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Robert Hughes is still the model for any art critic - particularly one from his resentful home country

By Sebastian Smee   August 2004

Robert Hughes returned to the fray in July with a one-off television programme, The New Shock of the New. Refreshing as it was to watch an arts programme that voiced opinions – as opposed to the more soothing contemporary milieu of blanded-out, jazzed-up “education” – the show had a sad, not quite fully formed aura about it.

Whose fault was this? Was it Hughes himself, who broke almost every bone in his body in a car crash in outback Australia several years ago, so that he hobbles about these days with a walking stick looking as if he were permanently sweating it out? Is he just too much of an old grump, a once vital and engaged young cultural warrior who can’t bear to admit that things have changed? (“The trouble is,” he intoned at one point, “if you live long enough… nothing is new.”) Or was the problem rather the state of art today, compared to its fresher-seeming predicament when Hughes made The Shock of the New, his first series on modern art?

I don’t think it was either. I suspect the problem was as banal as a misconceived project – an attempt to do in one show what requires half a dozen; a desire to make the most of a famous and charismatic presenter without anyone really having to pull their finger out. The show wasn’t bad. Its propositions were presented with a little too much colourful rhetoric and not enough specific thrust, as often happens when Hughes’s heart is not 100 per cent in something. But for the most part – in his characterisation of much recent art as an attempt to turn advertising imagery into iconography, in his call for more complexity and less immediate impact – they were on the money.

“Painting is exactly what mass visual media are not,” he said at one point, “a way of specific engagement, not of general seduction.” This was a direct quote from his own introduction to a Lucian Freud catalogue of 16 years ago. Of course, if something is worth saying, it is usually worth repeating. Hughes doesn’t know how not to be lively. His presence on television is invariably salutary, provocative and good fun. “Shit man, this is what they used to do in Notting Hill Gate in 1964,” he said to camera in front of one incoherently colourful work in New York’s Whitney biennial.

Hughes has just given us one of the best books ever written on Goya. His other achievements include superb monographs on Freud and Frank Auerbach, an indispensable collection of art criticism (Nothing if Not Critical), a heavy and celebratory tome about Barcelona, a lighter one on fishing (A Jerk on One End), a terrific cultural polemic called Culture of Complaint, a history of American art (book and television) and, of course, a brilliant piece of popular history about the white settlement of Australia, The Fatal Shore.

It is that last title that may have taken on an unwelcome resonance for Hughes – not just because of the near-fatal car crash, but also because, in the wake of that accident, Hughes’s relationship with his native country turned horribly sour. No one really knows, but most Australians think Hughes was driving on the wrong side of the road, and was therefore to blame. There was a court case. Having twigged to his fame, two of the three people in the other car tried to blackmail him. Hughes immediately blew the whistle. He was then blamed for everything from not properly thanking the firemen who rescued him to not having enough sympathy for the third man in the other car, a hitchhiker, who was also badly injured. To top it all off, he allegedly called the director of public prosecutions, an Indian, a “curry-muncher.” The Australian papers, delighting in what they sensed was an archetypal Australian yarn – arrogant expat art critic versus patronised locals – latched on to the tale with sickening gusto and bias, and Hughes – physically, if not yet mentally, an all but broken man – lashed out in response. He vowed never to return to Australia.

I met Hughes once when, as a junior critic at the Sydney Morning Herald, I was asked to interview him in Sydney about an exhibition he had nothing to do with, beyond the fact that it contained some masterpieces of modern art. He was lovely, perverse, generous, funny. He was also not far removed from a state of suicidal depression – though I had no way of knowing that. We went into the gallery to get a photograph of him with one of the works, and an old man approached him, asking if he would be so kind as to come and say a few words to the primary school students he was supervising. They were too young to know who Robert Hughes was, said the man, but he had just done his best to explain, and thought they might find it inspiring. Without hesitating, Hughes approached the kids, chatted them up, made them laugh and got their blood flowing about art.

Starting out as an art critic in Australia, you could not help but be conscious of the large shadow Hughes cast. There is an age-old tendency to kick against such a figure. Australian journalists generally relish the chance to scoff at successful expats, of whom there is an embarrassing plenitude. They shouldn’t waste their energies. Hughes is a brilliant, complicated and provocative figure. His instincts are good, he is a great writer and he clearly has plenty left in him.

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