Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Robert Hughes

The art critic, cultural commentator and historian Robert Hughes, who died on Monday, introduced many people to modern art in an accessible, insightful and witty manner (myself included) with his 1980 BBC series and accompanying book The Shock of the New. Its cheekily self-referential opening has Hughes laying out his aims in intercut sequences in which he stands in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and the Amphitheatre in Rome. ‘It’s not a tour of the monuments’, he declares, indicating the latter with a backward gesture of the thumb, ‘although we do get around’. He then deliberately does start at a monument, the Eiffel Tower, the emblem of the technologies which ushered in the new century and which were to shape the revolutionary art of its early centuries. Hughes’ first episode is entitled The Mechanical Paradise, and the first 10 minutes or so are devoted to industrial and technological invention rather than art; to electricity, the aeroplane and the motor car. The promise of technological utopia was short lived, however, dying in the mechanised slaughter of the First World War. Hughes talks of how ‘the worst war in history cancelled the faith in good technology, the benevolent machine. The myth of the Future went into shock, and European art moved into its years of irony, disgust and protest’. He always viewed art within the context of its culture and times, and was never afraid to look at it in moral terms. An art object, whatever form it took, was never something to be viewed in isolation, untethered from any external connection. He introduces The Shock of the New by telling us what he doesn’t want to do. ‘I don’t want to do a history of modern art’, he states, seemingly undermining the whole idea of the programme from the start. Rather he wants to ‘evoke its spirit’, with ‘8 essays on 8 separate themes, trying to look at ourselves and our century through the lens of art’.

Indeed, whilst the series is broadly chronological, these themes allow for the presentation of parallel histories, separate streams which sometimes feed into one another, and sometimes deliberately diverge. This structure also allows for an inclusion of figures often neglected in more standardised progressions through the decades of the twentieth century. Artists such as Robert Delaunay, Robert Motherwell and Frank Auerbach feature prominently alongside the usual suspects. Hughes also reaches beyond the usual artistic boundaries by including, in the episode/chapter Trouble in Utopia, a look at modernism as reflected in the architecture of the twentieth century. Mies van der Rohe (a favourite subject of his), Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus are juxtaposed with the coloured grids of Mondrian. Again, Hughes is unafraid of making moral judgements rooted in an ideal of public democracy which sees any imposition of power and authority, whether on an aesthetic or political level, as inherently damaging to the human spirit. Walking around an eerily depopulated Brasilia, which he points to as being the one place in the world in which a Corbusian planned city was actually realised from scratch, and which he uses to mark the end point of modernist utopianism, he declares it to be ‘an expensive and ugly testimony to the fact that, when men think in terms of abstract space rather than real place, of single rather than multiple meanings, and of political aspirations instead of human needs, they tend to produce miles of jerry-built nowhere, infested with Volkswagens. The experiment, one may hope, will not be repeated; the Utopian buck stops here’. Hughes could be pithily and amusingly critical of those who held themselves up as artistic revolutionaries but failed to reflect the great historical upheavals of their times. Having written of Jean Arp’s random Dada collages created by scattering scraps and affixing them where they came to lie, he later puts them into the context of the revolutionary clashes in the post war streets of Berlin, and drily notes that ‘in those torn and exalted months when Germany seemed to be reliving the historical moment of Russia, it was clear that an artist who spent his time dropping little bits of paper on a table in accordance with the laws of chance, while other people were trying to storm the Reichstag, was not living up to the possibilities of his age’.

Hughes democratic impulses led him to a dedication to demystifying art, which he felt should be accessible to all and not just a select elite who spoke and wrote about it in deliberately esoteric and obfuscatory terms. This led him to unequivocally draw attention to the fact that the emperor had no clothes when he felt it necessary. He was particularly scathing about he inflation of the art market in the 80s, and the promotion of instant geniuses whose critical valuation was often based on financial rather than aesthetic motives. Artists such as Julian Schnabel, Michael Basquiat and Jeff Koons were held up as being empty pretenders, attributed with absurd claims of importance and stature whilst their work lacked any real substance or quality. He also wrote powerfully and with great balance and clarity about the personal politics and the false equality which they promoted which were rife in the late 80s and 90s in his book The Culture of Complaint. He found anti-democratic impulses active in the tortuous ‘politically correct’ imperatives of the liberal cultural establishment as much as in the right wing governments which rounded on the public funding of notorious works such as Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (a ‘technically splendid Cibachrome print, Hughes notes) and Robert Mapplethorpe’s explicit photographs (‘despite the enthusiasm of his fans, I have never been able to think of him as a major photographer’, Hughes admits) in 1989. Commenting on Jesse Helms’ proposed legislative amendment, designed to outline the kind of ‘degenerate’ art which should be starved of the funds coming from the National Endowment for the Arts, Hughes pointed out that ‘if it had not issued from a famously right-wing Republican senator, you could have mistaken it for any ruling on campus speech limitations recently proposed by the nominally left wing agitators for political correctness’. He observed how the Right was also adopting the language of sacred victimhood which liberals in America had raised to new heights at this time. Ultimately, Hughes believed that art should expand the horizons of those who encountered it, and any attempt to narrow down those widened perspectives was invidious. To include or exclude on the basis of narrow political concerns was as absurd as the marginalisation of artists on the basis of gender, sexuality or race which the cultural gatekeepers were purportedly reversing. Let everyone in, Hughes was saying, but based on genuine merit rather than a patronising lowering of standards to evade judging select groups according to the critical criteria applied to others.

