Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America 
by Robert Hughes.
Oxford, 224 pp., £12.95, June 1993, 0 19 507676 1
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‘I must unbend sometimes,’ Hazlitt told his readers in 1821:

I must occasionally lie fallow. The kind of conversation that I affect most is what sort of a day it is, and whether it is likely to rain or hold up fine for tomorrow This I consider as enjoying the otium cum dignitate, as the end and privilege of a life of study. I would resign myself to this state of easy indifference, but I find I cannot. I must maintain a certain pretension, which is far enough from my wish. I must be put on my defence, I must take up the gauntlet continually, or I find I lose ground ‘I am nothing, if not critical.’

The predicament is one which Robert Hughes shares with Hazlitt, of whom Keats gamely wrote: ‘if ever I am damn’d – damn me if I shouldn’t like him to damn me.’ In Culture of Complaint (a bestseller in the US), Hughes damns damn near everybody. He follows the uncompromising American dictum that you may attack whomever you like as long as you attack them for being unwilling to compromise. A New York Times reviewer called the book ‘post-modern rather than high Enlightenment’, a surprising but sound judgment if we understand ‘post-modern’ as describing a catholicity of arguments without a prayer of resolution – battles without a war. I doubt Hughes would agree to being labelled ‘post-modern’ – he barely avoids giving Derrida a silly nickname – but then no honourable intellectual wants a label. Yet the label works, because Hughes’s method is by and large positional, governed by the situation. He takes up the gauntlet continually, worried perhaps that if he does not he will lose ground.

The post-modern ground, however, is whatever place Hughes happens to be occupying; and it must be littered with gauntlets. In such a situation, in the heat of battle, consistency and rigour are at risk. The fighter will use whatever weapon is closest to hand. Hughes will refer, in Culture of Complaint, to ‘the new orthodoxy of feminism’, adducing three quotations, one from Andrea Dworkin; twenty pages later, ‘American feminism has a large repressive fringe,’ with reference again to Dworkin. Are we dealing with an orthodoxy, or a fringe? ‘The fundamental temper of America,’ he writes, ‘tends towards an existential ideal which can probably never be reached, but can never be discarded: equal rights to variety, to construct your life as you see fit, to choose your travelling companions.’ The American ‘creed’ was ‘born from immigration, from the jostling of scores of tribes who become American to the extent to which they can negotiate accommodations with one another’. Once these people ‘become American’, they find themselves on ‘a vast common ground’. Yet Hughes also discovers ‘the vast reserves of American monism, the long-hoarded nativist intolerance of difference’. Certainly, these opposite qualities do co-exist; the point is that Hughes will take one as essential, then the other, depending on whom he is arguing against. We learn that ‘the politics of ideology has for the last twenty years weakened and in some areas broken the traditional American genius for consensus.’ Polarisation, ‘the crack of politics’, has brought about an ‘exacerbated division between “right” and “left” in America’. A few pages away, Hughes makes his central point – that Americans have become precious whiners, sullen and irresponsible, pursuing an ‘all-pervasive claim to victimhood’ – and notes that the ‘shifts this has produced may be seen everywhere, and their curious tendency is to make the “right” and “left” converge.’ It may well be that the Right and Left have so far polarised as to converge. (Is that consensus?) But the apparent paradox should be explained. Besides, if Americans have, as Hughes argues, lost so many of the characteristics that make them American (except for the Puritan Inner Child, that terrible toddler), one might wonder whether those characteristics were American at all. Or perhaps we Yanks actually are, as foreigners often tell us, simulacra of Americanness and not the real deal.

Culture of Complaint may prove to be the most influential such screed since Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism. Hughes is much funnier than Lasch, and probably happier – his strings of metaphor are evidence that the author enjoys his work. Nimble yet lunkish, his sense of humour favours sarcasm and the well-turned bludgeon. Readers or viewers of Hughes’s The Shock of the New will recall that laughs there were minimal. Hughes did not hold his enemies up to ridicule: he simply left them out of the book and thus, he may have hoped, out of art history. In Culture of Complaint, however, we get a rogues’ gallery; no barb is left unloosed, no joke unmade. If in the furious splashings of bile his arguments become muddled, even contradictory, it isn’t for lack of satirical effort.

