Hilton Kramer

Hilton Kramer

Many of us happen to share his predudices.   I don't pay attention to installations, performance art, Judy Chicago, Whitney Museum, etc.  It's all just so much noise to me.  

Where I differ-- I concede that there is overwhealmingly powerful psychology behind the art I don't like. Yet  that doesn't make me care about it any more.  Another point-- artists turn into their opposites.  Two examples:

John Adams
Like Kramer, I have never had any attraction to his political stuff-- his operas.  I was surprised by some of his chamber music, some of his orchestral introductions and interludes.  I can't claim to know his work well, but despite his setting off initially on a trajectory that was of very little interest to me, I hear some compelling music from him now--without actually seeking it out--it seeps into my life through the airwaves and surprises me.

Scott Johnson
Scott's really proud of Johnny Somebody, which is of very little interest to me.  I was blown away by his *The Pietist*, written for the New Millennium Ensemble.  It could have been a musical portrait of Buchner's *Lenz*.   I like the piece Scott wrote for me and Oren-- Bowery Haunt.   He's a self-professed downtown composer who writes uptown music, expecially when he is asked to write for all-acoustic groups. 

--Please add to the list.--

Kramer's defense of the high ground reminds me of conversations I've had with Charles Wuorinen.  I admire that idealism, but I shy away from the idea that high can be sold as high.  I am too busy making a case for what I think is important (including Wuorinen's work) to try to hoodwink people into accepting it merely because I say it's the high ground.  My job is to present it in a way where listeners can see for themselves that something significant there.

Kramer dismisses the reactions to modernism.  I do not.  A typical Cold War comment:  Music evolves along technical grounds.  No--technical grounds evolve along technical grounds.   Music evolves on technical grounds in some instances, and it evolves in other ways in other instances.   Minimalism is not unanimously accepted as a technical innovation, but it was a response to fancy musical techniques that made claims that too few could evaluate. (Too few people could get middle Casrter, middle Babbitt, and the flock of bad imitators really did a diservice to the cause.)  Minimalism responded with processes that are absolutely transparent.  The result was a movement that everyone could recognize for a short time, and then on top of that there came a noisy profusion of all kinds of mushroom-like musics, many of which could attract the attention and admiration of concert goers.  I'm not going to complain about anything that gets people into the concert halls.  I'm not going to deny that this profusion is a profusion of reactionary stuff.  

Reaction creates noise in the good sense as well as in the bad sense.   Reactions open a Pandora's box of new perspectivees and orientations.  Why not?   Musical knowledge doesn't go away.  Those who care can apply it in ways that can interesect with the new perspectives and orientations.  Musical knowledge, that profusion of 20th C. technical innovation, will keep acting on the scene, most often quietly and almost anonymously.

Meanwhile, Babbitt, Wuorinen, and Davidovsky and many other Cold War figures did attain an amazing degree of transparency in their very late works.  This point is still going largely uncelebrated except in little ghettos here and there.  Babbitt's Swan Song No. 1 is a very transparent work.   It does not sound like free improv.  (His music never did sound like free improv.)

Art  and politics--

Kramer hated art mixing up with politics.  How did such artistic purism get so mixed up with conservative politics?    The high ground can be accused, with some justification, of coveting its power in much the same way that old money covets its wealth.  Musical techniques are like the yogi or magician who disappears, knowing that nothing is lost, all will evidence itself again.   The musical techniques lie in wait.  It's true that fancier stuff can't fly now, but things revolve so quickly now that no one can say how soon everything will be complex again. 

Bach's Prelude Fugue and Allegro (BWV 998), as I see it, is all about stealing the thunder from Telemann, not only embracing a new degree of homophony, but usurping that and putting it into a cosmic framework - homophony as incarnation.

People  will figure out how to launch similar trojan horses.

More on high art and the right--

Today, March 30, 2012, in the Wall Street Journal, high art is evoked to support the Rupert Murdoch agenda.

From C.S. Lewis, "Democratic Education" (1944):

The demand for equality has two sources; one of them is among the noblest, the other is the basest of human emotions. The noble source is the desire for fair play. But the other source is the hatred of superiority. At the present moment it would be very unrealistic to overlook the importance of the latter.

There is in all men a tendency (only corrigible by good training from without and persistent moral effort from within) to resist the existence of what is stronger, subtler or better than themselves. In uncorrected and brutal small men this hardens into an implacable and disinterested hatred for every kind of excellence. . . .

Equality (outside mathematics) is a purely social conception. It applies to man as a political and economic animal. It has no place in the world of the mind. Beauty is not democratic; she reveals herself more to the few than to the many, more to the persistent and disciplined seekers than to the careless. Virtue is not democratic; she is achieved by those who pursue her more hotly than most men. Truth is not democratic; she demands special talents and special industry in those to whom she gives her favours.

Political democracy is doomed if it tries to extend its demand for equality into these higher spheres. Ethical, intellectual, or aesthetic democracy is death. A truly democratic education—one which will preserve democracy—must be, in its own field, ruthlessly aristocratic, shamelessly "high-brow."

(A version of this article appeared Mar. 30, 2012, on page A15 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Notable & Quotable.)

Hilton Kramer would like this, I suppose.  I do not know if Kramer would have shared C.S. Lewis' theistic point of view.

I don't know what to make of this conservative-high art alliance. My view does not really oppose this.  I attempt to parse it more finely.  Artists who give up competing with Cezanne, Beethoven or Schoenberg, must create a new niche.  There are infinitely many niches (because they create their own categories!)  Products of these new niches can garner visibility and popular success even if the product is relatively crude.  All that  makes art high might possibly be applied in that niche, yet that will not always happen.  We don't have to exalt  niche products that offend us, but we need to understand how it's working.  Hilton Kramer beats his head against the wall, and maybe someone needs to do that. 

My position has a bit to do with the influence of Stephen Jay Gould, especially his book, Full House. 

Finally, a note about Kramer's battle with the NEA (because they were supporting stuff that wasn't high brow.) The NEA has supported the last 2 recordings that Cygnus put out, both involving some very high brow stuff that was never reviewed in the Times.  I am waiting to see the evidence first hand that the NEA is prejudiced against high brow music.  Not in my experience.