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RIP Robert Hughes: Enemy of the Woozy

7 August 2012

6:23 PM

7 August 2012

6:23 PM

Few books have had a greater effect on me than Robert Hughes’ Culture of Complaint. The clarity of Hughes’ style in his dissection of the discontents of the 1980s was enough to make me love him. In his political writing, histories and art criticism he never descended into theory or jargon, but imitated his heroes, Tom Paine, George Orwell and EP Thompson, and talked to the reader without condescension or obscurantism

Critics denounce and admirers celebrate the ‘muscular style’, but I find it more courteous than macho. Hughes tackled hard and often obscure subjects, the rise of modern art, the penal colonies in early Australia, and made a deal with the reader. ‘If you will try your best to understand,’ he seemed to say, ‘I will try my best to explain.’ Whether he was writing about cubism or crime, he never broke his word.

He will be remembered for his Shock of the New (which I am pleased to say you can see in full here) and The Fatal Shore, his people’s history of the founding of Australia. But I revere his memory for Culture of Complaint. There was much in it for a young left-winger to admire. Because of Reagan’s success in allying with Gorbachev and ending the Cold War, conservatives have got away with painting his time as president as a golden age. They forget that Reagan began the dismantling of the New Deal controls on banking. He allowed besuited criminals to take over savings and loans companies (the American equivalent of building societies). They privatised profits and — yes, that’s right, then as now — had the taxpayers bail them out when they failed. The road that led to the crash of 2007/8 began there, and Hughes could see where it was leading. ‘The GOP’s ‘morality’ was all about sex and honouring thy father, and it tactfully avoided other commandments, particularly the one about stealing,’ he said in 1993. America had a right who wanted to get state control ‘out of the board room and into the cervix’— and there has been little change in that confusion of priorities since 1993 either.

Hughes influenced me because he took the vital next step. He was as critical of the politically correct left as the right, and saw that the similarities between the two were more important than the differences. On the one hand, Republicans tried to censor gay and allegedly blasphemous art and restrict public service broadcasting. On the other, feminism’s ‘large repressive fringe, self-caricaturing and often abysmally trivial…managed to get a reproduction of Goya’s Naked Maja removed from a classroom at the University of Pennsylvania.’

A desire to control and an obsession with victimhood motivated both. Hughes gave us a perfect marriage of narrow minds when he showed how Senator Jesse Helms, an old brute from the American south, had appropriated the language of the PC left. In a bill provoked by the ‘offence’ Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ had caused Christians, Helms proposed to deny government funds to material which ‘denigrates the objects or beliefs of the adherents of a particular religion or non-religion; or material which denigrates, debases or reviles on the basis of race creed, sex, handicap, age or national origin.’

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‘The most obvious and curious feature of the Helms amendment,’ said Hughes, ‘was that, if it had not issued from a famously right-wing Republican senator, you could have mistaken it for — for any ruling on campus speech limitation proposed by nominally left-wing agitators.’

Hughes was not afraid of occupying the radical centre, a space which has become somewhat under populated of late, and fighting all comers. He became one of the world’s great art critics without even bothering to complete his own university education, and had no respect for academics who baffled their students (and themselves) with the jargon of ‘theory’. He was hardly alone in noticing the appalling prose that slopped like effluent out of the post-modern university, but he described it better than most. ‘With certain outstanding exceptions like Edward Saïd, Simon Schama or Robert Darnton, relatively few people who are actually writing first-rate history, biography or cultural criticism in America have professional tenure, though many writers are attached to universities as decorative hermits or trophies in those therapeutic diversions known as Creative Writing courses.’ And then with typical erudition and style he tells us that in a denunciation of art schools in 1914 the Dadaist Arthur Craven had said ‘I am astonished that some crook has not had the idea of opening a writing school.’

‘Now we know better,’ Hughes adds.

