Learning from Robert Hughes

Whatever else one might say about the durable, persistently combative art critic Robert Hughes, he certainly doesn’t need a blogger of unimpeachable, blue-chip obscurity to stand up for him. He really can fight his own fights by now. I do realise that. But, having just read a very silly article by Janet Street-Porter in today’s Independent in which she attacks Hughes for his recent dismissal of Damien Hirst, don’t think for a moment I’m going to let this realisation stop me from standing up, however unnecessarily, for Robert Hughes, a critic from whom I’ve learned perhaps more than any other.

Acccording to Ms Street-Porter, Hughes’ decision to comment on Hirst is purely a way of marketing his own forthcoming television programme, The Mona Lisa Curse. This, clearly, is a bad thing. (Did I mention that Ms Street-Porter’s seminal Life’s Too F***ing Short: A guide to getting what YOU want out of out of LIFE without wasting time, effort or money, is now out in paperback? And before you start, that typography is hers, not mine, starred-out swear-word included.)

Now, some might argue that, as a critic who can be trusted to produce a direct and pungent comment on pretty much anything, Hughes would, in the general scheme of things, both have been asked his view regarding an art-world event already gaining quite a lot of coverage even without his encouragement, and then to have denounced Hirst along the lines he eventually did. Hughes’ views on Hirst are well known, but perhaps marginally less familar than the journalistic convention whereby any truly edgy, transgressive piece of contemporary art must be ritually annointed with a smear of critical obloquy before taking its place in the canon or, for all I know, the auction room floor at Sotheby’s. For heaven’s sake, Hughes was just doing his job. The ‘crash! bang! pow!’ school of arts coverage doesn’t just write itself, you know.

As it turns out, however, being an art critic with the temerity to criticise art is the least of Hughes’ problems.

‘Curmudgeonly and intellectually pompous,’ reflects Ms Street-Porter, more in sorrow than anger,

Robert Hughes has increasingly seemed to me like a critic who’s reached his sell-by date, who deeply resents being gradually sidelined. Sure, he made a ground-breaking television series, The Shock of the New, several decades ago, but all he seems to have done in the intervening years is pile on the pounds while his (undoubtedly) prodigious brain gradually atrophies into promoting the art of yesteryear.

Ms Street Porter, by the way, for the benefit of the considerable demographic tranche of my readership who won’t actually remember this stuff at first hand, has, alongside engaging in some variably successful journalism, involved herself in various televisual projects over the years, including quite a lot of ‘youth’ programming in the 1970s and early 80s, followed by a stint on I’m a Celebrity (she came fourth) and regular appearances on Gordon Ramsay’s The F-Word. How wounding, then, must her criticism seem to the man whose Shock of the New remains, sexy hairstyles, over-sized ties and general late 1970s grooviness notwithstanding, as slyly Apollonian and authoritative a jeremiad for his own times as Lord Clark’s Civilization: A Personal View was a jeremiad for the world of 1968 — and which, for that matter, has cast just as long a shadow over the better end of factual broadcasting.

But enough of these minor quibbles. Let’s move on to the really serious point here: Robert Hughes’ weight. This obviously matters a lot to Ms Street-Porter, as she otherwise would not have found room to address the topic in this fairly short, if passionately argued, piece. Well, perhaps it is true that critical acuity and even moderate adiposity simply cannot co-exist in the same body — bad news, one would have thought, for Dr Samuel Johnson, Oscar Wilde, W. H. Auden, Cyril Connolly, David Sylvester et al, with Clement Greenberg’s vodka-based diet perhaps suggesting the soundest recourse for a critic intent that only his pronouncements should be classed as weighty.

And yet, for all the immediate relevance of Hughes’ weight to the question of whether he’s right or not, it’s worth noting that Hughes’ pursuit of whippet-thin perfection may have been set back just a little by the near-fatal road accident in 1999 which, after years of extremely painful medical interventions and irksome convalescence, has left him less than entirely physically fit, even by the standards of a man in his 70s, as Hughes now is. So her use of the word ‘atrophy’ is particularly tasteful in those circumstances. (The same period, more or less, also confronted Hughes with divorce, serious depression, assorted money troubles, the death of an ex-wife and the suicide of his only child, but Ms Street-Porter proves herself more than able to resist the sort of natural human sympathy that might at this point detain more sentimental, less resolutely truth-telling mortals.)

