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April 01 2012

Hilton Kramer obituary

Former New York Times art critic known for championing the modernism of his youth

Hilton Kramer, who has died aged 84, was the most lucid art journalist of his generation. From his early days on Arts Digest and the New York Times, he compelled attention with the forensic skill of his arguments, the accuracy of his praise and the ferocity of his disembowellings.

He was judge, jury and scourge of, among others, Kirk Varnedoe, curator of painting at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1988-2001), for what he regarded as Varnedoe's betrayal of the trust passed down from Moma's great founding director, Alfred Barr. In 1980, he skewered the art academic Meyer Schapiro for an analysis of Cézanne that brought "discredit upon the whole Freudian enterprise", concluding: "There thus remains an unresolved conflict – the conflict between the aesthete and the ideologue – that sooner or later will have to be faced if this author is to be taken seriously as a significant analyst of our artistic heritage."

Kramer started out as a moderate lefty but by the mid-1960s was well on his way to becoming the self-professed neocon who considered that the steely-eyed president Ronald Reagan had "won" the cold war, and who basked in a climate in which liberalism, socialism and communism co-existed in a miasmic mindset as a threat to western democracy; west of Rhode Island, that is.

In 1982, he resigned as art critic of the New York Times because he considered it too leftwing and became founding editor of the New Criterion, where he could open a broad front in defence of the achievements of modernism against the philistines, but also continue the battles of the McCarthy years, mentioning senator Joe McCarthy rarely but comrade Joe Stalin often. He raged against those on the Hollywood blacklist of artists suspected of communist sympathies, from the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to Charlie Chaplin, and particularly the Hollywood 10, toilers in the movie vineyard who refused to testify to the House Un-American Activities Committee and went to prison.

The intransigence of Kramer's political views sits awkwardly with the subtlety of his perception in his writings on the arts but brought him a devoted public following as well as the scorn of many, particularly painters and sculptors practising today.

Kramer was born in Gloucester, Massachusetts, the son of Russian immigrants, and received a BA in English from Syracuse University in New York state, then took postgraduate courses at Columbia, Harvard and the New School for Social Research, covering cultural and political issues, but not art. In 1953, bugged by Harold Rosenberg's description of abstract expressionist paintings as psychological events, he wrote an attack which Partisan Review accepted and which turned him into an overnight celebrity, bringing him a job he had not known he wanted.

He became an editor at Arts Digest (later simply Arts) and in 1965 he joined the New York Times as an art critic, later becoming chief art critic. He used his slot to defend the achievements of modernism up to the 1950s and to excoriate most of what happened later, though there were occasional surprising exceptions, such as his judgment in a New York Review of Books article in 1969 of Claes Oldenburg, "whose zany sculptures and offbeat designs for monuments," he wrote, "offer a robust engagement with the world we actually encounter beyond the perimeter of the art gallery, the museum, and the millionaire's fancy pad".

He brought an acerbic sanity to his occasional ventures into British territory, particularly in puncturing the Bloomsbury revival in a fine essay of 1984 which ends by quoting JM Keynes's rueful view from hindsight of the "superficiality, not only of judgment, but also of feeling" of Bloomsbury, in which Kramer included the underpowered work of Virginia Woolf, her sister Vanessa Bell and the negligible Duncan Grant. In the course of a richly appreciative assessment of Kenneth Tynan, he wrote: "As a critic, Tynan worked very much as certain high style actors do, always ready, with the rhetorical flourish or the coup de théatre that disarms complacency and causes both shock and applause."

Norman Podhoretz, Kramer's fellow neocon and contributor to the rightwing magazine Commentary, summed him up best: "Hilton came to occupy an almost uninhabitable critical space of his own construction, in which … the daring and experimental art and fiction and poetry of his own youth was considered highly praiseworthy, whereas the transgressive efforts created and displayed in his middle age drew from him exactly the sort of response the abstract expressionists had drawn from leading critics in his own early days."

In 1964, Kramer married Esta Teich, who was an assistant editor at Arts. She survives him.

Hilton Kramer, art critic, born 25 March 1928; died 27 March 2012


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December 23 2010

Good as news

We can see design thinking at work in web phenomena such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, but the predicament of printed news remains an unsolved problem

In the 1850s, a New York publisher announced that newspapers were dead: he had seen a telegraph in action. In fact, the immediacy of the telegraph made people much hungrier for news from hundreds of miles away, and proved a major catalyst in the growth of newspapers.

