What's wrong with America? If you've got time, Hughes has the answer

April 11, 1993|By Ann Egerton

CULTURE OF COMPLAINT: THE FRAYING OF AMERICA. Robert Hughes. Oxford University Press New York Public Library. 203 pages. $19.95. If you're in the mood for a flagellation of contemporary American culture -- and for a demonstration of its increasingly intertwined relationship with politics -- do I have a book for you. Robert Hughes, Time's art critic and author of numerous award-winning books of history and cultural criticism ("Barcelona," "The Fatal Shore"), recently gave three lectures under the auspices of Oxford University and the New York Public Library. They have been expanded for this most thought-provoking book. The first two lectures were published in abridged form in Time.

Mr. Hughes, Australian by birth, complains plenty himself as he ticks off his adopted country's myriad faults. Some of what he singles out is not new. From such disparate points of view as George Will, Lewis Lapham and Wendell Berry we have heard many of the flaws before. But Mr. Hughes' background as an art critic, his learned and pungent style, and the rangy form of these lectures combine to produce a singular voice.

Mr. Hughes comments, of course, on the victory of television over education; that argument and conviction have been defeated by spectacle. He mourns the gray quality of today's television and popular music, and the blurring of fiction and truth as they depict real events, such as the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

He then describes a much more serious and pervasive sin: Americans' obsession with ourselves. Not only is the self the "sacred cow," but the victim is the hero. We have become "an infanticized culture of complaint," vulnerable, whining about our

injured feelings and for expanded rights, but shrinking from our duties and obligations.

Mr. Hughes comments on the Democrats in the 1970s and '80s ("Cloud-Cuckoo land"), and on the effects of the presidency of Ronald Reagan ("he left his country a little stupider and a lot more tolerant of lies"). During the '80s, he observes, we had "private opulence, public squalor," and our land's rotting infra

structure reflected "a hollowness at the core."

Political correctness and multiculturalism are principal topics. (Mr. Hughes has written with disgust about political correctness in art in Time.) He ridicules the efforts of educators in American universities, in their often absurd extremes of political correctness, to spare the feelings of unqualified students rather than to insist on maintaining rigorous standards.

One reason that colleges drop their standards, he notes, is that America is college-crazy and insists that too many job applicants have a college degree. "A college degree is not neces

sary for most jobs that people do in the world," contends Mr. Hughes, a college dropout.

One's position in education and the arts is therefore dictated by race, gender, handicap or ethnic background, and is therapy. Again, this reflects obsession with self and emphasis on self-esteem over earned accomplishment.

Mr. Hughes reminds us that the only arena in which it is still all right -- indeed, imperative -- to be an elitist is professional sports. No one is going to pay to watch just anyone play tennis or basketball, but a museum might make room for the so-so work of someone who is black, homosexual, disabled or -- egad -- female.

The only bright spot in America's culture, he writes, is multiculturalism, if it is not allowed to fall into separatism and the resulting rejection of traditional (read Eurocentric) literature and art.

"Reading is expansive, not exclusive," Mr. Hughes instructs us. "If Caribbean, African, Arab and Indian writers get more attention, . . . if readers approach the work of women and blacks without prejudice and without the sense of tiptoeing on a special case, our shared culture grows and rejoices."

Ms. Egerton is a writer living in Baltimore.

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