When I researched my own book on censorship, I wanted to find prescient voices who had warned at the start of the Rushdie Affair in 1989 that a reactionary alliance was building between the white postmodern left and Islamist far right. I turned to Culture of Complaint and knew Hughes would not let me down. Of course Hughes had seen how the academics of the late 1980s, who were forever berating dead white males for their failure to conform to exacting modern standards, had stayed silent as murderers threatened the basic standards of intellectual life. On American campuses, they held that if a man so much as looked around with a lustful eye, or called a young female a ‘girl’ instead of a ‘woman’, he was guilty of gross sexual impropriety. But

‘Abroad it was more or less OK for a cabal of regressive theocratic bigots to insist on the chador, to cut off thieves’ hands and put out the eyes of offenders on TV, and to murder novelists as state policy. Oppression is what we do in the West. What they do in the Middle East is “their culture”.’

Hughes identified two causes of the poisonous and futile culture wars.

1) The puritan belief that art, and by extension all speech the state or society tolerates, must be elevating. Hughes countered the demand for compulsory moral uplift the marvellous cautionary tale of Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, the Lord of Rimini, and a renaissance prince of exquisite taste. He hired Leon Battista Alberti to design a temple to his wife and Pierro della Francesca to paint it. Yet his love of fine art notwithstanding, Sigismondo was so famed for his cruelty that the Catholic Church made him (for a time) the only man apart from Judas Iscariot officially listed as being in hell — ‘a distinction he earned by trussing up a Papal emissary, the fifteen-year-old Bishop of Fano, and publicly sodomising him before his applauding army in the main square of Rimini.’ Although ‘we know in our heart of hearts that the idea that people are morally ennobled by contact with works of art is a pious fiction,’ says, Hughes, we persist in believing that worthless artists must be promoted because their morals are good or they are from approved groups or condemned because their politics are bad or backgrounds suspect.

2) The triumph of right-wing economics during the Reagan and Thatcher era, and the reaction to it, shapes his thought as strongly  his reaction against puritanism. Hughes was not being original when he said that conservatives were anxious to fight culture wars to keep their working class supporters from worrying too much about the doings of the boardroom. But he moved up a gear when he said that the right needed the left to keep the money and the votes coming. The failure of the left of the late 20th century lay in its willingness to step forward and play its assigned role to perfection. With the ‘beautiful promises’ of 1968 shattered, he wrote, the American left turned to the Frankfurt School and French theory in order to ‘discover,’ as it would like to imagine, the ‘repressive mechanisms embedded, not in manifest politics, but in language, education, entertainment — the whole structure of social communication. It would be difficult to find a worse — or more authoritarian — dead end than this.’  The influence French post-structuralism enjoys in American academic life, Hughes concludes, ‘answers a deep need to rationalize failure.’

Much of the stupidity he took on almost 20 years ago survives, and indeed flourishes, but there are grounds for optimism. In polemical writing and polemical politics, party-liners still spout the culture war’s old programmes, as if they are saying something new, but the majority of the population ignore them. They are as against policing bedrooms as policing universities. Perhaps the economic crisis will force cultural warriors to get out of the policing business altogether, or better still be forced out, and concentrate on the more pressing concern of how to build a prosperous and worthwhile society. While we wait, we should thank a great Australian, who was an intellectual without being an academic and a fighter without being a bully, for the arguments he gave us against conformism from whatever quarter it came.

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Show comments
  • rndtechnologies786

    Your view is nice.

  • ArchiePonsonby

    I hate to be the Blue Meanie at this love-in but I could never take Robert Hughes seriously!

  • F. Huang

    Edward Said? He wallowed in structuralism and French theory. More than any other tenured professor in the Arts promoted the culture (politics) of victimhood. He was a principal architect of the alliance between the left and Islam and its promotion of the resurgence of blasphemy laws (benefitting Islam, the destroyer of idols, “art” to the infidel), campus speech codes, politically correct terminology, acceptable lines of inquiry – and all the rest of the attempts at thought control through suppression of free speech. French theory was a direct outcome of the “beautiful promises” of ’68. Radical chicanery began then. The long march through the institutions – especially academia – goose-stepped to that drum. The barricades of ’68 metamorphosed into the obscurantism of leftist theory-mongers, but their DNA – hypocrisy – is identical.

