Things I Didn't Know by Robert Hughes
Things I Didn't Know: A Memoir
by Robert Hughes
Knopf. 395 pp. $27.95
Robert Hughes is a man without a country. Born in Sydney at a time when Australia was notorious for its cultural philistinism, he fled his native land for the more compatible aesthetic environment of England, where he found himself plunged into (and scarred by) the antinomian madness of the 60's. In 1970 he moved yet again, this time to America, a country whose commitment to the capitalist economy disgusted him, and became the art critic of Time, a magazine with whose populist bent he never succeeded in coming to terms. He would later win fame by talking about highbrow art on TV in the bluff, breezy manner of a skeptical Australian who takes nothing for granted.
Hughes occupies an uneasy place in the ranks of the critical establishment. A specialist in the short magazine review, he is also the author of several books about art, but the longest and best-known of them, The Shock of the New (1980) and American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America (1997), were companion volumes to two of his popular TV series. He is powerful because he is widely read (and viewed), but the fact that he made his name writing for a general audience, eschewing the jargon-clotted theorizing of the academy, means that his work is not taken seriously by most of his colleagues.
Less blinkered readers will recognize Hughes as a superior example of the journalistic critic, and one who has profited from the severe limitations imposed by his trade. His reviews are concise, attractively plain-spoken, and packed with information. If his taste is somewhat conventional, that is the defect of a virtue, for it has made him immune to the automatic trendiness with which the postmodern art establishment is afflicted. Similarly, he accepts for the most part the received wisdom about the art of the past while being capable, on occasion, of cutting against the grain.
All of these traits are on display in Things I Didn't Know: A Memoir, in which Hughes tells the story of the first 32 years of his life, ending on the day he flew to New York to go to work for Time. It is one of the finest autobiographies ever written by a working critic, filled to overflowing with the pungent assertions that make his reviews so stimulating. It is also, like most such books, more revealing than its author intended.
Not that Hughes is shy about unfolding himself. Early in the book, he offers up this bristlingly direct professional credo:
I am . . . a cultural critic, and my main job is to distinguish the good from the second-rate, pretentious, sentimental, and boring stuff that saturates culture today, more (perhaps) than it ever has. I hate populist kitsch, no matter how much of the demos loves it. To me, it is a form of manufactured tyranny.
At first glance this might appear to be the statement of a conservative. Indeed, one of Hughes's major themes is his disbelief in the notion that “the past is a dead weight that new art, young art, ha[s] to shake off.” But Hughes is no conservative. Rather, he is an elitist—one, moreover, who takes great pains to dissociate himself from political conservatives, and especially Republicans, past and present. (George W. Bush, for instance, is glancingly described here as a “verbally gangling and semi-dyslexic galoot.”)
No less noteworthy is Hughes's seemingly reflexive dislike of the rich, which has a way of bubbling to the surface at unexpected moments. Thus, he gratuitously refers to the model for John Singer Sargent's best-known painting, Madame X, as “a pushy American social locomotive, Virginie Gautreau, all twisting, mannered pose and lunar, greenish-white skin.” Yet the more closely one reads Things I Didn't Know, the more one comes to suspect that its author dislikes not merely rich Republicans but most Americans, if not America itself.
It may seem odd that a critic who settled in America as an adult, and who has spent much of his career writing about American art, should turn out to be so thoroughly infected with the anti-American virus. But those familiar with American Visions will recall that Hughes sets forth there an overarching theory of the history of art in America that is conspicuously at odds with the anti-theoretical empiricism of his best work:
Americans were boasters and boosters. They boasted of their limitless potential, and in order to make the potential actual they boosted their artists and architects. . . . Americans were a little embarrassed about their newness, the insecurity of their cultural roots. They therefore made a big point of claiming the roots of others, as a right conferred, ultimately, by might.
In Things I Didn't Know, Hughes further embellishes this same thesis, claiming that “conventional wisdom—especially American wisdom”—was wrong to hold that postwar New York became, after Rome and Paris, “a third imperial center” of Western culture. In his view, the reputations of such New York School painters as Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko were grossly inflated by the “insistent overpraise” of New York-based critics like Clement Greenberg, leaving out in the cold artists from other countries “who for one reason or another didn't fit into the Manhattan taste structure.”
Still, it would be wrong to conclude from this that Hughes is a standard-issue ideologue. For while he is unabashedly, even aggressively liberal in his politics, he has also been critical of the excesses of the cultural Left. In a 1993 book, Culture of Complaint: The Flaying of America, he argued with ostentatious even-handedness that both the conservative movement and the PC-multiculturalist project were “two puritan sects, one masquerading as conservative, the other posing as revolutionary but using academic complaint as a way of evading engagement in the real world.”
Because of statements like that one, I used to think of Hughes as one of those disillusioned liberals who so fears being branded a conservative that he goes out of his way to balance each attack on the Left with one (or more) on the Right. But even a casual reading of Things I Didn't Know leaves no doubt not only that his political and cultural views are genuinely idiosyncratic, but that he is more than happy to attack whomever he sees fit, whenever he sees fit to do so.
