Hughes' views

Art critic Robert Hughes.

By Gary Kamiya
May 23, 1997 11:00PM (UTC)
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it's hard to imagine a critic further from Puritanism -- which he sees running through American culture to the present day -- than Robert Hughes. At 58, America's most famous art critic has the ruddy, weather-beaten look of a man who has lived thoroughly. Bluff and hearty in speech, irreverent and penetrating in manner, he exudes wit, erudition and a certain devil-may-care attitude that doesn't conceal his abiding passion for his work and the many things he loves.

Let's start by talking about "American Visions," your new book and TV series on the history of American art. What led you to undertake this magisterial endeavor?


Magisterial endeavor -- more like biting off more than you can chew! When I finished "Shock of the New" in 1981, I thought the natural next subject would be American art, because there it was. The subject was just lying around on the ground. You know what American broadcasting is like -- nobody had tried it. That's not really surprising, if you consider the way that American television is structured. On the one hand, you have the networks, who don't give a fuck about this stuff, and on the other hand you have PBS, which doesn't have any money, and whose natural reaction to any idea is to set up a committee to investigate its correctness. Anyway, my only hope seemed to be the BBC. I worked up a set of synopses, for what I then thought of as a 10-hour series, and sent it off to the BBC. Well, this being 1982, the first wave of MTV-mania was breaking over the BBC, and all these kids in BBC-2 thought that the didactic miniseries was a dinosaur. So it languished. Then it went to PBS. They said, "Oh great, we think this is a great idea. Just go out and raise the money and we would be happy to produce it."

Just go out and come back with a vast sum of money.

The sum was large, but not by Hollywood standards. The thing cost about $4 million. Which buys you what, two minutes and 10 seconds of "Waterworld"? So I then had a completely fruitless time kissing ass at a few corporate boardrooms. I got nowhere. The years passed, and finally 'round about 1993 the BBC said, "All right, let's give it a go." But we had to cut down the series somewhat because it was obvious that we weren't going to get enough money from anybody for 10 programs. So we took it down to eight -- not without a bit of loss, but eight was better than nothing, certainly.


Where did you feel that loss most?

In the postwar area, really. It is crazy to try to do one film that does both abstract expressionism and pop. But we had to. Quite early on in the planning, we decided that there was no point in trying to do a formal history of American art, an encyclopedia. This would be ridiculous. You have to tell a story, and you can't just read the telephone directory, as it were. Therefore the question around which the whole thing was structured was, "What can we say about Americans from the things that they've made? What do these tell us about American fantasies, hopes, fears, aspirations?" So this relieved us from the task of being encyclopedic, which would have been dull anyway.

Would you have wanted to have had more of the modern period and less of the earlier work? Because so much early American art floundered in its derivative phases?


There always has been this feeling that up to 1950 American art was derivative. I don't agree with this. I don't think that Marsden Hartley was crawling around on the ground so that Jackson Pollock could become a butterfly! I mean, from Copley onwards, from the 1760s onwards, America has fairly consistently produced really interesting artists. Not to mention furniture and stuff like that. The thing is that you just get more artists as the history goes on. You get more activity. I would have preferred the series to reflect this. I would have liked to have had one program which was basically about abstract expressionism and its offshoots, and another one which was going to be about media-based art, pop and various media-based things associated with it in the 1960s and '70s.

Would you have included performance art?


Only up to a point. You can't spread your fan too wide. Take photography. People expect the series to take on all the burden of omission that American television has committed for the last 10 years. There should long ago have been a proper series on American photography. But what can you do? You would need eight programs to do photography. I've had people, including Garry Wills, say, "Gee, why did you leave film out?" Well, get me couple of zillion dollars and I'll do a series on film, too.

But as things stood, we couldn't even quote from films because the production companies wanted so much money. There was one point when there were a few film quotes I wanted. One was John Ford's derivation from Frederick Remington -- Ford would consciously set up and compose shots in terms of Remington's paintings in "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon," and so forth. There were a few things like that which were owned by the Warner side of Time Warner. And Time Warner was the co-producer of this thing.

So you had an in?


So I thought. After tremendous difficulties we finally managed to persuade the people at Time Warner that they should put a paltry million and a half into it. So then I wanted to quote this stuff and it came down to meeting with a couple of suits from Los Angeles. This is when I realized how completely ineffectual the merger between Time and Warner had been. Here were these hot shots in their Armani suits and their pony tails secured by rubber bands, and I give them my wish list. One suit turns around to the other suit and says, "Shit, what more are these print assholes going to ask for?" (laughter) I was thinking of getting a T-shirt made that said, "Print Asshole."

In the "Culture of Complaint" you talk about how PC-sensitive bureaucrats are increasingly drawn to run these very safe shows, endless anthropological displays of aboriginal basket-weaving and so on. Were you sensitive to issues of cultural inclusion or diversity in choosing who was in the book, or the show?

