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Hughes at the Guardian


by Miles Mathis

by John Spooner

Having recently become an American ex-patriate and Guardian reader, I am both thrilled and depressed by its arts coverage.  It is refreshing to see criticism of the avant garde coming from the left.  In the US, the left is nearly monolithic in regard to art.  You either like the new stuff or you keep quiet.  It is really uncool to demur.  Anyone hedging in enthusiasm in any way immediately has his art-card revoked and is labeled a fascist.   So seeing Saatchi and Emin and Hirst and the Tate Modern attacked by someone who is not at all the UK equivalent of Helms or Guiliani is like a gust of Hyperborean wind.   All this is due to the influence of Robert Hughes, of course.  All the arts coverage at the Guardian arcs about the gravity of Hughes, and this is completely understandable.  The problem is that Hughes, Jones and the rest seem to wait around for Saatchi or Serota to show them something better, which is like waiting for the next Jupiter symphony from Madonna.  Hughes himself has long been telling us that Modernism is dead: according to his own calendar, it has been dead since 1980.  Continuing to monitor a 25-year old skeleton for twitches can only appear morbid.  The Venice and Whitney Biennials and all the regular events are hopeless, as he says, so why continue to mention them?   Why return to the Hungry Heifer? 

       Both in the Guardian and at Time, Hughes has taken refuge in the past.  He dredges up early Dali or spends weeks hiding away with R. Crumb.  This is also understandable.  The modern world drives us all under the bed.  If you want inspiration you don’t go to a contemporary museum, you go to a library.  But even contemporary art never dies.  Hughes and Jones just aren’t looking in the right places.  Often they don’t seem to be looking at all.  Hughes has all but defined away the possibility of art except in the past.  Hughes judges new art and old art by completely different standards.  For him, new art must look new.  But in his heart of hearts he hates modernity, and he hates newness for newness sake, as he has admitted.  So that leaves him in a no man’s land, a Sinai desert with only himself and Lucian Freud huddling under a blasted bush.  

       Hughes eulogizes MoMA’s Alfred Barr as a visionary, since he was capable of seeing art where no one else could.  I would suggest that nothing is different now, except that Hughes has a different shade of blinders on than Barr’s contemporaries.  Hughes is making a step in the right direction when he promotes the Royal Academy, but this is only a nod to the future.  He recognizes that craft will have to be reintroduced.  Much of Hughes’ draw to Freud is explained by craft.  But the air in England will not allow Hughes to go any further than this; he is already out on a limb.   He is already saying things that would completely bomb in the US, and he knows it.  As long as he only promotes the future of craft, he is alright here, maybe, since no one believes in the future anyway.  But how is it logical to promote the future of craft and ignore the present?  Why doesn’t he just start promoting the mallgalleries shows?  He will say, because there is nothing there worth promoting.  Maybe, but there is nothing worth promoting elsewhere, and elsewhere is promoted in spades.  Hughes and Jones don’t argue when Serota claims that the craftspeople (Hughes’ “slow art” people) have their own promotion and awards.  Where is it, exactly?  Where are the Tate Galleries and Saatchi Galleries and Turner Prizes of Slow Art?  The realists are allowed their mall shows and penny prizes and everyone agrees that parity has been achieved. 

       Why can Hughes look lovingly at Chardin and Goya and Rembrandt and the rest of the past, and look lovingly toward the future, when craft will charm his grandchildren, and yet not look lovingly or hopefully at the present?  As I said, it is because he has painted himself into a theoretical corner.  Either that or he simply can’t take the next step, the step beyond throwing a rose to the Royal Academy.  He can’t take that step because he is not confident that his prestige will carry him through the waves of protest. He does not want to signal his own death knell by allying himself to something that is still anathema to the left.  Freud’s age and ugliness have made him acceptable.  But how could a critic, no matter how big, stand next to a contemporary Whistler or Burne Jones or Chardin or Blake or even Goya?   This sort of work is still politically suspect to the left even from dead men.  

       In short, the media and milieu in the UK appear to allow Hughes to push the argument way beyond where he can in the US.  But it still does not allow him to take it where it logically must go, or where Hughes appears to want to take it himself.  


PS:  As an example of the kind of work Hughes cannot take seriously, I attach this 5m tall Shelley Altarpiece, exhibiting four separate slow arts—painting, sculpture, original poetry in calligraphy, and woodworking—as well as serious subject matter, epic theme, erudition, depth, and so on (the work concerns Percy Shelley’s first wife and his and her drownings.  For a complete description of the piece, go to  For detail scans go to ) The work is by an artist who is not intellectually stunted, as Jones has said of the Stuckists.  For proof of this, see    If this work is not up to the standards of Hirst or Warhol or Freud, I would like to know why.  If it does not answer Hughes’ call for a return to craft, seriousness and the rest, I would like to know why.

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