Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Death of the Critic: Robert Hughes 1938-2012

This has been a bad year for great writers: Carlos Fuentes in May, Gore Vidal last week, and now word comes of the death of Robert Hughes. Of contemporary art critics, Hughes, John Berger, Arthur Danto and Robert Herbert are the ones I value most highly, and Hughes was the best writer in that superhumanly perceptive crew. Though I never met him, he was my master. As a student of art, I stole so many magisterial bon mots and Olympian opinions from the writings of Robert Hughes that even now it's sometimes hard for me to tell where he ends and I begin. Every time I look at a portrait by Courbet I think of Hughes's great, sensual line, "He painted hair...as though he were running his fingers through it." In him I found affirmation for my own insistence, drawn from experience, that nothing substitutes for a face-to-face encounter with a painting: "You cannot think and feel your way back into the way something was made by looking at a slide: only by studying the real thing." (Note that uncharacteristically unwieldy sentence's encapsulation of an entire ars critica: the duty of the critic is neither to flog and blog unargued assertions, nor to bemerde works of art with the latest, hippest critical theories, nor to find in art convenient confirmations of one's favored ideologies; the critic's task, the critic's gift, is to "think and feel [his or her] way into the way something was made".) In him I also found an object lesson in the tentative nature of all critical opinions (or as I like to put it, the principle that every interpretation should end with an implied "...or maybe not."): when Hughes first saw Philip Guston's late works, he failed to understand them, failed to really see them, and panned them accordingly; later he came to consider these same paintings among the most important of the late 20th century and saw his earlier misunderstanding as the most notable mistake of his critical career.

Robert Hughes leaves a body of work that's nothing short of heroic, and I recommend every word: The Shock of the New and American Visions are definitive; Nothing If Not Critical, a collection of essays and reviews, is as compulsively readable as (and even more enjoyable than) John Berger's Selected Essays; his book on Goya is marvelous, his autobiography to ca.1970, Things I Didn't Know, is a wonderful read; his contentious entry in the 1990s culture wars, The Culture of Complaint, remains valuable and thought-provoking. I've yet to read his works of history (The Fatal Shore, Barcelona, Rome), but the first was widely praised and the last provoked the professional ire of classicists, which is perhaps not a bad thing. Death's triumph robs us of the second volume of his memoirs (unless he finished it before his final illness), but more importantly it stills the most eloquent, intelligent and pugnacious voice in the contemporary artworld. I will miss this burly Australian generalist with his Sydneyfied vowels and his infallible bullshit detector. I miss him already.

Check out his friend Peter Carey's impassioned eulogy in The Guardian.

The entire BBC series The Shock of the New can be viewed online here.

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