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Robert Hughes Critical Essays

My Dad grew up in Gawler, a country town in South Australia modestly known for a TV show about horse-ranching. He worked as a gravedigger, then studied architecture at Adelaide University, where he was dismissed from classes for wearing tissue boxes on his feet. He enjoyed rushing from the dinner table to consult the encyclopedia, settling an argument between my sister and me, or enlightening us with trivia. He sees great artistry in Rothko, and also Prince, and especially The Simpsons, and he is skeptical of any appreciation of art that adheres to a single theory. Now sixty-five, he recently won Australia’s national architecture award for the third time in four years. Melbourne, the city I grew up in, is literally landmarked with his achievement.

“Landscapes mark children,” wrote Robert Hughes, the Australian art critic whose book of collected essays, The Spectacle of Skill, is prefaced with this frank admission:

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 remember reading that quote when I first picked up The Spectacle of Skill, and promptly closing the book. The question of how exactly Hughes so adamantly distinguishes between these polar terms, or how he “emphatically” separates his cultural elitism from his social outlook, was for me enough to dismiss his critical mind. Just another art-policeman.

The book was a gift from Dad after I began to write criticism. I don’t usually reflect on our relationship, too easily tending towards a clichéd resignation that my accomplishments can never be measured against his. It’s the old Oedipal trap: fathers and sons, patriarchy and authority. Is there any notion less fashionable right now, especially in regards to the critical voice?

In the introduction to The Spectacle of Skill, Adam Gopnik speaks of Hughes’ “hatred of the mawkishly confessional.” So rather than indulge purely in my own reflections, I will instead indulge in Hughes’.

Hughes grew up in Sydney, Australia, remaining fully aware of his Australian sensibilities long after leaving his home behind — an accomplished self-awareness, really, as Australians are practiced at remaining aloof of their cultural character. More precisely, we have a particular disdain for our cultural character, known as Cultural Cringe.

“Cultural Cringe,” wrote Hughes in his essay “The Decline of the City of Mahagonny:”

is the assumption that whatever you do in the field of writing, painting, sculpture, architecture, film, dance, or theater is of unknown value until it is judged by people outside your own society. It is the reflex of the kid with low self-esteem hoping that his work will please the implacable father, but secretly despairing that it can. The essence of cultural colonialism is that you demand of yourself that your work measure up to standards that cannot be shared or debated where you live. By the manipulations of such standards almost anything can be seen to fail, no matter what sense of finesse, awareness, and delight it may produce in its actual setting.

Australia can sometimes seem an anomalous fringe nation, geographically marooned, colonial shrapnel floating in a bottom corner of the world. It’s possible to see how Hughes’ association with elitism was in fact born from defiance — a defiance of the middling expectations of home. Hughes, as Gopnik wrote, “had lost a country in order to gain a civilization.”

Hughes’ pursuit of this civilization had him moving forever closer to the centers of the cultural world, “where truth and efficacy exceed the merely local”: first to Western Europe, where he meandered in Italy and Spain, briefly settling in London, and then to New York in 1970, where he wrote for Time. Hughes, no doubt drawn to these cultural centers to satiate his critical palate, couldn’t help feeling that New York, even in the 1970s, was no longer the bastion of cultural capital that it had been in the ’60s. “New York,” in his words, “remains a center but not, as the art world used to imagine, the center.” Imagine what he’d think today.

I first moved to New York in 2015, surely drawn by a similar thirst for this significance-via-location. I remember, when I first arrived, overhearing one artist leaning in to another artist at a gallery opening and saying, “What are we all still doing here in New York? Haven’t we figured out that it’s over?”

Hughes’ feelings about this de-centering were, as with his other opinions, contradictory. On the one hand, he prized the intellectually and aesthetically brilliant, which he graded by his own metric, above all else, and believed that one needed the influence of a cultural center for such quality to flourish. Yet he also had no love for imperially controlled artistic tastes. He wrote of New York’s decline, “one of the positive results will be finally to clear our minds of the cant of cultural empire and, with that, the nostalgia for the lost imperial center. Under the present circumstances a great artist could just as easily — and unexpectedly — emerge from Hungary or Australia.” Being an Australian came with its own contradictions for Hughes, who was disdainful of the country’s shortcomings, yet hopeful for its potential. Gopnik wrote of Hughes that, “he was the sum of his contradictions. The only question worth asking about a critic is if his contradictions come alive on the page.

