Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Robert Hughes

Robert Hughes died yesterday at the age of 74.  He was a writer, and for many years a widely read and controversial art critic for Time magazine, among other publications.  He was originally from Sydney, Australia where he once had ambitions to be an artist.

I know a lot of artists who really didn't like Hughes.  Others artists I knew loved him.  Some thought his views were remarkably bigoted, and he did indeed have a habit of making sweeping pronouncements that he sometimes had to walk back, and also sometimes regretted.  He could be strikingly insensitive when it came to women and gay men.  And yet, as much as he complained about "political correctness," he insisted that the United States was nothing if not multicultural, and that it was always such, to the great irritation of very conservative critics like Hilton Kramer.  Other artists I knew thought his views were remarkably refreshing, and relished his regular skewering of more conventional art criticism.

Like Hilton Kramer, Hughes is considered a conservative art critic, though no one could be more caustic in his criticism of the intersection of the Free Market with Fine Art than him.  Hughes' politics, unlike Kramer's, were not right wing.  He had no illusions about Morning Again in Reagan era America.  If anything, the Reagan years were for him the nadir of the American art industry, when the distortions wrought by easy money, hype, investment mania, greed, and ambition were at their most grotesque.  Hughes kept his distance from the right wing intellectuals over at The New Criterion and The National Review.  Hilton Kramer was one of them.  Hughes was not.

I began reading Hughes' reviews in Time magazine even before my art student days.  He was something most writers about art are not, really fun to read.  He insisted on putting modern and contemporary art into larger contexts of history and meaning, something that is usually the domain of more Marxist critics.  Hughes began writing during the later days of the domination of formalist criticism that insisted on reductivism; everything "extraneous" to pure form was to be ruthlessly purged.  Hughes built his career by challenging those conventional assumptions.  His writing suggested to very young artists like me (and others) a bigger world filled with possibilities beyond the narrow constraints of ideological formalism.
His book The Shock of the New suggested to artists like me a very different way of thinking about modern art, as less about the search for pure and meaningful form, and more about a complex engagement with modern history that was far more interesting and satisfying, and -- unlike the work of  more learned art historians of the time -- accessible.

What made Hughes conservative in the best sense was his insistence that art stick to certain basic criteria that were tried and true throughout history.  Art should keep criteria that were refined by experience, not ideology.  Hughes believed first and foremost that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, not the recipe.  A bad work of art was a bad work of art no matter what kind of critical or historical justification could be concocted for it.  He rejected the aesthetics of failure (as did, surprisingly, that arch-minimalist painter Agnes Martin).

His hero was the great Spaniard Francisco de Goya, the living embodiment of what Hughes believed was best in art:  an authentic vision made powerful and compelling through formal excellence, and an engagement with history, not as ideology, but as witness.  Looking at Goya's best work, it is hard to argue with success.

The Shock of the New began as a series on modern art on the BBC in the 1970s.

1 comment:

Kittredge Cherry said...

Oh no! If I had to hear the sad news that Robert Hughes died, I’m glad I heard it from an artist friend like you. “The Shock of the New” was like my Bible in the 1970s, when I was an aspiring art critic studying art history and journalism at the University of Iowa. I wanted to grow up to BE Robert Hughes. You are so right that “He was something most writers about art are not, really fun to read.”

Another 1970s exception to the art-writing-is-dull rule was “The Painted Word” by Tom Wolfe. Boy, did I love those two books! RIP, Robert Hughes.