“Modernism” is a word with many meanings. As Hilton [Kramer] understood the term, it describes not just a particular style or period of art but an attitude towards the place of culture in the economy of life. This may be the place to say a word about abstract art. Hilton is sometimes regraded as a champion of abstract art. It would be more accurate, I believe, to say that he was a champion of good art, by which I mean art that, whatever its genre or technical prowess, was palpably true to our experience of life. An inventory of Hilton’s criticism shows that he wrote, as often, and as enthusiastically, about figurative as about abstract art. Unlike Clement Greenberg, he never thought (as Greenberg wrote in 1959) that “the very best painting, the major painting, of our age is almost exclusively abstract.” If modernism, as Hilton put it, remains “the only really vital tradition that the art of our time can claim as its own,” it was not because of its association with abstract or other “experimental” forms of art/. It was because modernism recognized that traditional sources of spiritual nourishment had been irreversibly complicated. The “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the “sea of faith” that Matthew Arnold descried in “Dover Beach” was now an inextricable part of our our cultural inheritance. Preserving or reclaiming what was vital in that inheritance, and adapting it honestly to the vagaries of new experience, was the high and serious task of cultural endeavor. Hilton loathed everything that traveled under the banner of postmodernism not because it was “playful” (as was sometimes said) but because it betokened a terrible cynicism about the whole realm of culture, which is to say the realm of human engagement with the world. Postmodernism, said Philip Johnson, a doyen of the genre, installed “the giggle” into architecture. He was right. But that giggle bespoke not the laughter of joyful affirmation but the rictus of a corrosive and deflationary snideness, a version of nihilism. It is not always easy to distinguish the two. That was part of Hilton’s genius: an unerring instinct for the fraudulent.
–Roger Kimball, “Hilton Kramer & the critical temper,” in The New Criterion, May 2012