What Hughes unapologetically championed was artistic technical skill, the “subtleties of drawing, touch, and brushwork, of color and tone, that slow up the eye and encourage, beyond the quick look, a slow absorption.” While I share his affinity for technique, Hughes’ strict taste for the slow makes it all the easier to paint him as the crotchety old man, shaking his fist at the ever-developing world. He expressed contempt for the art “industry” and market-driven trends: “clever novelty art of diminishing returns.” He scorned television: “It tends to abort the imagination by leaving kids nothing to imagine.” He blamed America’s love of the therapeutic for turning art schools into “crèches, whose aim was less to transmit the difficult skills of painting and sculpture than to produce ‘fulfilled’ personalities.”

In my days as a younger artist, I would bristle at any critic who so blatantly dictated the terms of technique. Hughes might say that I, like other contemporary thinkers, had “succumbed to the fiction that the value of the so-called academy — meaning, in essence, the transmission of disciplined skills based on drawing from the live model and the natural motif — were hostile to creativity.” We both slip into typical roles: Hughes, too easily falling prey to the adamancy that great technique is the only path to a meaningful experience of art, while I, in my similarly narrow opposition, champion unfettered expression, denying the fact that a sharper, more disciplined line often leads to a broader vision.

Despite a penchant for finger wagging and for pedestaling the old male guard — whenever possible Hughes drops a chain of names, “Cézanne, Monet, Seurat, Degas, Matisse, van Gogh, Gauguin, Munch, Rodin,” as shorthand for his art-literacy — flourishes of freshness are embedded in his perspectives, due to his unapologetic frankness. Where he convinces is with his own mastery of the word, crafting sentences as robust and rigorous as the art that stirs him.

Here is Hughes on Fallingwater, from his essay on Frank Lloyd Wright: “the liquid water surface and the hard skin of glass; the cut fieldstone masonry and the raw rock ledges; the sense that the bulk of the building is cradled in the rock while the balconies fly out into the air, working against gravity and the assuring grasp of the earth. All the opposites, held in poetic synthesis. They make you forget — until you go inside — the perversity of Wright’s idea of building a house over a waterfall that can’t be seen from inside it, but only heard: a dull continuous roar that, in spring-melt time, must have rendered life in Fallingwater nearly insufferable.”

Hughes’ prose is often like architecture itself, a solid, tangible construction, which, after a first pass, one can wander through again musingly, appreciating the shapely details within the foundation. The “grasp of the earth” or the “hard skin of glass.” Yet Hughes, while appreciating great talent, still indulges the very Australian tendency to see the absurdity within the sublime, the “perversity” of the heard-but-not-seen waterfall. His love for the critical act is palpable in such bright and canny observations.

Hughes calls himself an “elitist.” I have no doubt he enjoyed how the label ruffles people’s feathers. “I see no reason to squirm around this,” he wrote, letting the rest of us squirm around it instead. “I am, after all, a cultural critic, and my main job is to distinguish the good from the second rate.” Hard to argue against that, although it’s still tempting to try. Is that all the job entails? Lining art up on a scale? Still, why else should I want to become a cultural critic, if not to stake some kind of authority for myself? Renouncing authority to obtain authority. Again, that Oedipal trap.

The Spectacle of Skill(2015) is published by Vintage Books and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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There are few critics whose work can be read for style alone, and many of the best of those are essentially impressionists or appreciators, like Whitney Balliett and Henry James, idiosyncratic enthusiasts who wrote most often to explicate a new, if sometimes baffled, love. There is a still smaller number who, though passionately opinionated, and as often inclined to damn as praise, manage to turn opinion itself into a kind of art form, who bring to full maturity the moral qualities that hide in violent judgment—qualities of audacity, courage, conviction—and make them come so alive on the page that even if the particular object is seen in a fury, the object seems less interesting than the emotion it evoked, while some broader principle always seems defended by the indignation. Of that still rarer kind, those who come first to mind in English might be Tynan and Shaw on the theatre, Johnson and Jarrell on poetry—and to those names must be added that of Robert Hughes, the Australian (and, latterly, American) art critic, who died this week.

