return to 2004

On Robert Hughes
Part 2

by Miles Mathis


Hughes will occasionally admit, if you read between the lines, that there really isn't much there to bite on even with the artists he likes, such as Johns or Hockney.  He says for example, "Johns' liking for paradox seemed, to many people raised on the Abstract Expressionist ideal of authenticity, quite dandified and pointless—art complacently regarding its own cleverness, in an emotional void.  What one tends to forget, a quarter of a century after the event, is how badly some corrective to the cliches and slop of Abstract Expressionism was needed...."   High praise indeed.  Apparently what he means is that if one expects very little from a work of art in the first place, and then is careful only to compare it to what immediately preceded it chronologically, some Modern work can come off looking almost palatable.  But why, really, leave these artists standing, if you are Robert Hughes?  Why become indignant about the pretenses of Andrea Dworkin or Julian Schnabel, but leave Johns alone?  Why call for standards and refuse to apply them? 

      Another artist that Hughes has left alone is Barnett Newman.  Describing Newman's methods, Hughes admits, "On the evidence of his early drawings, he had no discernible talent as a draftsman... [but] he was tenacious and argumentative, and his reductive cast of mind served him well in the studio."  Praise on this level hasn't been seen since Lewis Carroll and the Snark: 


                                          His form is ungainly—his intellect small—

                                                  (So the Bellman would often remark)—

                                                  But  his courage is perfect! And that, after all,

                                                  Is the thing that one needs with a Snark.


Hughes will not come out and say so, but what served Newman well was his talent was for talking about art (and making the right friends).   His paintings are perfectly suited to criticism because they are created by a critic:  his primary interest was in defining art, and his paintings are simply an example of a definition.  His work is abstract in the fullest sense.  It is not just abstract in content.  It is not an abstraction from nature, an abstraction of line or color.  It is an abstraction from painting.  It is not a painting but an example of a painting, given a certain definition.  It is a painting of a definition.  One would expect the painting to come first, and then the criticism.   With Newman the criticism came first and then the painting.  It is the art of the hysteron proteron.   This turned art history on its head, even more fully than Duchamp and the Dadas were able to do.  The Dadas made nothing into art, but this "intellectual" coup was not as useful to the critic as Newman's coup.  Newman made a definition of art into art, and a writer can say so much more about a definition than about nothing.  A writer can say nothing about nothing for only so long, but he can say nothing about a definition indefinitely.   As we have seen up to the present moment:  the critic is still talking and art is still the handmaiden of Theory.

     Beyond that, Hughes' compliment begs to be read in a different way than it was meant, due to that one word, reductive.   "Reductive" means a) tending to reduce complex data to simple terms, and b) attempting to explain a process in the way that scientists would explain a theory about inanimate objects. The simplemindedness of the first definition is obvious, but the inartistic nature of the second definition is the one that most concerns me here.  It is important that one understand this "reductive cast" and how it colors Modern criticism.  But to make clear how [unintentionally, I take it] damaging Hughes choice of adjectives is here, and how it fits into the present argument, I must go a little farther a-field.  In psychology, behaviorism is a reductive theory that has had great influence in the twentieth century.  B.F. Skinner is just one of its many well-known proponents.  A behaviorist treats his or her psychological subjects (whether animal or human) as machines whose actions can be predicted by an objective study of the outward responses of these subjects to stimuli.  The "inner workings" of these machines is of no interest because they cannot be quantified.  The behaviorist is not interested in ideas, only in actions.  Behaviorism dismisses as groundless any theory that attempts to go beyond a strictly scientific method.   Like all the "hard" sciences—which modern psychology so wants to be—behaviorism does fairly well within the narrow limits it has set for itself.  Unfortunately it has little insight into those questions that have naturally intrigued psychologists since Hellenistic times.  What is the nature of the human mind?  Where do ideas come from?  Is thought existence? (Cogito ergo sum?)  And many others.    

      Obviously there is a close tie between the modern schools of psychology and art.  Both are heavily analytical.  Both have been burdened by the smashing success of the hard sciences.  Ever since the influence of the logical positivists (and probably since the influence of David Hume), philosophy, and especially epistemology and aesthetics, have become more and more quantized, scientific, and left-brain in order to continue to be taken seriously.  Aesthetics, our primary concern here, hardly exists anymore in its original form.  In the 20th century, questions about the nature of beauty were replaced by questions about "purification."  Or, where the philosopher was once interested in the nature of creativity and the source of the artistic impulse, he now became interested in the place of art in therapy or in the production of well-rounded workers for industry.  In the 1930's, Walter Benjamin judged artists on their relation to production and equated a work's political tendency to its artistic quality.  He accepted without reserve the idea (that he got from Marx, but that he might just as well have gotten from Locke or Smith) that everything must be judged economically.  For him the only question was, is the painting pro-capitalist or pro-communist?  Since the 30's, politics has changed somewhat, but the attitude is the same.   That is, art is judged politically rather than aesthetically.   We are no longer interested in Social Realism as propaganda for Commune or Empire, but we are certainly interested in art as a mouthpiece of progressive politics.  We are no longer so naive as to simply illustrate our ideas; but that art is about ideas, no one who matters in art would question. 