In the meantime, anyway, in the years intervening since Shock of the New first set our cathode ray tubes glowing, Hughes has done — what? Not much, really, according to Ms Street-Porter. He’s written a few books, such as the international best-seller The Fatal Shore, Barcelona, The Culture of Complaint, American Visions (complete with accompanying television series), a nice little volume about fishing, a serious biography of Goya, monographic accounts of Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach, and Things I Didn’t Know, the first volume of his autobiography — all but a handful of these big books, too, demanding the sort of research, reflection and persistence that Ms Street Porter would presumably regard as a culpable waste of time and effort, if not money. Life’s too f***ing short, etc.

And then there’s the small matter of Hughes’ work for Time magazine. Between 1970 and 2001 or thereabouts he’s been writing criticism, often weekly, for a magazine the circulation of which is currently something like 4 million, with a corresponding degree of influence in American, and to a lesser extent Anglophone, cultural life. To Ms Street-Porter, accustomed to knocking out all sorts of random tat for the Independent (circulation: 250,000 on a good day), this may not seem particularly taxing. Others, however, find in Hughes’ journalism — some of it collected in yet another book, Nothing If Not Critical — evidence not only of an ‘(undoubtedly) prodigious brain’, but also of quite a lot of hard work. Nor should this be read to mean ‘laboured’ — rather, the contrary, for the casualness of Hughes’ erudition may, coupled with a refusal to leave art floating free of its moral context, be the most Lord Clark-like thing about him. (Well, that and the bracingly democratic quality of their shared belief that a fairly low-brow, mass-market audience — at whom Shock of the New and those Time reviews, like Civilization, were presumably aimed — could nevertheless rise to the challenge of grown-up vocabulary, grown-up ideas and the invitation to take some critical interest in the culture which surrounds them — although where I write ‘democratic’, Ms Street-Porter might, for all I know, wish to substitute ‘elitist’.)

So, that’s three decades wasted, then, with only a few thousand widely-read articles, ten books and the odd television series to show for those idle temps perdu. Worse still, though, even when Hughes manages to get off his fat backside long enough to express a critical judgement, his judgements are, well, not so much wrong — does this term even feature in Ms Street-Porter’s mental lexicon? — as, worse still, dated.


The tragedy of Bob Hughes is that he can’t acknowledge that Hirst, like Warhol and Bacon, is a perfect reflection of our times. Does Hughes really expect kids today to connect with the vapid pretentiousness of Rothko and the abstract expressionists of the 1950’s?

It’s worth noting in passing that no one — really, no one — has been funnier, or more cutting, about the occasional pretentiousness of Rothko, or the sillier side of the Cedar Tavern mythos, than Hughes himself, although it’s also worth noting (if only because Ms Street-Porter has clearly read virtually nothing Hughes has ever written) that remaining alert to the ridiculous never prevents him from seeking, and sometimes even finding, some evanscent little glimmer of the sublime. The real point, though, is that of course Hughes does ‘acknowledge’ (the wrong word, that, as if he were somehow admitting a guilty secret) that Hirst is a ‘perfect reflection of our times’ — it’s just that he doesn’t think the ‘reflection’ shows anything particularly positive about our age, any more than Warhol’s cynicism or Bacon’s detachment said anything particularly positive about theirs.

Let’s press on to the end, though. Having dismissed ‘Bob’ and his ‘tragedy’ alike, Ms Street-Porter then goes on to describe at considerable length her relationship with ‘Damien’, which goes all the way back to 1992, and involves him presenting her with various examples of his oeuvre, signed and dedicated to her (by whom, though, one wonders?)

But, for the avoidance of doubt, Ms Street-Porter stresses that her enthusiasm for Hirst’s work is based not on the facts that he’s her pal, they drink together at the Groucho, and she’s the recipient of what might well turn out to be rather valuable presents. No! Shame on you for thinking such a thing. Her enthusiasm for Hirst is based, instead, on his more general cultural impact:

Damien, the Chapman brothers and Tracey Emin have crossed from being successes within the art world to household names who make the national and international news.

Great art’s what you want it to be, and I want it to be provocative. No one does that better than Damien.

