Robert Hughes, Giant

Why the late writer was our most important art critic

Hughes at his best was an Orwell-like figure, a writer inflamed by brilliance and opinion to communicate his enthusiasms and aversions as he saw them (he championed, among others, Gerhard Richter and Bruce Nauman, while dubbing Damien Hirst "a pirate" who manufactured "vicarious spectacle for money groupies"). But he could also turn churlish and, more damagingly, inattentive. Arguably, Hughes checked out critically following his near-fatal car crash in Australia in 1999, and after he stopped contributing regularly to Time around 2002. Fame and age blunted his judgment, which eventually decanted toward classic painting, sculpture, and motorcycles, and away from the art of today. Yet, as Pauline Kael said, people read critics for their insights, not for their judgments. To this I would add style's moral moxie. No better sentence-builder has ever graced this bastard discipline, and I doubt anyone as good will again.

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Apologies for this long quote but I thought others who have followed the life of Hughs' may be interested in something I read recently. Referenced here:, and written by a biologist named Jeremy Griffith: "Goya’s heroic journey and which are best introduced through the words of someone who has been described as ‘the best known art critic in the world’ (The Bulletin mag. 11 Nov. 2003), the Australian Robert Hughes, who for many years was Time magazine’s art critic. Once again we can see in the following comment how much it escapes people what it is that is being portrayed by the likes of Bacon and Goya, namely the agony of the human condition. In a documentary Hughes made in 2002, titled Goya: Crazy Like A Genius, he commented that ‘ever since I started writing art criticism more than 40years ago…I have always been fascinated by one artist…Goya. For years I have been trying and failing to write a book about him…For a long time now he has haunted my dreams…I have wanted to understand him…There are two paintings of the same subject that sum up the huge changes that took place in Goya across his long career. [The paintings are of] a big religious festival, that of St. Isidro. On that day thousands of citizens, in their Sunday best, converged on a pilgrimage chapel outside Madrid and had a picnic.

In St. Isidro’s Meadow…the girls are in their white parasols, the men in their finery, the scene is of social pleasure and jollity…

Years later Goya returned to the same theme.… The Pilgrimage of St. Isidro, instead of these happy fashionable well-dressed young people, you have this horrible snake of…dark figures…like demons crawling across an ash heap. The faces are…of madmen and hysterics…The whole picture is deeply threatening, deeply irrational, profoundly weird…[This is what] Goya saw through the filter of his old age and his intense pessimism.’ In his 2003 best-selling book Goya, which accompanied the documentary, Hughes again began by focusing on these two paintings and the profound mystery they presented to him. In the book, Hughes referred to Goya’s so-called ‘Black Paintings’, a series that includes The Pilgrimage of St. Isidro, as ‘deeply enigmatic’ (p.11 of 429). He also mentioned that ‘it is not so long ago…that most people who thought about Goya considered him mad’ (p.25). It is only a measure of how in denial we are of our actual practice of denial that The Pilgrimage of St. Isidro, and so much of Goya’s work, could be viewed as ‘deeply irrational’, ‘profoundly weird’ and ‘deeply enigmatic’ because in truth what Goya sought to depict was very rational, un-weird and clear. It wasn’t Goya who was ‘mad’; it is our extreme estrangement or alienation from the truth of our condition that is the real madness on Earth."



Baudelaire, Ruskin, Pater, Fry, Greenberg et al. wrote pretty good sentences too. Strange to call Jameson and Chomsky liberals. Hughes's opinion on Bruce Naumann was by no means unreserved praise. This was a critic who was nuanced and strenuous: he could both call Pollock a very great painter at his best and a strangely overrated artist. He was right on both counts. If "Fame and age blunted his judgment," then why do you quote approvingly from the Mona Lisa Curse, made in 2008? He seemed to me to be a critic at full capacity then, a judgment reinforced by his successful late documentaries on modern architects, "Visions of Space." He had the personal force and reputation to give deeply unfashionable views a public hearing, and on the plane of reason he won his case. But the market is not reasonable, except in a limited instrumental way, thus big money--and all its hired lackeys, which is to say most writers regularly appearing in print--deemed him a dinosaur, and now indeed he's extinct. But in respect for his legacy let's not mince words: most of the art of our time is not worthy of the name.


Considered myself so lucky when I randomly picked up Hughes collection of essays, 'Nothing If Not Critical' at a B&N in Rhode Island ten years ago. A turning point in my life. Truly a God among not only critics but writers everywhere.

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