Jackson Pollock at Tate Liverpool: wrestling with a blind spot

Jackson Pollock at Tate Liverpool: wrestling with a blind spot

Well I tried, didn’t I? I have to admit, I’ve always had a blind spot where Jackson Pollock’s concerned. So I was not that keen on seeing Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots at Tate Liverpool. But I was persuaded by my daughter – who was blown away by the Pollocks she saw in MoMA a few years ago – to give it a go. I came away still unconvinced. Continue reading “Jackson Pollock at Tate Liverpool: wrestling with a blind spot”

Transmitting Andy Warhol: can’t tell them apart at all

Transmitting Andy Warhol: can’t tell them apart at all

Andy Warhol looks a scream
Hang him on my wall
Andy Warhol, Silver Screen
Can’t tell them apart at all
David Bowie

He was one of the stupidest people I’d ever met in my life. He had nothing to say.
– Robert Hughes

Walking around Transmitting Andy Warhol at Tate Liverpool, I realised I haven’t got much time for Warhol.  Oh, I get what he was saying, and I know about his impact on the art world.  But looking around this small but well-chosen selection of his work I cannot find one work that really moves or inspires me, nothing that reflects the beauty or the mystery in the world, or speaks to the realities of daily life as experienced by most people now, in our time of austerity. Continue reading “Transmitting Andy Warhol: can’t tell them apart at all”

Robert Hughes: Things I Didn’t Know

Robert Hughes: Things I Didn’t Know
Bill Leak: Robert Hughes – Nothing if not Critical, 2001

After learning of the death of Robert Hughes earlier this month, I thought I might read his memoir, published in 2007, Things I Didn’t Know.  It features some great writing – notably the opening chapter, plus sections on his time in London in the sixties, and the floods in Florence in 1966.  But, I must admit that I found the book a mixed experience. Hughes expresses opinions in forthright terms as you’d expect, but whereas in his books on art this is invigorating, here it seems to be more about settling scores with old enemies, and too much of it becomes tiresome.  There was less about art than I expected (though still plenty), and rather more about his personal life than I wanted to know: some passages leaving me with a distinctly queasy sensation.

The opening chapter is a tour de force: a variation on the equally brilliant first chapter of Goya, the first book he wrote after the car crash in Western Australia in May 1999 that left him, on the eve of his 61st birthday, splintered and shattered and close to death.  In the earlier book, he told how after the accident, hospitalized and in a coma, he saw a vision of Goya, the terrifying artist of pain whose work Hughes had loved for as long he had looked at art.  On the long road of recovery that followed, Hughes finally completed the study of Goya that he had intended to write for a very long time.

Now, in Things I Didn’t Know, the ‘most extreme change in my life’, leads Hughes’ thoughts in a different direction.  Apart from being a vivid and visceral account of the crash and its aftermath, the opening chapter evolves into the beginning of a meditation (though, this being Hughes, it’s a highly rambunctious and muscular meditation) on his feelings about his home country and his sense of Australianness.  These musings run like a thread through the rest of the book.

It’s what happened after the accident that causes Hughes to reflect on the loss of an ‘innocent and rather nostalgic love of Australia that I had retained for nearly forty years, ever since I left for Europe’.  Hughes was prosecuted for dangerous driving because he was driving on the wrong side of the road. But the three men in the other vehicle had criminal records, were on drugs and later tried to blackmail him.  The case was dismissed.  But, after the trial, Hughes called the men ‘low-life scum’, accused the the public prosecutor of pursuing the case against him solely to advance his political career, and, according to a local reporter, topped it off by referring to the prosecution lawyer (descended from Indian migrants) as a ‘curry muncher’ (an accusation Hughes vehemently denied).  The prosecutors were not happy, decided to sue for defamation, and won.

As far as Hughes was concerned, he was being punished by the press (or ‘the Meejah’ as Hughes insists on calling it throughout the book) for being ‘a fucking elitist cunt’.  The Australian press was seized by ‘a fiesta of humbug and abuse’ in which Hughes, ‘the tall poppy’, was cut down – because he was an elitist and, moreover, one who had left Australia.

