The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

March 25, 2016

March 25, 1928

Hilton Kramer (March 25, 1928 to March 27, 2012) the art critic, was one of the founders, in 1982,  of The New Criterion, a journal of artistic and cultural analysis. Before devoting himself to this magazine Kramer was the art critic of the New York Times. The quickest way to convey the ideas behind The New Criterion is to quote an article by Joseph Epstein, about this founder,

My friend Hilton Kramer...., I said to Sam [Samuel Lipman, co-founder of the journal in question] that he rarely mentioned the movies or television. “I consider movies and television,” he replied without raising his voice, “dog shit.” Such for Sam was popular culture; he wasn’t willing to confer upon it even the dignity of the droppings of a horse or a bull.

Hilton and Sam were dear friends, and I do not know to what extent they were aware of my own deviations from high culture. I watch lots of sports on television. The all-too-occasional excellent television sitcom—The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Cheers, Seinfeld—found me at my post on the couch, an avid viewer. Although I don’t read detective or spy stories, I enjoy them, in more passive form, through movies and television. Middlebrowest of all middlebrow activities, I also watch most Masterpiece Theatre productions on PBS.... Hilton and Sam, as I say, may not have known about these hopeless dips on my part into popular culture, and had they done so I do believe they would have forgiven me, with a touch of pity added for my wasting my time on such drivel.

I admired both Hilton and Sam greatly, and one thing I particularly admired was their ability to live on an exclusive diet of high culture. I didn’t for a moment think that, in ignoring popular culture, they were missing much, apart, perhaps, from a stronger notion of the general tastes and cultural preoccupations of their countrymen. ...
.[There can be no argument] between reading, say, Tolstoy and Stephen King or Sir Ronald Syme and Doris Kearns Goodwin. As for visual art, about suffering and much else, as W. H. Auden had it, the old masters were never wrong, and any competition between them and contemporary visual art ended, sadly, with the triumph of Andy Warhol, after whom serious people no longer needed to be interested in contemporary visual art. The English philosopher Michael Oakeshott notes that one of the signs of being cultured is that one knows what one doesn’t have to know. Contemporary visual art, perhaps for the first time in the history of painting and sculpture, is one of those things a cultured person no longer has to know.

Arguments used to be staged, and whole books written, about which was more authentic, genuine, better: high, middle, or popular culture. Subtle distinctions among the three were drawn. Popular culture was aimed at the largest possible audience and hence at the lowest common denominator of education and subtlety. Middlebrow culture was characterized by its pretensions to seriousness, which were shown to be, by people who knew better, pretensions merely. High culture is, as the adjective makes plain, more elevated than middlebrow or popular culture. High culture is, or at least once was, for an intellectual and artistic elite, which could not only appreciate what it was reading, hearing, or seeing, but also had a sophisticated appreciation of how great art is made. Vladimir Nabokov, contemning readers who “identified” with characters in fiction, remarked that the best readers identify with the artist. These would of course be highbrow readers.

... Middlebrow meant ultimately unserious, failing to comprehend the complexity of the subjects it took up and therefore a bit of a fraud.

In the day when high culture reigned, commercial success for an artist, at any rate in his lifetime, was a near-guarantee that his work didn’t qualify as high culture. How could he be read or heard or viewed and enjoyed by a mass audience and still be serious? Even winning a Nobel Prize in Literature could subtract from one’s prestige. Think of all the great writers who failed to win one—Tolstoy, Henry James, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, Vassily Grossman, and others—and how superior a club they constitute next to that containing so many of the rather cloddish figures who have won it.

For much of the twentieth century, high culture and modernism were coterminous. Great works of the past—by Sophocles, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Bach, Goethe—were by their very nature deemed high culture. More recent works, though, had to have the imprimatur of modernism to get through the gate of high culture. Modernism often meant complication, poetry that was difficult, music that was dissonant, architecture stripped of ornament, painting and sculpture no longer pictorial or representational. Such art was not to everyone’s taste.

