Thursday, September 6, 2012

Robert Hughes- The consummate curmudgeon

He always had the right words to describe it and his explanation always seemed complete. It was this knack of zooming in to the crux of the appeal of an artwork that made Robert Hughes the formidable force in the world of art-criticism. His charisma was rooted in uber intellectualism nurtured by encyclopaedic knowledge and tempered by street fighter brawn. He was very literate and very contentious. True to his profession he had strong opinions and enough ammunition to defend those opinions against anyone. Many of his obituaries have conveyed the impression that he did not realize his full potential. There was an undercurrent there that may be due to his involvement with media juggernaut he could not contribute in more enduring way.  There was a struggle to convey what he stood for.    On the other hand, there were mentions of the criticism that he was seen as a reactionary critic who failed to fully appreciate later day developments. In an otherwise glowing tribute Benjamin Genocchio wrote in the New York Times “I am not going to venture any views on his critical opinions of art and artists, most of which were shaped in the early 1960s and which, by the 1990s, increasingly seemed out of touch with developments in contemporary art. He found little to like, turning into a kind of reactionary crank.”  Not that he was being criticized- far from it; his death last month brought a surge of undiluted admiration from his fraternity. These negative strands spoken with a combative camaraderie of critics which is not supposed to be dimmed by the funeral shadow do need rebuttal as Robert Hughes is not just famous but he is important too. His contribution should not come under shadow because of the arc lights that he courted with such bruising intensity.
Enduring Appeal

Question of a lasting importance of Hughes often comes from the very narrow interpretation of the notion of importance. Many feel that Hughes could have given a theory or a framework of art appreciation. There is a nagging impression that in the ephemeral world of media he failed to contribute in a durable way. More than anything else many of his admirers fail to identify him with any particular type of art. Hughes was not an academician. Notwithstanding his erudition and vast knowledge, he wasn’t a pedant. He has created enduring and academically sound work in the form of books and monographs but they only partially define his contribution.  He has written definitive treatise on world’s most important cities, art and artists. He has given a true classic in ‘Fatal Shores’ an account of settling of Australia. On account of these only he is an enduring intellectual figure in the fields of history and art. However he is important from a far deeper perspective. Academic tomes are needed and have a place and Hughes has a first rate academic oeuvre. But beyond ivory towers of academia art criticism has a very public purpose -   that of identifying, analyzing,  and most importantly refining public taste. 

 Arbiter of Public Taste

Art critic is not just doing the analysis of present trends but also carries the burden of making art accessible to public. In him or her resides the custodian of aesthetic heritage of mankind. He is able to tell western public what does it mean to be a Hon'ami Koetsu in 16th century Japan or what made Reubens what he was or what torturous demons propelled Goya or Van Gogh. Is there exist, if at all, any redeeming feature in Warhol. The critic is arbiter of public taste, its aggregator its disseminator. He sits on judgement about the public sensibilities and in turn forms them. Many artists need such interpreters to convey their appeal and Robert Hughes had this knack of spotting greatness and intellectual and communicative wherewithal to make this greatness mainstream. He interpreted Lucian Freud for US public. He declared Freud to be the greatest realist painter alive (at that time) and said “... the extraordinary flavor of the nudes and portraits by Lucien Freud, the 52-year-old grandson of Sigmund: more psychic territory is crossed in Freud's scrutiny of a few square inches of worn flesh than one might find in a whole roomful of recent American realism”- America agreed. Lucian Freud will be Freud without Hughes also but with him he is accessible to a larger chunk of humanity and with far deeper intensity- the pleasure increases many times over. The point here is that art needs public arbiters equally or, may be, more than the academic pronouncements. From this perspective, Robert Hughes is a figure of historical importance. 

It is a bit of a surprise that there is very little clarity about what he stood for. He was nothing if not opinionated. It was his trade to have an opinion and clear cut biases. He liked, and liked strongly, Lucian Freud, Picasso, Matisse, Cézanne, and other modern masters. He absolutely adores Goya. He was pretty clear that art is about imagination, colour scheme, symmetry of execution and draftsman ship. He liked his art to break new grounds but for him art was about aesthetics and feeling. It had to conform to basic minimum of aesthetic inventiveness or even ‘beauty’. After watching Matisse exhibition he wrote “Such is our fin-de-siecle. On every side, the idea of quality is ritually attacked, so that many young artists have come to doubt the most basic experience involved in comparing one artwork with another -- namely, that there are differences of intensity, articulateness, radiance, between works of art; that some speak more convincingly than others; and that this is not a political matter.” It was on the grounds of ‘intensity, articulateness, radiance’ he did not like much “wretchedly stylish woods of an already decayed, pulped-out postmodernism.” He was brutal when he found that something that is not ‘art’ for him is being touted as one. One such unfortunate soul was Basquiat, graffiti painter who died in 1988 of a heroin overdose, Hughes' ‘tribute’ ran under the headline, "Requiem for a Featherweight." Basquiat, he wrote, was "a small, untrained talent caught in the buzz saw of art world promotion, absurdly overrated by dealers, collectors, and no doubt to their future embarrassment, by critics." He really disliked the crass commercialization of the art world.  This often propped him up for the attack as a reactionary or a conservative who was not in tune with the new developments. 