‘Of course I am completely an elitist, in the cultural but emphatically not the social sense’, asserts Hughes in characteristically combative style:

I prefer the good to the bad, the articulate to the mumbling, the aesthetically developed to the merely primitive, and full to partial consciousness.  I love the spectacle of skill … I don’t think stupid or ill-read people are as good to be with as wise and fully literate ones. … Consequently, most of the human race doesn’t matter much to me, outside the normal and necessary frame of courtesy and the obligation to respect human rights.  I see no reason to squirm around apologizing for this.  I am, after all, a cultural critic, and my main job is to distinguish the good from the second-rate, pretentious, sentimental, and boring stuff that saturates culture today.

So begins a memoir in which Hughes’ prime objective is to explore the extent to which his Australianness is the most important thing about him, or only one attribute in an evolving life.  He begins with his elite origins, the grandson of the first lord mayor of Sydney, and the son of a successful lawyer and war hero.  His older brother was a lawyer who went on to be Attorney-General. Growing up in the Sydney of the 1940s and 1950s the young Hughes did not ‘talk Australian’ and was singled out as a ‘pom’ by bullies at the tough Jesuit boarding school he attended. Coming to terms with the strict Catholicism and conservatism of his upbringing is another theme that recurs throughout the book.

I must admit that I almost abandoned the book at some point in the second or third chapter, finding Hughes’ detailed account of his family’s history and his childhood days in school and secluded Sydney suburb less than gripping.  For me, the narrative doesn’t really regain energy until, rejecting the family tradition of going in for the law, he goes to university to study arts and then architecture.

There are compensations, though: we learn how, through various accidental or fortuitous encounters, Hughes manages to escape the restrictions of upper crust 1950s Sydney to develop an interest in art and culture. Most memorable, and counter-intuitive, is his homage to Father Wallace, one of his teachers at the Jesuit College, who encouraged him to read, lending him quite a few scandalous books that were forbidden in Catholic circles, including a James Joyce anthology containing Molly Bloom’s monologue from Ulysses.  Stupidly, Hughes leaves the book where it is later discovered, with the result that he is summoned to the headmaster’s study where he has some difficulty convincing the head that he had been lent the book by Father Wallace.

Hughes claims he’s ‘never been much of a joiner’ and didn’t have much to do with the Sydney ‘Push’ – the group of artists, writers and libertarians that included luminaries such as Germaine Greer and Clive James who were eventually to light up the radical sixties in Britain. But Hughes does begin to make artistic connections and soon abandons his studies to become first a cartoonist and then, fortuitously, art critic for the Sydney periodical The Observer, modelled on London’s Spectator.

There are some lengthy digressions at this point on the conservative backwater that Australian art represented in the fifties, a place where it was extremely difficult for an aspiring art critic to gain an informed understanding of the terrain.  Art in Australia was only just waking up after decades of cultural quarantine:

It had taken Australian culture that long to pay for the conservatism and xenophobia of the men who installed themselves as its cultural directors after 1910.  The museums contained the most obvious and eloquent record of their narrow-mindedness, which even extended to ‘traditional” European art: the list of medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, rococo, Romantic, and nineteenth century realist artists in its public collections was …extremely short. Australia had not just missed the boat; it hadn’t even bestirred itself to buy a ticket. […]  And if its museums had largely missed out on old art, they were almost  parodically hostile to the new. They could tolerate Impressionism, but only  just, and they had ignored the opportunity to buy Monet, Manet, Degas, or even Renoir.  Everything from Fauvism on was dismissed as the vulgar effusion of incompetent and presumably Jewish madmen.

So, ‘conscious of an inferiority’ (though already the author of  The Art of Australia, the first serious survey of its subject), in 1963 Hughes left Sydney and headed for Europe, encouraged by his mentor, the popular historian Alan Moorehead.  Encouraged and helped by Moorehead, Hughes settles for a time in Italy, firing off the odd bit of freelance writing , gaining some formative art experience – and shagging a fair few women. In the 16th century garden of Bomarzo, Hughes smokes pot and knocks back cheap white wine with a ‘newly acquired American girlfriend’ before having sex on the stone banqueting table inside a grotto with a monstrous mouth as its entrance, the so-called Bocca d’Inferno. The gardens have, he laments without a jot of irony, since been ruined by an excess of dumb tourists.

