Harry Mount – Daily Mail August 7, 2012
Pretentious pedlars of junk masquerading as art can breathe a little easier today, for the voice of one of their greatest foes has been stilled.
To the very end, the writer Robert Hughes argued brilliantly that, where much modern art was concerned, the emperor had no clothes.
The Australian, who has died at 74 after a long illness, saw the Damien Hirsts and Tracey Emins of the modern art world as fly-by-night con artists, unencumbered by skill, who floated to the top of their profession on a sea of money supported by a cabal of critics, curators and art investors.
‘Hirst is basically a pirate,’ Hughes wrote of our richest living artist before a record-setting £111 million auction of the artist’s work at Sotheby’s in 2008.
‘His skill is shown by the way in which he has managed to bluff so many art-related people (from museum personnel to billionaires in the New York real-estate trade) into giving credence to his originality and the importance of his “ideas”.’
Hughes — a burly mountain of a man, said by one fellow countryman to resemble a ‘brick dunny’, or outhouse — held no truck with the nebulous realm of ‘concept art’. He believed artists should make things, should draw, paint, build and carve, and do those things well.
Sadly, it seemed to Hughes as if, all too often, those people dominating the powerful positions in the art world, and pulling the strings of the art market, had been deluded into thinking otherwise.
It is a favourite trick of such fools to dismiss someone like Hughes as an old fogey — as they also do to the brilliant Brian Sewell of the London Evening Standard, one of the last surviving critics in Hughes’s mould, who really knows his stuff and is not prepared to yield to the passing idiocies of fashion.
Hughes knew the difference between good modern art and rubbish modern art, and he really let rip — in glorious, beautiful, thundering prose — when it came to pointing out the vast difference between the two.
He made his name with the book and TV series The Shock Of The New, which described the progress of modern art from the end of the 19th century to the end of the 20th.
Hughes explained why Picasso mattered and translated the alien dreamscapes of the Surrealists into language everyone could understand.
He was a tremendous fan of much modern art of the last century or so, but he diagnosed a sudden and steep falling-off in quality in the 1970s, with the emerging fashion for avant-garde works of minimal skill.
He believed that something had gone horrifically wrong in the last 40 years, as a result of what he called ‘the appalling commercialisation of the art world’.
Money had become the driving force — and those with too much of it often have too little taste.
‘Most of the time they [the rich art investors] buy what other people buy,’ Hughes wrote. ‘They move in great schools, like bluefish, all identical. There is safety in numbers.’
Not surprisingly he triggered a backlash. For the power brokers of modern art are a notoriously touchy, defensive bunch. But Hughes couldn’t have cared less. He dismissed personal attacks by saying: ‘As far as I can make out, when an artist says that I am conservative, it means I haven’t praised him recently.’
Damien Hirst was his bête noire. Hughes damned the Briton’s work as ‘both simple-minded and sensationalist’, remarking acidly of Hirst’s infamous dead shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde: ‘One might as well get excited about seeing a dead halibut on a slab in Harrods food hall.’
As for Hirst’s equally notorious diamond-encrusted skull — sold for £50 million in 2007 — Hughes bluntly dismissed it as ‘mere bling’.
Staring at the artist’s sculpture The Virgin Mother — a bronze monstrosity showing the Madonna half with skin and half without — Hughes declared: ‘Isn’t it a miracle what so much money and so little talent can produce?’
Nor was Hirst’s partner-in-crime Tracey Emin spared the vitriol. Her 1998 ‘masterpiece’ My Bed — a stained, unmade bed surrounded by knickers and condoms — was, Hughes scoffed, nothing more than ‘a stale icon of sluttish housekeeping’.
Whatever the fashionable art world thought of him, ordinary art lovers adored him. A true rebel, he became more of a revolutionary as he got older.
In his memoir, Things I Didn’t Know, Hughes admitted to being an unashamed elitist: ‘I prefer the good to the bad, the articulate to the mumbling, the aesthetically developed to the merely primitive, and full to partial consciousness.
‘I love the spectacle of skill, whether it’s an expert gardener at work or a good carpenter chopping dovetails… My main job is to distinguish the good from the second-rate, pretentious, sentimental, and boring stuff that saturates culture today, more (perhaps) than it ever has.’
Although an exile in New York, he continued to care deeply about his native Australia. His 1987 book The Fatal Shore, on the history of the British penal colonies and the first European settlers in Australia, became an international best-seller. He wrote monographs on the Spanish artist Goya, Lucian Freud and the city of Rome.
For the true giants of art, Hughes was an unstinting champion. In his eyes, ‘a string of brushmarks on a lace collar in a Velasquez’ were far ‘more radical’ than Hirst’s shark ‘murkily disintegrating in its tank’.
Courtesy Peter Myers