Culture of Complaint is polemic, a form that favours ellipses and tactical agility. Yet a tendency towards an extremism of the moment informs other, less screed-like works by Hughes. In ‘English Art in the 20th Century’, an essay which appears in Nothing if not Critical (1990), he deplores the neglect of English art, blaming (among others) Roger Fry, who, with Clive Bell, ‘made it just fine to despise new English art in the name of the French avant-garde’: for them ‘any imitation of the Ecole de Paris, however pallid’ was preferable ‘to anything else, however strong’. In another essay, Hughes dwells on Howard Hodgkin’s distinguished family background, which includes ‘Roger Fry, the great English critic who gave Post-Impressionism its name’. Hughes frequently argues that contemporary artists have lost the rigour that academic training imparts –‘meaning, in essence, the transmission of disciplined skills based on drawing from the live model and the natural motif’. He links the inability to draw with a rise in ‘expressiveness’ as the chief goal of contemporary art; both are emanations of a love of the self, ‘the sacred cow of today’s culture’. (The briefest hop takes the reader from here to Culture of Complaint, though in this book, characteristically, both narcissism and post-structuralist anti-narcissism, defined as the belief that ‘the subject – the thinking, single agent, the “I” of every sentence – was an illusion,’ come in for slagging.) Yet we also hear that many artists Hughes admires couldn’t draw well. Mark Rothko has ‘severe limitations as a draughts man’, as does Milton Avery; David Smith is ‘very uneven’, Magritte straightforwardly poor.

Hughes’s tendency to argue both sides achieves poignancy in his famous, and well-deserved, attack on Julian Schnabel: ‘in Schnabel,’ he charges, ‘our time of insecure self-congratulation and bulimic vulgarity got the genius it deserved,’ only to write a little later, apropos of Thomas McEvilley’s remark that ‘somehow the age demanded’ Schnabel: ‘the notion that the man is an emanation of the Zeitgeist no doubt matches the artist’s fantasies about himself.’ It also, of course, matches what Hughes has just said about him.

I say ‘poignancy’ because Hughes clearly cares a great deal about art, artists, politics, culture in general, Australia, Barcelona, religion, the American redemptive idea, Amish quiltmaking, and every other damn thing he’s written about. He is among the most valuable cultural critics writing today. Most cultural criticism now either imitates the market or imitates rebellion against the market, and in either case suffers from historical shallowness, snobbery, pettiness, and general anaemia. Hughes fights against all of these The Schnabel passages are poignant because they reflect the terror I imagine Hughes feels at the idea that his first remark was accurate: that ‘our time’ really does deserve the genius of Julian Schnabel.

I would like to think that the unusual wealth of self-contradiction in Hughes’s writing is a symptom of heartfelt despair – a result of the tension between believing that 20th-century culture is largely bad but susceptible to correction, and believing that the whole shebang is pretty much a death-rattle. The optimistic Hughes believes that quality will out. In 1988, in a passage lambasting Neo-Expressionism, he writes: ‘The dull percussion of beaten chests lasted five years, from 1981 to 1986. Then, a dying fall. And who lasted? Not many, and not always the ones who were expected to. In West Germany, Anselm Kiefer; in the United States, Susan Rothenberg; and in England, Auerbach and Kossoff.’ Hughes’s optimism shows here in the faith that history judges accurately and that a couple of years – such as the perspective from 1988 to 1986 – is long enough for it to make its judgment. But only a few sentences after he has said that history knows best Hughes speaks of David Bomberg as being ‘by 1947 a forgotten man, a failure, whose actual stature as a painter is only now being recognised’. Not until 1951, he notes elsewhere, did Roberto Longhi mount ‘the crucial show that brought Caravaggio out of three centuries of neglect and obloquy’. Vermeer ‘was forgotten after his death’. Guido Reni, by contrast, received two centuries’ worth of posthumous esteem only to be slapped by Ruskm and pummelled by Romain Rolland (‘He was able to deceive two entire generations’). Hughes reports that a ten-foot Reni in the late Fifties could be had for under $300; in 1989, he is arguing for the ‘brilliance’ of Reni’s best work. It may well be that Max Beckmann’s painting will win history’s race against that of ‘lesser but more popular artists such as Marc Chagall’; then again, maybe not.

