January 2016

Dmitry Samarov

nonfiction

The Spectacle of Skill by Robert Hughes

Robert Hughes (1938-2012) was perhaps the preeminent art critic of the latter half of the twentieth century. Yet, through the several weeks I lugged the new anthology of his writing, The Spectacle of Skill, about from coffee shop to bar to diner, very few of the well-read people I encountered had ever heard of him. Perhaps this is more a symptom of our ADD age than of the merits, or lack thereof, in Hughes's work. But he deserves to be remembered, and if this brick of a book serves as an introduction, then it will not have been a waste of the paper, ink, and workers' labors involved in its manufacture.

Hughes published some 14 books in his lifetime. Some were compendiums of his art criticism -- written for Time magazine, where he was chief (and only) art critic for many years, The New York Review of Books, and other periodicals -- while others were more sustained considerations of the life of particular artists, countries, or cultures. He was also a TV presenter for the BBC, as well as public television in America, producing the multipart series The Shock of the New and American Visions, among other art-related programs. How to present a view of such a career within a single volume? Whoever selected and edited the articles and fragments of books collected in The Spectacle of Skill doesn't clue the reader in. The book has ten chapters, arranged chronologically, but includes no editorial notes, aside from an index in the back. No explanation of why one piece was included rather than a host of others, nor any context to help the reader from one section to the next.

In his introduction, Adam Gopnik calls Hughes "a man out of time" and "a baritone in a world of tenors," and so he was. His prose was sure and free of artspeak jargon and he was never shy to state exactly what he thought. Unlike many other art writers in the years he was active -- the mid-'60s to the early '00s -- he was skeptical, if not downright disappointed, in the art of his own time. He preferred to concentrate his efforts on the works of earlier eras. Writing about John Singer Sargent, he says, "There is a virtue in virtuosity, especially today, when it protects us from the tedious spectacle of ineptitude." He didn't have much use for conceptual art or the parade of isms which flashed by afterwards, often lasting just long enough to add a couple zeroes to this or that artist's auction prices before all mention of them disappeared into the ether.

Writing about the exploding art auction market, Hughes bemoaned the effect that soaring prices had on appreciation and connoisseurship: "The price of a work of art is an index of pure, irrational desire, and nothing is more manipulable than desire." He refused to celebrate the puffed up art stars of the '80s like Julian Schnabel, whose style he likened to Sylvester Stallone's, nor to always accept the enshrinement of Abstract Expressionists into the world's museums. He could not, for instance, buy Mark Rothko as "Yahweh's stenographer," as the artist and his champions repeatedly insisted. He had little use for much of Andy Warhol's work either, describing it as "the gaze of the blank mirror that refuses all judgment." He thought Warhol's portraits of the rich and celebrated were an attempt to position the artist as the Rubens of the Reagan Administration.

It was a pleasure to reread his shorter pieces on Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollock, and a score of others. Longer excerpts from his books on Goya, his native Australia, and the cities of Barcelona and Rome are compelling as well, yet ultimately frustrating in their incompleteness. Perhaps the editors thought this was a way to encourage the reader to go out and buy said volumes -- as they should -- but as a part of a larger, variegated whole they leave one a bit at sea. An anthology is almost by definition a sort of hodgepodge, but here the assembled scraps are of such unequal size and shape that it leads one to want to skip around, rather than read the book front to back. Not that there's any skimping on portions here: the book is over 600 pages long.

I had not read Hughes's 2006 memoir, Things I Didn't Know, so the autobiographical section was of particular interest. There are some compelling summations of a life led contemplating art in these pages. Whether you agree with him or not, that "art is mostly concrete stuff, appealing to and through the senses," Hughes tells you where he stands with confidence. He did not believe that artists should fancy themselves prophets, nor that it was a critic's place to predict the future, or that newness in art should necessarily be of value. He certainly didn't lack for ego or bluster, but had sense enough to realize how little influence an art critic has on the tastes of the larger public and how little he should have on the fortunes of the art market. He proudly proclaimed himself a cultural elitist but not a social one, and that appreciation for things done well informs all of his writing.

As an introduction to Hughes's work, The Spectacle of Skill has much, maybe too much, to recommend it. After all, who these days would pick up a 650-plus-page tome just to sample someone's writing? On the other hand, if it encourages a few people to dig deeper into his work, then it will not have been a wasted enterprise. Very few writers have written clearly about visual art, especially in the twentieth century, but Robert Hughes is certainly in their select company.

The Spectacle of Skill by Robert Hughes
Knopf
ISBN: 978-1400044450
688 pages