I was hugely saddened to read the news last week of Robert Hughes’ passing. Of all the subsequent obituaries that have been published, I felt that the Guardian’s provided the best overview of his work. Hughes was, in my own estimation, the greatest living art critic. His writing was widely celebrated for being jargon and theory free, but aside from being clear, lucid, and greatly entertaining, it was positively imbued with his own art viewing process.
His work had a huge personal impact throughout my History of Art studies. Along with Ernst Gombrich’s The Story of Art, Hughes’ The Shock of the New is one of the few texts nearly all incoming students will perfunctorily rush to read, the difference being that Hughes had you hanging on to his every word. Hughes’ panache and humor make for an addictive read, whether he’s imparting an art historical lesson (‘reproduction is to aesthetic awareness what telephone sex is to sex’) or puncturing art world fame (‘Schnabel’s work is to painting what Stallone’s is to acting – a lurching display of oily pectorals – except that Schnabel makes bigger public claims for himself’). A collection of his essays, ‘Nothing if Not Critical’, includes a mock epic poem entitled ‘The SoHoiad’, a withering put down of the 80s New York art scene.
During the 80s, Hughes’ assessment of the art market and the direction of museums was remarkably prescient. There is no better analysis than his essay published in The New York Review of Books in 1984, ‘On Art and Money’, which not only traces the history of art dealing and auction prices, but predicts the damage that will be wrought on art itself by economic excesses. At times, Hughes seemed to be the only critic who dared to voice his repulsion at the excesses of the art market. In a 2004 speech to Royal Academicians outside Burlington House, Hughes remarked:
‘I don’t think there is any doubt that the present commercialisation of the art world, at its top end, is a cultural obscenity. When you have the super-rich paying $104m for an immature Rose Period Picasso – close to the GNP of some Caribbean or African states – something is very rotten. Such gestures do no honour to art: they debase it by making the desire for it pathological’.
Hughes’ words echoed in my mind recently when Edvard Munch’s pastel version of The Scream sold at auction at a record figure of $119,922,500. His writing was imbued with moral imperatives. Hughes maintained that money, virtually a constant factor throughout the history of art, should never be a determining factor in how a work is aesthetically valued. He chided the Met for placing a red velvet rope in front of Rembrandt’s Aristotle contemplating the bust of Homer after the museum purchased the painting for $2.3 million (a record then in 1961). The painting was immediately differentiated from the other Rembrandt’s in the collection which had no such luxurious barriers placed before them.
Crucially, not unlike Britain’s Brian Sewall, Hughes was not afraid to give his own stark assessment. He would not allow his opinions to be compromised by any art world allegiances or relationships. Can this be said today in a world where the value of art criticism has been seriously diminished? As Hughes himself remarked on the role of the critic; ‘it’s like being the piano player in a whorehouse. You don’t have any control over the action going on upstairs’. Opponents brand Hughes as a conservative who simply dismisses most art produced after 1970. But that simply isn’t true. Any critic who opposes the prevailing self-interested orthodoxy exemplified by the art market should be described as nothing less than a revolutionary. His recent documentary The Mona Lisa Curse, which examines the economic direction of the art world since the 1960s is essential viewing.