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.