I didn't conceive the narrative in such terms. Nobody is in there for racial or gender reasons. Nobody is not in there for racial or gender reasons, either. I constantly do book signings and come across people who stick their hands up and say, "Why don't you have Robert Duncanson in there?" Well, he is an extremely obscure minor member of the Hudson River school who painted landscapes. The only unique thing about him was that he was black. For blacks that makes him a culture hero. But not for me. Because you can't put him in and leave out somebody like Frederick Church.


When did you complete the shooting?

The whole assembly was done in March of 1996. I then went into this colossal nose dive. I realized that I had to write the book by December. The film was meant to take less time than it did. It wasn't all my fault, but it just ran overtime.

Can you tell me about your nose dive? The recent New Yorker profile of you talks about it -- it sounds pretty cataclysmic.

It was bad. I'd never had a bad depression before. It was induced by overwork.


Did you experience the classic writer's block?

No, no. I had to produce. On the contrary, I was suffering from writer's overload. I was about to blow my head off, and then I took the gun and threw it in the sea. It was a really rough time. I went to a shrink, and I'd never been to one before. He helped a lot, and I took a lot of Paxil, and that helped a lot, and I smoked a lot of dope and did everything I could do to kick myself out of it.

Is it completely behind you now?

I think I am over it now. I sometimes look over my shoulder, as I think anybody does. If you have never had anything like this, you are fucking lucky, because you are out of control. You really doubt yourself. The only thing I had was the book; it was the only thing that kept me standing up. I was pushing against that; if I hadn't had it, I would have been in much worse trouble.


So you wrote yourself out of it?

Yes. I set myself doing a daily regime. You know, get up at 4, I would write 1,500 words a day, if at all possible, cutting back to 1,200 or 1,000. Three or four miles a day on the treadmill, you know, Marine discipline. This was seven days a week.

You were cranking out 9,000 words a week?

Yes, a chapter a month. I had nine months. Nine chapters.


That's an impressive regime.

I wouldn't try it again.

When did you finish it?

I finished it on the 30th of November. Over dinner that night, my wife asked me for a divorce. We have since patched it up. I was completely self-enclosed. Everything was written at my house; I couldn't take a day off, I couldn't go into town. There is this house, a connecting bridge and then there is this barn; I have my workshop, my writing room upstairs and a wood shop downstairs. I didn't even do any woodwork, which is very uncharacteristic of me. Everything just gathered dust downstairs, and I would crank away at this stuff and march nervously up and down the bridge like the captain of the Titanic. It was terrible for everybody. I have subsequently given a 23-foot sloop to my wife, which has just been delivered. I christened it "The White Lie."

Did you approach your work more as a historian or critic?
I have always tended to take art contextually. If I have any merits as a critic, they have to do with my ability as a storyteller -- and above all I wanted to tell a story. And the story has to do with the American sensibility developing through history.

I didn't want to keep out of the book anything that I found aesthetically exciting. I generally found ways of weaseling it in. Take Joseph Cornell for instance. There's no way that you can really put Cornell into some overarching narrative of American history, I mean this crazy old loon up there on Utopia Parkway making his boxes. So it's a very impure book -- I do not have a methodology. I know this sounds dumb, but I was really writing about what interested me. But some of my absolute favorite American artists got left out of the series. Arshile Gorky got left out of the series, although he's very much in the book. In the series it came down to horse trading over who would go in. They wanted Lichtenstein. Well, I think Lichtenstein is a giant bore. Or has become one anyway in his later years. And I think that James Rosenquist is a far more important artist and remains one. I had great difficulty persuading them of that -- because they'd all heard of Lichtenstein, they wanted to see "Wham!" They'd grown up with it in the Tate Gallery.

In terms of contemporary art, like you, I'd want to draw a distinction between a modernism that has guts, has a sensuous connection to the world and a postmodernism that is a bunch of pastiche gestures. But I wonder to what degree some of the disturbing elements of postmodernism were already present in the modernist project itself? And they look good now only because of the time they were in?

It's an extremely good question. Surely, you could detect aspects of this even in the holy enterprise of Russian constructivism. Anybody who really believed that painting arrays of squares and rectangles on a piece of paper, like Malevich, was going to bring about a new heaven and a new earth, I mean, this is actually a form of spiritualist hype.

And Marcel Duchamp -- you saw the debunking piece that appeared in the New York Review of Books?

Duchamp is a hugely overrated artist. Duchamp was the first artist who really became a great master at the art of curating his own reputation. Other artists had done it before, but Duchamp was the first modernist artist to do it. So that you had this colossal mound, like a compost pile of exegesis. It keeps on feeding itself, and it keeps on being hot in the center and raised over the, in my opinion, rather slender aesthetic achievement. But it is the exegesis that keeps it going.

This stuff didn't suddenly begin in the 1980s, but nevertheless, it reached a kind of climax, both conceptually and in terms of art-world politics in the '80s.
I think there are some venerated modernist figures who are hugely overrated. Barney Newman is an example. My poke at Barney and the "Zip" may be a little crude, but I'd rather have a little crudity than a phony metaphysics.

You don't have much patience with the inflated claims and self-promotion of the '80s school. Like Julian Schnabel saying, "Goya is my peer" or whatever he said, which you took strong exception to.

