It is perhaps a bitter irony that the great art critic Robert Hughes (1938-2012) died on August 6th – Andy Warhol’s birthday. Warhol was perhaps, to Hughes, emblematic of all of the hucksters, scallywags, con artists and grifters that have taken over the art world since the rise of Modernism (and its unpleasant afterbirth, Post Modernism). It was Warhol who opened the doors for such frauds and crooks as Damien Hirst, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Tracey Eim, draining the ravished corpse of our culture of any remaining vestige of emotion, virtuosity or humanism.
Needless to say, the art establishment loathed Hughes, much as the crooked tailors in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes loathed the little boy who could not help crying, “but he’s naked!” When slick-suited sharpsters in their squalid Soho PoMo galleries sell to the unsuspecting, unthinking and tasteless collector of today the latest bit of gimcrack tushery created by jaded cynics bent on furthering the greatest fraud in the history of human taste, the last thing they want to hear is an educated man crying … “but, really, it’s not very smart and certainly not very good.”
Hughes was not against the idea of an art market, nor of artists making a living. He wrote: On the whole, money does artists much more good than harm. The idea that one benefits from cold water, crusts, and debt collectors is now almost extinct, like belief in the reformatory power of flogging. He simply saw the contemporary art market as out-of-control and contemporary artists as out-of-touch.
Academics are equally leery of Hughes: he refused to drink the Post Modernist Kool-Aid and was a highly engaging and readable writer equally at home on television. Ivory Towers find such accessibility and clear-headedness both dangerous and enviable. As such, Hughes never founded a school of criticism; he merely had legions of grateful readers.
Instead of writing to further the interests of a bloated, corrupt and rapacious art world, Hughes addressed the emotional and philosophical needs of the aesthete and the art-lover and not the crass art investor or star-schtupper. His book The Shock of the New was also a BBC television series (first aired in 1980), and with it viewers were able to watch art criticism as a gladiatorial sport. Hughes did not suffer fools or scoundrels gladly, and his withering dismissal of our common crap culture was always more nutritious than a Big Mac.
To watch Hughes don his gloves and come out swinging, look at this brief clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MtMqbbBZ24w. Equally amusing is this clip, showing a considerably younger Hughes: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=euPx2QWVl3E&feature=related.
Hughes’ notions on art are now seen as provincial or prehistoric by many of today’s artists and scholars. They are wrong. Hughes believed in the notion of genius – someone who created great art of deep meaning after many, many years of study and apprenticeship. Art, for him, was also a display of craft and mastery, of technical expertise matched with poetic vision. There was no place in his aesthetic for dead sharks swimming in formaldehyde.
Writers often write their own best epitaphs. Let’s close with some things Hughes wrote throughout his long career. Here’s one example that delights my heart from The Shock of the New:
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.
From his memoir Things I Didn’t Know (2006):
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.
Robert Hughes was a first-rate mind engaged in looking at a blasted cultural wasteland unworthy of a child’s scrutiny. He often was abrasive and condescending, but he was seldom wrong. He will be missed.