What to make of the critic Robert Hughes.

The big picture.
Jan. 19 2007 3:09 PM

The Upside-Down Critic

What to make of Robert Hughes' Australian roots.

In his recent memoir, Things I Didn't Know, art critic Robert Hughes pinpoints the moment he decided to leave his native Australia to begin a new life as a permanent expatriate. It was a warm evening in 1962. Hughes and his mentor, popular historian Alan Moorehead, were talking shop as they pounded down Gewürztraminer at Hughes' apartment in Sydney. "If you stay here another ten years," Moorehead told him, "Australia will still be a very interesting place. But you will have become a bore, a village explainer."

Hughes heeded his friend's advice, staying first at Moorehead's villa in Tuscany, then moving to London, where he lived on the fringes of hippie counterculture ("all dope, rhetoric, be-ins, and powdered bullshit," as he recalls) and wrote art reviews for the "quality Sundays": the Times, the Telegraph, the Observer, the Spectator. In 1970, he got a call from Time (on a neighbor's phone; his had been disconnected) offering him a job as the magazine's art critic. His anecdote about this incident is a perfect snapshot of the good old days of cultural journalism: The editor who called him was drunk from his habitual three-martini lunch; Hughes was stoned to the gills on hash and, in his paranoia, assumed he was talking to the CIA. They worked it out; he took the job, moved to New York, and over the course of 30 years churned out hundreds of eloquent, witty, briskly opinionated columns for his target audience of intelligent, nonspecialist readers.

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Hughes' forays into television further broadened his exposure and established him as a celebrity art critic. He honed his amiably pugnacious persona as writer and presenter of The Shock of the New (1980), an eight-part series on modern art for the BBC, and American Visions (1997), his PBS survey of four centuries of American art. The series and their accompanying books are exemplary works of cultural history for a mass audience, masterpieces of education-as-entertainment. Hughes has turned out to be a "village explainer" in the best sense, bringing the insights of a clear-eyed expat to a village that encompasses most of the English-speaking world. At the same time, his memoir reveals just how formative an influence Aussie culture of the '50s was, in particular its aspirational yet skeptical relationship to European art. It helped produce a critic of rare bluntness—who also has blinkers of his own.

Hughes is a bravura performer, both on the screen and on the page. He writes with astounding verve, in a voice that slips easily between boisterous vulgarity and polished eloquence. In Things I Didn't Know, which chronicles his career through 1970, he says the single greatest influence on his approach to criticism was George Orwell. For Hughes, Orwell's no-nonsense prose style and clear, everyday language offered an astringent antidote to the "airy-fairy, metaphor-ridden kind of pseudo-poetry" that filled the art magazines of the early '60s. As a result of this early training—and probably also as a matter of temperament—Hughes' writing is muscular and dazzlingly lucid; he refuses to indulge in sublime metaphysical musings or languid adjectival swooning, opting instead for precise, verbally nimble descriptions of art's effects. His critical perspective is that of an erudite outsider, which makes him immensely appealing to a mainstream readership: He knows his stuff, but he hasn't drunk the Kool-Aid.

Hughes' skepticism served him well during the boom years of the early '80s, when inflated reputations sprouted like mushrooms in the rich soil of an overheated art market. Bad reviews are always the most fun to read, and for sheer entertainment value nothing beats his poison-pen takedowns of art stars like Julian Schnabel (whose "work is to painting what Stallone's is to acting—a lurching display of oily pectorals"), or Jeff Koons, whom he described as having "the slimy assurance … of a blow-dried Baptist selling swamp acres in Florida." (Hughes' pop-culture metaphors are vicious fun, and far from "airy-fairy.") His "SoHoiad: or, The Masque of Art," a satire in heroic couplets published in the New York Review of Books in 1984, remains the snarkiest skewering of the contemporary art world that has yet seen the light of day.

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