The New Criterion, a little magazine with a big punch, will begin a season-long celebration of its 25th year of publication this month. The silver anniversary will be marked by a special expanded September issue and a gala dinner and art auction on September 21.
Launched in 1982 by Hilton Kramer and the music critic Samuel Lipman, the magazine has outlasted T.S. Eliot's Criterion, which ran for 17 years. For a quarter of a century, the New Criterion has helped its readers distinguish achievement from failure in painting, music, dance, literature, theater, and other arts. The magazine, whose circulation is 6,500, has taken a leading role in the culture wars, publishing articles whose titles are an intellectual call to arms, such as "Farewell to the MLA" by Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball and "It's the Demography, Stupid" by Mark Steyn, as well as provocations by Roger Scruton, David Pryce-Jones, Theodore Dalrymple, and others.
The magazine's original managing editor, Erich Eichman, said the choice of Mr. Kramer to leave the New York Times, where he had been the newspaper's chief art critic, and start a magazine devoted to ideas and the arts "surprised a lot of people and was a statement in itself."
"He's very smart," said the former publisher of the Nation magazine, Victor Navasky, who disagrees with Mr. Kramer on political issues but shares a set of interests such as the history of the left and the relation of culture to politics. He said Mr. Kramer's prose was fascinating and eloquent. "The culture would be poorer without him."
In its first issue, dated September 1982, the magazine set out "to speak plainly and vigorously about the problems that beset the life of the artists and the life of the mind in our society" while resisting "a more general cultural drift" that had in many cases "condemned true seriousness to a fugitive existence."
"I think that what initially made it a sensation — and, in certain quarters, a scandal," a former associate editor of the New Criterion, Christopher Carduff, said, "was its courage to make judgments about contemporary art, to separate the sheep from the goats. Or, more to the point, to separate the sheep from the pigs in sheep's clothing." He added, "There was, and is, so much ‘pretend' art out there." The magazine "picked up the biggest of the pigs by their crooked, dirty tails — and they squealed. It was thrilling noise, too seldom heard in the 1980s and 1990s, and it made the heart pound and the blood race — all to the general health of the culture."
The editor in chief of First Things magazine, Father John Neuhaus, said the New Criterion has been "a center of sanity in terms of an honest reckoning of the way in which literature and the arts have frequently descended into a self-conscious role of undermining the foundations of the West generally and America in particular."
A professor at Harvard University, Harvey Mansfield, said the New Criterion "defends art and music and literature as they ought to be against attacks that come mostly from intellectuals who should know better."
"Even though the number of lines it devotes to various cultural enterprises is fewer" than some other publications, the book publisher Ivan Dee said, its coverage is broader because "The New Criterion deals with more fundamental concerns."
"It's not the only cultural magazine with a sense of history," Mr. Carduff said, "but it's the only one that has both hands firmly on history — that is, the only one that makes it part of its editorial mission to shake up received opinion, prick overinflated reputations, pull neglected achievement out of the shadows, and correct the historical record."
Mr. Eichman said, "Hilton's mandarin prose, his learnedness, his wide range of cultural interests, his sense of humor, his wisdom about the distorting effects of politics, his willingness to take young writers seriously" all made the New Criterion what it is. He added, "I think the magazine has made a huge difference, not least during Roger Kimball's long tenure as managing editor and now co-editor."
"One thing that strikes me," said the editor of the Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol, is "sometimes magazines — even very good ones — get a little tired or lose some of their interest and intellectual excitement as they age. This has not been true of the New Criterion. It's very impressive how they not only maintained a high quality, but how they remained fresh, recruiting new and interesting voices."
"It's one of the few magazines I know," said the critic John Simon, who writes for the magazine, "that you can read cover to cover without getting bored — even about subjects that basically don't interest you."
The expanded September issue contains poems and several essays, including one on literary longevity in which Joseph Epstein writes that he much prefers "to take literature's survival for granted — or, as a student once wrote, ‘to take it for granite.'"
The magazine's bedrock has been the founding editor's vision. At a celebratory dinner in June, the editor-at-large of Commentary magazine, Norman Podhoretz, told an anecdote that summed up Mr. Kramer's qualities and shed light on the New Criterion's frame of mind generally. The story goes that Mr. Kramer, while chief art critic of the Times, was seated next to Woody Allen, who asked Mr. Kramer if he felt embarrassed when he ran into artists whose work he had attacked. "No," Mr. Kramer retorted, "I expect them to be embarrassed for doing bad work."
The American composer Steve Reich won the Praemium Imperiale arts award for music. It was announced yesterday at the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center. He joins four other laureates named by the Japan Art Association: the Japanese painter Yayoi Kusama, the French sculptor Christian Boltanski, the German architect Frei Otto, and the Russian dancer Maya Plisetskaya. Each prize carries an award of 15 million yen (approximately $131,000).
These awards, now in their 18th year, recognize lifetime achievement in various arts that the Nobel Prizes do not cover. The minimalist composer Mr. Reich looked on as the Brooklyn-based group So Percussion performed his "Music for Pieces of Wood" using mahogany blocks.
The Japan Art Association also presented its Grant for Young Artists to the State Foundation for the National System of Youth and Children's Orchestras of Venezuela.