Friday, 10 August 2012

RIP Robert Hughes

Australian-born art critic, author and presenter Robert Hughes is a lot like Mother Teresa. I'm sure he'd scoff at the comparison, but unfortunately he's not around to read this. Robert Hughes died this week in New York after a long and successful career. He was one of the most recognised critics in the world and at the time of his death had been Time Magazine's art critic for over 30 years.

I first heard about his death while watching the morning news. My first thought was that his timing was terrible, as there had been blanket coverage of the 2012 Olympics all week. Sure enough there was only a ten second tribute to Hughes while the rest of the program seemed to be dedicated to Australia's lacklustre performance in the medal tally. I instantly was reminded of Mother Teresa whose death after a lifetime of service to others was overshadowed by Princess Diana's fateful car crash. 

Of course Hughes was no saint and I suppose it is never a good time to die, but dismissing one of Australia's most famous intellectuals in favour of the Olympics seems as insulting as running the results of a swimsuit contest immediately after a memorial to Germaine Greer.

I don't know what Hughes' attitude was toward sport. I know he was a keen fisherman and wrote a book on the subject. Hughes certainly looked like a typical Australian male, and wouldn’t look out of place amongst the myriad of blustery, ruddy-faced regulars at any local pub throughout Australia. It was probably this 'Australian-ness' which made him so successful in the first place. As an outsider he had no agenda to impress the New York art world.

I first became aware of Robert Hughes when I was at high school in the 1980s. This was probably Hughes' most turbulent decade as a critic and he was very vocal in his hatred for what he saw as the commodification of art and a lot of the 'rock star' artists who were around at the time. One memorable viewing during an art lesson of one of his documentaries (probably Shock of the New) featured Hughes giving a particularly scathing appraisal of artist Jeff Koons. Koons is famous for attempting to elevate kitsch culture to the level of art. Among his most famous works are a statue of Michael Jackson and his monkey 'Bubbles' and a giant dog made of flowers. Koons was criticised for contracting other artists to create his works and for his private life overshadowing his art. His marriage to Italian porn star-turned-politician La Cicciolina probably didn't help curtail this criticism.

Hughes savaged Koons. To my astonishment in the very next segment he sat down with Koons, shook his hand and the pair proceeded to have a civil discussion. Of course, some credit goes to Koons for agreeing to the interview, but this illustrates Hughes' ability to separate his personal feelings from his professional opinions. It also demonstrates Hughes' braveness and a prized Australian ability to be a 'good sport'. Perhaps the Australian Olympic swimming team could take a leaf out of Hughes' book.

I later found out that Hughes had a lot of scathing criticism for other stars of the art scene in the eighties, such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, whom he ruthlessly described as 'the worst artist of the decade' and iconic graffiti artist Keith Haring. I don't necessarily agree with Hughes on this assessment and I particularly am fond of Basquiat, but it made me realise that to be a passionate reviewer of art (or even a passionate fan) you have to define yourself by what you hate as much as what you like. You've got to stand for something and no critic ever got famous by towing the line. Hughes had a unique ability to walk the tightrope.

I tend to lump Hughes in with a generation of Australians such as Clive James, Barry Humphries and Germaine Greer, who not only had to go overseas to achieve success, but were also spurred on by a pervasive anti-intellectualism in Australia. Watching the pitiful tribute on the news makes me wonder if this has changed. 

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Recently I was out op-shopping with my daughter. She wanted to buy a cheap plastic toy but I had no cash on me at the time. I needed to make a ten dollar purchase to use the Eftpos machine. To make up the difference I grabbed a copy of the nearest paperback that was of interest. It happened to be Robert Hughes' weighty tome 'The Fatal Shore'. It has sat beside my bed for the past several months. I've examined it since Hughes' death and it has made me wonder if I am any better than people I accuse of not appreciating Australian culture. Maybe I'll get around to reading it now that Hughes is gone. In death has Hughes martyred himself for Australian culture? I'm willing to concede that circumstantially his death was ignored in the same way as Mother Theresa's - but there's no way I'm going to compare him to Jesus!

RIP Robert Hughes