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The Way We Live Now

Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America

by Robert Hughes
Oxford University Press/The New York Public Library, 210 pp., $19.95

Robert Hughes, the Australian who arrived here in the late Sixties to become Time‘s art critic, doesn’t like what Americans have become since Ronald Reagan, “with somnambulistic efficiency…educated America down to his level.” In Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America we find a brilliantly mocking cultural criticism in which social history is for the most part implied, not described in detail. Hughes is less concerned with the causes of American cultural breakdown than with the symptoms, more with the complaints of our many tribes everywhere separating by race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual inclination than with the president who early in his first term made greed respectable when he announced “What I want to see above all is that this country remains a country where someone can always get rich.”

So Hughes begins not with the country that ranks last among nineteen nations in its infant mortality rate, in which one in every four homeless people in cities is a child, but with Herod’s prophecy in Auden’s For The Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio that as Revelation replaces Reason. “Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal human virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish.” Hughes then strikes:

What Herod saw was America in the late 80s and early 90s. A polity obsessed with therapies and filled with distrust of formal politics; skeptical of authority and prey to superstition; its political language corroded by fake pity and euphemism…

Unlike Caligula [Hughes thinks we are at a stage comparable to late Rome, not the early republic, certainly not our early republic], the emperor does not appoint his horse consul; he puts him in charge of the environment, or appoints him to the Supreme Court. Mainly it is women who object, for due to the prevalence of mystery-religions the men are off in the woods, affirming their manhood by sniffing one another’s armpits and listening to third-rate poets rant about the moist, hairy satyr that lives inside each one of them. Those who crave the return of the Delphic sibyl get Shirley MacLaine…

Meanwhile, artists vacillate between a largely self-indulgent expressiveness and a mainly impotent politicization, and the contest between education and TV—between argument and conviction by spectacle—has been won by television, a medium now more debased in America than ever before…

For the young, more and more, entertainment sets educational standards and creates “truth” about the past.

Hughes notes that millions of Americans, “especially young ones.” think that the “truth” about the Kennedy assassination resides in Oliver Stone’s “vivid lying film JFK,” though Stone admitted he was “creating a countermyth” to the Warren Commission’s findings. Hughes partly traces the politicizing of the arts to the fact that there are so many more incompetent artists and writers than good or even mediocre ones, therefore we “cobble up critical systems” to show that quality is little more

than a paternalist fiction designed to make life hard for black, female and homosexual artists, who must henceforth be judged on their ethnicity, gender and medical condition rather than the merits of their work.

Since our new-found sensitivity decrees that only the victim shall be the hero, “the white American male starts bawling for victim status too. Hence the rise of cult therapies which teach that we are all the victims of our parents.” Complaint gives you power. Not to be aware of a miserable childhood is prima facie evidence, in the eyes of Recovery, of “denial”—the assumption being that everyone had one, and is thus a potential source of revenue. The cult of the abused Inner Child has a very important use in modern America: it tells you that personal grievance transcends political utterance, and that the upward production curve of maudlin narcissism need not intersect with the descending spiral of cultural triviality. Thus the pursuit of the Inner Child has taken over just at the moment when Americans ought to be figuring out where their Inner Adult is.

The new orthodoxy of feminism is abandoning the image of the independent and responsible woman in favor of woman as the helpless victim of male oppression. “Treat her as equal and you are compounding her victimization.” Hughes is very easy on “the Puritan” Andrea Dworkin, and she is indeed a pitiful case when she says—and she says little else—that sex between men and women is always rape.

On the noble savage, now the herosaint of the anti-Columbians, Hughes reminds us that “even before the Europeans arrived, American Indians were constantly at one another’s throats.” America, he writes, has always seemed marvelous to “foreigners like me” because it is such a wondrous racial mix. But now every sort of promoter can be found trying to impose the spirit of Yugoslavia on us—in “a Hobbesian world: the war of all on all, locked in blood-feud and theocratic hatred, the reductio ad insanitatem.” Here by way of example he recalls Pat Buchanan exhorting the 1992 Republican Convention to “a culture war” (he does not note that Buchanan added “street by street”). Hughes, who brings to his work years of study of the tortured history of Catalans and Spaniards, cannot bear ignorant radicals ranting about “separatism” or neo-conservations hiding their ambition behind notions of national honor. The most striking sentence in the book: “They cannot know what demons they are frivolously invoking. If they did, they would fall silent in shame.”

Shame? That is where an Australian well trained by Jesuits in Sydney, so respectful of tradition in literature as well as art, the future art critic who visited hundreds of Italian churches on his motorcycle, has been let down, when it comes to understanding Americans, by his superior education. He does not quite see that ignorance can be both popular and yet something that is felt to need enforcing, as it is nowadays in so many humanities courses by the graduates of our best colleges determined to shield their charges from the lying, sexist, racist, hegemonic, phallocentric education that they, no longer in the thrall of dead white European males, once had to endure. But even this opprobrium may be going out of style. In some of the best and most expensive colleges, the thing for students now is just to have a good pleasant time with a book, even a classic, in a spirit of perfect ease and relaxation. Here, from a recent Duke University catalog, is Jane Tompkins describing “Beyond Reading: 288—Special Topics—American Literature Unbound.” (The reader can be assured that, in its language and approach, it is not exceptional.)