Which is to say, (a) Hirst is very famous, which means his art must be great, and (b) Hirst’s art is provocative, presumably in the sense of provoking discussion, which also means it’s great — but because Hughes engages in a discussion regarding Hirst’s art (i.e. is ‘provoked’ by it), Hughes is a bad critic, for the simple reason that (c) ‘great art is what you want it to be’ — at least if you’re Ms Street-Porter, rather than Robert Hughes. And if you can make heads or tails of any of that, there’s bound to be a job for you in the UK’s mainstream media, mocking things that you don’t really understand, on the basis that you don’t really understand them. Who knows — perhaps if you play your cards right, you’ll get a Damien Hirst drawing someday, too?

Don’t get me wrong. Hughes is, by no stretch of the imagination, cut out to be my art-critical soul-mate. For one thing, he’s a proud and vociferous republican. For another, he’s not only a liberal, but a liberal of such reflexive, unselfconscious and almost certainly hereditary stripe that not even the most optimistic Tory (a contradiction in terms, but never mind that right now, it’s been a long day) could really wish for him to grow out of it. He presents himself variously as a Jesuit-inflected Roman Catholic and as an atheist, neither of which is a match for my own latitudinarian Anglicanism. True, we’re both left-handed, like our art served up with a huge dollop of history on the side, and are arguably over-fond of adjectives (adverbs too). But then Hughes is dismissive of vegetarians, thinks Hockney’s current work is interesting, and won’t stop crowning Lucian Freud ‘our greatest living painter’ no matter how many more smeary, ill-drawn messes this swiftly-deteriorating modern master entrusts to the public gaze. No, let’s call the whole thing off.

And yet …

For all that, and at the risk of introducing the sort of intellectual solecism that Hughes would find really irritating, I do find Hughes’ criticism — his critical writing — inspiring. Maybe he isn’t absolutely right about everything, which is to say that maybe we don’t agree about everything, but then that’s almost the point. What’s arresting in Hughes’ criticism isn’t so much an assertion of quasi-divine omniscience, of hard-edged unarguable certainties, as the very real sense of a living human being, shaped by all the accidents of heritage and personal history, enlivened by curiosity and self-confidence, bolstered with hard-earned experience, expressing the strongest of opinions — not just to earn money, either or to curry favour with this month’s art world darling — but rather because this stuff actually does matter to him, in the way that the state of the world around us really ought to matter at least a little bit to all of us.

The self-confidence, I imagine, came at a cost, but then I regard Hughes’ evident triumphs in the face of depression as rather magnificent, just as I find the challenge thrown up by his strong opinions irresistable. For some reason, reading Hughes’ prose, I’m reminded less of the darkened lecture theatre, or even the one-sided relationship between grandly generous television screen and gratefully receptive viewer, than of a lengthy lunch under Mediterranean skies during which, perhaps whilst simultaneously expanding my knowledge of the Priorat DOQ, I’d put Mr Hughes right on this whole vexed business of Lucian Freud — or, who knows, maybe he’s put me right, because the glory of such conversations lies in the necessary fact of their lack of predetermination, the total lack of certainty where the journey, once begun, is going to end.

That’s what Hughes offers, that so many critics do not. Why should we believe his assertions? Not just because he’s famous, or because he sounds very sure of himself, but because he’s got evidence to back up his case — evidence there to be combed through, internalised and possibly used quite differently by the next party that handles it. See, you can do this stuff at home, if you’re willing to put in the time, effort and possibly money, too.

Or to phrase it marginally more neatly, Hughes’ criticism always seems to me to be starting arguments, rather than shutting them off — yet at the same time, forcing me to back up my instinctive reservations with yet more reading, thinking and looking. His coat-trailing pronoucements are an invitation to go one better. Put bluntly, for better or for worse, reading Hughes’ writing is one of the reasons I started writing about art. And whatever the wear and tear on my various and several readers — you know who you are, both of you! — I remain selfishly glad I did start to write about art, if only because I don’t think I’d ever actually properly looked at art, or peered at the matrix of infinite oddness in which our culture embeds it, until I started trying to make sense of it all in print, egged on by Hughes’ unfailingly vivid contentiousness.

Let us end, then, with the words of the much-misunderstood, compulsively interesting Goya. It’s a line that I remember, largely because Hughes has more than once quoted it himself. The great Spanish painter, by that time old and deaf and dying, wrote, next to a pencil drawing of his own bent figure, leaning on sticks in order to walk, ‘I’m still learning’. Well, for what it’s worth, I think Hughes is still learning, too. Whereas Ms Street-Porter already knows what great art is, for the next few weeks at least, but would rather we didn’t talk about it.


