Eye of the Beholder We'll Never See Art Critics like Robert Hughes Again

By Simpson, Donald E. | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), March 6, 2016 | Go to article overview

Eye of the Beholder We'll Never See Art Critics like Robert Hughes Again


Simpson, Donald E., Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


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 migr from Australia, this was neither the proper role of criticism, nor of art.

"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. …

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