Robert Hughes is still the model for any art critic - particularly one from his resentful home countryby Sebastian Smee / August 22, 2004 / Leave a comment
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.