'The Spectacle of Skill': We'll never see art critics like Robert Hughes again
March 6, 2016 12:00 AM
Art critic Robert Hughes.
"The Spectacle of Skill: Selected Writings of Robert Hughes."
By Donald E. Simpson
When Robert Hughes died in 2012, he was perhaps the last art critic who would ever be famous or great. Not only because the blogosphere has rendered the opinion of the media establishment moot (Mr. Hughes wrote for Time magazine for nearly three decades), but also because art itself had morphed beyond criticism. The question was no longer, “Is it art?” but had become, “Is it useful for a theoretical discussion?” For the émigré from Australia, this was neither the proper role of criticism, nor of art.
"THE SPECTACLE OF SKILL: NEW AND SELECTED WRITINGS BY ROBERT HUGHES"
By Robert Hughes Knopf ($40).
“I love the spectacle of skill,” declares an excerpt from his first memoir, included here. “I prefer the good to the bad, the articulate to the mumbling, the aesthetically developed to the merely primitive, and full to partial consciousness.” Those who remember Mr. Hughes as the dryly sardonic explainer of modernism in his PBS series “The Shock of the New” may be surprised at the blatant cynicism expressed toward art since the 1970s, including much of postmodernism or what is now termed simply contemporary.
But Mr. Hughes wrote not only on modern art but also on American art, Australian history and Rome among other subjects. Nearly 500 pages of the present volume are culled from his previous books. But the core of the volume is 150 pages from his unfinished second volume of memoirs, for which the diverse selections serve as both preface and context.
Some of the more sensational passages and revelations can be found in this brief excerpt. In it, Mr. Hughes recounts his early days of loft living in New York, with its crude but effective form of “neighborhood watch” courtesy of the underworld (a rapist quietly ends up in the East River), crass art world manipulations such as the revelation of Andrew Wyeth’s “secret” Helga pictures (immediately recognized as hype by Mr. Hughes), and the failed launch of the ABC newsmagazine “20/20,” which Mr. Hughes originally co-hosted for one ill-fated episode. (Spoiler alert: Nobody could stand correspondent Geraldo Rivera.) It also includes a moving but truncated chapter on the suicide of the writer’s son, suggesting that the excerpt was not only unfinished, but also perhaps unrevised, and therefore unmuted.
Throughout the volume, the most colorful recurring character is the current art world. Unfortunately, without a precise timeline, the reader is left to guess exactly when Mr. Hughes is wryly noting the inflated art prices, kickbacks of paintings fresh from the studio to supposedly neutral critical colleagues, and other absurdities surveyed here. Many of the events described could have taken place between 1980 to the present, and perhaps that is the point.
When Robert Hughes was still a young man discovering modern art, works could still convey the skillful hand and expressive mind of the artist, even as perspective, anatomy, and finally all recognizable figuration was being eschewed. But as art turned from the spectacle of skill to the spectacle of spectacle, the reader can feel Mr. Hughes losing interest in contemporary art and even its excesses, and searching for other subjects to occupy his fertile mind, including the historical art of the past, and history itself.
Today, Mr. Hughes’ brand of cultural criticism has been all but replaced by theory, with legions of eager academics stepping in to interpret works of contemporary art not as masterful examples of craft, but as mere conversation pieces for their own increasingly esoteric intellectual discussions. The spectacle of skill on display in the art world today is entirely verbal and in this respect is no different from the writing of Robert Hughes. Only he found the situation regrettable, and he mourned it.
Donald E. Simpson is a graphic novelist whose science fiction series “Border Worlds” will be collected by Dover Publications later this year. He earned a Ph.D. in art and architectural history from the University of Pittsburgh in 2013.
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