Hughes’ disdain for pretension and hypocrisy was perhaps rooted in his Australian background, his emergence from a culture well-known for its no bullshit attitude. His epigrammatic turn of phrase certainly benefited hugely from the finely balanced, clipped cadences of his Aussie accent, which he never lost despite years living in Europe and America. In the introduction to his excellent collection of his art journalism, Nothing if Not Critical (Hughes was always brilliant at titles), he writes of the ‘cultural cringe’ in relation to his Australian upbringing, the sense of a colonial culture which cannot value itself unless it receives approval from the centres of culture, which lie elsewhere. It is ‘the reflex of the kid with low self-esteem hoping that his work will please the implacable father but secretly despairing that it can’. Hughes would write a history of his native land which celebrated its low, criminal origins. But he made his home elsewhere. In the introduction to Culture of Complaint, he writes that ‘next to Australia, America is the place I know and love best, and I feel a visceral attachment to it by now’. American Visions, his history of American art in the form of another major TV series and book, reflected that attachment, whilst not shying away from the conclusion that its high watermark (and that of New York in particular) in terms of being at the centre of the artistic world had receded. His colonial Australian soul gave him the benefit of being able to view America and Europe with an outsider’s eye, affording him a balanced, non-partisan objectivity. Again in the introduction to Culture of Complaint, he notes that ‘after twenty-two years in the US, much of it still seems highly exotic to me’. Hughes also loved Spain, as shown by his book on Barcelona, his TV programme on Gaudi, and his book and TV programme on Goya, an artist with whom he evidently felt a great affinity. His chapter on Goya’s Caprichos is a brilliant exploration of the dark imagination of those etchings, their merciless dissection of human folly, cruelty and ignorance. His reaction in the TV programme to the painting The Naked Maja was a hilarious and frank assessment of its sensual appeal. After an initial ‘phwoarr’, followed by an assertion that of course he admired its formal qualities (this said with a self-mocking smile), he admits that his primary response is one of ‘unmodulated lust’, and that what he would really like to do is to ‘hop in there like a bee getting into a peony and have a wonderful afternoon’. There was much of Hughes’ personality, and his personal taste, in all that he wrote or presented, a particular and undisguised authorial presence which still left room for other points of view. He was never dictatorial or inflexibly authoritative in his approach. Assured as he was in his opinions (an assurance arising from the fact that these opinions were well-informed and argued) there was also a refreshing touch of self-deprecation to his presentation of his self, a reflexive protection against pomposity or self-importance. I particularly like the title of his book of fishing memoirs, A Jerk On The End of the Line. Reading Hughes’ books, I always find his voice playing out the words in my head, a testament both to the distinctive qualities of his writing, and the gently persuasive, wryly amused but at the same time serious and engaged character of his presentation.

Hopefully the BBC will mark Hughes’ passing by showing a repeat of The Shock of the New, which is surely also long overdue a dvd release. Meanwhile, you can see the whole series (minus the introduction to the first episode, for some reason) over on UBU Web, Peter Howell’s Radiophonic Workshop theme music and all.


Steve said...

Another great post, Jez - Robert Hughes' Shock of the New was the first TV prog I can remember which introduced me to modern art - in fact the only one I can recall for some while after. It also encouraged me to buy the book, a not inconsiderable investment for me at the time - Steve

Jez Winship said...

Cheers, Steve. Happily, I've just found out that the BBC are going to broadcast The Shock of the New in tribute to Hughes, starting later this month. Hopefully they'll also show the New Shock of the New, the one-off programme which he made a few years ago. They're also showing his programme on Goya next week, on Thursday on BBC4.

Steve said...

Terrific - Thanks - I'll have to clear some space on my PVR to record it!