THE REVENGE OF THE PHILISTINES; Art and Culture 1972-1982. By Hilton Kramer. The Free Press. 445 pp. $25.
THE IMPULSE TO memorialize in book form one's transient essays . . . is an impulse which should be repressed," wrote Jacob A. Stein 10 years ago in the foreword to his own memorialization of his own transients of belles lettres. I agree with Stein's opinion but have like him followed the impulse when it struck. I can therefore appreciate both sides of the question, and it seems to me that the present volume of Hilton Kramer's transient art reviews and essays reveals the pleasures of the temptation and the punishment for succumbing.
Kramer was the chief art critic for The New York Times after John Canaday moved on to higher things. Then, in 1982, Kramer became the founding edito of The New Criterion. Many of the pieces here first appeared in one or the other, the rest in other periodicals. The trouble with memorializing this sort of writing is that the subjects are imposed from without, from a wide variety of sources with no possibility of unity or sustained focus. Customarily the semblance of unity is created -- no great trick -- by sorting the pieces by subject, but the only real unity present is that of the mind of the writer as expressed in his prose style and in his attitudes and judgments.
Kramer's prose style is a little formal; he usually refers to himself as "one," for instance. And he is diffident, forever asking himself what he thinks and why he thinks something different from what others think and then answering himself.
These distractions are worth overcoming, however, for Kramer does have something to say worth hearing. As far as I can tell from this book and from remembering his writing over the years, he has never been taken in by fad or fashion in art, and that's saying a lot for a critic in a period largely composed of fads and fashions in art. Although his writing is anything but exquisite, his judgment often is. He accurately sees what is missing in an artist's work but never enlarges that perception to wholesale condemnation. He is first-rate at separating out the real content of contemporary art from claims made for it, especially the all-too-frequent Messianic ones.
Thus his piece on the Morris Louis show at the National Gallery, after examining the Messianic expectations of the organizers, concludes, with Solomonic justice, "Morris Louis was not the first modern artist to discover that by jettisoning . . . many of the traditional resources of painting, something small and perfect might be achieved with what remained. But it was something small, and it is a mockery of great art -- or a convenient amnesia -- to claim otherwise."
The title refers to the curious process by which an avant-garde art originally interested in "shocking the bourgeois" was taken over almost completely by the "bourgeois." (I confess to a slight discomfort at the use of the term because of my inability to discern any other sizable group in American cultural life -- certainly not artists, critics and museum people, who overwhelmingly come from "bourgeois" origins and aspire to and attain "bourgeois" comforts. There is a great deal to be said on this whole subject, but Kramer is basically ambiguous about it.)
HE IS very good on the Museum of Modern Art, using its expanded space and the first omnigatherum exhibition in all of it to write a very penetrating spiritual or ideological history of the institution and its effects on American and world culture plus a keen analysis of its present and likely future: "A poster might be equal to a painting, a factory or a housing project as much to be esteemed as a great work of sculpture," and the melancholy but inescapable conclusion -- MOMA's "Alfred Barr has had no successor."
What you really miss in such a collection of the work of such an excellent critic, of course, is an examination of the greatest of the masters, bringing to the task, as Kramer would, could hardly help doing, his mid-to- late 20th-century sensibility and his profound and detailed understanding of the whirlpools and eddies in the flowing river of art taste. The earliest artist treated is Turner, the next Cezanne, the late Cezanne at that. Kramer is very good at what he does, good enough to do it on more important work.