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…

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