Yesterday marked the first anniversary of the death of Australian art critic and writer Robert Hughes, a man I hated as a teenager.
Not sure if I can accuse my high school art teacher of laziness or insight for - most Wednesdays if memory serves - making a class of 25 adolescents sit and watch The Shock of the New in a tiny, airless projector room.
By miraculously resisting the temptation to sleep, I was begrudgingly being introduced, not only to the development of modern art, but also to the notion of the critic. The one somehow placed above others and allowed to dictate to them what is good and what is not. Up to this point, the very existence of these beasts had been nothing more than an unacknowledged, peripheral hum within my juvenile enjoyment of art as ‘cool pictures’.
A teenager’s proclivity for disliking authority figures is nothing worth writing about. But Hughes’ pompous accent, silly hair and toady face came to represent all that I hated about art: boring history about boring pictures with boring old men in impractical vests droning on about why the history of the pictures wasn’t boring. For the young me, he quickly became the personification of all that was wrong with the art world. A fleshy manifestation of archaic authority and stifled expression.
Art was Dali’s burning giraffes then Giger’s Alien designs, later Damien Hirst’s shark in a box and Bruce Nauman’s spacial disorientations and creepy animal castings. No surprises that a 15-year-old boy is captivated by weird, disconcerting artifacts with a constant theme of psychological discomfort. Shockingly, I was also into horror movies, heavy metal and skateboarding.
It was somewhere in here that I began to become aware of ‘conceptual’ art. Nauman’s Yellow Room might have actually been my first. I never experienced it for myself, but it was a revelation just reading about a brightly-lit triangular room designed to make you feel uncomfortable, even ‘cornered’ once you step inside. That art had long ago escaped the prison of the canvas or plinth and was now allowed to directly assault the physical and psychological space of the viewer.
That Marcel Duchamp, by simply putting a urinal in a gallery in 1917, had embarrassed the figurativists for decades to come and perhaps single-handedly set in motion all the topplings and collective neuroses of 20th century art. That he eventually proceeded to a giant cryptic work on glass, accompanied by a decidedly anti-explanation and equally cryptic title which required an interpretation from a critic in order to be ‘understood’. This charming, black-and-white, smoking Frenchman nailed shut the coffin in which my adolescent self buried the validity of immediate, personal interpretation.
This was long before my violently mishandled first contact with Roland Barthes and any notion of authorial intent. I was too young to even perceive the hypocrisy of my sneering at the critics when they droned about Raphael yet reading enthralled as they gushed pages about yellow rooms and unsettling clown videos.
Growing increasingly disillusioned with gallery content throughout the 2000s, my enjoyment of art waned. Though still occasionally stumbling across gems such as O Jun, there were too many puns, tired one-liners and boring crap filling the white rooms. I’d be damned if I had to read a three-page explanation in order to ‘get’ the meaning; I ached to walk into a space and be immediately overcome, to fall to my knees weeping at the urgent, personal beauty of some simple pigment on a surface.
Somewhere along the line, at least thirty years late, I discovered Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word. To attempt a crass summary, in 1975 this New York writer had decided that the visual arts had finally been transubstantiated into literature. That the meaning of the paintings and all the rest could only be engaged with by reading. That, due to ego or embarrassment, through chance failings and feuds, written language had become the fundamental method of communication in the high world of what was still nominally called visual art. The works themselves reduced almost to illustrations beside the dance of the graphemes.
And while I looked away, something else had changed. Art had become the domain of the investor. Money in the art world is no new thing, but maybe those benefactors of generations past actually liked the work they patronised. Sure, rich, uninterested idiots have forever attempted to purchase status from the artist based on the whims of fashion. But now their ego and ignorance had been industrialized, commodified, unwittingly weaponized.
It is on this topic that Roberts Hughes comes grumbling back into my world. Though no less pompous, his terse, eloquent and utterly ruthless destruction of collector Alberto Mugrabi was a veritable lightbulb being snapped on. From his excellent 2008 polemic, The Mona Lisa Curse, the illumination of this scene hit with such force that my own wandering transformations were thrust into the spotlight of stark relief. It is a rare and valuable thing to have your own mutability revealed to you so clearly.
“Isn’t it a miracle what so much money and so little ability can produce?” Hughes muses about Damien Hirst’s The Virgin Mother upon entering the atrium of the Mugrabi building, where the statue towers. Greetings and awkward silence as they walk to the seating area inside, then some casual discord over Andy Warhol. On Richard Prince, the text and photo transcriber, Mugrabi says, “He’s such a deep person that - maybe you don’t see it through his paintings - but, he definitely is.” To which Hughes asks, “If he is, why does one not see it in his paintings?” Mugrabi parrots some weak gibberish likely heard from one of his art investment advisors and the conversation continues to more important topics.
So people want to be seen as intelligent and powerful. The inscrutability of meaning within most modern art is the perfect hiding place for a dull person pretending to be clever, and the absurd physical or monetary stature of the works could easily be mistaken as a projection of power. But what is ‘good’ art? Must we have some seer to divine it for us?
If we must be dictated to, if we yearn to be lectured to from on high, if we ache for authority from the depths of our own self-doubt, I know whose illumination I would prefer. My bias certainly comes from agreement with Hughes on much of modern art, and perhaps even a little from simple familiarity. But if the choice is between an old, experienced guide and the groping of a visionless man lead by opportunistic parasites, the choice is blinding. The toady old lighthouse keeper may not have been steering us wrong this whole time.
It’s so much darker now his light has gone out.