Master of Putdown

It is true that his first instinct towards the new trends of installation art and extreme experiments in public tastes was that of anger and contempt. However, he always argued cogently for his contempt and was brutal with his put down. New York Times quotes him describing the work of Jeff Koons as “so overexposed that it loses nothing in reproduction and gains nothing in the original.”  However,  he is not averse to inventiveness. He is not very enthusiastic about Warhol but he recognizes his genius. In fact his evaluation of Warhol puts the artists in proper perspective. He writes “His (Warhol’s)contribution was the image taken from advertising or tabloid journalism: grainy, immediate, a slice of unexplained life half-registered over and over, full of slippages and visual stutters. Marilyn Monroe repeated 50 times, 200 Campbell's soup cans, a canvas filled edge to edge with effigies of Liz, Jackie, dollar bills or Elvis. Absurd though, these pictures looked at first, Warhol's fixation on repetition and glut emerged as the most powerful statement ever made by an American artist on the subject of a consumer economy. The cranking out of designed objects of desire was so faithfully mirrored in Warhol's images and so approvingly mimicked in his sense of culture that no one, in fact, could be sure what he thought.” This makes it clear that Warhol was about presentation rather than representation. While acknowledging the value of Warhol he is very clear “Warhol's early works were the ones that mattered. He began as a commercial artist, became for a time (between about 1962 and 1968) a fine artist with something akin to genius and then lapsed back into a barely disguised form of commercial art.” He is acidic about the rampant commercialization. This sharpness of opinion may have contributed to his image as out of sync curmudgeon. However, this may be noted he had a fine eye, howsoever conservative,  which was always open to the value of art.

Nothing demonstrates his opinionated self than the description in his New York Time obituary- “About artists he admired, like Lucian Freud, he cast the stakes in nothing less than heroic terms. “Every inch of the surface has to be won,” he wrote of Freud’s canvases in The Guardian in 2004, “must be argued through, bears the traces of curiosity and inquisition — above all, takes nothing for granted and demands active engagement from the viewer as its right.” ....“Nothing of this kind happens with Warhol, or Gilbert and George, or any of the other image-scavengers and recyclers who infest the wretchedly stylish woods of an already decayed, pulped-out postmodernism.”

He is arguably the most successful art evangelist in the television era. His forthright manner, his conviction and confrontationist personality shone on the screen. “The Shock of the New,” his eight-part documentary about the development of modernism from the Impressionists through Warhol, was seen by more than 25 million viewers when it ran first on BBC and then on PBS and the book that he spun off from it was a “stunning critical performance” and  hugely popular. 

To conclude-
His comments on the two of the greatest artists are the best way to demonstrate how he made high art accessible to us without pandering to the lowest common denominator. 

On Picasso- “In his work, everything is staked on sensation and desire. His aim was not to argue coherence but to go for the strongest level of feeling. He conveyed it with tremendous plastic force, making you feel the weight of forms and the tension of their relationships mainly by drawing and tonal structure. He was never a great colorist, like Matisse or Pierre Bonnard. But through metaphor, he crammed layers of meaning together to produce flashes of revelation. In the process, he reversed one of the currents of modern art. Modernism had rejected storytelling: what mattered was formal relationships. But Picasso brought it back in a disguised form, as a psychic narrative, told through metaphors, puns and equivalences. The most powerful element in the story--at least after Cubism--was sex.”
On Matisse- “In its thoughtfulness, steady development, benign lucidity, and wide range of historical sources, Matisse's work utterly refutes the notion that the great discoveries of modernism were made by violently rejecting the past. His work was grounded in tradition - and in a much less restless and ironic approach to it than Picasso's.”...... “His studio was a world within the world: a place of equilibrium that, for sixty continuous years, produced images of comfort, refuge, and balanced satisfaction. Nowhere in Matisse's work does one feel a trace of the alienation and conflict which modernism, the mirror of our century, has so often reflected.”

-Dhiraj Singh

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