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.

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.

Hughes can be just as vivid when writing about the art he loves. He has described the boys in Caravaggio’s paintings, for example, as “overripe bits of rough trade, with yearning mouths and hair like black ice cream,” and evoked Francis Bacon’s famous screaming pope “smearily rising from blackness like carnivorous ectoplasm.” In general, his taste tends toward art with a sensuous, intelligent physicality, a tactile sense of craftedness, and subject matter you can sink your teeth into. Goya is a longstanding favorite (his superb biography of the artist was recently issued in paperback), and he has published persuasive encomiums to contemporaries including Lucian Freud, Philip Guston, Robert Rauschenberg, and Robert Crumb.

But all critics have their blind spots: particular styles or tendencies that they categorically dismiss, unable or unwilling to engage with the work on its own terms. Hughes’ is conceptual art, particularly the ludic, cerebral variety that began with Duchamp and has been carried on by generations of artists, from Joseph Beuys and John Baldessari through Tracy Emin and Maurizio Cattelan. For Hughes, most conceptual art is too intellectualized, too disembodied; it lacks the substance and sensual immediacy that defines truly great art. “Art requires the long look,” he wrote in the introduction to his 1990 collection of essays, Nothing If Not Critical. “It is a physical object, with its own scale and density as a thing in the world.” While this is true of most art up through the 19th century, the new century ushered in a new way of thinking about art as a set of concepts, a mode of interaction, a manner of seeing and apprehending the world that may—or may not—be tied to a discrete physical object. To reject this approach entirely is to cut oneself off from much of what’s interesting and compelling in the art of the last 100 years. And it’s here, in his refusal to engage with this core tenet of contemporary art, that Hughes still exudes a faint whiff of provincialism.

Though he has lived and worked outside Australia for more than 40 years—more than half his lifetime—Hughes has never renounced his Australian citizenship; in American Visions, he confesses that he has always found “a degree of freedom” in his status as a resident alien. This jealously guarded outsider’s perspective is one of his great strengths as a critic—it has enabled him to look at art with fresh eyes and to dissent from the majority opinion, particularly concerning contemporary art—but it’s also the source of his greatest weakness. To Hughes, conceptual art looks like nothing more than an insider’s mind game. And while it’s true that much conceptual art is trivial or banal or needlessly hermetic, the track record of traditional, object-based art is no better. I would love to see Hughes set aside his doubts (at least temporarily), step inside the circle, and grapple with conceptual art on its own terms. But perhaps it’s too much to expect even our greatest village explainer to explain it all.