As for that gate, highbrow critics functioned as its keepers. For all that might be said against high, or highbrow, culture—that it was rarefied, elitist, failed to yield immediate pleasure, was out of touch with the everyday reality of people’s lives—one thing that has to be said for it is that it did establish a standard. I recall being at a conference where someone was deploring the ill effects of high union wages on the American theater. “What American theater?” Hilton Kramer asked. “I didn’t know we had one.” With this remark I realized that, apart from the American musicals of the four decades from the 1920s to the ’50s, such American theater as we have had has offered sheer depression and falls wildly short of great art. We have had Arthur Miller’s ill-written, Marxistical plays, the not very well disguised homosexual themes featured in the plays of Tennessee Williams, the dolorosities of Eugene O’Neill’s drunken Irishmen, the hatred of America and the middle-class family that are the chief messages in the plays of Edward Albee. Talk about, as Gertrude Stein complained of Oakland, city of her birth and upbringing, there being “no there, there.” But it took someone with the high standard of Hilton Kramer, with a single, sarcastic question, to bring this out, at least for me.

Serious advocates of high culture specialized in discrimination. An artist’s putatively lofty intentions did not by themselves get him past the gate. I remember Sam Lipman one day telling me that the night before he had seen Philip Glass’s new opera. When I asked what he thought of it, he replied that the message was clear enough: “Glass is saying die, die, die, fools, but first give me $175 for a seat to hear me tell it.”

Highbrow critics decided what qualified as high culture and what didn’t make the cut. Furious arguments sometimes raged around whether a given body of painting, novels, plays, poems, music was authentically superior. Sometimes these disputes took years for resolution. The powerful art critic Clement Greenberg won the argument for the acceptance of Abstract Expressionism—the work of Mark Rothko, Arshile Gorky, Franz Kline, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, et alia—into the celestial realm of high culture only after a long campaign. Such literary critics as R. P. Blackmur, F. R. Leavis, Irving Howe, and Edmund Wilson, whose book Axel’s Castle set the original roster for modernism in literature, had to be got past for a writer to earn a niche in the hall of high literary culture. Virgil Thomson, B. H. Haggin, and Ernest Newman performed a similar function for composers and musical performers. No one passed the gate of high culture without his or her passport being stamped by such men. No one today, in any field of criticism, has their authority.

Thinking about culture in the old terms of high, middle, and low may now have become anachronistic. Over the past 40 or so years the categories themselves have largely been blurred and in the blurring blasted out of existence. How this happened is a complicated story.

University English and foreign-language departments, once a citadel of high culture, began no longer to evaluate literature in the interest of forming a canon of the very best writing; they preferred instead to diddle with theoretical distractions touching on what literature and movies and graphic novels and comic books and television shows tell about race, class, and gender. Earlier, universities instituted courses in science fiction and the movies. Oxford, as late as the 1930s, refused to teach writers later than the Romantics. The assumption there, and in most universities, was that no one needed to teach contemporary writers, for earnest students would eventually read them on their own, if not now then later. The same applied to movies; one didn’t need to teach or theorize about the movies—one went to the movies.

The universities’ emphasis on diversity, carried out under the banner of multiculturalism, has also helped devalue high culture. .... If this entails a vast reduction in the time spent studying the works of long dead white males, even if these males over the long centuries have produced the preponderance of the world’s important works of art and intellect, so be it. If a dumbing down is implicit in these transactions, then that, too, will have to stand. Equality and what was perceived as justice were deemed to take precedence over high culture. Any other way leads to elitism, and elitism, in an ethnically democratic age, is one of the ugliest words going.

What education is about, the assumption was, is the attainment of culture. By culture was meant an understanding of life and what is most important in it. This understanding is obtained through experience, observation, insight, and the ability to get outside oneself to view the world from a larger than merely personal perspective. Culture at this depth comprised a compound of a sense of the past, an understanding of what morality was about, and intelligence. The Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa notes that “culture has always signified a combination of factors and disciplines that, according to a broad social consensus, are what define it: a recognition of a shared heritage of ideas, values, works of art, a store of historical, religious, and philosophical knowledge in constant evolution, and the exploration of new artistic and literary forms and of research in all areas of knowledge.”

The study of the past is the main portal through which culture is acquired; and once through that portal, the art of the past—visual, musical, above all literary—is the chief route to culture. Study of the great art of the past, the imbuing of tradition, was also thought the most certain way to ensure that there will be important art in the present and in the future.

Matthew Arnold, the great Victorian promulgator of the gospel of culture, held that poetry “is criticism of life,” and criticism itself is “a disinterested endeavor to learn .  .  . the best that is known and thought in the world.” Culture was attained through finding and pondering that best.

