Hot Air

Nicholas Penny

  • Things I Didn’t Know: A Memoir by Robert Hughes
    Harvill, 395 pp, £25.00, September 2006, ISBN 1 84655 014 9

Robert Hughes begins his autobiography, as he began his recent book on Goya, by describing the road accident in Western Australia that nearly killed him in 1999, and his subsequent ordeals in hospital and in court. In this new book he expands on the treatment he received from Australian journalists and in particular on the allegation made by a local reporter that he had referred to a prosecution lawyer descended from Indian migrants as a ‘curry muncher’, which was then repeated by a succession of other journalists. Hughes denies using this expression but no doubt the reporters, taken aback by this expatriate’s robust contempt for their intrusions, felt that he looked down on his countrymen, and repeated the story because they found it easy to believe or hard to resist. Later in this book, Hughes cannot resist relating how Frank Packer (‘the gross and meat-fisted capitalist who owned Australian Consolidated Press’) calmed the anxieties of a new secretary he’d seduced by offering her a black aniseed jelly bean as an oral contraceptive, even though he admits that ‘of course nobody had any means of verifying’ the story. Hughes believes he was being punished by the press for being ‘a fucking elitist cunt’.

The grandson of the first lord mayor of Sydney, and the son of a successful lawyer and war hero, the young Hughes did not ‘talk Australian’ and was singled out as a ‘pom’ by a ‘mean, iron-muscled bully of a grazier’s son’ when he arrived at his tough Roman Catholic boarding school. He provides a vivid account of beatings administered by the Jesuit fathers, the manner in which the school matron removed ticks from penises, his furtive initiation into the mysteries of modern art and literature, his growing religious doubts – although here the narrative is interrupted to provide a history lesson on Pius IX’s Marian theology, very much less sympathetic and imaginative than his earlier discursion on the dangerous planes piloted by his father.

After this, the book becomes an entertaining scrapbook of portraits. We meet the television actress Noeline Brown, who was Hughes’s lover when he was beginning to gain some notice in Sydney as a critic, cartoonist and painter. She ‘looked and sounded rather like the young Marlene Dietrich’, but, no, she was better looking, and Dietrich herself ‘appealed mainly to masochists, lesbians, and inwardly timid Hollywood Jews’. We are given an even more glowing portrait of the Catalan sculptor Xavier Corbero, Hughes’s best buddy, indeed almost blood brother (‘we have, sometimes knowingly and sometimes not, shared the same girls in Europe and America’). Notable among the less flattering portraits is that of Hughes’s first wife, Danne, whose hectic promiscuity and pursuit of every radical fashion in the 1960s is luridly described.

Hughes moved from Sydney to London in 1964. The book closes in 1970 when he settles in New York without Danne, but there are significant interludes in Italy and Spain. In the 16th-century garden of Bomarzo, Hughes smokes pot and drinks the local white wine with a ‘newly acquired American girlfriend’ before having sex on the stone banqueting table inside a grotto with a monstrous mouth as its entrance, the so-called Bocca d’Inferno. The gardens have, he laments, since been ruined by tourist buses and insensitive restoration. Tourists are a nuisance in the Prado as well. Hughes is meditating on Las Meninas when a museum docent, a ‘small, sparrowy woman’ with a ‘gaggle’ of visitors, tries to order him to budge so that they can study the painting in a mirror (‘No way, José’). Officials are also frustrated by Hughes when they try to stop him entering the flooded Florence. On this occasion he is working for BBC2, an outfit run by ‘what Australian editors of Fleet Street tabloids unhesitatingly and dead accurately pegged as effete pseudo-intellectuals and bloody elitists’. ‘My kind of folk, in short,’ Hughes adds, rather oddly, since he is not notably tolerant of pseudo-intellectuals, or over-respectful of real ones, for that matter. He is certainly inclined to dismiss the more theoretical interpretations of art (including those about Bomarzo or Las Meninas) and he has a good nose for modern art which is sustained by hot air rather than real talent. Most important, he seems to have perceived that the ‘art critic’s artist’, a variety first identified in the 1920s, was in trouble when the critics began to enjoy exalted intellectual status. Hughes was struck by the arrogance of the ‘epigones of Clement Greenberg’ who were sure that Europe had nothing to offer, and he also gradually realised that the new developments in American abstract painting (‘thin but huge watercoloury washes of lyric acrylic on unprimed duck’) represented a dead end.

