Coming to a love of art in Australia in the 1990s, as I did, one felt Robert Hughes’s powerful example looming over everything. The internationally renowned art critic, who died last week, had left Australian shores decades earlier. But his connection with his country of birth remained strong. He returned regularly, throwing himself into the fray with generous good cheer whenever he did. And even in his absence, his influence was ubiquitous.
Of course, that influence extended far beyond the art world, and far beyond Australia. I may be exaggerating, but at times it seemed that not just every critic but every historian, biographer, and cultural commentator in the English-speaking world was swayed by — or at least had to negotiate — his example.
I met Hughes only once, when I had to interview him as a young freelancer in Sydney. In truth, he existed in my own mind as an example even before I developed a love of art. And if I had to name a single book that helped determine that development, I can think of none more important than “Nothing If Not Critical,” the collection of short essays and reviews Hughes wrote for Time magazine, mostly in the 1980s.
What was so good about them? Above all, the tone, which was confident to the point of theatricality, and yet gorgeously responsive to nuance and feeling. There was no mistaking it: These short pieces on artists, although they were written for the widest possible audience, were fired by the conviction that fine discriminations mattered.
The measure of just how much they mattered was very simply the gusto with which they were written. Hughes’s voice was authoritative — dauntingly so. But his prose was peppered with colloquialisms, extravagantly colorful descriptions, and hilarious pretension-prickers. Who hasn’t broadly grinned, or even whooped aloud, when reading a classic salvo by Robert Hughes?
Yes, it was “journalism” he wrote, as the tenured academics were quick to point out. But to read this kind of writing after the lost-in-translation longueurs of the French theorists I was forced to imbibe as a fine arts undergraduate at Sydney University (which Hughes had also attended, three decades earlier) was to feel that lucidity, human sympathy, and intelligent passion might, after all, have a place in the world.
Of course, the Hughes art book (and television series) that had the biggest impact on the most people was “The Shock of the New,” a brilliantly compressed yet still fine textured history of 20th-century art that took up where Kenneth Clark’s “Civilization” left off. I was too young — or too cricket-obsessed — to have caught the TV series when it aired, and only came to the book later.
It remains indispensable: a book, like Gombrich’s “The Story of Art,” you would give to your teenage niece or nephew, hoping to sow the seeds of art love, just as you would go back to it yourself for the umpteenth time, needing to have your faith in a dubious profession restored.
Those in the art world who remember Hughes as the grumpy take-down artist he sporadically became in his final years — at least on television — should remember that when “The Shock of the New” came out in 1980, modern art was still alienating to a large majority of the population. There was no Tate Modern (now the world’s most popular art museum). Great and scholarly biographies of Matisse, Picasso, Pollock, and de Kooning had not yet been written. “Modern art” was, for many people, a byword for pretension and obscurity.
Hughes did more than anyone I can think of to convert people to the merits and intoxications of the grand and tragically flawed project that modernism was (and perhaps still is). He did it by being specific, by connecting the grand sweep of ideas and historical events with specific works of art and actual personalities, in all their contradictoriness. That specificity, aligned with his tremendous descriptive prowess, was always his greatest asset.
Of course, it gradually became clear to me — as it should have been from the start — that Hughes’s writing was inimitable. He was too peculiar a combination of freakish polymath, Jesuit-educated Australian patrician, and scarred survivor of ’60s London counterculture to be emulated.
But how we tried! His writing was so sturdy, so constantly entertaining, and so full of appetite that you couldn’t read it and not hope to absorb at least some part of it.
Come to think of it, Hughes was all about appetite. You only had to look at his fiery eyes and ruddy face to see it. His prose, meanwhile, virtually salivated. He was hungry for sensuous experience. He was hungry for the pleasures of persuasion. And he was hungry for knowledge. (His tomes on Barcelona and Rome, and the great bestseller about Australia’s convict origins, “The Fatal Shore” (1987), were, in essence, great self-education projects, from which we all happened to benefit.)
