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.’
‘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.