Filed under art, culture

19 responses to “Learning from Robert Hughes

  1. “…I’m reminded less of the darkened lecture theatre, or even the one-sided relationship between grandly generous television screen and gratefully receptive viewer, than of a lengthy lunch under Mediterranean skies during which, perhaps whilst simultaneously expanding my knowledge of the Priorat DOQ, I’d put Mr Hughes right on this whole vexed business of Lucian Freud — or, who knows, maybe he’s put me right, because the glory of such conversations lies in the necessary fact of their lack of predetermination, the total lack of certainty where the journey, once begun, is going to end.”

    OK… I would slap down a large roll of good money to see that particular Déjeuner sur l’herbe…

    I have always admired Hughes for the same reasons. Whether one agrees with him or not, I always believe that he has given an enormous amount of thought & consideration to what he says. One could never accuse him of (if you will pardon the expression) simply pulling things out of his ass, no matter how wide it may have become.

    (By the way… Thank-you for adding me to your list ~ I’m really quite flattered! Also, I’m sure there must be more than two of us ~ at least seven or eight…)

  2. fugitive ink

    that particular Déjeuner sur l’herbe…

    Lordy! The image conjured up there is not a happy one. The long-suffering Mr Hughes might be better advised to have lunch at the Groucho, with Janet and Damien instead.

    Of course, meeting him in real life would be too terrible for words. To crib Wilde’s line about the death of Little Nell, you’d need a heart of stone not to laugh at this, but only because it’s happening to someone else.

  3. Bravo! Bravo! I’ve long admired Robert Hughes as my favorite irascible art critic, and I’m long overdue on catching up (again) on my reading of Hughes. He, of course, hits the nail squarely on the head in his cogent observations of Hirst and company. This is not to say that I have not paced the room, “Nothing If Not Critical” in hand, arguing with the absent Hughes, (quite spectacularly, I might add, ahem!) However, I am sure as you so adroitly mentioned, that in a personal meeting with him, my voice would fail me, knees would buckle and armpits perspire copiously while I succumbed to some teenage girl-crush of art-critic hero worship. Pudgy and 70ish? Sounds fab to me! Rock on Robbie!

  4. fugitive ink

    Thanks, Tesia – I’m so glad that it isn’t just me! Consider yourself very much invited to what will doubtless be, in every sense, a fantastic art-critical lunch! 😉

    And on a marginally more sane note, why is it that no one has yet published a second volume of Nothing If Not Critical? It isn’t as if plenty more of Hughes’ so-called ‘ephemeral’ writing doesn’t merit repeated reading …

  5. Jack

    Hirst is not the problem. Yes, he’s a cynical clown, a brazen fraud, an unmistakable symptom of serious decadence, but who put him where he is? Who pays the astronomical prices? Who, in short, has enabled him and continues doing so? Is it really his fault, or theirs?

    Of course he’s objectionable, to say the least, but so are countless unscrupulous and disreputable types in all walks of life who are not rich, famous or even known, and never will be. Can one blame him for taking advantage of those who insist and persist in playing along with his game? What should he do, admit he has no real talent (artistic talent, that is) and refuse to take the money showered upon him, and all that comes with it?

    No, Hirst is not the problem, just as Koons is not and Warhol was not. The fault lies elsewhere.

  6. fugitive ink

    Thanks for the comment, Jack. For what it’s worth, I don’t disagree with a word of what you wrote.

    The first sentence of the Hirst piece that precedes this one wasn’t, actually, completely sarcastic. I do, in a sense, admire Hirst’s amazing ability to shape the world to suit his own purposes.

    All of which is one reason why I don’t particularly mind if he makes a lot of money. Not least, the money spent on e.g. that ridiculous golden calf would never, in the absence of Hirst, have been spent encouraging young artists of genuine talent or cushioning the old age of artists of genuine achievement — it would have been spent on aesthetically distressing face-lifts, or a Sikorsky, or the expensive vulgarisation of some inoffensive terraced houses in Eaton Square — none of which is, in my book anyway, morally superior as an outcome to wasting money on Hirst & Co.

