Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

The greatness of Robert Hughes

Oh no. Don’t tell me Robert Hughes is dead. “Muscular” is overused as a description of prose. Too often, the word acts as a sort of pointer to the character of the writer. It’s not really Norman Mailer’s syllables that …

Wed, Aug 8, 2012, 22:15


Oh no. Don’t tell me Robert Hughes is dead. “Muscular” is overused as a description of prose. Too often, the word acts as a sort of pointer to the character of the writer. It’s not really Norman Mailer’s syllables that throb manfully. It’s Norman Mailer himself. You know the sort of thing. But the writing of Robert Hughes really did deserve that slippery metaphor. Though beautifully balanced, his prose almost always resonated with controlled agression. You didn’t want to pass before Hughes as he swung an adjective or a hurled an adverb.

Most of Hughes’s obituaries introduced him as an art critic and he was that. Raised in Sydney, he drifted to Italy in the early 1960s, before ending up in London. What a bunch. He was an unofficial member — there could be no other kind but informal — of that fascinating huddle of Australian leftist geniuses that came to be known as the Sydney Push. Clive James and Germaine Greer, also card-holders in the sect, followed Hughes to England and helped add intellectual bottom to  London as it professed to swing. You get some sense of why they felt they had to move from a reading of Hughes’s 2006 memoir Things I Didn’t Know. He remembers his father referring to Singapore as the “far East” when, as Robert points out, it was really the “near North”. The point being that Australia still thought of itself as a part of England that happened to have floated half way round the world. James, Greer and Hughes all now happily admit that — considerably less insular — Australia has turned itself around to face Asia.

Anyway, Hughes rapidly established himself as an extraordinarily pungent commentator on society and culture. In 1970, he moved to New York where he became art critic for Time magazine (then still quite an important beast).  In 1980, he delivered the work for which he is best remembered. The Shock of the New deserves its place beside the other great authored documentary series that made their way onto TV over the preceding 15 years: Civilisation, The Ascent of Man, Life on Earth, The Body in Question. As in those shows, the voice of the presenter was key to the appeal. Whereas Lord Clark was cooly patrician in Civilisation, Hughes was restless and ironic in his series. The subject was art of the 20th century. This was two decades before Tate Modern and “modern art” was still the punchline to jokes in many quarters. Hughes’s ability to convey intellectual solidity without drifting into pretentiousness helped nudge aside those lingering suspicions. He tells great stories. He gets to the heart of what makes a masterpiece fly. For some reason, the  blasted thing has never turned up on DVD, but underground associates tell me that it might just possibly be lurking out there on the internet.

At any rate, I implied in some earlier paragraph that he was not just an art critic. This is true. His classic book on Barcelona deals with other subjects. The Fatal Shore, his history of the colonisation of Australia, deserved the many award it won. I am, however, here to point you towards a classic tome from 1993. Culture of Complaint, originally a series of lectures, is, to some extent, a beast of its time. Among the book’s principal subjects is the growth of “political correctness”. Reading the essays now, one has to remind oneself that there was a period when the phrase was used in a non-perjorative sense. These days, the construction “political correctness gone mad” is something of a tautology. We now assume that “PC” is nuts. (It should be noted that the PCGM quip is too often dragged out by Daily Mail types to damn perfectly reasonably concerns about racism or sexism. But that’s another discussion.) In the early 1990s, however, the phrase was used in all sincerity by well-meaning multi-culturalists and it really did lead to some acts of madness. The book is unforgiving in its skewering of lies told (for the best of liberal intentions) by those who believe that all culture was invented by Africans. He rails at the gelding of language. And so forth.

This was dangerous stuff. After all, just a few years later, right-wing radio hosts began founding whole careers on paranoia about the advance of political correctness. But Hughes is every bit as hard on the right. His attacks on Jesse Helms and Ronald Reagan are, if anything,  fiercer than his eviscerations of misguided, post-modern history departments. The argument is not with liberals or conservatives; it is with rampant ideology, close-mindedness and  starchy thinking. The title is well chosen: Culture of Complaint. Stop bloody whining. Make something. Write something.

Well, the old blighter has gone. He left in the same week as another, equally good talker, Gore Vidal. I would say something about “the two old magi having a great chin-wag up there in heaven”. But both men would be so disgusted by such supernatural, sentimental baloney that they may very well rise from their graves and hunt me down like a dog. Worth saying then.

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