The death of writer and television personality Robert Hughes in 2012 was an event that did not exactly shake western civilization to its roots. His television shows “The Shock of the New” (1980) and “American Visions” (1997) had brought him some fame in the rarefied air of the BBC/PBS universe, but despite a long and wide-ranging career – he penned an overview of the early European colonization of his native Australia, he contributed to an array of newspapers and magazines, and he even hosted (for one week, before being replaced by Hugh Downs) the ABC television news magazine “20/20” – to most people outside the art world he was almost unknown at the time of his death.
With or without fame, in his views on art Robert Hughes was passionate, pompous, often obnoxious, but he was also unfailingly erudite and articulate, and he left us more aware and better-informed than he found us.
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You’re probably asking yourself why I’m eulogizing somebody nobody’s heard of, who’s been dead for years – especially an art critic, not usually an artist’s favorite person. It’s pretty simple, really: I started thinking about Hughes while reading a recent online review of the work of an interesting, if minor, American artist. I won’t identify the artist or the critic, but I will say that had the essay been printed it would have been a criminal waste of ink and paper. Like a sea turtle mistaking a street light for the moon and ending up stranded in a Miami Beach parking lot, this writer had formed a bright and shiny idea of what art criticism should look like, and had then beached himself trying to drag his subject across the sand and up into the glare.
Just as history is more than a mere description of what one thinks should have happened at some time in the past (Texas Board of Education notwithstanding), art criticism is more than just one person’s opinion about what’s worth looking at. Good criticism establishes context, finds the objective value of the art as it exists within that context, and defines that value in clear and accessible terms for the rest of us. Opinion is inevitably a part of the process, but only a part: open eyes and an open mind are essential.
As website user comments have replaced professional criticism, the process of assessing the arts in our society has, indeed, become more egalitarian, but it has perhaps lost as much as it has gained. A rambling, poorly-punctuated diatribe posted to Amazon or the Times (or an art blog) is no substitute for well-informed and well-written analysis; criticism should not just be a “love it/hate it” blast of noise aimed like a cannon at a work of art, but a part of the art itself, as carefully planned and thoughtful as the work it addresses.
The standing joke about critics is that they are just failed artists taking out their frustrations on those more talented, but the best critics are also scholars, able to balance the weight of their own personal opinions with a comprehensive, critical, knowledge of the subject matter — arguably an art form in and of itself.
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When education experts identified critical thinking as a necessary component of the civics curriculum a few years ago many pundits and politicians were outraged, interpreting “critical” as synonymous with “negative”. For the Bill O’Reillys and Sean Hannitys of the 24-hour news cycle, critical thinking about American life and history meant something seditious, unpatriotic, and anti-American.
The word “critic” comes down to us from the Greek kritikos, “able to judge”, which in turn derives from krinein, “to separate, to decide” – tellingly, the word “crisis” comes from the same root. The use of the word “critic” in English to describe someone who analyses and offers judgements on art dates back to about the sixteenth century.
The English language is nothing if not flexible – to the despair of anyone struggling to master its ambiguities – but as a rule, even though words may change, we generally hang on to the fundamental concepts behind them. With terms like critical, critique, critic, and so on, however, that doesn’t seem to have been the case: any positive, constructive connotations have evaporated, leaving behind nothing but a mean-spirited residue.
“Why are you being so critical?”
“Everybody’s a critic.”
“I don’t need your criticism, thank you very much.”
It’s easy to forget sometimes that the work of creating art is not like putting in a new dishwasher, or taking out a diseased appendix – it’s often very difficult to distinguish success from failure over the short term. Everything is subjective, based on a complex interaction between the artist’s technical abilities, emotional commitment, environment, community, ideas, and luck. If the appendectomy is successful, the fever goes down, the pain goes away, and the patient goes home to give himself an ulcer worrying about how to pay the bill; if the operation fails, the patient dies. When an artist completes a work there is no such objective measure by which to distinguish success from failure. That’s where the critic comes in: he or she is a voice from outside the artist’s head who is capable of understanding what the artist was trying to do, but has sufficient emotional distance from the process to make rational and dispassionate assessments of the results.
Robert Studley Forrest Hughes
Born July 28, 1938, in Sydney Australia
Died August 6, 2012, in New York City
That is why the recent shortage of qualified critics is so worrisome to me. Left to our own devices we in the arts are like children stumbling through a shrubbery maze: we see our hands in front of our faces, and perhaps a few other wanderers appearing and disappearing around the corners, but from our place deep inside the maze it’s hard to get any useful overview of the entire layout. We need good critics to help map out the twists and turns, and to shout out a warning when we start down a dead end or begin to wander in circles.
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On this 77th anniversary of the birth of Robert Hughes, I raise my glass to that cranky old blowhard from Sydney, and I hope that for as long as artists keep marching boldly and foolishly into the maze, there will be men and women like Hughes to help us find our way.