The pessimistic, dystopian Hughes speaks with no less confidence than his optimistic twin. His voice was already developed by 1968, when he wrote Heaven and Hell in Western Art: ‘The weapon, wielded by an ape, invented man; it gave Australopithecus the edge of survival over other species. We are Cain’s progeny, not Abel’s.’ This didn’t bode well for our hominid future. At book’s end, Hughes looks forward: ‘Perhaps in a century or so, when the sluggish mutated survivors have formed their primitive communities by the Thames and the Potomac, a myth of Hell will be reborn out of that passionate human instinct to believe in something infinitely worse than what one has already.’ Hughes was an astonishingly fluent stylist at the age of 30, and any remaining clumsiness has been so thoroughly ironed out that in his later works the rare insipid sentence (Watteau’s ‘figures have a lot of descriptive reality’ – 1984) vaults from the page. Born in 1938, Hughes grew up in a prominent Sydney family (ranching, law, politics – a grandfather was Lord Mayor), dropped out of university (having studied architecture) in 1962, went to Italy the following year and to London in 1967, then settled permanently in New York in 1970, having been hired as Time Magazine’s art critic, a post he holds today. Several of Hughes’s basic attributes seem set by his late twenties: linguistic ability (eventually to encompass Greek, Latin, French, Italian, German, Spanish and Catalan), unusual erudition, argumentativeness, a voracious appetite for knowledge and impression, and towering self-assurance. How many antipodean 30-year-old drop-outs could find the moxie to write: ‘Eliot’s rude line about Christ’s “offending feet” springs to mind whenever one looks at such a picture’? Or: ‘I would prefer to leave the complexities of Blake’s eschatological vision to another book.’ Or even: ‘the penis is the greatest solvent of complexity known to symbolism’?

Joined to these qualities, and present throughout Hughes’s writing, is a sense that the 20th century stinks, particularly since the Thirties and in a more kitschy, ironic way since the Sixties. Heaven and Hell divides history into the 1500 or so years when these two destinations were ‘the chief religious obsession for most of the population of Europe’ and the present century, when heaven has muzak and hell features ‘figures in red tights and long red opera cloaks’. Sometimes his fin-de-siècle persona shows signs of the egotism of one who believes his lifetime to be the Last Days (or at least the Next-to-Last Days), but in his post-Sixties work the rambunctiousness of Heaven and Hell gives way to a cranky Jeremiah’s plague-casting and, at best, a profoundly engaged writer’s desire to see the true and the beautiful find their higher place.

To reach the tragic Hughes, one has to ignore the bar-room brawling and examine those texts in which he considers work he truly likes. Love, for a good writer, enforces precision, the kind of exactitude before which a young Hughes stood in awe when contemplating the work of Jan van Eyck (The Complete Paintings of the Van Eycks, 1968). Hughes greatly admires, for example, Lucian Freud, who stands prominently on his post-war shortlist of two dozen or so artists. One could forgive the reader of Culture of Complaint for thinking that a remark such as ‘so haunting an erotic tenderness’ (apropos of Girl With Roses, in Lucian Freud, 1988) must have been written by an entirely different author from the combative one they know. Anselm Kiefer

sets forth images charged with warning and suffused with hope. His work is a ringing and deeply engaged rebuke – clumsy sometimes, and bathetic when it fails, but usually as pictorially forceful as it is morally earnest – to the ingrained limitations of its time. It sets its face against the sterile irony, the despair of saying anything authentic about history or memory in paint, and the general sense of trivial pursuit that infests our culture.