The most compelling chapter in Things I Didn't Know, for instance, is the one in which Hughes describes his adventures in England in the 1960's. Retrospectively disgusted by the self-indulgent, self-destructive follies, especially of the sexual and marital kind, in which he found himself briefly but devastatingly caught up, he attributes them to the influence of Romanticism, the long-term effects of whose “unabashed quest for the truth of the self” he indicts with deep comprehension:
It took the 20th century, with its limitless cruelty, its mad fantasies of social “reorganization,” its deadly orthodoxies, and the limitless egoism of its rulers, to show what atrocious harm the idea of unrestrained personal expressiveness, in the hands of a Hitler, a Stalin, a Mao, or a Pol Pot, could do to hundreds of millions of ordinary people. . . . This was a question which the “counterculture” preferred to skirt, for fear of sounding “moralistic” and thereby subverting its own immense capacity for narcissistic moralizing.
On analogous grounds, and turning now to art, Hughes dismisses as “fatuously categorical” the notion that “art which strives to give and to record pleasure . . . must be superficial in and of itself,” an idea whose spread he attributes to the influence of “Marxist intellectuals of a certain cast of mind.” An art-for-art's-sake man through and through, he decided at an early age that “all beliefs in the socially reformatory powers of the plastic arts were pious hogwash, to put it stridently.” Most of his subsequent criticism is rooted in this fundamentally anti-political point of view.
Hughes's flaw, both as a critic and as an autobiographer, is that he puts too many things stridently. Though he writes with sensitivity about the art and artists he admires, the passion that more often drives him is not love but anger. Nor is this the “generous anger” that George Orwell ascribed to Charles Dickens (and that Orwell himself possessed in abundance), but a darker emotion that borders on spite. When, for instance, Hughes describes the painter Helen Frankenthaler as “a card-carrying Jewish princess to the very tips of her talons,” it is hard not to read his cheap disdain for Frankenthaler as a person into what he has elsewhere written (wrongheadedly, in my view) about her paintings—namely, that they “are very assured but seem a touch overpleased with their own sensitivity.”
A touch of nastiness enhances a critic's readability, as when Hughes bangs away at such easy targets as the “oafish collector who . . . thinks Parmigianino was a kind of cheese.” But it is less likely to inspire confidence in the judgment of the critic who overindulges in it. Things I Didn't Know contains so many vengeful sideswipes and settled scores that one comes to see the candor of its irascible author as tic-like, an irresistible compulsion to give offense.
What makes Robert Hughes so angry?
When an autobiographer praises others, he is almost always talking about himself. Thus it is instructive that Hughes should make a point of admiringly describing the Australian artist Donald Friend as having had “an expatriate's nature.” For Hughes himself is an expatriate pur sang, both by temperament and, as he explains in Things I Didn't Know, by necessity:
you can lead a complete and totally articulate life as a literary critic in Australia, because books go everywhere and anyone can afford them. . . . Not so with paintings and sculpture. They do not go everywhere. This is the besetting problem for the “provincial” whose concern is the visual arts. . . . Try acquiring a working knowledge of 15th-century Italian painting, or Baroque sculpture, while staying in Australia—it's flatly impossible. The same, but even more so, with contemporary art. I knew I had to up pegs and leave.
Be that as it may, the decision to emigrate from one's native land is a fateful act, one that never fails to mark the psyche. Hughes was marked a second time when he returned to Australia in 1999 to film a TV series and became involved in a car accident that did grave injury both to himself and to one of the passengers of the vehicle he struck. In Things I Didn't Know, he describes in excruciating detail the resulting uproar stirred up by the Australian tabloid press, which portrayed him as a “f—king elitist c—t” (his phrase) whose “conscious aloofness” the Sydney Morning Herald affected to find “nauseating.” This experience, according to Hughes, caused him to lose “the rather innocent and nostalgic love of Australia that I had retained . . . ever since I left for Europe.”
Hughes's lingering loyalty to the country with which he is now terminally disillusioned was no mere obeisance to patriotic piety. It suffuses his best book, The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia's Founding (1987), a masterly account of the early history of Australia. It is also to be found throughout Things I Didn't Know, perhaps most illuminatingly when, in the course of denying New York's claim to be “the ‘center’ of Western culture,” he complains of America's “complete indifference” to “anything done at the outer fringes of the art-historical empire, like Australia.” Elsewhere he writes bitterly that “if an Australian event doesn't involve a monster crocodile, a giant shark, or Nicole Kidman, it won't go anywhere in America.”
It would be too simple to attribute Hughes's critique of America's alleged cultural imperialism to the long-simmering ressentiment of a self-made elitist from the provinces who longs above all to be taken seriously by the very people he is attacking. There is more to him—and to Australian culture—than that. But one cannot read Things I Didn't Know without recognizing that Robert Hughes, for all his disillusion, remains an Australian through and through, or without sensing something of the psychological complexity of his uncomfortable relationship with the vastly more powerful country in which he has chosen, for better or worse, to live and work.
1 A characteristic passage in American Visions, for instance, contains Hughes's heartfelt tribute to Fairfield Porter, the American painter whose refusal to embrace abstraction prevented him from receiving his critical due.
2 Unmentioned in Things I Didn't Know is the possibility that this bias, insofar as it existed, said more about New York than about America as a whole, much less that it might have operated at the expense of many American artists—especially those who lived on the West Coast.