Unlike in science, in culture there is not a clear line of progress. Progress has little to do with culture. The history of culture is one of highs and lows, mountains and gulleys. The greatness of Greek culture was followed by the relative barrenness of culture in the Roman Empire followed by the darkness of the Middle Ages followed by the uphill climb of Renaissance Italy thence to the French and Scottish Enlightenments, and so on, two steps forward, one step back, sometimes one step forward, two steps back. Today, people in a position to know would argue, we are in a deep cultural gulley.

The force of culture is cumulative, its vehicle of transmission is tradition. The great essay on this subject is T. S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in which Eliot remarks, “Some one said: ‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Precisely, and they are that which we know.” In the same essay, Eliot wrote: “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.” In this reading, “the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.” Culture comprises connections and interconnections between past and present, and these in turn comprise the future of culture.

Just now, though, the future of culture seems unclear, murky, if not somewhat dubious. One is hard pressed to think of great names in the realm of contemporary culture. A few performing musicians, two or three strong symphonic conductors, an actor or two, but not much else comes to mind. Concerts of symphonic or chamber music are attended mainly by people 70 and older. Once strictly classical music festivals now need to give way to more and more pop and rock performances to pay their way. If there are any powerful novelists now at work, I do not know who they might be. Contemporary painting and sculpture have long seemed more about money than about art. Dance lives chiefly off the great choreographers of the past, from Marius Petipa to George Balanchine. The condition of poetry is perhaps saddest of all, for it has become little more than an intramural sport, read only by the same people who write it. People continue to churn out vast quantities of art—novels, plays, poems, musical compositions, painting, sculpture—but nothing very much seems at stake in any of their productions.

Santayana said that the reason most older people imagine the world a dark and dreary place is that they will soon no longer be in it. Are mine, in this essay, the dour ruminations of such an older man, one himself soon to depart the planet? I find that John Podhoretz, a man 25 years younger than I and one with a much wider interest in and knowledge of popular culture, has recently sung a threnody briefer but not otherwise dissimilar to my own (“Another Op’nin, Another Show,” The Weekly Standard, August 24, 2015). He begins by noting “that so little of what’s made these days, or written these days, or filmed these days, or performed these days, seems to provoke the kind of anticipatory thrill that once went hand-in-hand with being a serious customer, consumer, and enthusiast of culture.” He then runs down the lack of excitement caused by recent presentations in the theater, in popular and classical music, in literature, and in visual art. He concludes by writing that “there is something deeply depressing in the fact that, increasingly, the arts seem to be losing their power to capture our attention. And that is because they no longer hold out the hope that, by providing us an intellectual and emotional guide map, they can help sate our aesthetic hunger—the hunger we all have to understand our own experiences and lives by seeing things anew through the eyes of others.”


For many years I taught an undergraduate course in prose style to would-be writers. At one point in the course I used to present my students with a list of 15 or so items that included such names and events as the Peloponnesian War, Leon Trotsky, Serge Diaghilev, the 1913 Armory Show, the Spanish Civil War, Nicolas Chamfort, Boris Chaliapin, C. P. Cavafy, the Dreyfus Affair, and a few others. I asked how many knew who or what these items were. A few among them knew one or two of the names and events listed. I said that, at 20 years old, I myself could not have done better than they. I then added that, if one wanted to pass oneself off as a cultured person one had to know such things and a great deal more. My sense is that these students were, as I hoped they would be, as I myself as an undergraduate was, properly cowed by their own ignorance.

I’m not sure that this same exercise would be of much avail today. Now students need merely pick up their smartphones and Google the names on my list. I’m less than sure that culture, and the notion of being a cultured person, has anything like the high standing it once had. Might most people today rather be well informed than cultured? What was once a high human aspiration—the possession of culture—may no longer be so. How did such a change come about?

Truly cultured people were always a minority, at any time and in every place. One used to be able to find a certain number of them in universities. Some schools appeared to have more than others. Columbia in the days of Jacques Barzun, Lionel Trilling, F. W. Dupee, & Co. was notable among them. They were also to be found in the books one read at universities. One could not read, for example, George Eliot without being immensely impressed with her vast learning, deep understanding, and artistic control over complex material, and wondering if, were she alive today, one could engage her in conversation without oneself seeming sadly inadequate.

...... Universities, operating under the tyranny of political correctness and the requisites of dumbing down, seem just now keener on building up the self-esteem and protecting the tender sensibilities of their students than in creating young men and women eager to possess culture.

