Celebrated critic, scholar, and cultural commentator Robert Hughes died on Monday aged 74, at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx after a long battle with illness.
There are only a handful of critics with a distinct voice. Robert Hughes was one of them. Driving through New York in Episode 4 of Shock of the New, his thematic 8-part series that brought art history to 25 million BBC viewers in 1980, Hughes tells the story of modernism with the unapologetic, forthright, and colloquial tone that catalysed his success as a critic. “It seems that like plants, we do need the shit of others for nutrients”, he tells the audience, explaining the impossibility of an Le Corbusier’s vision of an urban utopia.
The hit TV series, in which Hughes traces the development of modernism in a thematic timeline, made Hughes a household name. The Shock Of The New was published as a book shortly after, and has remained a staple piece of literature for every Art History student since the 80’s. The volume, still in print, replaces art-world jargon with infectious, accessible, and enthusiastic prose that stretches from Manet to Warhol.
Hughes excelled in areas other than art criticism, writing about a broad spectrum of subjects. He published the seminal book The Fatal Shore in 1987, a work that traces his homeland Australia’s history of convict settlers. It won the WH Smith Literary award, and the Duff Cooper Prize. He also wrote essays and made a variety of documentaries in his lifetime.
Most famous for his outspoken and flamboyant criticism, Hughes discussed art with energy, wit, and humour; qualities that translated to a global audience in writing as well as broadcasting. A knack for writing unpretentious prose earned him the title of chief art critic of Time, a role that Hughes was assigned for three decades. His reviews for Time became legendary, and in 1990 Nothing If Not Critical, a collection of his reviews from the decade previous, was published.
Although Hughes was hailed as one of the most admired scholars of the 20th century, his critical opinions were often contested for being for “out of touch” with developments in contemporary art. He was famous for his dislike of Jeff Koons, Andy Warhol, and Gilbert & George, referring to the latter as “image-scavengers and recyclers” in 2004.
Hughes responded to his critics in The Shock Of The New, stating: “I am often viewed as a “conservative” critic. On the other hand, what does “conservative” and what does “radical” mean in today’s context? As far as I can make up, when an artist says that I am conservative, it means that I haven’t praised him recently.”