The Australian art critic Robert Hughes, who died Monday at age 74, once famously complained that contemporary culture requires its critics to play the role of the piano player in the whorehouse: “You don't have any control over the action going on upstairs.”
If Hughes, who lived in New York and wrote for Time Magazine for 30 years, was not permitted the activism of a Guillaume Apollinaire or a Clement Greenberg, he was nonetheless the most influential art critic of his own, tarnished age. In particular, his 1980 BBC/PBS television series The Shock of the New made modernism accessible to everybody, explaining and championing the great project that was 20th-century art to a viewership of 25 million.
In the series and the subsequent book of the same title, Hughes reveals art in its social context, recording modernism’s elevation of technology over craft, its belief in human perfectibility in a godless world, its quest for the spiritual and the emotional, and its experiments with politics, exposing its utopianism, its anarchism and its naiveté yet celebrating its efforts as a heroic thing.
“What has our culture lost in 1980 that the avant-garde had in 1890?” he asked in conclusion. “Ebullience, idealism, confidence, the belief that there was plenty of territory to explore, and above all the sense that art, in the most disinterested and noble way, could find the necessary metaphors by which a radically changing culture could be explained to its inhabitants.”
The series is always animated by Hughes’s superbly sharp insights into the art itself, whether he is celebrating van Gogh’s cypress trees as thick lightning rods for his overactive skies or questioning the spirituality of Mark Rothko’s black paintings commissioned for a chapel in Houston. When The Shock of the New appeared in 1980, attacks on art that “a child of six could have painted” had largely been replaced with semi-ignorant reverence for the modernist canon. Hughes reanimated modernism for viewers who knew it was important but did not know why. The childlike was actually the starting point, he argued, for the child enjoyed a direct and sensuous relationship with the world that was the beginning of successful art.
“The basic project of art is always to make the world whole and comprehensible, to restore it to us in all its glory and its occasional nastiness, not through argument but through feeling, and then to close the gap between you and everything that is not you, and in this way pass from feeling to meaning,” he concluded.
He also, however, said those words as he decried late modernism’s collapse into dishonesty, macho posturing that actually avoided feeling. Hughes, a critic who could be counted on to be critical and a writer who also produced a book (Culture of Complaint) denouncing political correctness, was judged by many to be a conservative for his elevation of what was, by the 1980s, the old, and his denunciation of the current. For him, Andy Warhol marked the beginning of the end.
That judgment is not entirely fair. He was, for example, a long and consistent supporter of Anselm Kiefer, but Hughes did struggle to come to terms with the place that art occupied after the 1960s. Writing in these pages when The Shock of the New appeared, art critic John Bentley Mays complained that the book barely acknowledged performance art and never mentioned video art.
In more recent years, Hughes excoriated the pampered art star and the overheated art market. For a fabulously cantankerous rhetorician, those, more than the art itself, became his most memorable themes. In 2004, when he wrote in The Guardian about the experience of updating the original TV program with a new episode covering two more decades of art, he consigned many of the big names of the 1980s – Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Sandro Chia – to the trash can of history. In that article, he was reduced to complaining about egomaniacal art stars, including Damien Hirst, who declined to participate in the film, apparently because they feared criticism. It’s the kind of celebrity behaviour that drives journalists wild, but it was hardly a worthy subject for a pen as powerful as his.
In The Shock of the New, Hughes warned against critics who pull out the crystal ball, saying any pronouncement on the historical importance of current developments is sure to be proven wrong. He took his own advice to heart – up to a point: His disillusionment with late modernism and his denunciation of commercialization may yet prove prophetic.