More sex follows after Moorehead urges him to get his act together and he moves to London, where he arrives just in time to encounter some of the prime movers of the sixties underground scene, such as fellow-Aussies Richard Neville and Felix Dennis, founders of Oz magazine.  Hughes, though, has little time for hippies, and in just one of many diatribes in an entertaining chapter, indulges in a bizarre rant against the hippie ethos that begins reasonably enough, but ends off the wall.  ‘It rested on confession, self-revelation and self-expression without set limits or inhibitions, and one of its principle sources was Jean-Jacques Rousseau’, Hughes opines, tracing a chain from Rousseau, via Coleridge, Byron and Keats, to – Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. Come again?

The individual preceded the State.  In any society there must be room for the unbridled individual, the eccentric, the rebel, the visionary, and even (perhaps especially) the lunatic, since all of them were capable of touching truths that more ‘ordered’ people felt bound to repress, not only in themselves but in others.  And as individuality discovered its inner space and its freedom, so the world would experience moral renewal.  What a dead end this Romantic fallacy, this unbridled truth of the self, proved to be! It took the 20th century, with its limitless cruelty, its mad fantasies of social ‘reorganization’, its deadly orthodoxies, and the limitless egoism of its rulers, to show what atrocious harm the idea of unrestrained personal expressiveness, in the hands of a Hitler, a Stalin, a Mao or a Pol Pot, could do to hundreds of millions of ordinary people.

I have read and re-read that passage, and I still can’t understand how Hughes gets from Keats to Pol Pot.  Nor do I understand how Hughes, who, from the evidence of his memoir has pursued the ‘unbridled truth of the self’ in a pretty determined manner, can believe this stuff.  And surely the artists whom he most admires are the unbridled individuals, the eccentrics, the rebels, the visionaries, often rejected or despised in their time?

Robert Hughes in the late sixties

This outburst comes in a chapter on London in the sixties which is both entertaining for Hughes’ usually disparaging  thumbnail portraits of leading lights of the underground (Timothy Leary was ‘a coarse, middle-aged Irish whiskey priest’; Jerry Rubin ‘a semi-educated liar with invincible self-esteem, the attention span of a flea, and a disgustingly inflated ego to match’) and disturbing for his account of the disaster of his first marriage to a woman he portrays as emotionally out of control and self-obsessed, who apparently slept with just about every counterculture icon in London at the time.  She was so promiscuous that Hughes believes that Eldridge Cleaver was one of the ‘few male radical celebs with whom, in 1968 and ’69, she had not had sex’.  The role call included Jimi Hendrix,  from whom as a consequence Hughes acquired a case of the clap. ‘I was a cuckold going cuckoo’, he laments, describing at one point how he comforted his wife after her return to their home and young child from one of her regular debauches.  Stroking her hair, he encountered ‘a crusty patch of some stranger’s dried semen’.

By this time Hughes was working for the new BBC 2 TV channel, and when Florence suffered the worst flood in the city’s history since 1557, he persuaded the BBC2 bosses to let him go there with a skeleton crew to film the disaster. His account of what he saw when they reached the deluged city is vivid, and one of the best passages in the book.  Amidst the human and cultural disaster, Hughes tells a story of deep, dark humour.  Wading through the floodwaters, Father Cocci, the parish priest of the church of Santa Croce, managed to reach the church’s adjacent Museum which housed one of the great works of Italian art history, the painted crucifix by Cimabue.  He found that the water had dissolved the bond between Cimabue’s gesso foundation and the wood beneath.  Father Cocci managed over several hours to rescue quite a lot of the peeling gesso, carefully depositing it on a large china plate, as an aid to restoration. Leaving the plate on a chair, the exhausted priest went off in search of a change of clothes and a rest.  Workmen came in to help clean up, and, taking a break and looking for something to eat his lunch on, one of the men saw the plate, with what appeared to be lumps of coloured mud on it, and wiped it clean.