This, anyway, was perhaps the main source of the envy I felt as a young aspiring art critic. How could one hope to match appetite on such a scale?
And yet when Hughes’s appetite waned — as it was bound to, especially after the tragedies that befell him (two broken marriages, a devastating car crash, the suicide of his only son) — so, inevitably, did the quality of the writing and the urgency of the thinking. His finer discriminations were too often silenced by the table thumps and arm sweeps of his great polemical gift.
That gift had been put to stirring use in earlier works, such as “The Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America” (1993), which brilliantly savaged folly on both sides of the political spectrum. But it lost cogency when he returned again and again to favorite punching bags in the art world in the 2000s.
In his wonderful 1989 essay on Lucian Freud, Hughes noted that painting is “exactly what mass visual media are not: a way of specific engagement, not general seduction.”
A typically handy piece of rhetoric (he used it more than once), it was also poignant, if only because that dialectic — between specific engagement and general seduction — was at the heart of his own career.
He certainly knew how to seduce, both in print and on television. He had the perfect personality — gravitas combined with a relish for mischief — to keep mass television audiences enthralled, and, on occasion, jumping up out of their seats.
His pomposity (and make no mistake: in Australia his patrician vowels and unapologetic championing of elitism made him seem irremediably pompous) was never more than a self-deprecating joke away from effortless camaraderie. There was no trick to any of this: He was simply expressing aspects of his personality.
But if there was a danger for Hughes, it was that he took so much pleasure in crusading against folly that at times, especially toward the end, the process became rote. You felt, rightly or wrongly, that he was more or less phoning it in, wasting his precious energies on targets either too easy (Julian Schnabel) or largely misconceived (Andy Warhol).
What’s more, he was so intent on busting through cant and exposing silliness that he seemed blind to the ways in which fashion and folly have an energizing role to play in art. For much as Hughes tried to unite them, aesthetic appreciation and crusading against folly are not, in the end, the same project. Often, in fact, they are at loggerheads.
Still, Hughes left too much of great worth behind for any of this to matter much. And who could deny that the project of exposing folly was well worth pursuing in an era that saw not just the depredations of a vastly inflating art market (which Hughes was one of the first and the most effective to rail against: “What strip mining is to nature,” he wrote, “the art market has become to culture”) but the rising prevalence of academic cant (“artspeak”) and the increasing subordination of aesthetic merit to identity politics?
Remember, though: What constituted merit for Hughes was not the same as it was for those reactionary curmudgeons on the conservative side of the spectrum, the Hilton Kramers and Brian Sewells. Hughes, as Adam Gopnik recently wrote in a wonderful appreciation of his friend on the New Yorker’s website, “had only contempt for the cheap smug conservative taste that risked nothing and tried no new thing, and rooted its suspicions in bile and bad faith.”
Being of two minds about modernism, especially in its late stages, Hughes had learned to despise the habit in art of always chasing novelty for its own sake. He responded viscerally and with love to things that were made well, by hand and with conviction. Preferably with skill — but skill, according to Hughes’s critical criteria, was less important, less vital, than the honest struggle to communicate lived experience. (“A determined soul will do more with a rusty monkey wrench,” he wrote, “than a loafer will accomplish with all the tools in a machine shop.”)
If the struggle produced awkward results, so much the better. About a painting of a horse by Freud, arbitrarily cropped so that its head is missing, he wrote: “It is a striking example of how Freud’s concentration on a motif will conclude it, round its meanings off, even when in another’s hands it would be inconclusive.”
This was typically insightful, and only one of countless expressions of a deeper insight that informed all his writings on art: that it matters, that art can change your life. “The basic project of art,” he memorably announced on camera from his perch beneath the Eiffel Tower at the end of “The Shock of the New,” “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 to pass from feeling to meaning.”
Sebastian Smee can be reached at