Robert Hughes in his prime, in front of Picasso’s Guernica

Not only was he Australian, the official art critic for Time magazine for decades, and the author and narrator of the acclaimed “Shock of the New” and “New Shock of the New”, he was politically astute, and this is entirely relevant.

Hughes comes off a bit like a pompous old toad, but a wonderful one. He lumbered along in his late years after his near fatal car crash, and fearlessly and irreverently shot down trite art and the hedge fund billionaires who could outbid the Metropolitan museum on paintings, and through their unimaginable wealth rerouted the history of art to make pit-stops at their banks. He famously declared Warhol a “stupid” man, and had no time for the likes of Koons or Hirst.

And yet, among the art cognoscenti, there is the notion that Hughes is “conservative”, stuffy, living in the past, or just lacking whatever it takes to see the NEW and appreciate it. People simplistically, and self-servingly think no further than to assume art is like an optical illusion you get or don’t, and Hughes just didn’t get it, perhaps because he was too old.

I’m a huge fan of Hughes, though I’ve only recently discovered him. I distanced myself from the contemporary art world for the better part of 2 decades following my tragic immersion in graduate level art instruction in vengefully politically correct art, which was also rabidly white anti-male, and absolutely anti-me. I didn’t discover Hughes until after I came back to make art, however I wanted, in time I’m taking off and paying for myself. My distance from the art world – including living in Asia for over 6 years – gave me an objective distance the art world. So I began to write with conviction, not because I intended to write art criticism, but because I felt passionate about tackling this or that issue. What I was surprised to find in Hughes was someone who echoed the conclusions I’d come to on my own.

Today I discovered a lecture he gave shortly after 9/11. Even from the hindsight of more than a dozen years from the event, Hughes was right on in the immediate aftermath. His politics are anything but conservative, and he is a self-proclaimed “liberal”. Not only was his lecture – which eviscerated the Patriot Act, the rhetoric propping up the war on terror, and the naive American “patriotic correctness” – incisive and insightful, it was brave in a time when people were getting fired for speaking honestly and intelligently instead of just waving the flag.

I didn’t know who Robert Hughes was when I was living in NY at the  time of 9/11, and I scoured the newspapers and magazines for intelligent writing about the circumstances. Susan Sontag was denounced for a piece in The New Yorker in which she declared, ” Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together”. Reporter Chris Hedges was fired from the New York Times for speaking out against the war on Iraq.  I would have been thrilled to discover Hughes’ lecture on 9/11 back then, but never encountered it. There was a pompous, righteous old toad who happened to be right and stood his ground. And what he croaked out was a truth that even the best journalists scarcely had the temerity to utter, not the wisdom to conceive.

Why does it matter that Robert Hughes understood the politics of the time clearly when others were waffling and sucking up to authority in a climate of fear? Because it is evidence that he saw reality clearly, and that he saw the big picture. Meanwhile hack artists like Tracey Emin support ultra conservative politics because the plutocrats are the people who can pay millions for her narcissistic chicken scrawl. Is Tracey Emin above Hughe’s head, because she is a conceptual artist, or is Hughes above hers because she’s conceptually an artist?

Hughes saw the illusion and dismissed it as such. He wasn’t conservative or backwards, he just wasn’t willing to buy into fashion or trends, many of which he’d lived long enough to see merely repeating themselves.

I actually feel saddened that he’ll never see any of my work, or comment on it.

9 replies on “The late, great, art critic, Robert Hughes

  1. I don’t know much about Hughes as an art critic beyond that you’ve said, Eric, but he was a good historian. I first came across him twenty odd years back when I read his bicentennial history of Australia. Great book!


    1. Right. He’s well known for his history of his own country. I think his understanding of history gives him a broad perspective on art that helps him see through the bullshit. He also has a video series about American history and American art, which I recently watched.


  2. He was a great communicator. I read Shock of the New cover to cover but can hardly bring myself to read more than the first paragraph of anything in an art magazine.

    In Australia, he was not seen as a conservative. I guess that was because he was a supporter of abstract expressionism and in the 70s, a left wing government paid a fortune for a work by Jackson Pollock (blue poles),which made abstract expressionism seem very fashionable. He was criticised as a critical expat as most Australian expats are. (He really let the insults fly after his car accident in Aus where apparently his wallet was stolen and he was booked for dangerous driving.)


  3. He was a great man : his description of Munch’s contribution to Art is the source of a fundamental influence for me; his comparison or refusal to compare Klimt with Leonardo convinced me that there must be a strong (if elusive) objective element in the assessment of the value of a work of art


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