The reading in this course will be kept to a minimum so that the texts we read can be absorbed naturally and acquire resonance in your life. I want to do Melville’s Moby-Dick and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Other texts can be added by the class (but not too many) including criticism, if people want it. (I would hope to read some poetry together.) The aim of the course is to reintegrate dream, emotion, magic, bodily sensation, and action with the experience of literature (getting outside the classroom on two or three occasions to do things, as a class, that the texts suggest) and to reflect on the course as a teaching/learning experience, so that it may become a resource for the future in teaching these and other texts. Students will be encouraged to evolve as many avenues into the texts as possible; the range of responses can include just about anything, from camping out on the seashore after reading Moby-Dick to visiting a slave museum while teaching Beloved to writing an essay for publication in a learned journal.

I know of no one but Hughes who while scrutinizing the academic left has noticed that

when the Iranian mullahs pronounced their fatwa against a live writer, Salman Rushdie, for “blasphemy” against Islam, fixing a price on his head for writing words they didn’t like, academe hardly broke its silence. American academics failed to collectively protest this obscenity for two reasons. First, they feared their own campuses might become the targets of Islamic terrorists. Second, the more politically correct among them felt it was wrong to criticize a Muslim country, no matter what it did.

This shows the kind of attentiveness to the American spectacle that perhaps only a “foreigner” in New York thoroughly attuned to the “art game” will come up with. Indeed, only a splendidly educated Australian art critic with something of the Australian’s professional bluffness could have exuberantly taken on so many cultural bad actors as Hughes has in this book. The visual arts in America, while having sobered up after too many drinks in the Eighties, still have power, and represent big bucks, sometimes the biggest, while having as well a snobbish social distinction, luring masses of pilgrims into museums awesome as cathedrals—and this through the superior prestige of the rare work that doesn’t ask of the crowds shuffling from object to object anything like the attention once required of a high-school boy writing a “book report” on what he got out of Silas Marner. Hughes sees, as no other critic has yet been able to do, how the American museum and gallery came during the nineteenth century to seem redemptive and uplifting (and then “therapeutic”) for the citizenry and therefore suitable for the patronage and conspicuous self-congratulation of the rich.

Poor literature! No writer since the days of Ibsen and Shaw has had the impact on a wide public that Picasso has had. The last American writer to have an obvious influence on the self-image of Americans, even of fashions in American speech, was Hemingway. While literature has lost its authority and the public accepts it mainly as spasmodically effective journalism, the respect for literature once routine in learned places has in large part disappeared especially among those supposed to teach it. You are not really hip in the academy unless you are teaching the “conflicts” over how it should be taught. In Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education Professor Gerald Graff of the University of Chicago is so busy telling us how to teach Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, by accommodating every objection to its now unbearable racial prejudices, that it never occurs to him to show us why it was worth recommending to students in the first place. In Politics by Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking the acute Yale scholar David Bromwich is so laudably trying to protect the individual teacher (and classic text) from egalitarian correctness and “relevance” that he goes to the other extreme and honors Edmund Burke without asking himself why Burke’s fear of violent change figured so importantly in the slave South’s campaign against Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

The art game is so open to exploitation, fakery, corruption, and inflation of every kind that Hughes flatly claims it is a “parody of the real world.” In the Culture of Complaint and essays collected in Nothing If Not Critical, he backs up this claim again and again whether in his analysis of graffiti art as a Soho promotion or in his showing the way Mapplethorpe cut himself off from serious accomplishment by his double compulsion to be chic and to administer shock. Here and elsewhere he suggests the never-acknowledged complicity between the fundamentalists and the conservatives who call for censorship, and the artists, curators, and bureaucrats who demand support as victims, yet may deserve support only on First Amendment grounds. As for “victim art” itself, Hughes writes,

The abiding traits of American victim art are posturing and ineptitude. In the performances of Karen Finley and Holly Hughes you get the extreme of what can go wrong with art-as-politics—the belief that mere expressiveness is enough; that I become an artist by showing you my warm guts and defying you to reject them. You don’t like my guts? You and Jesse Helms, fella.

The claims of this stuff are infantile. I have demands, I have needs. Why have you not gratified them? The “you” allows no differentiation, and the self-righteousness of the “I” is deeply anaesthetic. One would be glad of some sign of awareness of the nuance that distinguishes art from slogans. This has been the minimal requirement of good political art, and especially of satire, from the time of Gillray and Goya and Géricault through that of Picasso, John Heartfield and Diego Rivera. But today the stress is on the merely personal, the “expressive.” Satire is distrusted as elitist. Hence the discipline of art, indicated by a love of structure, clarity, complexity, nuance and imaginative ambition, recedes; and claims to exemption come forward. I am a victim: how dare you impose your aesthetic standards on me? Don’t you see that you have damaged me so badly that I need only display my wounds and call it art?

But since cultural criticism never wholly does its job by insisting on (and sometimes too much enjoying) evidence alone, my only complaint against Hughes’s book is that it brings you up at every point against social decay and human demoralization that he is perfectly aware of but cannot use to give full force to his argument.

The poverty millions of Americans patiently, dumbly suffer is not unrelated to the fact that they expect so little out of life without their realizing it—that more and more they submit to the spiritual poverty forced on them by their perhaps irremediably bad schools, by the violence built into movies and TV, by the inclusive and hypnotizing consumerism. Culture should not mean just a passing show where, as Hughes says, “the sense of disappointment and frustration with formal politics…has caused many people to view the arts mainly as a field of power, since they have so little power elsewhere.”

Power” in this sense is just personal, psychological. A genuine culture would mean that the leading voices in it would be saying, as Chekhov once did to his Russians. “You live badly, my friends. Is it really necessary for you to live so badly?”

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