    No, the people I do blame — and I hope this comes out in the Hirst piece — are the journalists who would rather print a press release than research a story, the critics who would rather make friends than influence people, and, perhaps most of all, the representatives of important arts institutions (Sir Norman Rosenthal, come on down!) whose unprincipled and entirely unnecessary acquiesence to the perfectly rational selling-strategies of (con) artists and their dealers will, I suspect, come to be judged very harshly indeed by future generations.

  7. Jack

    “I do, in a sense, admire Hirst’s amazing ability to shape the world to suit his own purposes.”

    Yes, and there’s the crux of the matter: the world that allows itself to be shaped, swindled or conned to suit the designs of a Hirst and/or his partners in crime, so to speak. I feel far more disdain and contempt for that world than for someone like Hirst, who is ultimately its creature, or at least would never have gotten anywhere without it.

    I don’t mean to underestimate his true, non-artistic talent, which is certainly considerable, but he’s had lots of help–including, as you note, from people who clearly should know far better. However, the key culprits, for practical purposes, are those who have, quite literally, bought into the sad, tawdry business. This is, after all, a game about money and its attendant foibles, not to say vices. Art is merely a tool, a means, a pretext.

    I’m reminded, with debatable aptness, of a famous exchange from a movie made by 1930’s sex goddess Mae West in her prime. An elderly matron, admiring Mae’s jewels at a posh party, gushes “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!” To which Mae replies, “Thanks, honey, but goodness had nothing to do with it.”

  8. fugitive ink

    Oh, agreed, obviously — and I like the Mae West quote too, Jack.

    I suppose in saying this, I’m simply admitting to being more of a snob than is currently considered entirely proper, but — I find it hard to blame the people who buy Hirst’s work, if only because I think that most of them are fundamentally entirely indifferent to ‘art’ in the sense that some of us might define it, while at the same time very keen on purchasing something of such high-profile, spectacular, unarguably expensive uselessness as to cushion them against the sort of social or, who knows, perhaps even psychological inadequacies which the rest of us can hardly imagine.

    And if paying a lot of money for a branded Hirst item makes them feel better, if it helps staunch a wound the rest of us haven’t felt or at least would never have had the means to bandage in that particular way, well, where’s the harm in that? Does their semi-inexplicable activity really stop the rest of us making real art, or admiring real art, or buying real art, or whatever it is that leads us to care about this topic?

    Personally, I remain unconvinced that it does — or that in that sense, Hirst does any real harm to anything other than e.g. the Royal Academy, which has better things to do than being transformed into a display space for the Saatchi / Gagosian / Jopling franchises — although I’m genuinely very open to being persuaded otherwise.

    In any event, Jack, thanks for another thoughtful comment.

  9. Jack

    I take your points, but while the conduct of those who make people like Hirst rich and “important” may have nothing to do with your conduct or mine, it ultimately has a great deal to do with the prevailing atmosphere in the arts–all the way up to presumed bastions of connoisseurship like the Met in New York and the Royal Academy–which, like Caesar’s wife, should be above suspicion.

    In other words, it winds up having a corrosive, corrupting, perverting effect throughout the system. I cannot forgive that, or rather those behind it. I can allow the rich considerable extravagance, excess, even folly, for they will have it anyway, but not to the point of overt lunacy (unless, like George III, they have an organic malady to account for it).

    The system runs on (and after) money, lots of it. That is what maintains and sustains the circus/farce. If there were no buyers for rotting sharks in vats of formaldehyde, shiny balloon animals, and all manner of assorted stuff and nonsense, things would be rather different. The money, obviously, comes from somewhere, and following it to its main source reveals the root of the problem.

    These “major” collectors and their emulators, who are rich (or rich enough) to finance the system as it now operates, are the key problem. Of course, there is no shortage of collaborators whose contribution is not primarily monetary, but they are accessories, not the primary fuel that runs the machine.

  10. fugitive ink

    You write with great conviction and lucidity, and I agree with most of what you say, but I still can’t bring myself to blame the collectors very much. How are they supposed to see that what they are doing is ‘corrosive, corrupting, perverting’ to the art world (which it clearly is) when at the same time, high-profile, well-established guardians of the art world (institutional heavyweights like Sir Norman Rosenthal or Nicholas Serota, critics like Waldemar Januszczak or, heaven help us, Germaine Greer, journalists like Janet Street Porter, enjoyably Old Etonian gallerists like Jopling, glossy figures from Sotheby’s in very good suits indeed, you name it really) are telling them that what they are doing is cutting-edge, exciting, ‘brave’?

