Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Culture of Complaint

Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America by Robert HughesHughes_Complaint

The 1990s are back. In music, fashion, and it would seem intellectually as well. Our politics once again involves anti-globalisation anger and demands for recognition and respect for culture. The daily contest is once more dominated by the ‘sterile confrontation between the two PCs – the politically and the patriotically correct’.

While Robert Hughes’ Culture of Complaint was published in 1994, much of it feels very current and relevant. Some of the names (Jesse Helms) and controversies (Piss Christ) may have drifted from the collective memory, but the central absurdities of both the left and right remain. Twenty-four years on, Hughes efforts to skewer them is still compelling.

The book is effectively three long (55ish page) essays. Originally given as lectures, and then magazine articles, they were later fleshed out for formal publication. At times this enlargement process has left more fat than muscle, with meandering personal anecdotes and tangents laid out before the business of the day is directly addressed. This is a common flaw of the modern essay form, and while Hughes is among the finest writers Australia has ever produced, even he can not escape its indulgent structure.

What struck me most while reading this book —albeit not a point I think Hughes was trying to make — was the sheer irrelevance of criticism. Hughes outlines the right’s criticisms of the left, the left’s criticisms of the right, and provides his own broadsides against each. Yet, virtually every defect and flaw he notes in the practice of these ideologies in the 1980s and 1990s remains in our own time. In many aspects they have worsened, with the modern right less tolerant of the culture of others while the left today is less tolerant of its own.

The failure of criticism to affect change is particularly a problem for the left which seeks ‘progress’, yet seems obsessed with criticism as a vehicle for change. Without a clear ideology or picture of what it wants to achieve, the left has substituted a focus on identify and striking at what it wants to remove. This is most clearly seen with language where removing offensive words is inexplicably treated as a serious effort to change people’s social conditions. Yet as Barbara Ehrenreich — who has done much to show just how tough the social conditions of the poor and dispossessed actually are— puts it ‘verbal uplift is not the revolution’.

By profession, Hughes was a ‘critic’. Where his criticism is strongest is where it is not simply undermining the shibboleths of others. While his political attacks often seem to rest uneasily on an implicit preference for common sense —as if that was always obvious— he stands firm and proud upon the mountain top of ‘elitism’ when critiquing the art world.

With such a foundation under his feet, a position from which to identify not only what is wrong but to encourage what is best, Hughes’ art criticism is sharp and insightful. The point of art he charges is not supporting difference, but work which look for ‘real excellence’. Work that ‘in aesthetic terms [will] challenge, refine, criticize or in any way extend the thinking of the status quo’. His willingness to stand firmly for elitism gives true power to his critique of mediocrity and expression in art.

The culture of complaint Hughes identifies throughout this book is still very much with us. About the only absurdity of the 1990s that seems to have disappeared is the confessional talk show. Yet it was not through criticism of this bad TV that today’s excellent range of dramas and miniseries came about. Criticism is necessary, but it is also ultimately hollow unless it is just as grounded in a sense of what is right, as of what is wrong.

The ultimate problem of our culture is that few in our politics seem to have much if any sense of what is right. Of what ought to be. And so they, like their 1990s predecessors endlessly peck at what is easily identified as wrong. This may drive ratings, but ultimately leaves society spinning on its heels. Escaping the pull of the 1990s will therefore require moving beyond mere criticism to the active effort of building anew towards something of ‘real excellence’.

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