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Robert Hughes has died.

[T]he present commercialisation of the art world, at its top end, is a cultural obscenity. When you have the super-rich paying $104m for an immature Rose Period Picasso – close to the GNP of some Caribbean or African states – something is very rotten. Such gestures do no honour to art: they debase it by making the desire for it pathological.

This was the unforgettable writer Robert Hughes in 2004. I mean literally unforgettable. I have never forgotten these lines and their great words: obscenity, immature, rotten, and, coming at the very end — Hughes, like all strong writers, knew to hold his strongest word for the very end of his sentence — pathological.

Obviously what one notices is the total lack of evasion, softening, the mealy-mouthed; but note too how the harshness of all that is indeed softened by the sweet Shakespearean lilt of his final phrase:

Such gestures do no honour to art: they debase it by making the desire for it pathological.

In talking about the super-rich he uses ugly modern words like super-rich; in talking about his beloved art he regresses as it were not only to (as Paul Fussell argues) archaic words like honor, but to the alliterative lightness of do, debase, and desire.

You see the care Hughes took with language everywhere, as in this brief description of Alfred Munnings:

a brilliant horse-painter in his better moments but a paranoid blimp of a man

See the same technique? brilliant… better… blimp mixing with painter and paranoid, moments and man — this is a writer working hard at the level of the word to create wit, beauty, and surprise, to mix, as he did in the sentence before this one, high and low (there, honor/super-rich; here, brilliant/blimp) to create interest, amusement, a sense of the weird wealth of the world.

Here again:

No serious artist could gain anything from having the tarnished letters RA tacked on to their name, so redolent of boardroom portraits, cockle-gatherers at work or sunny views of Ascot.

No reader moving her eye along this really takes in how Hughes puts tarnished and tacked and to together to make the phrase go tra-la-la; no reader realizes that the words redolent and boardroom balance one another interestingly or that cockle and Ascot are also a sort of a pair. This is the subterranean sonar of a sentence, the notes from underground you don’t think you hear or care about, but you do. They pull the sentence together, give it a ground tone, a thrum, a voice – this is what all those English comp textbooks mean by finding your voice – and distinguish it from the rest of the tossed off prose of the world.

The greatest prose stylists – James Joyce comes to mind – use this technique of groups of similar sounding words following one another in a sentence. I mean, note how there’s one short succession of somewhat similar words after another:

anything / having
tarnished / tacked
boardroom / portraits
cockle / Ascot

And what does this do? Why go to the trouble…? Because the effect is one of coherence, flow, a worked, mature (the Picasso is immature), individual, considered, musical voice. And because that stylistic coherence conveys to us the sense that there is a coherent world, and the writer has hold of it. That’s what the comp textbooks mean by writing with authority. We keep reading because we want to go where the writer goes; we want to be in his world.


No surprise that the Hughes painterly ethos had also to do with work and the worked. Here it was the work of inquiring closely and tirelessly into the brilliant/obscene world, and demanding the same effort from your viewer:

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.”

… [Goya] was an artist, he wrote, whose genius lay in his “vast breadth of curiosity about the human animal and the depth of his appalled sympathy for it.”

Margaret Soltan, August 7, 2012 2:54AM
Posted in: great writing

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4 Responses to “Robert Hughes has died.”

  1. Alan Allport Says:

    A strange, angry, gifted man. RIP.

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Maybe a little like Vidal in that weird relationship to his illustrious family, his rather aristocratic background…

  3. adam Says:

    … and let us not forget The Fatal Shore, his historical masterpiece about the colonization of Down Under.

  4. Sunday Link Encyclopedia and Self-Promotion « Clarissa's Blog Says:

    […] A beautiful tribute to Robert Hughes. […]

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