Revisiting Robert Hughes

The man who wouldn't pick a team

Recently when I shared the work of the late great art critic and historian Robert Hughes with friends my own age, all of them being the sort of people I would consider his natural audience, none of them had heard of him. This seems a terrible shame, likely because he peaked a bit before our time, so I thought I should go back and revisit his work and share it here. Those a few years older than me will remember him as a mainstream figure who was independent minded, a public educator of sorts who also wrote an art column and did some social criticism later with books like Culture Of Complaint. He left behind a few extraordinary books including The Fatal Shore: The Epic Of Australia’s Founding and is best known for his documentary series on modern art, The Shock Of The New.

He was one of several famous Australians who all emigrated around the same time, including Germaine Greer and Clive James. You can even find very early footage of him here opining alongside James about the Beat writers. Already you can see the way his young mind works - always discerning, wanting to be open to the new but tempered by a conflicting suspicion that it might just be a vacuous fad, never wanting to get carried away by anything but instead to subject it to a universal standard that came from within. His resolution was always to avoid joining either team of the boosters or the naysayers and instead to make a finer aesthetic distinction all of his own.

The one that has dated the most is American Visions which he conceived as a “love letter to America”. The twin towers are still in the New York sky and although he has a sense that America is headed in a terrible direction, he finds plenty to criticize in those seeking to drag it in one way or the other.

It’s hard to imagine who would even air or fund documentaries like this now. Hughes was a product of an education system that no longer exists and a more literate culture but even if such a person were to exist today there would certainly be no place for him in the art world. By the time you get to this last one The New Shock Of The New, which contains an amusing interview with the vapid Jeff Koons selling to the tasteless rich, you can see how disappointed he is with it all, but as always he finds a way to carve out a unique position, a critic but never an outright opponent, seeking out something worthy of appreciation in the contemporary.

When asked about him shortly after his death, Germaine Greer said “Bob” never got over the death of painting. Like Camille Paglia, he wanted enlightened multiculturalism but without PC. He recognized and celebrated female achievement but disputed feminist claims of broad cultural misogyny. He wanted an appreciation of the canon and of the iconoclastic irreverent modern. He tried to imagine all kinds of subtle compromises, which could have only seemed possible in the calm sunset period in which he lived.