Few things count so much for a critic as style—it binds readers together with writers like epoxy. Consider, for example, the tenacious Robert Hughes, the legendary writer who died a few weeks ago. Not just “the world’s most famous art critic,” Hughes was far and away the trade’s best prose stylist. Now that the eulogies and the disparagements have rolled past (and appear those slights did, like nasty little razor blades slid in between encomiums), it’s time to celebrate Hughes not only as the most important art critic of his time, but also perhaps the best critic of our age in any form.
Martin Amis was right: “Style is not neutral; it gives moral directions.” A judgment Amis would have likely preferred to reserve for himself (self-love) or his Oxford pal Christopher Hitchens (still more self-love), the sentence fits no one in contemporary writing so well as Hughes, a lion of letters who combined encyclopedic knowledge with a rhetorical momentum few other professional scribblers could muster. I recall Hughes’s ringing, clear-eyed reviews from the chaotic 1980s with a young man’s awe. To read them currently is to still shift between passages of grace (Caravaggio’s pictures of rough trade are overripe “with yearning mouths and hair like black ice cream”), hilarity (Jeff Koons is “the baby to Andy Warhol’s Rosemary”), and what British footballers call the hair-dryer treatment (“What strip mining is to nature the art market has become to culture”). His was and will remain an epic voice, shot through with Virgilian blow by blow.
A large part of Hughes’s irresistible lucidity rested on his rational and expansive worldview. His vast knowledge knew few bounds, veering at different times into Western art, the art of ancient civilizations, architecture, literature, science, and cultural history. Yet, the Australian-born critic was fundamentally an Enlightenment man, one of the first liberal intellectuals (along with Noam Chomsky and Fredric Jameson) to clearly see that the claims of 1980s postmodernism—with its irreconcilable relativisms and victimhoods—were irredeemably fraudulent. Hughes pegged Baudrillard brilliantly as “the patron saint of those who wish to turn affectlessness into a commodity,” and the faux-French patois that came to dominate graduate programs as “a thick prophylactic against understanding.” His own language, on the other hand, was just the opposite—direct, open to comprehension, and brimming with common usage. For many cub critics coming up during the 1980s and ’90s, the choice was clear: There was Robert Hughes and art criticism and then there was some slouching beast in Elvis Costello specs called “criticality.”
Hughes tilted with pen in hand against the growing philistinism of the Right and the freewheeling charlatanism of the Left during a deeply conservative time (Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton). His assaults, therefore, were carried out on two fronts simultaneously—excepting, that is, when the whole of the cultural world converged on the funhouse maze that is the art market. Hughes’s sharp nose for cant—it was like a sensitive bloodhound’s—immediately sniffed out the popular delusions of the day, including the ones that art historian Leo Steinberg had previously tagged as mendacious “feats of language.” These conceptual-commercial games fundamentally legitimated the emerging alliances between art and high finance. In the auction houses, artistic experimentation became “speculative growth stock,” and quality was transformed into “market attractiveness.” Not surprisingly, Hughes called bullshit. In the lingo of one esteemed cultural theorist: “Ludicrously high art prices . . . became subversive by showing the unreality of capitalism in ‘an ecstatic state of exchange.'” For Hughes, the judgment was at once less circular and more lapidary: “The entanglement of big money with art has become a curse on how art is made, controlled, and above all—in the way that it’s experienced.”
The let-them-eat-cake masquerade that eventually became today’s auction market—booming in the middle of a worldwide recession—is something Hughes decried early and often, earning him as many fans as it did detractors. “The auction room, as anyone knows,” he wrote by way of explaining that club’s inner mysteries, “is an excellent medium for sustaining fictional price levels, because the public imagines that auction prices are necessarily real prices.” The 15th century’s tulip mania became a repeated touchstone. Whether in books, articles, lectures, or through his powerful trio of television series—The Shock of the New (1980), American Visions (1997), and The Mona Lisa Curse (2008)—Hughes increasingly called popular attention to a single overriding cultural phenomenon: The relationship between art and commerce, he argued, was ruining art. Of course, he was right as reason. As a contribution to the critical discourse, his judgment proved a triumph—but also, in a way, his undoing.
“Apart from drugs, art is the biggest unregulated market in the world,” Hughes intoned while leaning on crutches in The Mona Lisa Curse—”with contemporary art sales estimated at around $18 billion a year, boosted by regimens of new-rich collectors and serviced by a growing army of advisors, dealers, and auctioneers.” Quoting with despair both Warhol (“good business is the best art”) and Sotheby’s Tobias Meyer (“the best art is the most expensive art because the market is so smart”), an aging, broken-down Hughes looked out from his BBC documentary on a landscape that he knew intimately, but no longer recognized. There was everything heroic about Hughes’s appeal that art says something more profound about our lives, but you could literally see his patience wear thin at the popular insistence on sticker price. As Hughes wrote four years ago, “Not everything of value is self-evident and there is no reason in the world why art should be.” In the end, it was cruelly, heartrendingly tragic to be out of step about such a thing.
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.