    How, in short, are the people who collect Hirst supposed to know better? They’ve done their due diligence and they think they know what they’re buying. And, in a way, they are right, because they’re not ultimately after art, in the sense of something that will deliver a profound and lasting aesthetic experience.

    What do you propose doing about it, anyway? It’s tiresome that people buy rubbish, and it does mess up the art world as we know it – but then I’ve long been convinced that it’s time to start looking for art outside of places like Sotheby’s contemporary art auctions, the Royal Academy’s more grotesquely commercialised shows, the stuff the Tate buys from its trustees, White Cubes, ‘quality’ newspaper coverage and the entertainment portions of 24-hour current affairs broadcasting.

  11. Jack

    I quite agree that the ostensible guardians of the art world, who are clearly supposed to know the wheat from the chaff, and certainly claim to know it, are far more culpable (or far less excusable) than those who are largely financing the system. However, when you ask how can the latter know better, in the face of so much disinformation, hype, slick marketing, and worse-than-dubious authority figures and role models, my answer is rather simple: the same way you and I do. We are subject to the same potential influences, though we lack many resources or possibilities that their higher socioeconomic status gives them.

    I, at least, have no magical powers or genius, no formal art training or academic degree in art history, no inside connection to the art world, no family tradition of art connoisseurship or even special interest. What I do have is a brain, eyes, curiosity, and a determination to have a personal relationship with art, for myself and on my terms.

    Of course, as you imply, the current system has the backers it should have, since neither it nor they, for the most part, are ultimately after or about art per se, but rather about art as means to other ends (and those various ends have little or nothing to do with aesthetic considerations).

    As to a proposed solution, again it’s rather simple, as I see it, though perhaps too simple: DIY. Do it, see it, learn it, judge it, figure it out yourself. You and I have, and so can they, assuming they’re serious and not just playing some silly game that doesn’t really suit them anyway (in which case, they’d be much better advised to play, or pursue, something more becoming and, ultimately, more rewarding).

  12. fugitive ink

    What I do have is a brain, eyes, curiosity, and a determination to have a personal relationship with art, for myself and on my terms.

    This is a genuinely interesting argument.

    In addition to the attributes you list above, though, you also have the self-confidence to say, in effect, that even if most of the ‘arts establishment’ — in short, the very people who do have the degrees, connections and presumably some special interest, if no very obvious magic powers or, for that matter, genius — think Hirst is fab, well, they’re just wrong.

    Not everyone has that, either. Clearly, there’s a problem in spelling this out, because doing so comes very close either to patting oneself on the back for being so very excitingly brave and iconoclastic (hurrah for Jack! hurrah for Bunny!), or, scarcely more appealling, falling back on that convention of Western Civilisation [sic] whereby membership of even a rather mildly-persecuted minority almost certainly means that in fact one’s a member of the Elect.

    All of which comes back, however indirectly, to the points I made above regarding snobbery, social and psychological inadequacies, and indifference to art. Let’s face it — the people who buy Hirst-branded work are, in effect, congratulated virtually nonstop on the excellence of their taste and discernment not only by Damien and Sir Norman and Jay and the rest, but also by the almost-subliminal nonsense that our culture pumps out continually regarding the superiority of novelty, irony and shock-value over tradition, skill and persistence.

    Which is to say, I agree with you that they’d all be better off taking your advice — do it, see it, learn it, judge it, figure it out yourself — but what on earth do you suppose is ever going to persuade them that they’re not in fact right about art already, and that, in contrast, we are?

  13. Jack

    Well, yes, I do have the confidence (or arrogance, as some would have it) to operate with a mind of my own. I also have an apparently congenital aversion to herd behavior based on fashion or the “right” people. Art is not about other people; it’s about me and the work. Then there’s the matter of historical perspective, and I don’t mean just from Pop to the present (or an even more truncated frame of reference).

    If, as I see it, art calls for a personal, even intimate relationship, then perforce one must invest one’s self in it, work at it, wrestle it to the ground…in a sense, earn it. Otherwise, it’s merely a shallow game, a veneer, a pose, or, sadly, a delusion.

