The Fraying of America

Robert Hughes

Harvill, London, 1994.

Three lectures make up this pugnacious account of contemporary American culture:

Hughes rails against a host of inanities which, he argues, undermine our hopes of understanding ourselves and our society:

"we create an infantilized culture of complaint, in which Big Daddy is always to blame and the expansion of rights goes on without the other half of citizenship - attachment to duties and obligations... The emphasis is on the subjective: how we feel about things, rather than what we think or can know." (p.13)

The author is scathing about "politically correct" usages which are empty gestures, rather than remedies for the ills of sexism and racism. Concerning the problematized term, "man", he notes that,

"in Old English and Anglo-Saxon, the suffix -man was gender-neutral: it had, and retains, the same meaning as "person" today, referring to all people equally." (p.23)

The damage done to young people by diluting their education is described in words that neatly characterize many a pointless "discussion":

"Untrained in logical analysis, ill-equipped to develop and construct formal arguments about issues, unused to mining texts for deposits of factual material, the students fell back to what they could truly call their own: what they felt about things. When feelings and attitudes are the main referents of argument, to attack any position is automatically to insult its holder, even to assail his or her perceived 'rights'." (p.59)

On this subject, see also a quotation from W. K. Clifford.

In the lecture on multiculturalism, discussing Afrocentric doctrines about slavery, he observes that,

"the black traffic was a Muslim invention, developed by Arab traders with the enthusiastic collaboration of black African ones." (p.121)

This is not to deny all the horrors of slavery in America, but it is to refute the claims of Afrocentrism, with its demonization of European culture.

In the third lecture, Hughes draws on his experience as an art critic and historian, in a blistering attack on much "issues-based" art. He makes a point that must have occurred to many museum-goers:

"much of the new activist art is so badly made that only its context - its presence in a museum - suggests that it has any aesthetic intention." (p.158)

He winds up with a case for elitism in art (but not politics), arguing that it is no more reprehensible than elitism in sports, which is what makes top sportsmen so popular, and what lies behind such popularity as art may lay claim to.

The book is a fine example of robust, polemical English, and is worth buying just for that reason alone.



Paul Taylor 2001