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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.


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.


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34 thoughts on “Robert Hughes, an obituary

  1. Snooopy

    Do you have to write like Hughes to write about him?

  2. Barry Cross

    I hadn’t heard that he’d died before plowing through Guy’s turgid report. Would have been nice if the article confirmed, although I suppose “obituary” says it all.

  3. Sean O'Donohue

    Guy — Sorry to be pedantic but I believe that Robert Hughes’ son’s name was “Danton” (after the French revolutionary Georges Danton I believe).

    Well done on your rendering of Hughes’ prose which to me often lurched from florid to bombastic yet often had a restless, energetic drive.

  4. sean

    A great article. I suspect poor Mike doesn’t have many more words in his vocabulary

  5. oldsalt

    Some good laughs, a furtive tear, a frisson of minor outrage and a lot of nodding. Thanks again Guy. I’m glad I read yours first….And the road-train moves on.

  6. floorer

    Hughes was funny.

  7. Mike Jones

    Sean, unlike our dear Guy, I have no trouble coming up with another word.


  8. paddy

    Oh FFS Crikey!
    Rundle claims 2am in Edinburgh as his excuse for this twaddle.
    Fair enough….. maybe.
    The Editor has no such escape clause.
    Who stole the blue pencil?

  9. Clytie

    Excellent rendition of that tendentious style, Guy. And you’re right about Greer et al. They changed minds, while Hughes only wrote about the changing.

  10. Dogs breakfast

    Austerly? Determined not to be outdone I checked word after word, just to see if any of those sentences made sense.

    Essentially, not. Very few of them held a coherent thought, but the obtuse may get fooled into thinking there is substance there. A lot like reading Nietzschke.

    Yes folks, the word is austerely.

    If language is about conveying an idea, then this isn’t it. Perhaps Hughes did write like that. He must have hated art, on the basis that such a writing style educates little. I have only read “A Jerk on one end” and found his writing style completely readable, lively and honest, with even a hint of self-deprecation.

    Sure must have hated art.

    Also very little mention of his relationship with Australia and Australians. The land never left him, although he left it, but the people he seemed to leave in degrees of contempt. That sense of a sneering windbag was always lurking in his latter years, and he came unstuck occasionally by actually uttering things that would normally have stayed in private conversations.

    A bit of an enigma in fact.

  11. Flowenswell

    A fond tribute. More delineation than explanation. A glancing blow here and there, and far more style than substance. All the better to reveal the mysteries of the subject itself.

  12. zut alors

    MJ, Gratifying to see you giving ‘folderol’ another run. It’s been awhile, I’d almost given up waiting.

    Robert Hughes was good value, unique, irreplaceable.

  13. cannedheat

    The first rule of Rundle is don’t read the comments..

  14. AR

    As many above, what’s with the pastiche of Hughes’ otiose verbosity? As much as I appreciate GR’s verbal pyrotechnics, this was bulimic boilerplate.
    And so many typos it was hard to fathom what was meant comapred to what was written – one of the more blatant examples is “I find it hard to remember any one thing he said, that changed by view ” was meant to be MY?
    Vamp until printed and reread this wodge, several times. I’m sure there is much to be savoured once the technique is disentangled from the pretention.

  15. Mike Jones

    Zut, thanks, be my guest – George update over at FD’s and at the Pig’s Arms.

    AR – thanks for the third…. “Wodge”. Onomatopoeic as well ! Gold star.

    Canned Heat. Might be the second rule of Rundle – the first being “if the pile is brown and smells like sh1t, you don’t need to taste it to prove the point”

  16. Ken Lambert

    Do we detect that Guy is trying hard to out-Hughes Hughes with florid prose and a bonfire of vain expression.

    Well aren’t we all trying to say something very literary about the Time magazine art critic. Anway interesting but a pretty conventional unconventional with a big red Irish appetite for all indulgences.

    We would all love to be Hughes largeness with none of the humbug and eventual cliche.

  17. Bob the builder

    If even the perennially fawning PADDY didn’t like this…. !
    Yes, 2am is no excuse. Don’t write it if you’re not up to it and if you do write it and it’s this bad, don’t send it to the editor.

  18. Graham R

    I shall always revere Robert Hughes for saying this:

    Jeff Koons’ work is the last bit of methane left in the intestine of the dead cow that is post-modernism.

  19. floorer

    Claptrap. I stole the following from The New York Times./ As early as 1993, he described the work of Jeff Koons as “so overexposed that it loses nothing in reproduction and gains nothing in the original.”

    “Koons is the baby to Andy Warhol’s Rosemary,” he summarized, adding: “He has done for narcissism what Michael Milken did for the junk bond.”

  20. floorer

    Just to be clear claptrap refers to the Rundle article. To go with twaddle etc.

  21. floorer

    For those who would like a different view Adam Gopnik has written an article presently on the front page of The New Yorker (free). Gopnik knew Hughes personally. It’s way better than the half cut chaff offered here.

  22. Mike Jones

    Floorer, thanks for the New Yorker link. There is, IMHO, an interesting nexus between Guy Rundle’s piece and Adam Gopnik’s obit for Hughes.

    It’s Gopnik’s phrase “mordant self-mockery”.

  23. floorer

    No worries Mike if you’re really keen Peter Carey has a piece in the Guardian.

  24. Charles Richardson

    Well, I enjoyed it Guy. Some of your readers don’t seem to quite get the concept of parody.

  25. Bob the builder

    Charles, as good as it of you to come to your colleague’s defence (his usual acerbic participation in the comments thread is unsurprisingly absent) “his” readers do understand parody.
    “They”, I suspect, also understand bad parody, particularly from someone who’s a little quick to point out others’ literary weaknesses.
    “We” expect better from Crikey and from Rundle.

  26. floorer

    From Wiki “A parody ( /ˈpærədi/; also called pastiche, spoof, send-up or lampoon), in current use, is an imitative work created to mock, comment on or trivialise an original work, its subject, author, style, or some other target, by means of humorous, satiric or ironic imitation”. Maybe some people need to look up parody an if they do know what it means why would you want to insult Hughes now anyway? I’m not here to insult Mr Rundle (really) I’m a fan of Hughes an if Crikey is going to make an effort it should be better than this. I remember Rundle’s Hitchens Obit an it was of a similiar vein. Somewhat b*tchy.

  27. Malcolm Harrison

    well, I was going to suggest that perhaps Hughes didnt really understand what art was, but i suspect that Rundle has already done that.

  28. Mike Jones

    Floorer, again, thanks for the link to Peter Carey’s lucid piece. It’s a pearler.

  29. floorer

    Mike glad you liked it.

  30. Michael Hughes

    Jesus, Guy, you made me look up at least a half dozen new words. It’s like being word empowered as per reading Reader’s Digest only without the risk of exposure to screeds against Communism.

  31. judith pugh

    MMMMnn…Maybe there will be some less fulsome assessments of Hughes’ contribution at least to the position of Australian Art in the world, once the drama dies down. To put the man in perspective it’s worth reading Bernard Smith’s essay on the Antipodeans. In the essay collection “The death of the Artist as Hero” At least at the beginning of his career Hughes went with the shallow flashy idea at the expense of scholarship.

  32. Clive Morton

    A West Australian road was his harshest critic.


    Barry Humphries summed up Robert Hughes contribution to art
    history and criticism best.
    If you want to read it find it yourself.
    I found it on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald the day after
    Mr Hughes died.
    It was short, clear and to the point.
    He referred to the elephant in the room where Robert Hughes’
    health of body, mind and spirit was concerned.

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