Robert Hughes’s death earlier this month prompted me to revisit his book Culture of Complaint, recommended to me by my friend Arthur as a criticism of political correctness/obsessiveness from a non-right-wing perspective. Among many good parts, this stood out to me:
These backward habits of judging writers in terms of their presumed ability to improve social consciousness may be tough luck for snobbish Proust and depressive Leopardi, for Henry James the closet case and Montaigne the son of bourgeois privilege. But they are even tougher for the students, who come away with the impression that the correct response to a text is to run a crude political propriety-meter over it and then let fly with a wad of stereotyped moralizing. “Boy, Professor Peach really did a job of unmasking the hierarchical assumptions in Dante last week, all those circles and stuff, you shoulda been there.”
Politics ought not be all-pervasive. Indeed, one of the first conditions of freedom is to discover the line beyond which politics may not go, and literature is one of the means by which the young (and the old) find this out. Some works of art have an overt political content; many carry subliminal political messages, embedded in their framework. But it is remarkably naive to suppose that these messages exhaust the content of the art as art, or ultimately determine its value. Why, then, the fashion for judging art in political terms? Probably, people teach it because it is easy to teach. It revives the illusion that works of art carry social meaning the way trucks carry coal. It divides the sprawling republic of literature neatly into goodies and baddies, and relives the student of the burden of imaginative empathy, the difficulties of aesthetic discrimination. It enables these scholars, with their tin ears, schematized minds and tapioca prose, to henpeck dead writers for their lack of conformity to the current fashions in “oppression studies”—and to fool themselves and their equally nostalgic colleagues into thinking that they are all on the barricades.