Art critic Robert Hughes was not a man who suffered mediocrity gladly; no doubt this made him a difficult person to be around at times, but it also made him one of the most penetrating art critics of our time. I stumbled across his work when his seminal television series “The Shock of the New” was transmitted in 1980; it was the first time I had encountered his insightful intellect and I was blown away by the programmes. I have a copy of the book accompanying the series which I’ve carted round with me ever since, and I watched all his later shows (particularly the wonderful “American Visions”) with great joy; few people seemed to be able to cut through the artistic bullshit like he did. Even if I didn’t agree with his viewpoint, it was always entertaining hearing him voice it!
Hughes’s latter years were a mixture of drama and tragedy; he suffered horrendous injuries from a crash in Australia, which left him in fragile health; to add insult to the injury the Australian authorities prosecuted him; and his only son Danton took his own life in 2001. Hughes himself passed away in 2012 after a life lived to the full and with a large legacy of highly regarded criticism.
I actually have a number of Hughes’s books on my shelves; but when I saw that a collection of selected writings called “The Spectacle of Skill” was being issued I demanded that my brother get it for my birthday last year – and fortunately he came up trumps! Although I have some of the works featured in the book, the attraction for me was 125 pages of unpublished memoir, and they’re definitely worth having the book for! The book itself is a lovely thing – an American hardback from Knopf, it has the rough uneven page block often seen on books from over the pond (my copy of Solzhenitsyn’s “In the First Circle” is the same), and reading it was a real pleasure.
The memoir takes up where Hughes’s first book of recollections, “Things I Don’t Know”, finished with the author arriving in New York to become Time magazine’s art critic. Hughes goes on to cover life in SoHo before it became fashionable; the vagaries of the art world; his attempts to be part of US TV art programming; the making of “The Shock of the New” plus his thoughts on art and experiences in the art world. The latter really are an eye opener, revealing how corruption and money are behind the latest crazes in art. In fact, if I remember correctly, one of Hughes’s last TV programmes attacked the ridiculously high prices paid for art nowadays, regardless of its quality, and it’s wonderful to see this maverick really speaking his mind. I often wonder if I would have liked Hughes in person, but I certainly do concur with his views on sport:
….it is a great mistake to imagine that merely because something is covered in such a big magazine (Time), it will provoke reader interest. For a slightly embarrassing testimony to this truth, I need only think of American sports coverage, in the media and how cold it all leaves me. Every day, the back pages (and some of the front ones as well) of every newspaper in America are stuffed with close-up and minutely informative reports on yesterday’s baseball and football matches, on boxing, wrestling, the performance of jai-alai players and of racehorses, of divers and dashers and milers and sprinters and shot-putters and competitors in a score of other sports whose names, let alone whose ruling champions, I know (if possible) even less about than how to tune the carburetors of a Formula One car. Countless hours of TV and radio are also given over to these activities. You’d think no one could go through life in America without absorbing some knowledge of them, like passively inhaling smoke in an old-style back room where a particularly intense poker game has been going on for hours, days, years. But no. Not only do I know nothing about these matters: I care very little.
He’s also forthright on the subject of American television, not known for its depth, and having had personal experience of it can say:
Almost all American TV is shit tailored to morons. It is a vast exercise in condescension by quite smart people to millions of others whom they assume to be much dumber than they actually are.
The last chapter of the book is entitled “Danton – I Hardly Knew You” and it’s a poignant meditation on his lost son, laced with memories of their time together and sadness that he was lost so young. Hughes was no saint – far from it, he seems to have spent a lot of his life carousing madly, until finally settling down with his final wife, the ‘love of his life’ Doris Downes; nevertheless you feel for him reading this chapter and wish things could have turned out differently.
The art world always has been, and probably always will be, full of phonies and people following trends, determined to see a piece of art as something to allow them to make money. But art should be for all and speak to all, and if you want to read a refreshing, sometimes controversial, always passionate and erudite critic, then Robert Hughes is the man for you!
(As an aside, if you haven’t ever watched “The Shock of the New” I do suggest you track it down – it’s an inspiring TV series!)