Heaven and Hell and Robert Hughes

Inigo Thomas

 Saturday Night Fever was based on a story for New York Magazine by the British rock critic Nik Cohn. ‘The Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night’ was ‘true’, Cohn said. ‘While Manhattan remains firmly rooted in the sixties, still caught up in faction and fad and the dreary games of decadence,’ he wrote, ‘a whole new generation has been growing up around it, virtually unrecognised. Kids of sixteen to twenty, full of energy, urgency, hunger. All the things, in fact, that the Manhattan circuit, in its smugness, has lost.’ Years later, Cohn revealed that his story was based on people he'd known in Shepherds Bush.

Cohn’s father, Norman, was the author of The Pursuit of the Millennium, about the end-of-the-world-is-moments-away discourses of Joachim de Fiore and other Medieval doom prophets. It casts a new light on the opening scene of Saturday Night Fever: there is the film’s hero, Vinnie, played by John Travolta, promenading through the streets of a city that was said by many at the time to be going to hell. 'Feel the city breakin' and everybody shakin’,' the opening song, 'Stayin’ Alive', goes. Vinnie is no prophet, but he lives as if there will be no tomorrow.

Cohn was one of several journalists who moved to the US from London in the early 1970s; Alexander Cockburn was another, and he also wrote for New York. One of their friends was the late Robert Hughes, who became the art critic of Time in 1970, a post he occupied for the next thirty years. Henry Grunwald, the magazine’s editor, chose Hughes because of his book Heaven and Hell in Western Art. An informed view on the apocalypse was perhaps part of the appeal of Hughes; if New York was going to become an inferno it would help to have someone who might have an idea of what would happen next – if anything did.

'How could I not try to hire someone who could write that “God did not live in Hampstead and was not expected to act like a liberal,”’ Grunwald later explained. He asked a colleague to find Hughes, then living in London, and sound him out about whether he’d like to work for Time. 'We’d like you to join us,’ the editor said to Hughes, but because he was drunk and forget to say where he was ringing from, Hughes interpreted ‘us’ as the CIA and hung up.

A new volume of Hughes’s selected writing, The Spectacle of Skill, includes an autobiographical fragment in which he wrote: 'Being the art critic of Time in the 1970s was like enjoying a perpetual research grant from the most benign of foundations. I could go more or less anywhere I wanted, look at anything I wished to, and be paid generously for doing so.’ Heaven itself.

Time is for the folk who can’t read, and Life is for the people who can’t think,’ Dwight Macdonald joked. But Hughes wrote and was read. Time still has a large circulation – 3.3 million – but in the 1970s it was a colossal 20 million. The Spectacle of Skill is a curious volume: there’s a sympathetic introduction by Adam Gopnik, and there are extracts from Hughes's books, but there’s no mention of who made the selection, there are no notes on where the pieces appeared, and there are none of the 700-odd pieces Hughes wrote for Time. That’s a pity, since Hughes chronicled not only what was on the walls of museums in the US and in Europe, but the eras he lived through — the shift in the art world and New York from the apocalyptic 1970s through the money mania of the Reagan era and into the go-go Clinton 1990s.

There are extracts from The Fatal Shore, his book on the British arrival on Australia and its subsequent settlement by convicts, but who wouldn't rather read the whole thing?

The project of creating a captive society within the state, populated by convicts fed and housed at public expense and repaying an offended world (however nominally) with forced labour – in short, the idea of the penitentiary as it developed after 1820 – would have struck the rules of Georgian England as utterly chimerical. Jails were simply lockups, and no one was 'improved' by a spell in one. They were holes in which prisoners could be forgotten for a while. Their purpose was not reform, but terror and sublimation. But they were also meant to turn a profit.

Moral outrage and irony were essential elements of Hughes’s style. So was wit. In the memoir, Hughes says he was never good at choosing titles for his books: one working title of The Fatal Shore was ‘Kangaroots'. Sometimes he went too far: he couldn’t resist describing Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs, under attack from Reaganite Christian conservatives such as Jesse Helms, as less the work of a 'barbarian at the gates' than the 'fairy at the bottom of the garden'. Hughes's pugilistic, defiant, heterosexual, masculine style – the self-importance of it – sometimes got the better of him. In her review of American Visions, Linda Nochlin said that the style ‘simply reeks of rough-hewn masculine authority’ – and so it does.

Low life, working life, high life – Hughes appeared to know them all. In the early 1970s, on assignment in Paris, he met Françoise Sagan, who thought she should set him up with a date. They went to a plush restaurant, where Hughes says he was given the menu and wine list, 'as thick as a volume of Proust’, but his companion simplified matters by ordering Cristal champagne. What follows reveals Hughes – the best and the worst of him – pretty clearly:

Roderer Cristal 1969, that straw and cracklingly dry nectar, the most expensive champagne in the world, the Coca-Cola of squillionaires, the magic fluid that dissolves all the embarrassment of not knowing about growths and years and districts and the differences between Burgundy and Bordeaux. Today, there is something decidedly vulgar about Cristal – it is after all the preferred power drink of those bling-encrusted hip-hop producers who get chauffeured around New York in black Escalades by thugs with 9mm Glocks in their armpits – but things seemed otherwise in ’72.

In 1998, Hughes survived a car crash in Western Australia. His account of it sounds like a scene from Mad Max, only he knew something Max was incapable of knowing – visions of the paintings of Robert Rauschenberg as he lay trapped in the car, covered in petrol, uncertain whether it would ignite or not, and whether he was heading to heaven or hell, or just staying alive.


  • 16 December 2015 at 8:24pm
    Blackorpheus7 says:
    RE Robt Hughes: Loved his mind; hated the way it thought.

    • 18 December 2015 at 4:17am
      randalstella says: @ Blackorpheus7
      I liked neither. The high opinion of himself was unwarranted.
      Besides easy targets, The Culture of Complaint is made up of whinging,misconceptions and insult against meanings beyond his capacity.
      Not bad at epigrams, though. A base aptitude.

  • 17 December 2015 at 12:36pm
    rae donaldson says:
    How it's possible to love a mind but hate 'the way it thought' is a poser indeed. You aren't a Jesuit, by any chance?

    • 18 December 2015 at 10:37am
      streetsj says: @ rae donaldson
      Not up to me to say what Blackoprheus7 meant but I interpret him to mean that he loves his articulacy, his turn of phrase, his metaphor, his mental connections; he just doesn't like the end result they produce; the service to which they are put use.