Legendary art critic Robert Hughes died Monday at age 74. It is a tremendous loss, not least because the former Time columnist counted among the few critics who could break through the practiced esoterism of the art world—all that cultish mystification that gets thrown over Great Works like a thousand-pound dung blanket—and make art matter to everyone. His best weapon? Anger. Raw, pungent, beautifully worded anger. And nowhere was this more evident than in his laser-eyed takedowns of the messy collision of art, celebrity, and money.
Here he is on Jeff Koons:
He has the slimy assurance, the gross patter about transcendence through art, of a blow-dried Baptist selling swamp acres in Florida. And the result is that you can’t imagine America’s singularly depraved culture without him.
On Julian Schnabel:
Schnabel’s work is to painting what Stallone’s is to acting—a lurching display of oily pectorals.
On Alex Katz:
The hallmark of the minor artist is to be obsessed with style as an end in itself.
On Jean-Michel Basquiat:
Far from being the Charlie Parker of SoHo (as his promoters claimed) he became its Jessica Savitch.
Hughes’s rage wasn’t just nasty good fun (though there was definitely some of that). It was in service of a higher calling. Embedded in every dig at Damien Hirst’s talent and barb against Jeff Koons’s famewhoring was the notion that art is about more than pretty pictures; it’s a sort of cultural town hall where our values and mores all mingle. In Jean-Michel Basquiat: Requiem for a Featherweight, the essay from which the quote above is excerpted, Hughes lays Basquiat’s unimpressive career squarely at the feet of the “mania for instant reputation that so grotesquely afflicts American taste.” Here’s more:
It was a tale of a small untrained talent caught in the buzz saw of art-world promotion, absurdly overrated by dealers, collectors, critics and, not least, himself. This was partly because Basquiat was black; the otherwise monochrome Late American Art Industry felt a need to refresh itself with a touch of the “primitive.” Far better black artists than Basquiat, such as the sculptor Martin Puryear, did not have to contend with this kind of boom-and-bust success. Its very nature forced Basquiat to repeat himself without a chance of development.
The sense you get from Hughes’s best writing is that something greater than fame and aesthetics is at stake. He brought moral outrage to art criticism, and in so doing he reminded you that art is something worthy of moral outrage.
[Image: Ted Thai/Time-Life Pictures/Getty Images]