I am afraid I have a tendency to react strongly to that, and probably to overreact. What can I say, I do believe in a certain -- my early warning system switches on when I see people making these sort of claims for themselves.

Although some of the greats have done that too. Monster egotists ...

Absolute monster egotists, look at Frank Lloyd Wright. Unquestionably the greatest American architect that ever lived. And yet some of the things he claimed for himself make your hackles rise. That's certainly true. However, I think if we compare the achievement of Julian Schnabel with that of Frank Lloyd Wright, it would appear that there is more of a disproportion between the rhetoric and the achievement (laughs). I have a propensity to satire. Satire likes to attach itself to surplus claims, and so who knows? Maybe I have been a little unfair to some people. But probably, in this case, it is better to err on the side of carnivorousness than of tolerance.

How do you get along with the New York art establishment?

Whatever that is. I am often viewed as a "conservative" critic. On the other hand, what does "conservative" and what does "radical" mean in today's context? As far as I can make up, when an artist says that I am conservative, it means that I haven't praised him recently. God help me, I am a child of the 1960s. I am not terribly fond of big money muscling its way into aesthetic discourse; I think there is something slightly corrupting about it. I don't like the way the market turned out in the 1980s. I hate all those bastards with faces like silver teapots at Sotheby's -- all of that hypermarketing of art turns me right off. Because it intersects with a fatal propensity for sanctimony. I don't like the idea of art being a pseudo-religion. I love genuinely visionary, mystical art. If I had to name my all-time aesthetic heroes, one of them would certainly be William Blake, not only for his visions, but also for his attitudes, the "sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires" -- that doesn't go over with all the PC boys (laughs).

It is conservative vs. something else, not radical. In the same New Yorker article, (Whitney Museum director) David Ross was quoted as saying, "I wonder why Bob Hughes hates me so much. It must be because he doesn't like the Warholian/Duchampian tradition." First of all, I don't hate him. I just disagree with him. I think he's a bit of a twit. He is one of those people who really apparently believes that it all began with Andy. Why is one under some obligation to tremendously admire the Warhol/Duchamp side, rather than some other side? I love art that is really fully embodied, that has a somatic character, not art that has some kind of academic, post-structuralist simper. It may be that there isn't a hell of a lot of such art around today, but one of these days this may change. In the meantime I can only go on what my preferences are. I'd much rather have Lucian Freud than David Salle, even though people think that Lucian Freud was a retrograde phallocrat.

There's a Nietzsche quote that says "Slack and sleeping senses need bombs going off in order to wake them up." Have we reached a stage where the soma-like effects of film and more visceral media -- we are not far away from Aldous Huxley's "feelies," everything is an e-ticket now -- have made an art form as quiet as painting doomed?

No, I don't think it is doomed. I think there are always going to be people who like something which is silent, static and incontrovertible. Because for the same reason that in our actual lives, we don't want a continuous, thin-sensory bombardment, you just want to have areas of silence, and areas of reflection. One of the advantages of having so many competing media is that it leaves painting for people who are actually nuts enough to really want to do that. At the same time, because there are so many other media, they attract so much genuine talent, as well they might, maybe it is just that initial impact of the attractiveness of the other media that has caused a bit of a dip in the talent available to traditional media. I just don't know. I'm not much of a Net browser, but what always strikes me when I look around is the poverty of information, in areas that I am interested in, on the Net. There is a tremendous amount of zany conspiracy theory stuff, but not much else. So, I don't know. As more and more people use the Net and use such media, the intelligence quotient of it will rise. But it is hard to know. At present, people constantly ask me, "What about interactive video art, etc." I just don't know. I'm a print asshole. I'm a paint boy.

I think traditional media, painting, sculpture, drawing, you know, these media are always going to attract a certain sensibility, which realizes that it is only through them that certain kinds of meaning can be made real, only through them that certain kinds of meaning can be expressed. This doesn't mean that other kinds of meaning are invalid, or that they are undesirable, or anything like that. It is just that there are certain senses of reality and presence that pertain to traditional media and you are not going to get them out of pixels. Every time I lecture, there is always some Gatesian nerd out there in the audience who sticks up his hand and says, "Well, since we can perfectly reproduce an image on a high-fidelity television screen, why do you need to go and see the original?" And the answer is because paintings are things in the physical world, made out of colored mud smeared on a piece of cloth or a piece of board, with a stick with hairs on the end. They have a particular address to your body, and none of this comes across in the computer image.

Saying this is not the same as saying, we shouldn't write on word processors, the only thing is the quill pen. There is nothing retrograde about saying this; you are recognizing that there are things that just don't translate into other mediums. But you see, they think this because they have been born in a world that is entirely made of weightless images.

In The New Yorker piece, your profiler says that you feel less at home here now in the U.S. than when you first came here. Is that tied up with this feeling?

Yes, it is tied up with this feeling. It is also tied up with getting older, and every time I go back to Australia I feel more at home, because Australia is, generally speaking, a saner society than America. That would not be hard (laughs). I feel I speak the language in Australia. That doesn't mean that I am going to go back there to live, it just means that I have to spend more time back there, to re-orient myself.

Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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