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Forty Years Fighting the Anti-Culture

The New Criterion, the culture journal that saw American barbarism coming, celebrates four decades of rigorous criticism this month.
Patrick McMullan Archives

One of the underexamined features of Antifa and similar groups on the cultural hard left is their sheer ugliness. It’s a fact that struck most sane visitors last year to the various hard-left encampments and “autonomous zones,” from Portland and Seattle to New York: Wherever these movements spread, hideousness followed in their wake, in the form of filthy tents, semi-literate sloganeering (“This Space Is Now Property of Seattle People”), kitschy graffiti, plastic detritus.

This determination to practice and proliferate ugliness was matched, of course, with a merciless iconoclasm that didn’t even spare the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and bona fide anti-fascist Winston Churchill. And it wasn’t just the Antifa and Black Lives Matter militants doing the tearing down. Political and civic leaders in blue cities and states did their part, by looking the other way and declining to enforce the law or in some cases even encouraging the anarchy.

These dual phenomena—the shattering of heroes and historical memory and the raising in their place of monuments to woke ugliness—represent the culmination of an anti-culture decades in the making. The anti-culture’s ambition and ferocity shocked most Americans, who are still reeling from the events of 2020, even as the assault continues today. Yet the editors and writers of one journal can justly claim to have seen it coming. They tried to warn us.

This month, the New Criterion, the journal of arts and culture founded by the late Hilton Kramer and Samuel Lipman, and edited since 2005 by Roger Kimball, celebrates its 40th anniversary (the first issue was published in September 1982, but they track their anniversaries by volume, and the September 2021 issue is technically volume 40). Their mission shouldn’t have been controversial. As they declared in a classic opening editorial, the purpose of criticism should be to uphold high aesthetic standards, as gauges against which to measure works of art. Period.

Except it was controversial. By insisting on standards, Lipman and Kramer (the latter was for many years the New York Times’ chief art critic) were declaring their independence from a critical establishment whose judgments were “either hopelessly ignorant, deliberately obscurantist, commercially compromised or politically motivated. Especially where the fine arts and the disciplines of high culture are concerned, criticism at every level . . . has degenerated into one or another form of ideology or publicity or some pernicious combination of the two.”

The degeneration in the cultural realm and in the realm of criticism had consequences. Wave after wave of culture workers were taught that judgment is nothing more than an imposition of power. That popular celebration of genuine artistic mastery is something to sneer at. That there is no truth, divine or natural, that transcends power differentials among races, sexes and “sexualities.” Today’s anti-culture, in other words, was sown within the culture, within the institutions TNC sought to challenge.

The journal delivered its counterpunch in two ways. First, by viciously attacking the faddism and ideologization of the art world, “pseudo-scholarship propagated by a barbarous reader-proof prose and underwritten by adolescent political animus,” as Kimball and Kramer wrote in a reflection on the journal’s 25th anniversary. In doing so, they and their writers gleefully deployed “satire, denunciation and ridicule,” the main weapons in the “armory” of polemic. But they also saw themselves “battling cultural amnesia”: “We have labored in the vast storehouse of cultural achievement to introduce, or reintroduce, readers to some of the salient figures whose works helped weave the great unfolding tapestry of our civilization.”

It’s impossible to summarize in a short column the rich output of a journal like TNC across four decades. Allow me, instead, to highlight but one essay that speaks saliently to our moment and captures TNC’s spirit of excellence and its prescience.

Published in 1997, it was headlined “Revisionist Lust,” In it, the inimitable Heather Mac Donald took on the “new museumology” on display at the Smithsonian, where curators sought to “critique” popular exhibits at their own institution and to “eras[e] [the museum’s] racist belief system”—by shutting down the Africa Hall, propagating manuals on race and gender “equity,” savaging U.S. history with inane curator’s notes, romanticizing minorities, and putting various oppressed identities on condescending pedestals. Sound familiar?

These trends, Mac Donald noted, are the product of the U.S. academy, whose “chic” assumptions “are now [in the 1990s] thoroughly ingrained in the Smithsonian’s bureaucracy.” By 2021, they would be thoroughly ingrained not just in museums, but in education, human resources, public health, and popular culture, as well. The highbrow anti-culture decried by the New Criterion would become, by 2021, the general American anti-culture.

Sometimes, the task of defending true culture “is so easy,” wrote Kimball and Kramer on their 25th anniversary, “we can almost forget how necessary it is. At other times, the enemies of civilization transform the task of preserving culture into a battlefield for survival. That, we believe, is where we are today.” Indeed. And Kimball and his colleagues have for 40 years fought the good fight.

Take a bow, Roger.