of one’s opponent’s; to take pains to discover, and present fully, the genuine problem that one’s opponent is, however futilely, addressing -- this is disinterestedness as Arnold understood it.

Arnold thought he had found a splendid example of it in Burke who, at the close of his last attack on the French Revolution, nevertheless conceded some doubts about the wisdom of opposing to the bitter end the new spirit of the age. In “The Function of Criticism” Arnold cited this passage and commented:

"That return of Burke upon himself has always seemed to me one of the finest things in English literature, or indeed in any literature. That is what I call living by ideas: when one side of a question has long had your earnest support, when all your feelings are engaged, when you hear all round you no language but one, when your party talks this language like a steam-engine and can imagine no other -- still to be able to think, still to be irresistibly carried, if so it be, by the current of thought to the opposite side of the question, and, like Balaam, to be unable to speak anything “but what the Lord has put in your mouth.” I know nothing more striking, and I must add that I know nothing more un-English."

I wish I could imagine someday praising Kramer and Kimball in such terms. But alas, I know nothing more un-New-Criterion-ish.

* “Intellectuals in Politics” (Spring 1992)