The Boy Who Left to Grow: Robert Hughes

Life goes on despite theory, and so does art.

— Robert Hughes, “Jean Baudrillard: America,” New York Review of Books, 1989

They do seem to be falling like flies, creatures who wish to flee whilst they can – critics and practitioners of history of various persuasion, interest and intensity.  Gore Vidal, Alexander Cockburn, John Keegan and now, wrenched from the art world, Robert Hughes, dead in a New York hospital.

He was part of the Push, a group of Australian artists and intellectuals that bristled with talent and verve – Germaine Greer, Clive James amongst them, and with wanderlust, fled with them to Europe in the 1960s, where their minds were sharpened and nourished.

The usual accolades will pick up the stunners – The Shock of the New that first aired on the BBC in 1980, engendered a broader interest in contemporary art and made Hughes a conspicuous commentator. It could do no other – it lowered the tone on theory while keeping the volume on insight high and mighty.  His American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America (1997) was prodigiously expansive and produced a nervous break down.

His art criticism always shone with courageous pugnacity, and a good portion of it can be found in the collected volume Nothing if Not Critical, featuring the brightest essays for such publications as Time Magazine, a publication that sought, with foresight, to recruit him in 1970.  America-bound, he left his Old World abode of steeped culture and freelance indigence to find New World vitality.  His art commentary, sharp on the masters, proved dismissive at times.  Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died from a heroin overdose in 1988, was a pop tart, an epiphenomenon – in fact, a “featherweight”.  Celebrity did not demand drawing skills – it merely demanded vacuous icons – “a perch in the pantheon of the eighties does not necessarily depend on merit.”

His cultural criticism was also supreme.  Sharp as a tack, he could equally confront a culture in decay (as he did in The Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America, the result of lectures delivered under the auspices of New York Public Library and Oxford University) and theorists he found unnecessarily obtuse.  Political correctness was always given a good dressing down.  Obsessions are targeted – love of the foetus, the cult of victimhood, the adoration of television and the aversion to public funding of art.

He issued, memorably, an assured spank to Jean Baudrillard in 1989, the French cultural theorist who famously dismissed the technological deceptions of the 1991 Gulf War as fantasy, as CNN’s war, and, in fact, the “war that did not take place”.  When Baudrillard chose to ponder America in a daft meditation, Hughes jumped on it in the New York Review of Books.  America, land without truth, with polished white teeth, with no identity, cultural bearing – at least for Baudrillard.  Such assumptions, for Hughes, were the “sumptuous poppycock in the French manner, de haut en bas.”  Confine the theorist to the flames of indifference – art and life go on.

Then, with all encompassing power, there was history, which he finessed into something that was not merely readable but sweetly digestible.  He cut mammoth sways in terms of cities (Barcelona in 1992, and Rome in 2011), and Australia’s then neglected convict history (The Fatal Shore from 1987).  The latter’s creation was very much an encouragement from popular historian Alan Moorehead, and began as archival research in the public records office.  He wrote of Clio with respect and for the public with conviction.  In American Visions, he speaks of his audience warmly – “that creature who American academics often profess to believe no longer exists: the general intelligent reader.”

Then came his relationship with Australia, ever distant, yet tinged with a permanent proximity.  His first book, The Art of Australia (1966) was framed as a farewell and a message.  Leave Australia, and grow up, or, to quote the exact words from an anonymous painter Hughes cites, “you can’t begin to grow up until you’ve left the place”.  Hughes, just to prove that point, found that work undernourished, a raw working.  In Things I Didn’t Know, his 2006 autobiography, he longed for the maternal bosom of Europe, yet was unable to escape the antipodean orbit he found arid and constricting.  Australian reference points followed his pen with nagging persistence, a permanent shadowing.  The exile, in truth, never leaves.

As Peter Conrad, himself an Australian expatriate of cerebral clout and imagination noted of Hughes, “Escape into the larger, older, more knowing hemisphere does not bring freedom or forgetfulness: each place visited is appraised in relation to what has been left behind – experienced as an alternative to Australia, or as a startling reminiscence of it” (The Monthly, July 2011).  Hence, in his magisterial historical account of Barcelona sees fried eels and barnacles sampled with relish as a reminder of that “populist paradise,… the Bondi Beach I had left behind in Sydney in 1964.”

Always controversial (attacked by a parochial press after his near fatal crash in 1999), but always rich – that was Hughes. He wrote, as Michael McNay of the Guardian (August 7) claimed, the English of Shakespeare, Milton, Macaulay and Dame Edna Everage. Nothing, it seems, if not rare.

A version of this piece is available in Eureka Street.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.