Vale, Robert Hughes

Robert Hughes, most famous in Australia for his history The Fatal Shore, passed away this week. Hughes was, in this, part of that great movement which turned convict origins from something polite people didn’t discuss into an amusing personal footnote.  He did this by the highly questionable tactic of suggesting they were more sinned against than sinning, but even that struck a particular chord in Australia society at the time.

He was best known, overseas, as an art critic. The Library Service has some of his television about Australian art criticism, and his book on Goya, and various other pieces. I was surprised to see that we don’t have The Shock of the New, then realised that it was over thirty years old. It was a pioneering work in art criticism, because Hughes had this theory that people construct walls of jargon around art, and in his work he tried to carve through that. His point, that you start with the art and work back to theory, pricks the bubble of a lot of modern art, which starts at mystification and then, through narrative, gives you a sense of mystagogic knowing. This is fun for you, but alienating for anyone coming across the work for the first time. Hughes was against that: good art seemed, in his work, to have a power which your could feel, even if you were not entirely sure of the work’s place in the complicated game of symbols the in-crowd are playing with each other.

Aside from The Fatal Shore, which I haven’t read, in one of those strange oversights of familiarity, but which I’d like to suggest a person interested in Australian history, like me, should read, I’d like to highlight two of his other works. American Visions is just sublime television, and perhaps better now that televisions can stretch to almost give you a low-res version of a medium-sized canvas. The Culture of Complaint is also a beautiful bit of curmudgeonliness, about how, in American education, the greatest possible sin is hurting anyone’s feelings, and so there can be no elite in thought. You can have a sporting elite, as they are gifted by chance, but you can’t have an elite of thinkers, because you aren’t allowed to hurt the feelings of lazy or disinterested people. I could make some obvious cracks about $10 million dollars a medal while I’m here, but I’ll leave them for another time.

If you have never really understood why people would want to understand art, I commend Mr Hughes to you. Perhaps you could start with his DVDs on Australian landscape.