Hughes was many kinds of writers—his hugely popular account of Australia’s founding, “The Fatal Shore,” and his two marvellous books on the cities he loved, “Barcelona” and “Rome,” as well as his biography of Goya were all memorable in their kind—but his fame rightly rested on his thirty or so years of art criticism for Time, and (as he knew) above all on the series and book “The Shock of the New,” still much the best synoptic introduction to modern art ever written. “Nothing if Not Critical” was the title, taken from Iago, that, with mordant self-mockery, he used for a collection of his criticism. And he was a pure critic: both his memoirs and his essays on cities came most alive when he was laying into someone, or pouring praise on something, explaining why one fountain in Rome is more beautiful than another, or why someone he met in the course of life was not beautiful at all. The critics’ work was his work—not disclosing, but describing, fixing, defending, denouncing.

He was, first of all, an artist who just missed having a career as one—as a young man, a cartoonist, his line was said to be ridiculously, fluidly nimble. (There is a wonderful portrait of the young, inspired, angelic-looking Hughes in Clive James’s “Unreliable Memoirs”; indeed, a fine biography might be written of Hughes and James and of the conquest of Anglo-American opinion by Australian energy and unspoiled ambition.) He thought with his hands. When he was defending a notion of permanent value in his mid-nineties “culture war” polemic, “The Culture of Complaint,” it wasn’t with a sniffy reference to Plato or Dante, but through his direct experience as an amateur carpenter, of the practice of planing, sawing, varnishing, and getting it right. There were good tables and bad tables; master carpenters to make them well and miserable ones to make them badly. Craft attempted with passion—that was his critical touchstone. Though it was part of his achievement to help end for all time the notion that novelty in art is in itself a virtue, or that “radicalism” or progress was in any way a reasonable end for creativity, he did so without becoming a reactionary. He had only contempt for the cheap smug conservative taste that risked nothing and tried no new thing, and rooted its suspicions in bile and bad faith. He much preferred a rough-worn and unvarnished table made by passionate hands to a smooth one made to pattern.

His values rose not from some distant imagined past, but from the European modernism that still vibrated with excitement in the Australia of his youth, where no one yet knew it well enough to have grown tired of it. Shaped—some might say scarred—by a resolute Jesuit education, Hughes had as a teen-ager drunk in the images and ideas of that faraway modernism without the least touch of complacent familiarity. (Mechanical reproduction heightened, enhanced its value for him.) In the same way that his contemporary Barry Humphries relished the dandy-art of the eighteen-nineties in a way that few Brits could, or that Clive James kept faith in the power of the heroic couplet to communicate, Hughes believed in modern art with something close to innocence. Although “The Shock of the New” is in many ways an account of the tragedy of modernism—the tragedy of Utopias unachieved, historical triumphs made hollow, evasions of market values that ended by serving them—that tragedy is more than set off by the triumph of modern artists. The thesis of “The Shock of the New,” if such a work can be reduced to one, is that what art lost when it could no longer credibly be a mirror of nature it had gained as a transmitter of lived experience, so that, if the surface of the world had been ceded to the photographic image, the essentials of existence—desire in Picasso, physical ecstasy in Matisse, or the agonized alienation in Giacometti, or all of them at once in Van Gogh—could now be expressed with newfound urgency.

Hughes had an impressive line in indignation, but he was allergic to irony. If he seemed at times out of place in New York it wasn’t by virtue of unorthodox opinions; it was because of a kind of robust, unashamed absence of irony, or meta-awareness, in his work, an absence of sentences placed in inverted quotations or of any despair about the ability of plain speech to achieve plain ends. What he really detested was mannerism, in all its guises, whether the mannerism was the Italian kind that had to be cured by Caravaggio or of the postmodern kind that had yet to be cured at all. If this left him blind to the virtues that mannerism may contain—elliptical thought, the tangle of reference, stylishness—well, who would not want to be in a minority clamoring for truth and passion in a mannerist age?

