We'll be hearing a lot of tributes to Robert Hughes in coming days (and he lived long enough to make enemies, so I expect we'll hear some criticism of his career, too). I won't be able to add anything of significance to the obituaries that have been written and are being written now. So I hope you will excuse me if I write about what Hughes meant to me. Because the fact is that I owe Robert Hughes everything.
I was 18 in 1981 and I loved art but had only a vague notion of what good art was. I had liked comics when I was in junior high but I outgrew them. (I later discovered comics that I felt were sophisticated works of art, but that didn't happen until I was in college.) I liked painting and took lessons from Stella Sullivan, which was certainly a key event in my artistic life. But I had never read any art history, much less art criticism. And then a certain TV show started running on PBS. The Shock of the New. I can't overstate how much that TV show--a history of modern art written and narrated by Robert Hughes--meant to me.
Hughes had been the art critic for Time magazine--a weird position, but important. Time reached a general readership. And in the 70s, its circulation was huge. For a critic, it was an interesting but tricky platform. You couldn't sling art jargon like they did at Artforum. You couldn't assume your readers had any particular knowledge of art history, and you didn't have the space to educate them. It wouldn't have been surprising then if Hughes had used his post to be a booster, reviewing only work he liked. But the pleasure of reading him would have been greatly diminished if he had gone that route. Instead, he could be quite vicious and cutting, and that made for some fine reading.
I suppose it was his high perch at Time that gave Hughes the juice he needed to get a high-budget television series about modern art made. The BBC aired it in 1980, then PBS aired it in the U.S.A. in 1981, and I, a high school senior with inchoate artistic leanings, was transformed.
Hughes made a book out of the series, which I devoured, and went on to write many other books, including the majestic history of Australia, The Fatal Shore. He explicated concepts that seemed very relevant to me, perhaps none more so than the "cultural cringe." This term described the sense of inferiority an Australian felt from being so remote from the centers of world culture. Hughes memorably described how he and his fellow young artists and critics would pour over Art News looking at tiny black and white reproductions of enormous Abstract Impressionist paintings. They were like the chained people in Plato's cave, except they knew that these tiny photos weren't the real thing. The real thing was elsewhere. For Hughes' generation, the only choice was to leave. And certainly anyone from Texas interested in art has felt this pull, although perhaps it diminishes over time.
The problem with Hughes was that he never really warmed up to post-modern art. Its absurdities and pretensions were all too obvious for him, and he didn't quite get its virtues. Gender and racial essentialisms rubbed him the wrong way, which, given he was an elderly successful heterosexual white man had the effect of making him seem like a reactionary, which he was not. He was no Hilton Kramer. Nonetheless, his writerly persona became increasingly curmudgeonly as he grew older. Where once he had been a brawler, he evolved into a guy shouting at teenagers on his lawn. That's why he could become a slug Alasdair Macintyre's The Hands that built America.
Alasdair Macintyre, The Hands that built America, 2007, Polymer clay, polyurethane resin, wood, acrylic paint, inkjet print, paper, cardboard, goober, 200mm x 566mm x 335mm
But from The Shock of the New to the very end, one consistent point of view Hughes espoused was a revulsion at the big-money machinations of the "art world." His 2008 documentary The Mona Lisa Curse features the elderly Hughes at his most dyspeptic as he interviews such art world playas as Eli Broad and Alberto Mugrabi. But a lot of the documentary shows Hughes riding uncomfortably in a taxi with a sour expression on his face. He no longer even needs to speak.
Robert Hughes in The Shock of the New
Amazingly, The Shock of the New is available in its entirety on YouTube. I just watched the first episode again for the first time in over thirty years. I was re-enthralled. That this television documentary is still so good after so much time has passed is, well, shocking.