Santa Croce Crucifix, 1287-1288, Cimabue

[Robert Hughes doesn’t recount the rest of the story: it took a team of restorers ten years to reapply the paint in an almost pointillist manner with the aid of computer modelling. The restorers succeeded in returning the work close to its original appearance, and it was put back on public display in 1976.  According to critic Waldemar Januszczak it has now become ‘part original artwork, part masterpiece of modern science…a thirteenth century – twentieth century hybrid’.]

At around this time Hughes accepted a commission to write a biography of Leonardo da Vinci, a project that proved to be, in his own words, foolish and unwise.  In another very interesting passage, over several pages, he explains why he couldn’t finish the book.  Hughes was fascinated and puzzled by the fame which the Mona Lisa acquired only from the 19th century, but the artist himself  proved to be beyond his grasp.  Moreover, the more Hughes learned about him, the more Leonardo seemed to lack any sympathetic qualities as a human being.  Hughes writes:

By now, I realized that my main impulse for writing a book was to force myself to find out things I didn’t know.  It has always been like that; the reason for this memoir is the same, to excavate and bring into the light things I had forgotten or repressed…

I suppose the greatest disappointment of this book is that it concludes with Hughes’ departure for America in 1970, having been offered the post of art critic on Time magazine.  So, the period of his greatest achievements lies beyond its scope – perhaps intended for a second volume that will now never appear.

A word about the image at the head of this post.  Bill Leak started work on this portrait of Hughes in 1999, as Hughes began filming his television series on Australia, Beyond the Fatal Shore.  Hughes had filmed only two scenes when he suffered the near-fatal car accident. The series was cobbled together during his agonising convalescence, and the accident led to a protracted legal process. His second marriage broke down, and his only son died. The effect of these experiences on his friend led Leak to abandon his earlier, more detailed portrait for this one, inspired by the terrifying late work of Goya, conveying Hughes’s furious pain, despair and determination in the years after 1999.

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Robert Hughes: greatest art critic of our time

Robert Hughes: greatest art critic of our time

‘One gets tired of the role critics are supposed to have in this culture: it’s like being the piano player in a whorehouse; you don’t have any control over the action going on upstairs.’

There are some announcements of a death that, although the person was not known to you personally, nevertheless produce a sense of great loss, of something taken from your own life.  This is the case with Robert Hughes who, through his books and TV series, has inspired me and taught me more about art than has any other art critic.  Now he is dead at the age of 74, and today Jonathan Jones, in an appreciation in The Guardian writes that

Robert Hughes was simply the greatest art critic of our time and it will be a long while before we see his like again. He made criticism look like literature. He also made it look morally worthwhile. He lent a nobility to what can often seem a petty way to spend your life. Hughes could be savage, but he was never petty. There was purpose to his lightning bolts of condemnation.

Robert Hughes wrote some of the most essential books and essays on art, as well as presenting art to a TV audience in outstanding documentaries such as The Shock of the New, American Visions,  Australia: Beyond the Fatal Shore, Goya: Crazy Like a Genius and The New Shock of the New.  Whether on the page or before the TV camera, he always spoke about art with passionate intensity in words that Michael McNay, in his obituary in The Guardian, describes as a mixture of  ‘the English of Shakespeare, Milton, Macaulay and Dame Edna Everage’ (Hughes enjoyed the description, apparently). McNay adds:

His prose was lithe, muscular and fast as a bunch of fives. He was incapable of writing the jargon of the art world, and consequently was treated by its mandarins with fear and loathing. Much he cared.

Apart from the masterly books of the TV series The Shock of the New and American Visions, Hughes wrote books on the cultural history of Barcelona, beloved artists like Goya and Lucian Freud, and, in The Fatal Shore, the story of the British penal colonies and early European settlement of Australia.  There’s a brilliant collection of essays on artists and the art world published in 1991, Nothing If Not Critical (‘Normally these collections of journalists’ cuttings are not much of an advance on vanity publishing. Hughes’s collection is a jewel box’, writes Michael McNay), while I’ve still to read his acclaimed memoir Things I Didn’t Know (2006).

