This blog is about someone who I never met but felt strongly connected to, someone who has deeply influenced both my thinking and my way of writing.
Robert Hughes is dead. He would have appreciated the honest clarity of that statement.
Robert Hughes was one of the foremost art critics in the world. He wrote – cogently and plangently – for Time Magazine for some 30 years, and was also the author of several books. I think I have them all. What made him so special, and why should we care about his passing?
Robert Hughes possessed, above all, a huge intelligence coupled with a complete fearlessness about speaking truth to power. He did not suffer fools nor couch his trenchant criticisms in euphemism. He could be abrasive but was never, as far as I know, gratuitously critical or a practitioner of the cheap shot. This made his a rare voice in these days of increasing political correctness. He told it as he saw it, and often the way he saw it made a great deal of sense to me. He was a deeply perceptive observer of the human condition. Much of this observation he wrote about through the prism of art criticism, but he could just as well do it when reflecting on, say, the mercantile culture of the Catalans, or modern-day Australia’s twisted colonial roots, or in a diatribe against America’s culture of complaint, as he famously termed it. No matter what he turned his mind to, his observations were refreshingly original, astute, and always opinionated in the best sense of that word.
Among his other works, Hughes wrote A Fatal Shore, his magnus opus on the founding of colonial Australia, his country of birth. It was both engrossing storytelling and a brilliantly insightful deciphering of the modern Australian psyche. I devoured it. It gave me an entirely deeper understanding of that country after I first visited it. It also pissed off a lot of sensitive Australians apparently, which is as it should be, it seems to me.
Anyone who has had the good luck of visiting Barcelona in recent years will know that Hughes’s eponymously named book is a brilliant interpretation of that place and its curiously complicated culture. Reading it completely opened my eyes to one of Europe’s most enthralling urban experiments. In that sense, Hughes was a true urbanist: he understood, and wrote about, cities for what they are: great works of art.
Robert Hughes was also funny, and he employed his sardonic Australian humour to make many of his points. For example, he once famously complained that contemporary culture requires its critics to play the role of the piano player in the whorehouse: “You don't have any control over the action going on upstairs”, as he put it. His sense of irony was fully intact.
In his later years Hughes suffered a terrible motorcar accident while driving in the Australian outback, which I believe left him crippled (an unvarnished word that Hughes himself may have relished). This handicap in no way reduced his capacity to continue thinking and writing clearly and fiercely. It did not matter if you sometimes disagreed with him, as I did. Hughes was an intellectual original, in a world increasingly lacking in them (Gore Vidal also died this month). His voice will be sorely missed. Australia should erect some kind of monument to him. Then again, he would probably have found that an entirely ridiculous idea and would no doubt criticize its artistic execution.
I will miss his sharp yet piercingly perceptive observations. A fresh wind has blown itself out.
© Lance Berelowitz