THE CULTURE OF COMPLAINT: The Fraying of America by Robert Hughes (Oxford: $19.95; 210 pp.). From the New Age to Wall Street, the 1980s presented critics on journalism's firing range with a host of easy targets. Though he must be aware that these targets have since been riddled with holes, Time art critic Robert Hughes cannot resist firing off a few new volleys in these pages. Hughes is such a stylish sharpshooter that it's fun to watch him at work on, say, gender rights activists: "In place of 'chairman,' we get the cumbersome 'chairperson' or simply 'chair,' as though the luckless holder of the office had four cabriole legs and a pierced splat."
But while Hughes deftly illustrates the inadequacy of our current responses to perceived social and political problems, he is not nearly as adept at proffering alternative solutions. His prescriptions are often pie-in-the-sky: e.g., "Cohesion in America can only be based on mutual respect." And his ultimate solution to our cultural decline--give more money to support the projects of aesthetes like himself (he points out that the American taxpayer contributes only $.68 to supporting the arts every year, compared to $27 in Germany and $32 in France)--is as old and intractable as the panem et circenses (bread and circuses) arguments of Juvenal's tenth satire. Still, few critics have as brilliant and perceptive a critical eye as Hughes after he has put his anger on hold long enough to stop denouncing others as "Philistines" who should be "selling swamp in Florida," pitching "snake oil in Texas," or "playing golf in Tulsa." For instance, no knee-jerk enemy of the politically correct neologism, he praises instances where our Mother Tongue has been revised to empower (e.g., the coinage of "Ms."), while cautioning that other language wars often concern "political etiquette" rather than "politics itself."