It was in the essays collected in Nothing If Not Critical that Hughes expressed his anger with the decline of modern art into a fame and money-obsessed marketplace in which the art world had become an extension of the stock exchange, dominated by collectors interested only in artworks as investment and by artists (he railed especially against Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst) who aren’t artists in the truest sense, but grotesque market manipulators (‘The new job of art is to sit on the wall and get more expensive’).  Jonathan Jones, in his Guardian appreciation, comments:

If he was right, God help us all, for the conquest of art by money and the proliferation of celebrity artists that he condemned continues to multiply. The art world of today might be mistaken for an apocalyptic vision dredged from his darkest satirical imaginings.

Hughes revolutionised art criticism by bringing the art market into his critique, beginning with a forthright essay about the art scene in 1980s New York, later anthologised in Nothing If Not Critical: ‘So much of art – not all of it thank god, but a lot of it – has just become a kind of cruddy game for the self-aggrandisement of the rich and the ignorant’.  He developed his thesis about the debasement of art in the late 20th century and the decay of modernism – ‘the rush to insignificance’ – in his magisterial 1980 TV series The Shock of the New, the best and most memorable programmes about modern art ever made for television,  free from highbrow theory, stuffed, as Jonathan Jones puts it, with:

The kind of epigrammatic judgment that condenses deep truths. Van Gogh, he said, ‘was the hinge on which 19th century romanticism finally swung into 20th-century expressionism’..

The opening words of the book which accompanied the series defined the argument:

In 1913, the French writer Charles Peguy remarked that  ‘the world has changed less since the time of Jesus Christ than it has in the last thirty years’.  He was speaking of all the conditions of Western capitalist society : its idea of itself, its sense of history, its beliefs, pieties, and modes of production – and its art. In Peguy’s time, the time of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers, the visual arts had a kind of social importance they can no longer claim today, and they seemed to be in a state of utter convulsion.  Did cultural turmoil predict social tumult?  Many people thought so then; today we are not so sure, but that is because we live at the end of modernism, whereas they were alive  at  its  beginning.

Between  1880  and  1930,  one  of  the  supreme  cultural experiments in the history of the world was enacted in Europe and America. After 1940 it was refined upon, developed here and exploited there, and finally turned into a kind of entropic, institutionalized parody of its old self.  Many people think the modernist  laboratory is now vacant.  It has become less an arena for significant experiment and more like a period room in a museum, a historical space that we can enter, look at, but no longer be part of. In art, we are at the end of the modernist era, but this is not – as some critics apparently think – a matter for self-congratulation. What has our culture lost in 1980 that the avant-garde had in 1890?  Ebullience, idealism, confidence, the belief that there was plenty of territory to explore, and above all the sense that art, in the most disinterested and noble way, could find the necessary metaphors by which a radically changing culture could be explained to its inhabitants.

The Shock of the New was replete with forthright and uncompromising insights, for example about the purpose of art:

The basic project of art is always to make the world whole and comprehensible, to restore it to us in all its glory and its occasional nastiness, not through argument but through feeling, and then to close the gap between you and everything that is not you, and in this way pass from feeling to meaning. It’s not something that committees can do. It’s not a task achieved by groups or by movements. It’s done by individuals, each person mediating in some way between a sense of history and an experience of the world.

His closing words in American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America again emphasised his sense of the decay of American modernism:

This   mantra of debased optimism no longer rings culturally true, because America is not new but old. […] With the millennium at hand, in a society founded on messianic optimism, more imps and goblins will appear than ever before; the sleep of reason will produce its monsters. But there is little reason to expect that it will also bring forth a Goya to record them.

