A GIANT IS GONEHow, oh how, will we ever replace Robert Hughes?
By Don Stradley
Robert Hughes approached his work like a three headed dragon. First, he was a historian fitted with a galloping knowledge; then, he was a powerful, sophisticated writer, unspooling his essays like a storyteller, an enchanter; and third, he had just enough brass in him to keep from being awed by the trendy topics of the day. The recent collection of his writings, a mammoth offering from Alfred A. Knopf called The Spectacle of Skill, spans the gamut of Hughes' career, from his years as the art critic for Time, to an unfinished memoir he was working on at the time of his death in 2012. It could’ve been called A Skeptic Looks at Genius, for no one, not Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, or Julian Schnabel, gets a free pass from Hughes. Some get a polite nod, though, as if Hughes appreciated, if nothing else, their longevity and their ability to “market their own shit.”
One of Hughes' favorite targets was Schnabel, who gained notoriety in the 1980s by gluing bits of broken pottery to his canvases. The more Hughes doubted an artist's worth, the better he wrote, as if hate acted as a kind of clean fuel that made his engine hum. When Schnabel once lamented that there were few great artists at work in the 1980s, Hughes commented, “Indeed; and one less than he thinks.” Why Hughes derided Schnabel, and other flavors of the minute, was that they’d pranced like ponies over the most fundamental aspect of art: they couldn’t draw. Hughes blamed this on a shift in American art schools, which began an irreparable skid in the ‘70s when teachers encouraged students not to master drawing skills, but to “do their own thing,” which “freed up the teachers do their own thing, and none of them could draw, either.” For Hughes, most of the old masters were worthy of adoration. But if he sensed an artist was overrated, or a product of hype, or not in command of his materials, he’d clear the room quicker than John Wayne slinging haymakers in an old Republic western.
Hughes had a particular disdain for those on the periphery of the art world, like the “zonked out hermaphrodites” surrounding Warhol. To hear Hughes tell it, Warhol’s apple-polishing followers weren’t far removed from the trash-eating misfits who sought wisdom and meaning at the feet of Charles Manson, and were also, like Peking Man is to the Cro-Magnon, forerunners of the art dealers who’d foist some new "talent" onto the art-buying public, whether he’d learned to draw or not, because gimmick and calculating backstory count for everything in the market history of postmodernism. “It is the story of van Gogh’s Ear,” Hughes wrote, “without van Gogh himself.”
Art collectors, too, were ridiculous. “Most of them buy what other people buy," Hughes wrote. "They move in great schools, like bluefish, all identical.” Pitiful, they were, dumber than new money, easily duped into believing the “propaganda” about “their increasingly vital role…not noticing the extent to which it (buying art) is a public-relations project – an imaginary garden with a few real toads in it.”
The book also collects chapters from Hughes’ non-critical writings, including his volume on fishing, and The Fatal Shore, his excellent recounting of Australia’s colonization. There are convincing chapters on the fall of New York as an art center; understated jabs at America for not having produced her own Pablo Picasso; and a merciless lancing of Italy for becoming a country of “artistic illiterates.” There are meaty profiles of James Whistler, John Singer Sargent, Thomas Eakins, Frank Lloyd Wright, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko, and short riffs on various other figures, such as novelist Francoise Sagan, who moved “like a sick starling dragging its black wings,” and Jerzy Kosinski, possessor of “bad teeth and a raptor’s nose – like an ill-preserved but dangerous hawk.” And in his exceptional piece on Goya, we’re treated by Hughes, who not only reveled in his knowledge but rejoiced in sharing it, to an explanation of aquatint.
As a little boy in Sydney, Hughes amused himself by reading about the air battles of The Great War, but his knowledge of art was limited to a few famous pieces by Australian illustrators, items that hung in pubs or were tucked away in his dad’s desk, the Aussie equivalent, I may wrongly imagine, of C.M. Coolidge’s poker dogs. Then came an interest in Kipling, and G.K. Chesterton, and then his older sister’s 78s of New Orleans jazz. Finally, on a Catholic schoolboys’ trip to New South Wales, he discovered art. There, in an exhibit of abstract painting, was a piece by Joan Miró that sent the 15-year-old Hughes on a journey of no return, dampened only slightly when the priests busted him that same year for reading James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Knopf intended this collection to be all inclusive, so it closes with Hughes' account of his son’s suicide. Though the chapter is poignant, the effect is stroppy, as if we’d just watched an acrobat finish his high-wire act by breaking out in sobs. A better choice to end the book would’ve been Hughes’ humorous look at the most overhyped moment in modern art history, Andrew Wyeth’s "Helga" paintings, a story Hughes wouldn’t touch for Time because it made his bullshit detector wail like a police siren. But the book’s size, more than 640 pages, makes the choice to end on a sad note irrelevant. The Spectacle of Skill shouldn’t be read from beginning to end, but rather, taken in small doses, like sipping whiskey. That way you can open to random chapters and find something of interest, like the “catalog of trauma” Hughes experienced in a terrible car crash, or the time Australia's notorious tabloids unfairly smeared him as a racist, groundless accusations dismissed by Hughes as “my turn in the barrel.” Still, it’s Hughes’ writing on art that sticks to you, like his take on a painting of Edward Hopper’s wife, whose “shadow seems printed on the floor by a blinding shaft of revelation.”
Hughes had a rare talent for praising someone without making them seem more interesting than they really were. For all of his skill as a writer and critic, and his unapologetic stance as an elitist, his dominant view of the world was, for lack of a better term, a heartfelt thing. Australian homes didn’t feature television during his childhood – Hughes didn’t see a TV program until he was 21 - and this may be why he commented on what he felt, rather than what he saw. Now that I’ve read him, I can no longer see art on my own. I’m now looking at depictions of pain and beauty from inside the skull of a roaring classicist.