Hughes confirms this again and again.  In his review of Philip Pearlstein, Hughes says,


Pearlstein's dispassionate drawing gives the whole mass of the body an analyzed presence, and in its perceptible vehemence of thought seems to be beyond mannerism.  There was in fact something in common between the blunt discourse of Pearlstein's approach and the tough, detached polemic of much of American abstract art in the 60's.  Both recognizably come from the same culture, where what you see is what you get.  


Notice the words "analyzed," "discourse" and "polemic"—art as an argument.  This is what art was expected to be, so Hughes took no exception to it.  Nor did he critique Pearlstein in other ways.  He didn't lead the reader to a proper conclusion about what all this meant about Pearlstein (although it seems pretty obvious) because he wanted to keep Pearlstein around.  Pearlstein's return to realism, to the nude, pleased Hughes (I assume) and so he refrained from making any negative comparisons of Pearlstein's nudes to historical nudes that perhaps pleased him more.  But in giving Pearlstein perferential treatment, he cemented Pearlstein's place at the top of the heap.  In refusing to tell the whole truth, he gave a false impression of Pearlstein's abilities.  And, most importantly, in glossing over the implications of Pearlstein's "philosophy," he added to the shelf-life of that philosophy.

      For five pages later, no longer discussing Pearlstein, Hughes admits,


A cloud of uneasy knowingness has settled on American painting and sculpture.  Its mark is a helpless skepticism about the very idea of deep engagement between art and life: a fear that to seek authentic feeling is to display naivete, to abandon one's jealously hoarded "criticality" as an artist.


This is my favorite quote of Hughes.  But he refuses to make the connection between this "cloud" and Pearlstein's cloud.  It is the same.  Pearlstein will not "deeply engage" himself in his art or his life, his nudes are purposefully cold and inhuman, he makes no effort to transcend his precious "criticality," but Hughes will let him get away with it.  He lets him slide, just as he lets Kitaj or Hockney slide in claiming to draw well, just as he lets Lucian Freud slide with a much deeper emptiness.  


Hughes will not come right out and say that the entire Modern aesthetic (or lack of one) has been fatally flawed from the start.  He can't.  But the belief is implied in his work.   If a critic's panegyrics to the Johns and Pollocks of the world are mainly non-sensical, while his equal-time critiques of these same artists are spot-on and terribly damaging, it is not hard to see the sum total of his remarks. 

       As the years passed and his status as an important person became less and less assailable, Hughes became more and more critical of the avant garde.  The 1970's meant little to him, and the 80's he has dismissed as the decade of "monetized art".  And although he is still loath to take on the 50's and 60's (because it was, in a sense, his time), and although the time of Picasso and Kandinsky, Miro and Chagall, Arp and Picabia, has taken on a kind of sacrosanct historicity that no one who makes his money from art criticism would think of taking on except in little fragments, Hughes' writing betrays a wistfulness that gives those such as me hope.  His outlook on the future of art is so bleak and his arguments against Classicism so weak, one almost imagines he is asking for another Renaissance.

       It seems to me that Hughes is genuinely frightened about the future of art, as well he should be.  And so he feels compassion for the poor wretch, Modernism: he cannot kick a man when he is down.  He is no doubt afraid that too much aggression toward the roots of Modernism could throw us into an artistic dark age.  It is therefore one thing to butcher David Salle and Julian Schnabel and another thing entirely to demythologize the likes of Picasso or Cezanne or Kandinsky.

      But he forgets that Modernism has never been the ground beneath anyone's feet.  The 20th century has been proud of its day-to-day existence.  It has needed no tradition.  How could it create one?  He should know that all the momentary blips of Modernism are already as good as gone.  No one misses them now.   How could their further fading or complete disappearance be a tragedy?


At the end of The Shock of the New Hughes says, "The signs of that constriction [novelty] are everywhere today—in the small ambitions of art, in its lack of any effort toward spirituality, in its sense of career rather than vocation, in its frequently bland occupation with semantics at the expense of the deeper passions of the creative self... Perhaps the great energies of modernism are still latent in our culture, like Ulysses' bow in the house of Penelope; but nobody seems able to string and draw it."

      This is because the latent energies that Hughes has just so concisely described are not Modern but Classical: "creating a sense of wholeness in opposition to the world's chaos," rising above the "bulk of the familiar," demanding "an effort toward spirituality," great ambitions (artistic, not political), treating art as a calling and a craft rather than as a career: these goals are the goals of tradition, not of the avant garde. 

      The real foundations of art are unassailable by Hughes or anyone else.  Time and wars will continue to eat up some of them, but as the Dadaists recognized truly, there are a lot of great works left.  It has taken all the energy of Modernism to suppress the instruction of the Greeks, of the Renaissance, of the Far East, of the 17th c. Dutch and Spanish painters, and of the 19th century Barbizons, Naturalists, and Romantics.  But the possibilties remain.  The examples of Phidias and Praxiteles, Michelangelo and Titian, Rembrandt and Rubens, Velasquez and El Greco, Corot and Courbet, Carpeaux and Rodin still exist.  I am not afraid of an artistic dark age.  I have already lived through one and survived.

For more on Hughes, go to my paper from 2011 called Robert Hughes and the Royal Academy. You may also read my 2005 letter to Hughes at the Guardian.

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