Robert Hughes, not only one of the greatest art critics, but one of the greatest critics in any medium, has died. He was 74. The Australian-born Hughes was the art critic for Time Magazine starting in 1970, the author of the bestselling history of Australia, The Fatal Shore, and was the writer, producer, and star of one of the finest television documentaries ever aired: The Shock of the New, first broadcast in 1980.
Hughes had a rugged pug face, a resonant voice that could hypnotize you when he narrated or lectured, and was a fiercely combative critic with strong opinions about beauty, the art market, and artists’ technical skills. He had little use for an awful lot of modern art, or what he describes here, in a clip from Shock of the New, as stuff such as “a videotape of some twit from the University of Central Paranoia”:
First broadcast by the BBC and in this country on PBS, The Shock of the New was, for me, a shock on a couple of levels. I’d never seen such a forcefully argued documentary on television; I’d never heard art explained with such clarity; I’d never felt such joy absorbing invective mingled with praise emanating from such a curt, dashing fellow.
Hughes had already been one of my print critic heroes, but his move to TV semi-stardom gave him an added luster that did not lessen – dilute or compromise – his critical precepts. Listen to him discuss Marcel Duchamp, his importance, his flaws, and his chutzpah, which Hughes admired:
Because he had little use for a lot of modern art, Hughes was falsely consigned to being labeled a conservative in some circles, but he was in fact one of the most open-minded of critics. Few other art critics – Peter Schjeldahl first at The Village Voice and then at The New Yorker; Peter Plagens at Newsweek would be others – matched Hughes for original ways of thought and expression. Hughes may have most admired the art of previous centuries, but his eyes also took in the rough beauty of underground cartoonist Robert Crumb, whom Hughes called “the Bruegel of the 20th century.”
For the purposes of this blog, I’ve concentrated on Hughes’ TV work, but you really should read The Fatal Shore, and the book that accompanied The Shock of the New. Hughes also made a highly entertaining TV follow-up to Shock, The New Shock of the New, in 2004. Look at them, read him; he was essential.
In a terrific interview he gave to 60 Minutes in 1997, to be found here, Hughes scoffed at being called “the most influential art critic,” telling Steve Kroft that was like being called “the most influential bee-keeper.” But he knew he was good, and he was.