A radical conservative, a skeptic about the avant-garde in authority who relished the trespasses and achievements of the avant-garde in opposition, he was like Swift, someone who had been driven into reaction only by the excesses of the reforming party in power. He could be rough and even brutal, and, like every critic, his hits and misses are, in retrospect, in about even balance. The odd thing was that, in conversation, he was immune to the habit of turning differences of taste into differences of value. If you explained to him why, say, Jeff Koons or Damian Hirst was not quite the monster he had imagined, he would listen patiently, and then sum up your wavering, hesitant hems and haws in a neat phrase: “Hmmmn…Well, Yes. You’re saying that Koons is to sex what Warhol was to soup cans?” A machine gun burst of laughter. “All right, then!” As with all first-rate writers, the bite, and even occasional bluster, was covering up something, and in Bob’s case this was an enormous vulnerability: to experience, to people, to art. The images that arrive from a quarter century of sporadically intense friendship are not of enemies excoriated but of gentle gestures attempted, of poetry recited and far-distant masterpieces evoked.

“Ah, yes!” was his usual start to a sentence, eyebrows raised in memory followed by the single name of whomever or whatever was about to be quoted or praised or described: “Ah, yes! Auden!” he would say, and then he would give you, from memory, the entire nativity section from “For the Time Being.” (I knew no contemporary writer of any kind who had so much poetry committed to memory; it was part of the rote-learning side of his Jesuit education.)

He was as touching a man as you could hope to meet: when our first son was born, Bob arrived at our loft with arms full of stuffed Australian animals for the newborn. “Now this, you see—this is … the Joey!” he said, showing him the baby kangaroo in its pouch, as though he were describing a work by David Smith. (When, a decade later, he called in the middle of the night, with the news that his only son, Danton, from whom he had long been estranged, but loved all the same, had taken his own life, it was with a desperate, apologetic grief that I have not, and hope never again, to hear equalled.) And, above all, he was a writer: I write this far from both from the Internet and from my own library and yet Hughes’s sentences and phrases stick in my head without either having to be consulted. For all the violence of his disdains, they are mostly phrases of enthusiasm: his insistence that Eric Fischl’s suburban vision “smells of unwashed dog, Bar-B-Q lighter fluid and sperm,” his evocation of the nineteenth-century American landscape artist as “God’s stenographer,” his description of a Morris Louis stain picture as “the watercolor that ate the art world,” or, more profoundly, his explanation of the rococo play of line and painterly weather in a Jackson Pollock and of how it belied his reputation as a mere paint-thrower.

He loved most of all art that danced on an edge between manifest accomplishment and audacity, where a painter managed to bring his or her sheer talent to bear upon the world—and then made the inadequacy of talent alone to bear adequate witness to the world manifest, too. The painters of the London School, which he did so much to raise in the world’s estimation, earned his trust because they echoed his virtues: a love of craft married to an allergy to mere elegance; a feeling for the life-giving qualities of healthy vulgarity and a love of life and the world as it really is, displayed without apology. The smears and howls and broken lines and awkward bodies, the will to truth evidenced in the open, blunt statements of Bacon and Auerbach and Kitaj and Freud—these artists were not so much his best subjects as his truest equivalents.

Criticism serves a lower end than art does, and has little effect on it, but by conveying value it serves a civilizing end. If Bob’s last years were in many ways sad, and at times agonized by the pain that his horrific 1999 automobile accident had left him, the work never stopped, and his affection for those round him never dimmed. Through it all, his mind would rise and a phone call would arrive, and one would race downtown to spend time with him; he would read page after page of whatever he was working on, reciting, in his gruff, warning voice, some masterly combo of verdict, examination, evocation, summary—and then, being Bob, look up, anxious as a schoolboy, and say, “But do you think it’s any good? Do you, really?” It was so much better than good that no good words came to mind. At the end of the evening he would dismiss you, as one raised Catholic and still surprised in the presence of the world, with a simple, “Bless you!” His writing will live as a repository of experience fixed in place by a consciousness tormented but never overthrown, and his memory will survive not as some hanging judge of the museums but as one of the indispensable mavericks of modern humanism.

Illustration by David Hughes, from Robert S. Boynton’s 1997 profile of Robert Hughes.

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