In Edward Hopper’s work Hughes praises ‘patient, lucid development; the transcendence of mere talent; richness and density of meaning; and a deep sense of moral dignity in the artist’s refraction of his own culture’. Robert Motherwell’s Elegies to the Spanish Republic form ‘one of the few sustained tragic utterances in post-Picasso art’; his elegance is ‘not a matter of style. It comes from deeper wells.’

Richness, density, lucidity, patience, hard work, authenticity, moral earnestness, dignity, hope, tragedy: these Hughes cherishes without cavil, and when he finds them one can feel the intensity of his reactions. Certain lines of poetry recur: ‘As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods;/They kill us for their sport’ and ‘a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete / he sets his hounds upon us he grants us a grave in the air.’ It is true that Hughes usually frames his praises in the tortured wood of polemic, salting them with his bitter rage against the Schnabels (and Reagans) of the world, drafting chosen artists into his ranks. The Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach monographs both start with a throat-clearing, sword-waving exorcism before Hughes feels free to float into their rivers of image. Frank Auerbach (1990) is his longest tribute to a post-war artist. Among other things, it creates a model of artistic integrity, Auerbach has a ‘rebarbative earnestness’. He is solitary, angry, unshakabiy committed to his artistic ancestors. His studio is poor and filthy, without a TV or phone, ‘a troglodyte’s den of internalisation, the refuge in which the artist becomes unavailable, digging back into the solitary indurated habits without which nothing can be imagined, made or fully seen’. While sketching Hughes, ‘Auerbach works on the balls of his feet, balanced like a welterweight boxer, darting in and out. Sometimes he and the sitter talk about painting, and poetry,’ Auerbach jabs at Pater:

‘Painting never wants to be like music. It is best when it is least like music: fixed, concrete, immediate and resistant to time.’ Then he shuts up and goes into high gear, working with redoubled concentration, cocking his head at the sitter and grimacing. He hisses and puffs. He darts back to consult the reflection of the drawing in a minor on the wall; the sitter sees Auerbach’s peering reflection, the chin and cheeks smudged with black.

One senses that Hughes had never been happier, and that he may well have wished he were Frank Auerbach.

Robert Hughes, however, is not a painter, and art criticism is perhaps a limiting form, in that the critic cannot stray too far from his subject without doing fairly obvious violence to it. Although Hughes has a thuggish streak, he doesn’t wander any great distance from what he considers an honest piece of work: he’s too loyal for that, and too respectful.

His historical books are freer, more expansive. The first, The Fatal Shore (1987), is better than the second, Barcelona (1992). Both are written as progressive, lapping collages, rich in imagery, poised between the scholarly and the popular. The method has its dangers: characters, ideas or groups of people sometimes appear briefly out of nowhere, then disappear, only to resurface pages later as if brand new. Conversely, and notably in Barcelona, a fully-fledged character may enter later with fresh introductions, leaving the reader to check that he has, in fact, met this person before. Done well, the collage style can be mesmerising: but it is delicate.

The Fatal Shore engages Hughes’s emotions more fully than does Barcelona. The city appears to be for him a restful place, proverbially kissed by the Mediterranean, and his version of its history, which essentially ends at the turn of this century, has a leisurely, appreciative feel. He writes as a guest. I can easily imagine him sitting over a plate of squid, sipping wine, happy, leafing through Miracle’s La restauració dels Jocs Florals. ‘The meals of my conversion took place in the fish restaurants that stuck like wooden fingers out to the beach at Barceloneta.’ The Fatal Shore is about his own country and his own past, about ‘the largest forced exile of citizens at the behest of a European government in pre-modern history. Nothing in earlier penology compares with it. In Australia, England drew the sketch for our own century’s vaster and more terrible fresco of repression, the gulag. No other country had such a birth.’