    So, can the sheep, the trendy-unto-death and the camp followers be persuaded to approach art otherwise? Theoretically yes, if they mean well enough (the sheep, at any rate). Unfortunately, all too many are in it for the wrong reasons, meaning they’re playing the wrong game (and spoiling it for others). There, do I sound like a proper snob?

    I continue to be perplexed at the spectacle of sharp, successful people with abundant material means and copious options, perfectly free to choose and do as they please, who still behave as simple-minded, submissive, docile, even fearful followers of the current art gods and their priests. Why? Who or what is forcing them? Then, of course, there are the zealots, both the genuine and the opportunists, who are rather more disturbing.

    In any case, there’s not much point bothering with or about art if one isn’t serious and honest about it, if it’s not a deep, passionate, and very personal engagement. There are, after all, numerous alternatives, and it is far better (and more admirable) to be passionate about football, and mean it, than run about chasing after Hirst and company because the supposedly right people do.

    And by the way, I do realise I haven’t told you anything you didn’t know or couldn’t figure out already.

  14. ML Hart

    I realize I’m late to this party, but I just googled across this (looking for a long-ish RH piece on Lucian Freud to share with an unenlightened English professor)… and got sidetracked. Lovely piece of writing, and bravo for standing up for Hughes. Not that he needs anyone’s help, as you point out. I’ve admired his writing, his opinions, and his courage for – oh, many years, all the way back – and continue to learn each time I re-read.

    Tesia Blackburn’s comment made me laugh – yes! know exactly what you mean! I’ve met him twice, briefly at book signings – the first (for GOYA) we spoke for all of 40 seconds and he charmed me right out of my… socks. At the second, for THINGS I DIDN’T KNOW, he was curt and rude, and appeared to be chagrined when he realized he’d pulled the wings off the butterfly and clumsily tried to tape them back on (as it were).

    No matter – still craaaaazy for his writing.
    Thanks for a splendid piece.

    Martha Hart

  15. Thanks so much for writing, Martha — I’m delighted that you liked the Hughes piece.

    Meanwhile, what you write about actually meeting Hughes is fascinating — you’re evidently braver than I am! Having twice had the opportunity to encounter Hughes face-to-face at book signings (the same two books you mention, in fact) I’ve never quite had the nerve to see whether I’d get the charming Hughes or the rude one.

    And while I can easily rationalise, on the basis of someone else’s experience, why the rude Hughes exists — not least, that recent ‘Mona Lisa Curse’ documentary implied that Hughes is still in a fair amount of physical pain in the wake of the car crash, while book-signings are famously uncomfortable, even for the wholly able-bodied — it’s clear to me both that (a) I’m so tongue-tied around anyone I admire that Hughes would be lucky to get a coherent ‘gee Mr Hughes, I really like your writing’ out of me, while (b) the glare I’d so richly deserve at that point might well put me off his writing for ever. And that, clearly, would be a pity.

    No wonder I tend to stick to the safety of my desk. Thanks again, though, for this excellent report from the field — and I hope you managed to find the Freud piece you wanted, too.

  16. Very belatedly I add my bravos to your bouquet. A wonderful piece of slow-burning vituperation. You nailed her.

    All in all – that is to include the elaboration provided in previous comments – you’ve made me feel more strongly about the subject. So bracket yourself with Hughes in that respect.

  17. What a kind thing to write, Gareth — I’m so glad you enjoyed this exercise in wholly genuine indignation.

    Hughes, though, should take virtually all of the credit!

    So much of what I write here — the politics pieces, certainly, but much of the arts stuff as well — has a tiresomely beleaguered tone about it, reflecting, I guess, a sense that people rarely agree with me about anything that matters much. Whereas, when it comes to proclaiming the ultimate worthwhileness of Hughes, for once I find myself in a congenial and life-affirming crowd. And yes, that’s a very nice feeling indeed!

    Unfortunately, I rather doubt that Hughes has the vaguest clue about how much his writing has meant to many people, but at least we’ve tried to make him see that it’s meant something. And while this isn’t the sort of blog that topples special advisers or makes the front pages of the broadsheets, it’s still pleasing, in a quiet sort of way, when it draws nearer to one of its modest yet deeply-cherished goals.

  18. I wouldn’t underestimate how many intelligent people would agree with you, once they’d looked into the issue under discussion, and I shouldn’t worry about the others.

  19. What an encouraging thing to write, Gareth – thanks.