Damn all

Scott Malcomson

  • Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America by Robert Hughes
    Oxford, 224 pp, £12.95, June 1993, ISBN 0 19 507676 1

‘I must unbend sometimes,’ Hazlitt told his readers in 1821:

I must occasionally lie fallow. The kind of conversation that I affect most is what sort of a day it is, and whether it is likely to rain or hold up fine for tomorrow This I consider as enjoying the otium cum dignitate, as the end and privilege of a life of study. I would resign myself to this state of easy indifference, but I find I cannot. I must maintain a certain pretension, which is far enough from my wish. I must be put on my defence, I must take up the gauntlet continually, or I find I lose ground ‘I am nothing, if not critical.’

The predicament is one which Robert Hughes shares with Hazlitt, of whom Keats gamely wrote: ‘if ever I am damn’d – damn me if I shouldn’t like him to damn me.’ In Culture of Complaint (a bestseller in the US), Hughes damns damn near everybody. He follows the uncompromising American dictum that you may attack whomever you like as long as you attack them for being unwilling to compromise. A New York Times reviewer called the book ‘post-modern rather than high Enlightenment’, a surprising but sound judgment if we understand ‘post-modern’ as describing a catholicity of arguments without a prayer of resolution – battles without a war. I doubt Hughes would agree to being labelled ‘post-modern’ – he barely avoids giving Derrida a silly nickname – but then no honourable intellectual wants a label. Yet the label works, because Hughes’s method is by and large positional, governed by the situation. He takes up the gauntlet continually, worried perhaps that if he does not he will lose ground.

The post-modern ground, however, is whatever place Hughes happens to be occupying; and it must be littered with gauntlets. In such a situation, in the heat of battle, consistency and rigour are at risk. The fighter will use whatever weapon is closest to hand. Hughes will refer, in Culture of Complaint, to ‘the new orthodoxy of feminism’, adducing three quotations, one from Andrea Dworkin; twenty pages later, ‘American feminism has a large repressive fringe,’ with reference again to Dworkin. Are we dealing with an orthodoxy, or a fringe? ‘The fundamental temper of America,’ he writes, ‘tends towards an existential ideal which can probably never be reached, but can never be discarded: equal rights to variety, to construct your life as you see fit, to choose your travelling companions.’ The American ‘creed’ was ‘born from immigration, from the jostling of scores of tribes who become American to the extent to which they can negotiate accommodations with one another’. Once these people ‘become American’, they find themselves on ‘a vast common ground’. Yet Hughes also discovers ‘the vast reserves of American monism, the long-hoarded nativist intolerance of difference’. Certainly, these opposite qualities do co-exist; the point is that Hughes will take one as essential, then the other, depending on whom he is arguing against. We learn that ‘the politics of ideology has for the last twenty years weakened and in some areas broken the traditional American genius for consensus.’ Polarisation, ‘the crack of politics’, has brought about an ‘exacerbated division between “right” and “left” in America’. A few pages away, Hughes makes his central point – that Americans have become precious whiners, sullen and irresponsible, pursuing an ‘all-pervasive claim to victimhood’ – and notes that the ‘shifts this has produced may be seen everywhere, and their curious tendency is to make the “right” and “left” converge.’ It may well be that the Right and Left have so far polarised as to converge. (Is that consensus?) But the apparent paradox should be explained. Besides, if Americans have, as Hughes argues, lost so many of the characteristics that make them American (except for the Puritan Inner Child, that terrible toddler), one might wonder whether those characteristics were American at all. Or perhaps we Yanks actually are, as foreigners often tell us, simulacra of Americanness and not the real deal.

Culture of Complaint may prove to be the most influential such screed since Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism. Hughes is much funnier than Lasch, and probably happier – his strings of metaphor are evidence that the author enjoys his work. Nimble yet lunkish, his sense of humour favours sarcasm and the well-turned bludgeon. Readers or viewers of Hughes’s The Shock of the New will recall that laughs there were minimal. Hughes did not hold his enemies up to ridicule: he simply left them out of the book and thus, he may have hoped, out of art history. In Culture of Complaint, however, we get a rogues’ gallery; no barb is left unloosed, no joke unmade. If in the furious splashings of bile his arguments become muddled, even contradictory, it isn’t for lack of satirical effort.

Culture of Complaint is polemic, a form that favours ellipses and tactical agility. Yet a tendency towards an extremism of the moment informs other, less screed-like works by Hughes. In ‘English Art in the 20th Century’, an essay which appears in Nothing if not Critical (1990), he deplores the neglect of English art, blaming (among others) Roger Fry, who, with Clive Bell, ‘made it just fine to despise new English art in the name of the French avant-garde’: for them ‘any imitation of the Ecole de Paris, however pallid’ was preferable ‘to anything else, however strong’. In another essay, Hughes dwells on Howard Hodgkin’s distinguished family background, which includes ‘Roger Fry, the great English critic who gave Post-Impressionism its name’. Hughes frequently argues that contemporary artists have lost the rigour that academic training imparts –‘meaning, in essence, the transmission of disciplined skills based on drawing from the live model and the natural motif’. He links the inability to draw with a rise in ‘expressiveness’ as the chief goal of contemporary art; both are emanations of a love of the self, ‘the sacred cow of today’s culture’. (The briefest hop takes the reader from here to Culture of Complaint, though in this book, characteristically, both narcissism and post-structuralist anti-narcissism, defined as the belief that ‘the subject – the thinking, single agent, the “I” of every sentence – was an illusion,’ come in for slagging.) Yet we also hear that many artists Hughes admires couldn’t draw well. Mark Rothko has ‘severe limitations as a draughts man’, as does Milton Avery; David Smith is ‘very uneven’, Magritte straightforwardly poor.

Hughes’s tendency to argue both sides achieves poignancy in his famous, and well-deserved, attack on Julian Schnabel: ‘in Schnabel,’ he charges, ‘our time of insecure self-congratulation and bulimic vulgarity got the genius it deserved,’ only to write a little later, apropos of Thomas McEvilley’s remark that ‘somehow the age demanded’ Schnabel: ‘the notion that the man is an emanation of the Zeitgeist no doubt matches the artist’s fantasies about himself.’ It also, of course, matches what Hughes has just said about him.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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