The Culture of Complaint
In January 1992, Robert Hughes, the celebrated art critic for Time Magazine, was asked to give a series of lectures under the auspices of the OxfordUniversity Press and the N.Y Public Library on the general subject of American culture and politics. Never shy to express a controversial opinion, he stuck his neck out and delivered a series of Jeremiads which succeeded in making almost everyone angry. He then expanded them into a book which raised the temperature even higher; the NYRB reviewer called it “‘post-modern’ – a catholicity of arguments without a prayer of resolution – battles without a war.” He could have ended with Mort Sahl’s closing line, “Is there anyone here I haven’t offended?”
I bought a copy as soon as it came out. I still have it, a first edition, first printing. I took to it immediately, finding it impartial in its passions, which were born of a vital concern with the future rather than a mere lofty and erudite dismissal. One of the few enthusiastic later reviewers thought it to be a worthy successor to Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”, with the added ominous virtue that Hughes was proving to be accurately prophetic.
Almost a quarter century later, I’ve gone back to Hughes’ diatribe and feel like David Lambert in Ronald Wright’s “A Scientific Romance”, the narrator who has gone forward in H.G. Welles’ time machine and discovered much more than he wanted to know. I can’t begin to do it justice. I can only verify that it corresponds terrifying with what I so vividly remember and that Hughes’ prognoses are like Time Machine images of what is grotesquely happening in America and Europe today.
This book could have been written today – or, even more frighteningly, tomorrow. It's so important that I'm going to upload it here in PDF format in it's entirety.
P.S. The following delightful anecdote came to me several years ago from Jeff Blankford, whom I encountered in the FreeKPFA Forum:
You might be interested in this early Robert Hughes story. In the
summer of 1973 I was living again in London, sharing a flat on
Clifton Road in Maida Vale. One day I went over to visit a couple
of friends of mine, Bob Owen, a sculptor from Australia and his
ladyfriend, Rosie Nice who I had dated in San Francisco. While I
was there, a friend of his from Australia and his wife came over
whom I believe I had met on an earlier occasion. The friend, who
was apparently broke at the time, and looked it, was in a state of
excitement and anxious to show Bob and Rose a letter he had just
received. By now, you have probably guessed what follows. The
letter was from Time and the lucky recipient being offered the
job as art critic was Robert Hughes.