Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Intellectual Counterpoints

Twenty-five years ago The New Criterion was founded as a review of arts and culture, from a generally right-of-center perspective, but always maintaining a high critical standard, regardless of the work under consideration—a good concept, to be sure. Last night, to celebrate their anniversary and the publication of Counterpoints, a retrospective collection, publisher Roger Kimball assembled an impressive panel of contributors at CUNY, including Judge Robert Bork, Mark Steyn, Dr. Anthony Daniels, and Prof. Eric Ormsby.

Kimball spoke of the review’s early years, when the leftist intelligentsia saw it “violating an unspoken pact” that all things cultural be deemed their domain. The New Republic wrote darkly about its purported connections to John Olin’s arms business. In retrospect, such rhetoric sounds ridiculous for a publication dedicated to “battling cultural amnesia” and applying critical aesthetic standards, and even satire, to overtly politicized art and literature.

Judge Bork spoke eloquently about the effective of the courts on our culture. Daniels offered some provocative comments about the paucity of culture at the root of widespread malevolence he observed in his patients. He also argued that misogynist motives were behind the growth of Islamic conversions in Britain, again drawing from his professional experience. Mark Steyn’s comments drawn from his Criterion contributions, ranged from an appreciation of Broadway’s George Abbott, to Islamic Jihad and the death of the west. His transition between the two was a neat little pirouette.

In truth, Criterion is more about aesthetics than politics. However, when politicized multi-culturalism threatens those permanent things, the Criterion writers have the intellectual heft for the fight, when not facilitating arms sales for the Olin Foundation, of course.

In the latest issue, Brooke Allen has an appreciation of Ralph Ellison that expresses thoughts on the jazz influenced author that have a wider relevance. Allen writes:

“Jazz and the blues were in his bloodstream; he memorably defined the blues in racial terms, as ‘an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.’ Yet he aspired to a career in classical music, perhaps as a conductor. Culture was universal, a gift for everyone; to reject any art, or music, or literature because it did not speak specifically to black people was sheer idiocy.”

It is not hard trace the influence of Ellison’s philosophy on Stanley Crouch. It is that universality of art that the Criterion defends.