Monday, 5 June 2017

Book Review - Culture of Complaint by Robert Hughes

Culture of complaint by Robert Hughes

London: Harvill, 1994                                       ISBN 0002730022

When this book was released in the early 1990s, during the height of the "cultural wars" of that time, it made quite a splash. Now, nearly twenty-five years later, much of what Hughes wrote seems to the current reader to be prophecy. The "culture of complaint" now seems to be dominant; turbo-driven by the advent of social media.

Hughes' book came out of a series of lectures he gave in New York, in which he discussed in turn politics, multiculturalism, and morality in art. One of the themes that weaves throughout the book describes the way in which both the Left and Right of the political spectrum are driving the breakup of US society into its constituent parts, creating ghettos of race, sex, sexual orientation and so on.

What Hughes does so well is punch holes in the idea that creating these ghettos actually "empowers" those who chose to identify with them in any meaningful way. While not for a moment suggesting that there hasn't been a hegemony of the "White West" for many centuris, the solution is not to retreat into a self-reflective circle of your own kind, or, conversly, to claim genius for works or ideas that don't deserve to be given that label. Hughes also exposes, in withering fashion, how those that would denigrate what has happened in the past use the same methods now to push their own barrows.

Unfortunately we have seen, since this book was written, an increase in the acceptance of the ideas that one can't criticise if you are not part of the "group" from which the work or history eminates, or that the idea of quality when it comes to art is a suspect notion that smacks of old-fashioned imperialism. We have now entered a world that Hughes predicted in this book: groups of artists and politicians speaking only to themselves, in a language only they understand, and blaming the "other" - whoever that might be - for their lack of success.

Hughes goes on to explain that this "culture of complaint" has also had an effect on those institutions that exhibit. Caught between the faux moral and religious outrage of the Right, and the equally prudish theorising of the Left, museums and galleries have played it safe with what they exhibit.

As one would expect from Hughes, it is the section on visual art that has the most meat. Hughes gives us a potted history of how art has been absorbed in America, and why it is in that place in particular that art is seen as something that should be morally uplifiting and therapeutic. Hughes doubts that art can ever have those properties, in fact he believes that art is justified by its beauty alone, and that any other claims it might make - particularly political claims - are tendentious. Art doesn't change history.

His final few pages explain the irony that, at the moment in history when the West has never been more open to accepting great art without any baggage of racism, sexism or homophobia, many of these previously repressed groups have retreated from the idea of entering a mainstream of cultural life. The Balkanisation of American political and cultural life does no-one any good, least of all those who were in the past marginalised.

As Hughes writes, we happily accept, in the world of sport, that there are players of genius and that a rigorous selection process leaves the best at the top. The same should occur in art: new art should always be compared to the best, and strive to be the best.

For those who wonder how we got to where we are today, this book is worth reading. It has aged well.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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