    Puritanism exists in all ideologies, in which I include religion. Stalinist (and fascist) socialist realism also insisted that art should be uplifting: ennobling labor and the proletariat. Compared to the puritan excesses of Islam and communism in imposing conformity, Reagan-era attempts to cut public funding for art offensive to a few Christians seem mild and harmless. The artists “victimized” by museum art-codes were still free to express themselves, and earn a fortune, in the private sector. Separation of State and Art is as much to be desired as separation of State and Religion.

    Let’s concentrate on building a prosperous society, not, please, a “worthwhile” one.

  • Inkerman

    Nick, fine piece – I will have to look out culture of complaint.

  • Peter Templeton

    Hughes’ book on Auerbach will change forever the way you look at paint.

  • Asmodeus

    The supporters of Reagan and Thatcher generally react in the way Scientologists do when their particular cult is criticised..Actually the cult we are really speaking of is that of Ayn Rand the cult that dare not speak its name of which Alan Greenspan was a prominent member.There is as little point in arguing with such people as with a religious fundamentalist or a Marxist.They are comfortable in their particular ideological box and they are welcome to it..

  • http://twitter.com/jan_deelstra Jan Deelstra, Author

    KUDOS for YOUR candor. I too remember the way that you remember, and it’s not a place I wish to return to in my lifetime. A Political Science professor once remarked that “if the truth were ever told, Ronald Reagan would go down in history as the worst president….” Of course, that truth is rarely told.
    So again, kudos to you, and Robert Hughes (R.I.P.) for going where so few dare tread.

  • coventrian

    ‘Abroad it was more or less OK for a cabal of regressive theocratic bigots to insist on the chador, to cut off thieves’ hands and put out the eyes of offenders on TV, and to murder novelists as state policy. Oppression is what we do in the West. What they do in the Middle East is “their culture”.’

    Cohen uses this quote to attack the ‘white postmodern left’ a creature of his warped imagination. But who does embody this attitude to ‘the Islamist far right’?

    Step forward Nick’s favourite warmonger.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/newsnight/1988865.stm

    ‘JEREMY PAXMAN:
    Saudi Arabia? You called it a friend of the civilised world.
    TONY BLAIR:
    Yes, but it is also important to realise that if we want a secure progress in the Middle East, we should work with Saudi Arabia. I don’t decide… Ethical foreign policy doesn’t mean that you try to decide the government of every country of the world. You can’t do that.
    JEREMY PAXMAN:
    You called it a friend of the civilised world.
    TONY BLAIR:
    It is. In my view, what it is doing in respect of the Middle East now…
    JEREMY PAXMAN:
    It chops people’s arms off. It tortures people.
    TONY BLAIR:
    They have their culture, their way of life.’

  • Mike

    Nick, part of the reason for Reagan and Thatcher was that skilled craftsmen were fed up with bloody minded unskilled/semi-skilled union officials running industrial plants rather than charge hands and foremen. The left wing largely ignore the fact that craftsmen , as opposed to the un and semi skilled, tend to have a greater concern for producing quality work.Therefore ,when the vast majority of union official are unskilled and semi-skilled foment strikes after strikes which leads to a decline in innovation, quality and production; they often lose the suppport ofcraftsmen, charge hands and foremen. It was the blue collar /craftsmen suport for Thatcher and Reagan which led to their victories: the causes which are largely misunderstood by the middle class left , who have no industrial experience.

  • Mike

    Nick, part of the reason for Reagan and Thatcher was that skilled craftsmen were fed up with bloody minded unskilled/semi-skilled union officials running industrial plants rather than charge hands and foremen. The left wing largely ignore the fact that craftsmen , as opposed to the un and semi skilled, tend to have a greater concern for producing quality work.Therefore ,when the vast majority of union official are unskilled and semi-skilled foment strikes after strikes which leads to a decline in innovation, quality and production; they often lose the suppport ofcraftsmen, charge hands and foremen. It was the blue collar /craftsmen suport for Thatcher and Reagan which led to their victories: the causes which are largely misunderstood by the middle class left , who have no industrial experience.

  • SteveUlin

    A fine piece. Appreciate it.

  • Pauline Kiernan

    This is by far the best piece on Hughes today, Nick. Thank you. Pauline

  • dewi

    Please explain the quotes around Andres Serrano’s “offense”.

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