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CULTURE OF COMPLAINT by Robert Hughes

CULTURE OF COMPLAINT

The Fraying of America

By Robert Hughes

Pub Date: April 1st, 1993
ISBN: 0-19-507676-1
Publisher: Oxford Univ.

 It's hard not to be stirred up and entertained by the three jeremiad-essays Hughes (Barcelona, 1992, etc.) offers here. He goes scatter-shooting at cows with very broad sides: “the American talent for the twin fetishes of victimhood and redemption”; the PC academy (“ ‘The Canon,’ that oppressive Big Bertha whose muzzle is trained...at the black, the gay, and the female. The Canon, we're told, is a list of books by dead Europeans—Shakespeare and Dante and Tolstoy...you know them, the pale patriarchal penis people”); postmodern architects (“the pediment-quoting Ralph Laurens of their profession”); Jean-Michel Basquiat (“the black Chatterton of the 80's”). Hughes deplores the “multi-culti” scam of a cultural establishment unwilling to stand up to the Jesse Helms-types and thus retreating into an homogenization that doles out quality to all so that none will rise too high to be chopped down. But real European- or Australian-style multiculturalism, he argues, is of great benefit—a haunting of one culture by another, an enrichening. So far so good (if glitzy: for Time's art-critic, there's no idea whose subtlety can't be sacrificed for a clever line). But the swaggering postures Hughes assumes all over the room are convincing only in the brightest-lit corners. He does a little historical background for his best point--that art for Americans has always been a therapeutic activity—but elsewhere hardly a background is shaded in. The problematics behind our melding of cultures, behind a moral issue such as abortion, or underlying formalism and shock-aesthetics—these Hughes avoids drilling into deeply. Mostly, it seems, he's writing to the small, disenchanted section of the same go-go cultural guild he bewails; in such tight company, he has to do little more than press journalistic hot buttons cleverly. Not since John Gardner's On Moral Fiction (1978) have we had such a pellet-gun shower of right-wing leftism, back-to-basics positivism--and like Gardner's, it settles down more as vanitas than veritas.