Remembering Robert Hughes

Somerset Maugham said that before embarking on a new book he read Voltaire’s Candide as a way of cleansing his style. Other writers have used Hemingway or Tom Wolfe in the same way. I have often reached for Robert Hughes or Clive James when feeling jaded or pedestrian, not because I wanted to try and emulate their styles but because I wanted to inhale something of their approach to writing: serious without being pompous; a talent for muscular prose with an inbuilt-capacity to shock or surprise; unwillingness to take the great and the good at their inflated estimations of themselves; and a wonderful capacity for caricature. Who will ever forget Clive’s description of Arnold Schwarzenegger as “a condom filled with walnuts”? Or Hughes’s dismissal of Jeff Koons? (“He has the slimy assurance, the gross patter about transcendence through art, of a blow-dried Baptist selling swamp acres in Florida. And the result is that you can’t imagine America’s singularly depraved culture without him.”)

So I mourn the passing of Robert Hughes, who even when he was wrong, was wrong in entertaining and thought-provoking ways. Looking for a round-up of obituaries and tributes, I went straight to the wonderful Arts & Letters Daily, which is normally terrific at doing that kind of round-up (See, for example, what they did for Gore Vidal recently). But, strangely, they seem to have missed out on Hughes.

So here is my tentative substitute.

  • “Hughes didn’t merely write muscular prose, he was the Arnold Schwarzenegger of art criticism.” Blake Gopnik in The Daily Beast.
  • “His prose was lithe, muscular and fast as a bunch of fives. He was incapable of writing the jargon of the art world, and consequently was treated by its mandarins with fear and loathing. Much he cared.” Michael McNay, the Guardian.
  • “His style was forthright, humorous and often irreverent. At a time when much of modern art was riddled with posturing and hyperbole, Hughes fixed his gaze unwaveringly on the work of art itself, regardless of its political or social agenda. His judgments could be merciless. Of Jeff Koons, for example, he said: ‘Koons is the baby to Andy Warhol’s Rosemary. He has done for narcissism what Michael Milken did for the junk bond.’ The duo Gilbert and George were among the ‘image-scavengers and recyclers who infest the wretchedly stylish woods of an already decayed, pulped-out postmodernism’.” Daily Telegraph.
  • “Robert Hughes: Forthright critic who transformed the public perception of modern art.” Marcus Williamson, The Independent.
  • “I prefer to remember him, however, … as the kind of god of criticism that he was to a generation of young writers like myself. He could turn a phrase on a dime, he could paint and write poetry, he could speak Latin, Spanish, and Italian — he was a polymath in an age of imbeciles. He was, in short an intellectual warrior, fierce in his views, frequently combative, but ever passionate about the necessity of art.” Benjamin Genocchio,
  • “The eloquent, combative art critic and historian who lived with operatic flair and wrote with a sense of authority that owed more to Zola or Ruskin than to his own century”. New York Times.
  • LA Times.
  • My favourite, though, is Nick Cohen’s terrific tribute in the Spectator