The acquisition of culture requires repose, sitting quietly in a room with a book, or alone with one’s thoughts even at a crowded concert or art museum. Ours is distinctly not an age of repose. The rhythm of our time is jumpy. The smart phone is its characteristic instrument, with calls and texts coming in more than intermittently, Google there to consult as an aide-memoire, to check for stock prices, ball scores, recent terrorist murders. Information not culture is the great desideratum of our day, distraction our chief theme.


This loss of high culture is not an American phenomenon alone. English intellectual and artistic life has fallen off greatly since the generation of Evelyn Waugh, Isaiah Berlin, and Hugh Trevor-Roper. England now appears to be Mick Jagger’s country. The English novel, as written by Martin Amis, Ian -McEwan, and Salman Rushdie, attracts more publicity than genuine literary interest. The London Times Literary Supplement, an exception, continues to review scholarly books of highbrow quality. English acting, too, much of which is shown in America over PBS, remains on a high level. Yet the Proms, the famous summer English classical music concerts .... have been cut back and dumbed down, owing to the need, it was announced, to bring in a younger audience. “Now,” Norman Lebrecht, the English music critic, has recently written, “Visigoths rule the roost.”

That the loss of high culture is an international phenomenon is revealed in Mario Vargas Llosa’s recent collection of essays, Notes on the Death of Culture. Along with the Czech novelist Milan Kundera, Vargas Llosa is the last of the international literary figures still at work, and a man with an impressive oeuvre as a novelist and a strong enough political activist streak to have run for the presidency of his country in 1990. He is a man with complex political views: an advocate of the free market but concerned about the downtrodden of the earth, an agnostic but with a keen appreciation of the spiritual values necessary to democratic society that only religion brings. Now nearly 80, he has published this book of essays around the theme of what he calls “the culture of the spectacle.”

The culture of spectacle is an entertainment culture in which, as Vargas Llosa has it, “having a good time, escaping boredom, is the universal passion.” The culture of spectacle is dominated by “playful banality .  .  . in which the supreme value now is to amuse oneself and amuse others, over and above any form of knowledge or ideals.” This is a culture in which “Woody Allen is to David Lean or Orson Welles what Andy Warhol is to Gauguin or Van Gogh in painting or Dario Fo is to Chekhov or Ibsen in the theatre.” In this culture, “frivolity, superficiality, ignorance, gossip, and bad taste” dominate. Vargas Llosa argues that the simplicities of the visual—television, movies, smartphones, the Internet, the partiality, in other words, for pixels over print—preclude the thoughtfulness, gravity, and seriousness that once were at the center of culture. The result, he holds, is a world “divided between functional illiterates and ignorant and insensitive specialists.”

” In Notes on the Death of Culture" he nicely eviscerates Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, and others of the dazzling school of French ninnies who argue that not only art but reality itself can scarcely be said to exist.

In the culture of spectacle, the great figures are chefs and fashion designers, athletes and actors, television journalists. Intellectuals, whose chief interest was in ideas, have been replaced by so-called public intellectuals. These are men and women of no notable depth whose domains are the op-ed pages and the television news and talk shows. The culture of spectacle has no interest in ideas. Nor does television, its main medium, which makes all ideas banal.

For reasons no one has yet explained, the Internet is at once riveting and a great killer of concentration. Confronted by a composition on the Internet of more than, say, 25 paragraphs, the mind begins to wander, impatience kicks in, one wants, in the cant phrase, to get to the bottom line. If the Internet teaches anything, it is that information is not knowledge. ....

.... The diminishing minority still interested in acquiring the benefits of high culture will have to search for it exclusively in the culture of the past. No longer a continuing enterprise, high culture itself will become dead-ended, a curiosity, little more, and thus over time likely to die out. Life will go on. Machines will grow smarter, human beings gradually dumber. Round the world the vast majority might possibly feel that something grand is missing, though they shan’t have a clue to what it might be.

Well that was a long excerpt, but it seemed necessary to clarify the viewpoint being presented, which was cranky but interesting. Now what is the view of cats from this once high, now vanished culture cliff?

We have a  quote from a volume edited and introduced by Hilton Kramer:
The New Criterion Reader, The First Five Years (1988).
Therein is a essay titled, "The Phenomenon of Allen Ginsberg" by Bruce Bawer, we find this quote by Ginsberg. The setup is Ginsberg hearing William Carlos Williams read his poetry; Ginsberg realized you could write like you talk. Before that he was, Ginsberg said:

"hung up on cats like Wyatt Surrey and Donne."
and churning out reams of pseudo Elizabethen poems.

Perhaps a cat metaphor is as close as we can come to a feline dimension within high culture.

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