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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