Yet the two books share a crucial characteristic: both treat colonies that forged a sense of themselves in relation to an imperial centre, and that did so in what might be considered a demotic way. At lunchtime it occurred to Hughes that Barceloneta ‘was a populist paradise’ that ‘presented a spectacle of democratic pleasure’. Similarly, he found in the convicts’ stories a chance to revive the popular voice that had been repressed in Australia as a result of a ‘national pact of silence’ on the matter of the country’s origins. ‘I have tried, as far as possible, to see the System from below, through convicts’ testimony – in letters, depositions, memoirs – about their own experiences ... It turns out that one common assumption is quite wrong: far from being a mute mass, the convicts did have a voice or rather many voices.’

Hughes’s taste for the ‘raw’ in art appears as solidarity with the popular and democratic in his historical writing. In his criticism, rawness and hard energy pass into culture via ‘nature’ and ‘the figure’. Hence the importance of drawing and rigorous training: energy must be harnessed before it can be put to use. History is not art, however, and the raw energies of Australian convicts or Barceloneta workers may leave nothing more behind than a few letters and some bricks. And maybe children. The Fatal Shore, Hughes writes, is largely about what the convicts ‘tell us of their suffering and survival, their aspiration and resistance, their fear of exile and their reconciliation to the once-unimagined land they and their children would claim as their own’.

For the most part, The Fatal Shore conveys all this extremely well, and goes some way towards wiping away the ‘stain’ of Australia’s convict past. The only exceptions have to do with what one might call the writer’s equivalents of figure drawing and rigorous training. Hours and years of trying to draw a head with a pencil would presumably have the effect of taking the artist outside himself and into his picture – ‘dawing’ in two different but complementary senses. By drawing, he might come to understand a tree in a way that no amount of tracing or computer modelling could simulate. Similarly, in drawing characters a writer must concentrate much more on those characters unlike himself, at least in order to do them justice. In The Fatal Shore, the best-drawn figures are those most like Hughes – heterosexual men of Irish descent.

Untangling this situation is complicated by the appearance of contradictory scenarios. The Europeans reach Australia: ‘One may liken this moment to the breaking open of a capsule. Upon the harbour the ships were now entering, European history had left no mark at all ... there were no dates. The Aborigines and the fauna around them had possessed the landscape since time immemorial.’ Five pages on: ‘A static culture, frozen by its immemorial primitivism, unchanged in an unchanging landscape – such until quite recently was, and for many people still is, the common idea of the Australian Aborigines ... It is, in fact, quite false.’ Hughes proceeds to show in some detail why it is false, but one is left puzzled by the earlier statement, as well as a later one that says aborigines ‘lived entirely in the present’. Throughout the book, aborigines tend to appear at odd moments. Some regions are said to possess large and threatening aboriginal populations, but at other points those same regions seem entirely empty. Hughes is steadfast in his description and condemnation of white racism. But alongside this the actual history of Australian aborigines remains distressingly episodic, considering the scope and attention to detail given other subjects.

The discussion of women in penal Australia – roughly a quarter of the population – is similarly jumpy. At one point they are in the Norfolk Island penitentiary, then gone: one would like to know what happened to them. The account of Female Factories, the initial stops of female convicts, is spotty at best. The reader is thus deprived of much interesting information, about, for example, a Flash Mob of women at the Hobart factory, and the exciting times there as recalled by Ann Fisher, wardswoman:

On Thursday night last Jane was my bed-fellow and during the night Eliza came to my bed and spoke to Jane and got into bed between us and [they] were talking some time together and at last [Eliza] asked [Jane] in language which no one could misunderstand to be indecent with her [Jane] said she would not in consequence of being unwell [Eliza] then said will you when you are well she said yes.

Women, convict and free, were extremely active in the early Australian economy, at many different levels, but in The Fatal Shore their economic (and cultural) activities receive little attention.

