Robert Hughes, the Australian born art critic, writer and television commentator, died on August 6th at the age of 74.
For 25 years I have used his book "The Shock of the New" as the textbook for "Introduction to Modernism." On the first day of class I always take some time and explain to my students something about the book they will be reading. I tell them that they are about to read the single best book about modern art that has ever been written. I also tell them that as they read the book they may be overwhelmed by the author's confidence in his own judgments, his erudition and by his sarcasm.
Hughes was a true critic, a vanishing breed. Fewer and fewer newspapers feel that they can afford critics, and the great democratization of art writing that has appeared along with the maturation of the internet has generally caused variety, novelty and self-indulgence to overwhelm judgment. I understand the critics have done genuine damage to individual careers, and I also think that some -- Clement Greenberg for example -- have wielded undue influence over our ideas about American art. Still, good critics challenge us all to expect more, and Hughes was a master at doing just that.
I have never agreed with all of Hughes' judgments, especially his evisceration of Jean-Michel Basquiat, but trying to respond to him is one of the things that turned me into a writer. His most recent and final book "Rome" was judged by historians to be rife with errors when it was released in Europe, and many apparently remained after the book was revised and relased for publication in the United States. Still, many of its descriptions were so vivid and revealing that I read the book with rapt attention and real joy. Hughes wrote so well that he could say anything convincingly: that was his strength and his weakness.
If you have been offended by Hughes -- and to read him well is to be offended -- how can you not appreciate what he felt in his heart about art and artists?
"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."
Don't you wish you could have said that? Or something even close to it? Watch the clip below, which shows Robert Hughes visited the art collector Albert Mugrabi, and then ask yourself "Is there anyone else who has done a better job of deflating the conceits of contemporary art?" When he stands next to a Damien Hirst bronze and laments that art has become "...a kind of bad and useful business," I can't help feeling chastised and challenged.
Don't you think he might have been right?
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