Robert Hughes, 1938-2012

Robert Hughes died last week at the age of seventy-four. Most famous for his three decades as Time Magazine's art critic and for The Shock of the New, an eight-part TV series on modern art, Hughes was the Orwell of the art world: both skeptical and idealistic, often severe but never catty, persuasive in his enthusiasms but most eloquent in his indignation. Indignation, not cranky reaction, was the right response to much of what was happening in the art world while Hughes was writing about it. The rich legacy of Hughes's modernist heroes was being squandered by confidence men and obscurantists. Good work was still being done, and Hughes celebrated some of it (he was particularly good on Lucian Freud); but, more and more, the art world was being ruined by the art market, a corrupting combination of opportunism, hype, and gullible wealth. Here's a clip of Hughes at his surliest, confronting one particularly clueless and powerful collector:

For Tom Wolfe, the art world was merely farce; for Hughes, it was also tragedy. In the week since his death, there have been several eloquent tributes. From Simon Schama:

Hughes sticky-fingered relish for the material texture of life, for its savors and flavors, its warp and woof, always immersed in the thick of being, and the skilled gusto with which he set it all down, ought never to be mistaken for indifference to complex ideas and deep analysis. Bobs beef with much (though not all) of conceptual art was the vacant banality of the concepts. Jenny Holzers visual utterances he memorably compared, and not to her advantage, with the homilies embroidered on an embroidery sampler. He could, if he chose, do dueling discourse at dawn with the best of them, but he preferred instead to invite the regular Janes and Joes who thronged the Met or MoMA into the subtle web of his thought, and let them emerge more thoughtful, more attentive, before the work itself. He was the benevolent enabler of Everymans epiphany.

From Howard Jacobson:

Has anyone ever looked out of a television screen with more critical menace? [The Shock of the New] was a series in which the viewer was made ashamed of being stupid. That's to say it was the opposite of most art programmes now. The words flowed, the passion burnt up the screen. He made it manly to look at art, not Sir Kenneth Clark refined and in-the-know, or John Berger ideological, but manly in the democratic sense, engaging our humanity. He hated theory and the linguistic pallor of those who used jargon to shut the uninitiated out of art.

From Adam Gopnik:

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 judgmentqualities of audacity, courage, convictionand 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 poetryand to those names must be added that of Robert Hughes...

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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