Saturday, February 3, 2007

As Hughes as it can get

One fine afternoon before the newsrooms buzzed with mostly useless news, Betty, a journalist was in his favorite café. Once upon a time, journalists wrote for citizens; nowadays, citizens are turned into celebrities and they feed news for journalists. From an awesome profession, journalism has nearly become an awful occupation. Betty was chided by his editor for not writing some sensationally sensuous stuff.

There’s a now famous cartoon in the magazine New Yorker, where the desk editor scolds a subeditor for writing news that is “perilously close to truth.” For the postmodernists or the pomos, Truth is a “worn-out metaphor” and to have a fetish for truth makes anyone a “metaphysical prig”.

In fact, as one brilliant American cultural commentator points out, what separates the modernists from the postmodernists is that: “the modernists tolerated relativism while the postmodernists celebrate it.” Relativism charges that there is no absolute truth but every truth is contingent upon the context within which it thrives. Yet, that doesn’t mean that there is no truth; but, that what we have are partial truths seeking perfection.

Anyhow, Betty, the journalist was searching for one such partial truth about some unknown celebrity in a widely read porno magazine called Playboy. A woman waiter was fast approaching Betty to take his order. But, she grew uneasy at Betty reading an obscene magazine. She declined to serve him. Then, an army of feminists rioted the café and screamed at the very harm such magazines cause to women welfare. If it was public indecency that these feminists would have resisted, one can see a broader concern they are addressing. But, caught in their cultural prisons, feminists isolated the case and made a victim out of the waitress - martyring her for their devious theories.

One cannot overlook the recently dead extremist feminist Andrea Dworkin who vulgarized sex as consented rape between a man and a woman. What is the point being driven home? Just to sound different from proven values, feminists mostly develop an ethical resistance to established codes. Whereas feminism began on reaffirming note for the genuine liberation for women from needless shackles, today’s feminism has driven its very goal in unpredictable directions.

The fantastic feminist philosopher-polymath, Martha Nussbaum (b. 1947) has traced the insidious deviancies of feminism. The admirable original goal of feminism was that it relentlessly practiced ways to transform theory into action. Leading to wholesome liberation of women where “hierarchy and subordination” are treated as “endemic to our entire culture” and yet this brand of feminism is also “committed to, and cautiously optimistic about, change through law—the domestic law of rape and sexual harassment and international human rights law.”

But, Nussbaum notes, there is a “disquieting trend” in which young feminists are indulging in “verbal and symbolic politics that makes only the flimsiest of connections with the real situation of real women.” Seduced by French poststructuralist thought, the new feminism uses a vocabulary that subverts the meanings of the words anxious about the hidden implications of the word and the world. Speech precedes (and sometime consumes) actions. Lethargy is promoted by poststructuralists who propound that “we are prisoners of an all-enveloping structure of power, and that real-life reform movements usually end up serving power in new and insidious ways.”

Divorced from action, intellectuals are offered comfort in verbal gymnastics where feminists become acrobats to subvert words and in turn, values and institutions. As language is where most of us play out in the world, feminists have an inexhaustible wealth of words to subvert for a lifetime. So, feminists are asked to “find spaces within the structures of power in which to parody them, to poke fun at them, to transgress them in speech.” Real life politics is sacrificed for the newfound love for the verbal politics, which is the only way possible for whatever liberation is left for women.

Now, to the man whose snap above makes most feminists fume at him as he has frayed their excesses and tapped their tumults. He is an adept Australian art critic Robert Hughes (b. 1938) who reverently wrecks the self-curated reputation of overrated artists and loony littérateurs. He believes that it is better to “err on the side of carnivorousness than on tolerance” and so his satire makes surplus –but saner– claims. Hughes has long been a careful critic of America in which he finds the first democracy that promotes unprecedented newness.

When the Puritans reached the shores of America in fifteenth century from Europe, they intended to create a New World. They displaced and dominated the original inhabitants, to make way for the divine will to be realized by human willpower. The wilderness transformed into landscape and this landscape has haunted American artists ever since. This has been one of the arguments of Hughes in his book American Visions, a companion volume for his scripted series produced by PBS in 1997. Hughes is disappointed at the blazing culture-wars in the United States, which has given rise to “trivial fanaticism.” But, he feels that as cultures “run out of steam occasionally” and as newness has been an American impetus, there can be some revival in the future.

Hughes impressively explains in Culture of Complaint about the postmodern fetish with victimization where every victim is coerced into becoming a hero and thereby inventing “previously unnoticed levels of social guilt.” He frays feminism for “abandoning the image of the independent, existential woman in favor of woman as helpless victim of male oppression.” In the grand search for texts (not literature because every literary piece has a hidden discourse) and contexts (with pretexts) that clamp down on women’s voices, feminists severely succumb to suspicion. Hughes puts this succinctly: “to seem strong may only conceal a rickety scaffolding of denial; but to be vulnerable is to be invincible.” Ah! Don’t we need a savior (or should I say savioress)?

Sex, stung with feminist rhetoric, is salvaged by a brilliant theologian John Mcquarrie (b. 1919) – giving it an astonishing spiritual meaning: “Sex refers to the fact that although the human body contains several complete ‘systems’ (nervous, alimentary, respiratory and so on) it has only half of a reproductive system and is thus incomplete without another person of the opposite sex.” Sex is the sacred union of two souls and at least, feminists have to concur that this is an irrefutable truth (apart from being a biological fact).

Hughes, who has been often attacked for his scathing criticism, hammers home the point that if a critic coos at artists, it is not because he hates them but because he disagrees with them. As Hughes doesn’t “prefer money muscling its way into the aesthetic discourse… he sees something slightly corrupting about it.” Moreover, Hughes doesn’t want art to attain the status of a pseudo-religion but he loves “genuinely visionary, mystical art.” This love has made many brand Hughes as a conservative and he pricks such inflated brand-balloons with his satirical needle: one is conservative if he doesn’t praise the artist recently. Hope Hughes continues to use many such needles not only to prick but to sew saner attires of art.

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