Culture of Complaint: A Passionate Look into the Ailing Heart of America
By Robert Hughes
Summary written by Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Citation: Robert Hughes. Culture of Complaint: A Passionate Look into the Ailing Heart of America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, 209 pp.
Culture of Complaint: A Passionate Look into the Ailing Heart of America is an analysis of contemporary American culture, and of current trends in politics, academics, and art. This work arose from a series of lectures offered at the New York Library in 1992. Earlier versions of lectures one and two have appeared in Time magazine. Lecture three was previously published in the New York Review of Books.
Culture of Complaint: A Passionate Look into the Ailing Heart of America will be of interest to those who are interested in exploring broad trends in contemporary culture, and in understanding current interrelations between art, politics, and academia. The work is presented as three lectures.
The first lecture, "Culture and the Broken Polity," describes America in the late 80s and early 90s as "obsessed with therapies and filled with distrust of formal politics; skeptical of authority and prey to superstition; its political language corroded by fake pity and euphemism." The proliferation of rights without their attendant obligations and duties mark a retreat from public responsibility. Hughes describes the trend toward politically correct language as an effort to rename inequality, "in the hope that it will then go away," and argues that conservative moral rhetoric is equally empty.
This onslaught of empty political rhetoric and diminished sense of public responsibility has disaffiliated voters from their traditional party loyalties, and has bred political apathy. Meanwhile academia, the traditional bulwark of culture, has succumbed to postmodernism and multiculturalism, and become "mostly an enclave of abstract complaint."
The second lecture, "Multi-Cultic and Its Discontents," further explores the "obsessive subject" of multiculturalism. Hughes rejects the claim that multiculturalism must lead to cultural separatism, and argues that "the linkage of multiculturalism with political correctness...has turned what ought to be a generous recognition of cultural diversity into a worthless symbolic program." The case of Afro centrism is used to illustrate this claim.
The final lecture, "Moral in itself: Art and the Therapeutic Fallacy," begins by exploring the "culture war" of the early 90s, focusing on attempts to censor photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and de-fund the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Hughes argues that this culture war reflects two traditional American values. The first is the belief that art ought to be spiritually and morally uplifting, that is, therapeutic. The second is the belief that "no sphere of public culture should be exempt from political pressure." What prompts conservatives to launch a "culture war", prompts liberals produce equally censorious "PC police." The end result is the same: the capacity for aesthetic discrimination is undermined, and so much of the true cultural value of art is lost.
Culture of Complaint: A Passionate Look into the Ailing Heart of America offers both an insightful and eloquent critique of current cultural ills, and an encouraging appraisal of America's cultural potential.