Women as the objects of male (not female) desire, however, get a great deal of attention, as do men in the same role, notably in a chapter entitled ‘Burners, Mollies and Sable Brethren’ – that is, women, homosexuals and aborigines. Hughes makes it quite clear that women convicts ‘were all to greater or lesser degrees oppressed as women’ and ‘continued to be treated as a doubly colonised class throughout the life of the penal system’. Once that’s established, we are presented with various scenes of women being raped, whipped or otherwise mutilated. Commenting on one scene, Hughes writes, ‘with the drunken, lurching bodies of women numbered like sides of beef, we see the epitome of sexual politics in early Australia’ – an opinion that squares with his earlier description of women who ‘rutted like stoats’ on the First Fleet to Australia. All very telling, but one retains the impression that women in Australia were not of much interest to Hughes except when they were rutting. The same holds for homosexuals, with some justification, given that the economic or cultural role they played was no different from that of other men. Hughes does note that a legacy of anti-homosexual bigotry was passed down from the convict years well into modern Australia. I would only add that using words like ‘inversion’, ‘warped’ – or, in a piece on Andy Warhol, ‘abnormal’ – doesn’t help matters along.

This type of bracketing, in which ‘minorities’ appear as footnotes (however long) to white male heterosexual experience, is surprising in view of Hughes’s frequently slated political sympathies. It is particularly significant given the argument of Culture of Complaint. Many of the leading complainers are, of course, identified as gay-rights activists, feminists and non-white people. One would expect no less: straight white men do, after all, possess a remarkable amount of power relative to their demographic position. Hughes recognises this, and acknowledges that the world’s bunters, mollies and sable brethren, as well as the white male working class, have had a tough row to hoe over the years. He quotes a California schoolbook from the Fifties on how American slaves ‘seemed happy and contented’. But Hughes never explains how exactly such a passage became impermissible.

The initial reaction to the emergence of women’s studies, black studies, gay and other minority studies, and their subsequent spread through the once-settled categories of the study of American history, was the same: first, a denial that these groups needed histories of their own, then a sucession of adventurous works showing that they did and do, and then a gradual absorption of them to the point where they take their place in the mainstream curriculum.

Maybe, but how? And why? Could it be that people complained? The civil rights movement was not just spirituals sung on a humid Alabama night, Martin, Bobby and Rosa Parks. It was also Stokely and Watts, black separatism, Newark and Baraka and Bigger Thomas. It was not exactly a poem to the traditional American genius for consensus.

Hughes appears to believe that human intelligence simply evolved somewhere between the Forties and the Seventies, triggering an awkward but essentially mature meliorative process that is now threatened by an epidemic of special pleading and narcissistic separatism. The first proposition strikes me as straightforwardly wrong, the second as partly true but not true enough. Discrimination need not be active. It can also be passive. If someone with power strikes you, you can strike back; but when someone with power over you ignores or neglects you, to your detriment, you have to make a noise.

Hughes believes in human progress. The things he hates in Culture of Complaint – narcissism and minority separatism – are brakes on advancement towards a vital multiculturalism and a perfect polity. The former is evoked with particular eloquence:

Multiculturalism asserts that people with different roots can co-exist, that they can learn to read the image-banks of others, that they can and should look across the frontiers of race, language, gender and age without prejudice or illusion, and learn to think against the background of a hybridised society ... It wants to study border situations, not only because they are fascinating in themselves, but because understanding them may bring with it a little hope for the world ... Its six syllables are awkward, this word ‘multiculturalism’, but if it had existed thirty years ago when I was getting ready to leave Australia I would have embraced it at once.

Here we have a democratic, inclusive vision of Cultural interaction without end, a lovely thing.

