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Aug 7, 2012

Robert Hughes, an obituary

Driven creator, towering stylist, often insufferable, it is impossible to imagine either Australia or modern art without Robert Hughes.

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That Robert Hughes was the most prodigally gifted of the Antipodean hejira of bumptious polymaths, mountebanks, angle-haired hipsters and sheer chancers, those who made their way in the wide world, by transforming it through the writing of it, is a judgment so crushingly quotidian, as to not bear the breath wasted on it, digger.

The latterday global flaneur and poetaster would have to have had his head up the proverbial dead dingo’s bum to fail in the surmise that here was the ne plus ultra of the Antipodean style. Wrapped alligator-style in jacket of leather, at the start, his brown tresses a tiny cameo of the Arnolfini nuptials, hardening with age to statuary gravitas like a Viagra-dosed stoat, he had wisely quitted the blandishments of the Old Dart for the tempered spires of the new world, he was liberated from that most otiose duty of the made-good ocker, the requirement to perform.

Not for Bobbo the desperate minstrelry of a Germaine Greer, denouncing her parched austerly fons et origo from the moral high ground of whatever game show will have her, nor the serial unction of a Clive James, releasing verse in the public prints as others do methane in an office elevator. His oeuvre was sui generis, cobber, and if you haven’t started to get the hang of how it worked by now, odds are you wouldn’t have been allowed to drink with the Push. Crack wind and blow thou cheeks … oh look, I think the point’s been made, and we can drop the Hughes mature style by now, it’s 2am in Edinburgh, and I haven’t got the energy to do a thousand words of Hughesiana.

It is easy enough — the baddum baddum baddum of the two-part sentence, the latter half as punch line to the set-up, the unashamedly ornamental vocabulary, undercut by a shift into the Anglo-Saxon register, with a lurch into startling Aussie slang, often as not of Ginger Meggs vintage. His style was captivating, intoxicating, addictive, at least at the first. Art in Australia is powered by it, as are the essays and reviews from Time collected in Nothing If Not Critical. It reaches its apotheosis in The Fatal Shore at which point it has become as much a barrier to clear thinking as an agent of it; Hughes’ conception of convict-era Australia as an Antipodean gulagchipelago was as much a product of the operatic weltanschauung weltschmerz — God, it’s like eating macadamias this, you do it till you throw up — as it was of the evidence itself. By then he was also adding irascibility to the mix.

For every generous and life-loving work such as Barcelona, there was a work like The Culture of Complaint, a critique of American public culture at the end of the Reagan era. Full of good sense and acute observation, it was hobbled by an unwillingness to understand the scepticism that postmodernism had for the avant-garde project of the 20th century; more particularly he could not or would not assess feminist art with anything approaching calm reflection. Famously, he was most exercised by Barbara Krueger’s typographical collage “It’s a small world … but not if you have to clean it”, which touched off in Bobbo a rage that appeared to touch on raw moments of a personal-political nature. This was far from his fault solely; Hughes’ second act in explaining modern art to the world occurred just as art — big A modern art, with the intent of transforming how we understood existence — had effectively collapsed, consumed by commodification from without and nihilism from within.

Once art had been dematerialised, in the early ’70s, as minimalism shaded into conceptualism, the whole practice of art became trapped in a series of minor repetitions; art, now, was either a footnote to Duchamp, or it was old-skool craft-art, or it was an extended performance of the impossibility of doing art, that was anything other than diversion. Hughes was faced with the unedifying task of cataloguing the ghastly parody that art had become, in an era when the world’s greatest patron was an advertising guy — Charles Saatchi — whose aim appeared to be to deprive art of any autonomy and command it might have once possessed in relation to mass culture. The aim of turning Damien Hirst into the world’s greatest art was to ensure that art could say nothing to anyone about anything, that a 2 million advertising slot could not, and stack the deck in favour of the latter.

Writing about something other than art, and art other than modern art, was one response Hughes made to this impasse, and the fact that it was a dilemma showed in his major post-Shock of the New work, American Visions. In form, this was as powerful and commanding as its predecessor, but it suffered from having no one story to tell. Not coincidentally, Hughes had suffered a breakdown of sorts before the writing of it, one of such severity that he felt unable to write. Put on anti-depressants — it was the early ’90s, the acme of the heroic Prozac era — he banged the book out over a period of eight months, and became something of a proselytiser for chemical enhancement, in his habitual harrumphing style. He did not stop to ask whether the failure of art to save him from the depths was not a pretext for jacking into his neurology, but was a sign that art was failing in presumed task, to help us enjoy and endure, be transformed and redeemed.That was the paradox of Hughes; there are millions, literally millions of people who are in his debt for The Shock of the New, for its extraordinary ground-breaking style, and approach, its forceful assertion that there was a there, there, in modern art, that it was exciting, kinetic, erotic, and at hand. In its time, the late ’70s and early ’80s, TSOTN reached out across the limits applied to people’s lives, the implicit sense that the masses could have no more than mass culture. It could only have come from a sense of assuredness that carried over, less successfully, to other areas of life — as when, comically and tragically, Hughes was involved in a bad car accident in Western Australia, and tried to ingratiate himself with the Australian public through a series of embarrassing, dated and more or less Martian attempts to speak in the vernacular.

Likewise, in memoir and essays, recounting the sixties and the cultural revolution that arose from it, had more than a touch of the revisionist’s tale, whereby the author blames the era, more in sorrow than anger, for his or her own personal failings — most particularly in recounting the sad story of his son Dante, a subsequent suicide, neglected in the maelstrom of s-xual chaos and selfishness that swirled round his early life, victim of a manic mother, and a driven, ambitious father.

The paradox? In that assertion, arrogance, command and control, what lingers on the mind is the style and the big picture, Hughes great rhetorical project, and not the judgments themselves. Perhaps it’s just me, but I can recall literally dozens of things said by Greer, James, et al, that strike me as judgments, observations — to be accepted, or questioned as the case may be, but never less than memorable. Yet though I can recall whole paragraphs of Hughes — and in the case of his obituary of Andy Warhol, and his era, pretty much the whole essay — I find it hard to remember any one thing he said, that changed by view of the subject at hand, in an instant and turning on a dime. Hughes will be gushingly recalled and honoured by pollies and commentators who read one or two of his score of books.

Driven creator, towering stylist, often insufferable, it is impossible to imagine either Australia or modern art without him. We won’t see his like, he has become his admirers, blue, a climate of opinion, stone the crows, and munch the curries, the dingo’s bark and the road-train moves on.

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle

Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle is Crikey's correspondent-at-large. He was co-editor of Arena Magazine for 15 years, and has written four hit stage shows for Max Gillies, two musicals, numerous books and produced TV shows including Comedy Inc and Backberner.

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