For the smaller sphere of the visual arts is equally fatigued, and its model of progress – the vanguard myth – seems played out, hardly even a shell or a parody of its former self. […] Cultures do decay; and the visual culture of American modernism, once so strong, buoyant, and inventive, and now so harassed by its own sense of defeated expectations, may be no exception to that fact. One thinks, with regret, of W. B. Yeats’s lines: ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.‘ But on the other hand, in the equally durable words of Scarlett O’Hara, tomorrow is another day.

He set high standards for art.  The artists he admired, like Lucian Freud, were described in heroic terms.  He wrote of Lucian Freud’s paintings in The Guardian in 2004:  ‘Every inch of the surface has to be won, must be argued through, bears the traces of curiosity and inquisition — above all, takes nothing for granted and demands active engagement from the viewer as its right.’

I am completely an elitist in the cultural but emphatically not the social sense. I prefer the good to the bad, the articulate to the mumbling, the aesthetically developed to the merely primitive, and full to partial consciousness. I love the spectacle of skill, whether it’s an expert gardener at work or a good carpenter chopping dovetails. I don’t think stupid or ill-read people are as good to be with as wise and fully literate ones. I would rather watch a great tennis player than a mediocre one, unless the latter is a friend or a relative. Consequently, most of the human race doesn’t matter much to me, outside the normal and necessary frame of courtesy and the obligation to respect human rights. I see no reason to squirm around apologizing for this. I am, after all, a cultural critic, and my main job is to distinguish the good from the second-rate, pretentious, sentimental, and boring stuff that saturates culture today, more (perhaps) than it ever has. I hate populist [shit], no matter how much the demos love it.
– from Things I Didn’t Know

Robert Hughes never full recovered from the near-fatal car crash in May 1999 which left him slowed and having to walk with a stick: a harsh blow for someone who relished the physical, whether riding a motorcycle or out on a fishing boat.   In the months when he was recovering from the crash he was haunted by Goya, an artist, he wrote, whose genius lay in his ‘vast breadth of curiosity about the human animal and the depth of his appalled sympathy for it’.  As he recovered he wrote Goya, an impassioned account of the artist’s life and work which he began by talking about how the accident had led to the book:

Perhaps, if life is fully experienced there is no waste.  It was through the accident that I came to know extreme pain, fear and despair; and it may be that the writer who does not know fear, despair and pain cannot fully know Goya.

His series on Australian history and art, Australia: Beyond the Fatal Shore, begins with Hughes returning to the scene of the near fatal car wreck:

More than anything, though, it’s the closing words of The New Shock of the New that I recall:

A hundred years ago, 75 years ago even, people used to talk about revolution as though it were the model of art – art was supposed to be revolutionary, if you did it right it was going to produce some kind of social change.  I’m not at all sure that that was ever achieved, and if it was it was almost invisibly so. Today I think we are left with a more modest but equally difficult task for art to do, and that is: to be beautiful.  To manifest beauty.

People need beauty.  There’s a hunger for it, amid the clamour of visual imagery that surrounds us.  And so, we seek out zones of silence and contemplation, arenas for free thought and regimented feeling.  Museums have supplanted the church as places, both of social congress and of civic pride.  They are the new cathedrals.  And despite the dubious quality of some of the stuff that actually goes in them, or even outside them, there’s a growing hunger for the direct experience of art on a museum wall.  A world away from the forest of media, work that is unique and obstinate in its individuality, whether it be by an Ansel Keifer, a Paula Rego, a Lucian Freud or a David Hockney.

We’re seeking value, looking for meaning, a place outside ourselves that tells us there more to life than our everyday concerns and needs.  You could see this in the crowds gathering for Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern.  Hundreds of monofilament lamps that suppressed all colours except yellow, shedding a gold light through gloomy air thickened by fog machines underneath a mirrored ceiling.  People lay on the floor, staring up at themselves reflected in that ceiling, lit by the pale yellow light of their new sun god.

The success of the Weather Project with its two million visitors shows that the hunger for new art is as strong as ever.  The idea that aesthetic experience provides a transcendent understanding is at the very heart of art.  It fulfils a deep human need.  And despite the decadence, the confusion and the brouhaha, the desire to experience it, live with it and learn from it remains immortal.

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