Hughes does not, however, believe in artistic progress. This comes in part from his dislike for avant-gardes (and utopias). An avant-garde wants to break with the past, whereas Hughes believes – as do his favourite post-war artists, though not necessarily the early modern ones – that good art results only from a long, sincere and intense engagement with artistic tradition. ‘The idea of the “cutting edge” – the phrase is still used by some curators – is likewise fatuous, a fossil relic of a belief in artistic “progress” that no one, at the agitated and directionless end of the 20th century, will defend under its own name.’ Hughes has a Neoclassical quality, with a tinge of Herder. (He doesn’t exactly shrink from generalising about national cultures.) His multiculturalist position puts me in mind of Baudelaire confronting a piece of Chinese art at the universal exhibition in 1855:

If it is to be understood, the critic, the viewer, must bring about within himself a transformation, which is something of a mystery, and, by a phenomenon of willpower acting on his imagination, he must learn by his own effort to share in the life of the society that has given birth to this unexpected bloom. Few men have received – in full – the divine grace of cosmopolitanism; but all men may acquire it to a greater or lesser degree.

It’s hardly a coincidence that Baudelaire, like Hughes, was able to proceed very quickly from this idea to a second: ‘There is another error much in fashion today, which I propose to avoid like the plague. I refer to the idea of progress. This smoky beacon-light, a creation of current pseudo-philosophy, patented without guarantee from Nature or the Divinity, this modern lantern sends out beams of darkness over the whole domain of knowledge: liberty dies away, punishment vanishes.’ As Hughes well knows, liberty in our era has become disengaged from progress – or, more precisely, from a universal, linear model of humanity’s advance. Today it appears to be linked to multiculturalism. Hughes rightly fears that the pursuit of liberty may degenerate from the good multiculturalism he evokes into particularist fatuity, on the one hand, and a juvenile levelling, on the other. In effect, he’s a post-modern. His brief elevation of the ‘objective’ over the ‘subjective’ in Culture of Complaint rings hollow. Whether the broadsides addressed to practically everyone in sight will exacerbate or hinder the levelling he abhors remains to be seen.

Baudelaire was a Sunday democrat, but he loved modern life. Hughes is something of a Monday-through Friday democrat, and he hates (sometimes unconvincingly) post-modern life. He hates irony (which he unfortunately persists in comparing to a condom); he hates affectlessness, selfish display, vanity, disrespect for the past, the oppression of underdogs. He is nothing if not critical, and he and we might be better served if he were a little less critical, for he risks leaving nothing. After all, the things he loves are also here today, and Hughes has a matchless eye for the unexpected bloom. Sure, he’s post-modern; but he’s also a truth-and-beauty man, and a damned good one.

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Vol. 15 No. 24 · 16 December 1993

In a more or less rapturous review of Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America, by Robert Hughes, Scott Malcomson (LRB, 23 September) credits the celebrated art critic with having written, among other surprising things: ‘Eliot’s rude line about Christ’s “offending feet" springs to mind whenever one looks at such a picture.’ A picture (it could only be) of Christ’s baptism in Jordan, like the one so marvellously evoked in ‘Mr Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service’. Since Eliot’s lines seem to have fallen here among the verse-deaf and the theologically illiterate, quotation in full is possibly the best correction:

A painter of the Umbrian school
Designed upon a gesso ground
The nimbus of the Baptised God.
The wilderness is cracked and browned

But through the water pale and thin
Still shine the unoffending feet
And there above the painter set
The Father and the Paraclete.

And while I think of it I wonder if Anthony Grafton (LRB, 10 June) could develop further for us his arresting thesis that ‘a set of frescos ‘of the late 1460s’ were painted ‘in ways that look forward to Boccaccio’ [my italics]? It happens that I feel a special, if not a specially educated, regard for these frescos, having visited them only last year in Ferrara, at the Palazzo Schifanoia. For Cossa and the other painters of the officina ferrarese Boccaccio wold have been a revered source of information about the pagan gods.

Allen Curnow

Vol. 16 No. 2 · 27 January 1994

Allen Curnow (Letters, 16 December 1993) must be some poet; he knows his feet. Regarding the particular matter of Robert Hughes, Eliot, Jesus, and Jesus’s feet, I would like to make it clear that the mistake was mine. Hughes did not misquote Eliot; I misquoted Hughes quoting Eliot. My apologies to all concerned.

Scott Malcomson
New York

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