The telegraph story is told by Arthur Sulzberger Jr, the publisher of the New York Times, in a new book called Designing Media. His interlocutor is Bill Moggridge, the man who designed the first laptop in 1980, went on to found IDEO, the largest design firm in the world, and is currently the director of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York. Sulzberger is one of 37 people that Moggridge interviews in the book, from editors and TV producers to the founders of Wikipedia, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. It's a veritable Who's Who of the people who have revolutionised media in the last decade.

Reading the interviews (excerpts of which you can also download and watch on video), I had one question at the front of my mind: what, exactly, is the relationship between design and the media revolution we are experiencing? Or, to put it another way, why is this book – which contains many fascinating insights into the way media work, some of them design-related but most of them not – entitled Designing Media? I didn't find the explanation in the book, so I called up Moggridge to ask him. His answer was simple: because media is a form of design. In fact, he argued, everything is a form of design.

To be honest, I suspected he would say that. Most people may still think that "design" refers to manufactured objects – chairs, telephones and cars – but designers have become far more expansive in their worldview. They now design customer experience and services, from internet banking systems to patient flow in a hospital. Businesses are rapidly latching on to the notion of "design thinking" – the idea that the creative problem-solving used by designers can be applied outside of traditional design – as a means of becoming more effective. Moggridge himself is a paragon of the designer dissolving the boundaries of his discipline. He is the godfather of interaction design, which started out as the design of electronic interfaces but now refers to the design of any form of user experience, from navigating a BlackBerry to paying at a checkout.

From there, it takes no great leap of imagination to understand media as design. After all, many of the new media moguls are software designers. Indeed, Chad Hurley, the founder of YouTube, started out as a graphic designer (probably the only graphic designer in history to become a billionaire). I buy the argument that design thought processes can be applied to almost anything – whether that means we call those things "design" is a semantic discussion we'll save for another time. But I find it easier to understand the argument in relation to new media rather than traditional media. It doesn't seem far fetched at all to describe social networking platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, and user-generated content sites such as Wikipedia and YouTube as forms of design.

Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales actually describes what he does as "community design". It sounds like a form of social engineering, but what he means by the phrase is that Wikipedia is not just an anarchic piece of crowd-sourcing: it's a carefully designed eco-system. If people are going to work on an encyclopedia for free, you have to create the conditions in which they're willing to do so, by giving them recognition and not profiting from their labour. It was important to Wales to make Wikipedia an open system, and so it was designed around the principle that most people are honest and well-intentioned, rather than making it a closed shop to exclude the few bad apples who want to write false or slanderous entries – in truth, he tried the closed system first with Nupedia and it failed. Yet, while it's true that anyone can write or edit an entry on Wikipedia, everything there is carefully monitored. It's often described as "democratic", but Wales himself thinks of it more as a monarchy, with the writers overseen by moderators who are in turn overseen by the king – King Jimbo, as he's known. So the design aspect isn't just how the website looks, it's how users create the content.

Immediately you can see how different design rules suggest different ideologies. Like Wales, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg is also fixated on the idea of openness. He fervently believes that designing a platform for people to share personal information helps make the world a more open place. And he found that making things human – "just seeing someone's face" – works best. It could have all looked like email, with its Spartan text-only interface that betrays its origins in the military. But it doesn't. It's designed to make people feel more present, and engaged with a community rather than an individual. Moggridge is right to suggest that the secret to Zuckerberg's success – you may have seen him on the cover of Time this month – lies in having designed a social network where there is no layer of technology getting in people's way.

However, here's the question. We all know that the media are in a turbulent state of flux, but in what way does reading the situation as "design" help? Is it just semantics, down to the fact that the word "design" is just so malleable? Paola Antonelli, senior design curator at New York's Museum of Modern Art, doesn't think so. She recently predicted in the Economist that in the near future designers would be involved in everything from science to politics. She sees design as the uber-profession, with a skill-set that transcends all boundaries. "For a simple reason: one of design's most fundamental tasks is to help people deal with change," she says.

The design world is in confident mood, but for these predictions to come true the rest of the world needs to buy into the argument. If I was Arthur Sulzberger Jr, I'd be thinking about how designers could get me out of a massive dilemma that was costing my company hundreds of millions of dollars a year. There's only one reason why newspapers haven't yet gone the way of the telegraph and that's because they still make about 20 times more advertising revenue than websites. If you were to grant Sulzberger just one wish, I have no doubt that he would reply: I wish someone would design a way for us to make as much advertising revenue from the website as we used to make from the newspaper. Banner ads? Forget it. The fact that you can't give over most of a webpage to an ad the way you could a printed page is simply because we've all been conditioned by the early days of the web when everything was free. There's a design challenge that everyone's trying to crack.


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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