Robert Hughes: a giant of art has passed away

robert hughes

Robert Hughes, the Australian born art critic and writer passed away this week at the age of 74. He was by far the best critic of our time dedicating his life to expressing the unwavering truth about art. He seldom got it wrong and never stooped to sugar-coating mediocrity. His writing was on par with the best of them and he played with language like a well versed poet. His books include: “Things I Didn’t Know”; “The Shock of the New”; “Rome: A Cultural, Visual and Personal History” and “Goya” to name a few.   

It is not right to belittle his achievements by inserting my own opinions, take on his life, or attempt matching his Shakespearian writing skills because I cannot and I shan’t do that. So, for this article only, I will share with you some of his wisdom on art:

“The basic project of art is always to make the world whole and comprehensible, to restore it to us in all its glory and its occasional nastiness, not through argument but through feeling, and then to close the gap between you and everything that is not you, and in this way pass from feeling to meaning. It’s not something that committees can do. It’s not a task achieved by groups or by movements. It’s done by individuals, each person mediating in some way between a sense of history and an experience of the world.”

“The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize.”

“What does one prefer? An art that struggles to change the social contract, but fails? Or one that seeks to please and amuse, and succeeds?”

“So much of art – not all of it thank god, but a lot of it – has just become a kind of cruddy game for the self-aggrandizement of the rich and the ignorant, it is a kind of bad but useful business.”

“It seems obvious, looking back, that the artists of Weimar Germany and Leninist Russia lived in a much more attenuated landscape of media than ours, and their reward was that they could still believe, in good faith and without bombast, that art could morally influence the world. Today, the idea has largely been dismissed, as it must in a mass media society where art’s principal social role is to be investment capital, or, in the simplest way, bullion. We still have political art, but we have no effective political art. An artist must be famous to be heard, but as he acquires fame, so his work accumulates ‘value’ and becomes, ipso-facto, harmless. As far as today’s politics is concerned, most art aspires to the condition of Muzak. It provides the background hum for power.”

“The auction room, as anyone knows, is an excellent medium for sustaining fictional price levels, because the public imagines that auction prices are necessarily real prices.”

“It is hard to think of any work of art of which one can say ‘this saved the life of one Jew, one Vietnamese, one Cambodian’. Specific books, perhaps; but as far as one can tell, no paintings or sculptures. The difference between us and the artists of the 1920’s is that they they thought such a work of art could be made. Perhaps it was a certain naivete that made them think so. But it is certainly our loss that we cannot.”

“The new job of art is to sit on the wall and get more expensive.”

“One gets tired of the role critics are supposed to have in this culture: it’s like being the piano player in a whorehouse; you don’t have any control over the action going on upstairs.”

He was wrong about the last statement, because Robert Hughes had tremendous effect on our culture and opening our eyes to a different vision as to what art can be. He will be truly missed.

Robert Studley Forrest Hughes, 28 July 1938 – 6 August 2012.

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