Robert Hughes (Image Courtesy of Robert Pierce)
Since Robert Hughes‘ death on Monday, the flinging has been steady. Quotes from his writing are all over Facebook and Twitter, and fortunately many of his pithy put downs are well within the 140 character limit.
Yes he was controversial. Yes he pissed a lot of people off. But the meanspiritedness of some remembrances has been surprising to me.
A good example is the obiturary that appeared on The Art Newspaper site, written by Donald Lee. Jason Edward Kaufman, contributing editor at Art + Auction at Louise Blouin Media, had this to say about the piece:
The Art Newspaper wastes half a two-paragraph obit snidely tittering about Robert Hughes having been a failed painter in his youth. This pompous, semi-informed, irresponsible mischaracterization does a disservice not only to an excellent critic, but to the newspaper (my former employer) and its readers. Imagine a two-paragraph obit of Kenneth Clark that focuses on his having written bad poetry in university. It’s mean and irrelevant.
By contrast Kaufman points to Richard Woodward‘s obituary in the Wall Street Journal as a more evenhanded remembrance. Here are a few samples from Woodward’s piece:
Robert Hughes, who died on Monday at the age of 74, leaves behind many admirers but few followers. The most feared art critic of his time, as learned as he was readable, he cultivated no acolytes who aped his opinions and verbal mannerisms, as did Clement Greenberg and Pauline Kael, critics of equal stature. Despite his professorial air, Hughes spurned academia and it has responded in kind. Future doctoral students in art history will likely dismiss his writings as those of a journalist and television personality, or climb the tenure ladder by trying to disprove his belief that the art of his time was mainly second-rate or worse. Unlike his fellow contrarian Hilton Kramer, who co-founded The New Criterion magazine as a forum for unfashionable high-modernist views, Hughes created no institutional legacy.
Tributes to Hughes have cited his withering put-downs, and they were indeed numerous and often salutary in their fearlessness and high style. He enjoyed deflating exalted reputations. The writings of the trendy sociologist Jean Baudrillard were dismissed as “sumptuous poppycock in the French manner, de haut en bas,” and he enshrined his skepticism about New York’s ’80s art stars in a 1984 Augustan satire titled “The SoHoiad, or the Masque of Art.” A public feud with Julian Schnabel entertained readers of art gossip for years.
But no one could doubt how ardently he believed in the soul-nourishing potency of art. His most euphoric books are those on two of its great art capitals, Barcelona and Rome. Skill at painting and drawing were his measure of artistic success, and he found it in the work of Lucian Freud, Leon Kossoff, Philip Pearlstein, Susan Rothenberg, Elizabeth Murray, Philip Guston, R. Crumb and David Hockney…
By the end of his life Hughes knew how endangered, if not hopeless, his views had become. His elitist aesthetics and patrician diction supported a populist ethos that celebrated excellence in carpentry and art-making alike, and hoped to play down the role of money in ruling everything, a shaky position to maintain at any time and maybe impossible to duplicate by anyone brave enough to emulate his example.
Hughes holds a place in me because of his ardent, passionate defense of that “soul-nourishing potency of art.” I began this blog six years ago after reading a quote from him that became my talisman:
What we need more of is slow art: art that holds time as a vase holds water: art that grows out of modes of perception and making whose skill and doggedness make you think and feel; art that isn’t merely sensational, that doesn’t get its message across in ten seconds, that isn’t falsely iconic, that hooks onto something deep-running in our natures. In a word, art that is the very opposite of mass media.
That sentiment will continue to be a touchstone for what matters most to me.
Adieu Master Hughes. May you now truly rest in peace.