Of all the artists – from Giovanni Pisano and Grünewald to Sidney Nolan and Rauschenberg – whose work is briefly discussed in this book, none elicits more enthusiasm than Robert Crumb, ‘a genuinely democratic satirist’ whose dribbling, panting and grunting bipeds are kin to the protagonists of the lowest forms of popular male humour. Crumb’s imagery does possess real energy and power. And Hughes is right to point out that the ‘abandon and gusto’ of the Australian artist John Olsen entails the acceptance of ‘vulgarity’. Again and again, Hughes expresses enthusiasm for high art that has absorbed something from low art or non-art. This isn’t a point of view generally associated with elitism.

The food that Hughes extols – the varieties of pecorino in the markets of the Maremma or traditional bistecca fiorentina – is not haute cuisine. As a critic he avoids the jargon of the art world and the obscurities of the academy. He does not much mind his manners: instead of arguing that Jasper Johns’s work has become somewhat dull and repetitious since the mid-1960s, he asserts that Johns has become ‘an increasingly leaden and overvalued bore’. In Hughes’s case the colloquial seems to preclude circumspection, hence the ‘sharing’ of ‘girls’ and the generalising about the tastes of ‘Hollywood Jews’. He does regret that, after his road accident, he called his Nissan Pulsar a ‘piece of Jap shit’ – not, however, because of the offensive adjective but because the way that the car’s body crumpled had saved his life.

Early in the book Hughes offers some reflections on the subject of elitism. ‘I am no democrat in the field of the arts, the only area – other than sports – in which human inequality can be displayed and celebrated without doing social harm.’ This isn’t really true: considerable social harm might follow if competitive examinations for doctors and engineers were abandoned. However, Hughes is right to focus the discussion on sport, not because it is ‘the very essence of elitist activity’ and yet approved of by the journalists who hate him, but for a reason that has to do with the public rather than the players. It has become quite common to equate the experiences supplied by art and sport, and to measure a museum’s success by its attendance figures. This would have been unthinkable half a century ago – when, however, the National Gallery opened early on Cup Final day.

Hughes recognises that putting the public on a moving walkway in the Vatican pavilion of the New York World’s Fair of 1964, in order that as many people as possible could glimpse Michelangelo’s Pietà, provided a foretaste of the thinking, or rather lack of thinking, behind many popular exhibitions and much mass cultural tourism. The emphasis on passive consumerism, the idea that its rituals and packaged experiences provide any of the real excitement or solace that great art can offer, is insulting to the public, but it is not easy to make this point without seeming to sneer. ‘Elitist’ is, increasingly, a codeword for those who attempt to offer any alternative to a consumerist vision, and Hughes might be thought especially troublesome because he cannot be dismissed as a toff or a don. The debate concerning the visual arts today that is masked by the use of the terms ‘elitism’ and ‘populism’, has to do with whether or not they should be considered a branch of the entertainment industry. Those of us who believe that art galleries should be distinguished from this industry can hardly claim that there is no overlap. Writers like Hughes, working for the mainstream press and television, are the most effective exponents and defenders of this distinction. A striking development in contemporary art is that it no longer seems able to draw any strength from the rougher, cruder world of popular imagery. Instead we find its practitioners and promoters alike gliding into the higher level of public relations. Meanwhile, the galleries seek to attach themselves to the sleeker forms of modern retail, and are then absorbed by its ethos. In these circumstances, independent critics like Hughes, who aren’t inclined to ingratiate themselves, are especially welcome.