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David Calling

The David Pryce-Jones blog.

Hilton Kramer and Great Art



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A visit to an exhibition of modern art is a sure way to feel downcast. All those good people wandering past the works on show and trying to make sense of them. This can’t be done because your run-of-the-mill modern artist is not concerned with making sense, only with doing his own thing. Modern art museums exhibit this petty egoism and why should anyone care for that? These thoughts are prompted by the death of Hilton Kramer, for many years the art critic of the New York Times.

Hilton was a scholar and aesthete whose gentle manner hid firm classical convictions. Western art holds its place in civilization as a commentary down the centuries on humankind in the flesh and in the spirit. Great art leads to appreciation of life and reconciliation to death, and Hilton took it upon himself to say so.

He would have been pleased to learn about a new book with the title Con Art — Why You Ought To Sell Your Damien Hirsts While You Can by Julian Spalding (a critic and former gallery director, of whom, I have to confess in my ignorance, I had not previously heard). Damien Hirst is the chap who pickles a shark or half a sheep in formaldehyde. A few curators and collectors have driven up the price of these wheezes into the millions. None of it is worth a cent, says Spalding, “not because it isn’t great art, good art or even bad art, but because it isn’t art at all.” Many in the field are artists only because they say they are — Hilton put it elegantly and definitively.



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